Unforgettable: Helen Mirren, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Sharon Stone on the hatchet jobs that last a lifetime
Why even the greatest stars find it hard to forget savage criticism
“They rose to erotic ardour last night with little more enthusiasm than a pair of glumly non-mating pandas at London Zoo, coaxed to do their duty.” This demolition of Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren’s performance as Antony and Cleopatra appears seared upon the memory of the Oscar-winning actress.
Dame Helen has revealed the damage that negative notices can wreak on an actor’s psyche. “It’s so, so painful and the pain stays forever with the bad reviews, absolutely forever,” she told Radio Times.
“You’re angry and resentful and upset and disheartened. The good ones are equally dangerous, because you can’t often identify with what the hell they’re talking about. I often find myself thinking, ‘I didn’t mean to be doing that.’ So they’re dangerous in both ways.”
Nicholas de Jongh, the former Evening Standard theatre critic, was responsible for the biting critique of Dame Helen’s Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998. It’s a role which previously exposed Vivien Leigh to the quill of the critic Kenneth Tynan in full flow (see below).
Even the greats have an off-night. Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Macbeth “gives the impression he is a Rotarian pork-butcher about to tell the stalls a dirty story,” claimed one reviewer. Peter O’Toole’s 1980 Macbeth was such a critical disaster audiences actually flocked to see the car-crash.
Laurence Olivier, who died a little each time John Gielgud received a more flattering critical notice than him, was once asked by a young Charlton Heston how he dealt with bad reviews. Olivier patted him on the shoulder and said, “Laddie, it’s much more important and much harder, but you’ve got to learn to dismiss the good ones!”
KNIVES OUT FROM THE CRITICS
Helen Mirren – Love Ranch (2010)
Mirren teamed up with director-husband Taylor Hackford for flop film Love Ranch, in which she starred as the madam of a Nevada brothel. The Washington Post bemoaned: “Try though she might, Mirren can’t save the hackneyed and singularly unerotic story…a painful reminder as to how out of place the actress is in this made-for-basic-cable-calibre melodrama of sex and betrayal.” The film has “a whiff of collective disaster”, the San Francisco Chronicle claimed. Mirren said: “It was pretty well savaged by the critics in America. It was painful. I didn’t get it. It didn’t romanticise the world of a brothel. It was very truthful about it. And I think maybe that was what they didn’t like.”
Peter O’Toole – Macbeth, The Old Vic (1980)
Camp and blood-drenched, Peter O'Toole’s baseball-booted Macbeth proved mannah for the critics. “Chances are he likes the play, but O'Toole’s performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it,” wrote Robert Cushman. “He delivers every line with a monotonous tenor bark as if addressing an audience of deaf Eskimos,” wrote Michael Billington. O’Toole reflected: “I came unstuck, publicly and bloodily. Public crucifixion is no fun. My nose is bleeding as I think of it.” Yet audiences packed the stalls for the spectacle. “It took many months but we did get it right,” O’Toole claimed.
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley - Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
When the lingerie model replaced Megan Fox in the tedious action franchise to universal horror, Total Film said: “Huntington-Whiteley is awful - awful! - as [Shia] LaBeouf's new love interest, sucking the life out of every scene she appears in like some pneumatic Dyson sexbot. Introduced with a leering pan up her Victoria’s Secret pins, she achieves the unlikely feat of making Megan Fox look like a proper actress, particularly at moments where she is required to be in peril.” Undaunted, Rosie will appear in a new Mad Max movie, and says: “Making a film is very different from photo-shoots and a lot more is expected from you. But those moments that are fulfilling are like ecstasy – they’re amazing.”
Vivien Leigh – Antony & Cleopatra, London St James’s Theatre (1951)
The notorious theatre critic Kenneth Tynan tore into Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra in 1951: “She picks at the part with the daintiness of a debutante called up on dismember a stag”, presenting “a glibly mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle”. Tynan sought to contrast Leigh with the brilliance of her husband Laurence Olivier. The negative notice plunged Leigh into depression, doubting her talents despite positive reviews elsewhere. Olivier later wrote that his wife was "brilliant… in my opinion the best Cleopatra ever.” Tynan delighted in taunting Leigh, describing her Lady Macbeth as “more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda.”
Sharon Stone – Gloria (1999)
The Basic Instinct actress’s career never recovered from the Worst Actress Razzie nomination she received for her title role in Sidney Lumet’s film. “A star vehicle for the fast-fading Sharon Stone, whose own improvisational skills have not yet sharpened to the point that she can bluff her way through a Barbara Walters interview…‘Gloria’ joins the overpopulated ranks of specious, nitwitted female action figures…” said the Chicago Daily Herald. Even Gwyneth Paltrow mocked Stone as a publicity-hungry bimbo plugging her failed movie, in a Saturday Night Live sketch. “Gwyneth Paltrow is very young and lives in a rarified air that’s very thin,“ Stone replied. “It’s like she's not getting enough oxygen.”
Diana Rigg – Abelard and Heloise, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Broadway (1971)
The acerbic New York magazine critic John Simon complained that, in a nude scene, Rigg was “built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses.” The line is often misquoted as a “brick mausoleum” which Simon said would indicate Rigg was “old and musty and dead”. The Dame used the critique as inspiration to publish anthology of the worst theatrical reviews, No Turn Unstoned. She says of negative reviews: “It’s a BTDT: been there, done that. I mean, what else can they say about me? They have said just about everything, good, bad or indifferent so where else can you go, really?”
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