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17 terrible performances by great actors, from Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio

Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Tom Hardy feature on this list by Louis Chilton, of brilliant acting talents who at one point in their careers bit off more than they could chew...

Thursday 04 April 2024 09:32
Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘J Edgar’, Tom Hardy in ‘Capone’ and Naomi Watts in ‘Diana'
Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘J Edgar’, Tom Hardy in ‘Capone’ and Naomi Watts in ‘Diana' (Warner Bros/Vertical Entertainment/Entertainment One)

Even the best of us sometimes make mistakes – they just don’t end up being watched by millions of people worldwide.

For actors, however, life is a never-ending series of criticisms. A bad movie performance can live on in infamy just as long as a great one, and no actor is immune.

Whether it’s veteran legends like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, or stars at the peak of their powers such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hardy, even the very best actors have proved themselves capable of truly terrible turns.

Sometimes these performances are met with nothing but disdain, mockery, and Razzie nominations – other times, they manage to slip mercifully under the radar.

To be clear, the actors aren’t always the ones at fault; many of the performances on this list came in generally dreadful films, with performers let down by shoddy scripts or filmmaking.

Here’s The Independent’s list of 17 of the absolute worst performances from some of the best actors around...

Tom Hanks – Cloud Atlas (2012)

Hanks actually plays six different roles in the Wachowski sisters’ ambitious era-spanning epic, and he’s by no means bad in all of them. But his performance as gangster-turned-novelist Dermot “Duster” Hoggins could well be the worst of Hanks’s entire career. Laughably broad, and with an accent that’s ostensibly Irish but comes across as bad cockney, “Duster” is a creation best left in the dustbin.

Tom Hanks as ‘Duster’ in the Wachowski sisters’ ‘Cloud Atlas' (Warner Bros)

Nicolas Cage – The Wicker Man (2006)

There have been few, if any, actors of Cage’s calibre to offer quite so many bad performances to choose from; his is a career of polarising extremes. Though apologists may try to plead “stylistic risk-taking”, Cage’s work in the 2006 Wicker Man remake remains near the bottom of the pile – an exercise in rural horror that comes across as laughable excess. You’ll never be able to say “bees” in quite the same way again after watching this.

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Halle Berry – Catwoman (2004)

Produced before superhero films became as ubiquitous as oxygen, Catwoman was a notorious dud when it first came out. Berry at the time was in the pomp of her stardom, having won the Academy Award for Best Actress just a few years previously. In its own ignominious way, Berry’s Catwoman turn was also award-worthy: she picked up her Golden Raspberry award in person, joking in her light-hearted acceptance speech: “In order to give a really bad performance like I did, you need a lot of bad actors around you.”

Berry in the critically panned ‘Catwoman’ (Warner Bros/Dc Comics/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Al Pacino – Jack and Jill (2011)

One of the greatest actors to have ever lived, Al Pacino has nonetheless been known to give his fair share of questionable (over-)performances throughout the years. However, there’s none that quite stick in the craw quite so jarringly as his brief cameo in the bleakly bad Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill. Playing himself, Pacino mugs his way through a musical advertisement for a beverage called a “dunkaccino”. It’s not very funny, and Pacino seems almost demeaned by his very presence in it.

George Clooney – Batman & Robin (1997)

There’s no way the blame for this notorious superhero flop can be placed solely at Clooney’s door; from head to bat-toes, this film was daft, indulgent and misconceived. But the Ocean’s Eleven star certainly doesn’t cover himself in glory with his take on the caped crusader, resulting in what might be the worst on-screen Batman in memory.

Robert De Niro – Dirty Grandpa (2016)

Once considered by many to be the best actor on the planet, De Niro’s star has waned somewhat in recent years. Though he’s still able to pull greatness out the bag (see: The Irishman), his recent output offers a litany of phoned-in performances, from Little Fockers to The Comedian. In terms of sheer, degrading “how did it come to this” moments, there’s nothing on par with Dirty Grandpa, however, in which De Niro plays a randy septuagenarian who accompanies his grandson (Zac Efron) to Florida for Spring Break.

Robert De Niro to star opposite himself in Wise Guys

Russell Crowe – The Mummy (2018)

The overall lacklustreness of this Tom Cruise vehicle helped disguise Crowe’s performance as Dr Jekyll (of “and Mr Hyde” fame), which was quietly the worst supporting turn of Crowe’s career. The scene in which Crowe wigs out and transforms from the sanguine doctor to the feral Mr Hyde is one of the most giddily over-acted in recent memory, and the dodgy CGI is just the icing on the cake. Had Warner Bros’ planned (and prematurely announced) “Dark Universe” panned out, Crowe would have got his own standalone film as the bifurcated literary character. What a horrible and ancient curse that could have been.

Natalie Portman – Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

All three Star Wars prequels were blessed with an abundance of skilled actors; all three also featured some truly terrible performances, often by those same actors. Natalie Portman was never serviced well by Attack of the Clones’s script, but this nonetheless endures as one of her worst performances. Sharing most of her scenes with Hayden Christensen’s pouting Anakin, Portman’s Padme Amidala is painfully wooden and devoid of charisma; turgid political plotlines set around the Galactic Senate also gave Portman no room to flex her considerable talents.

Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala in ‘Attack of the Clones' (LucasFilm)

Robert Downey Jr – Dolittle (2020)

There have been few men as naturally charismatic as RDJ; the camera loves him, and so do audiences. It’s no small shame, therefore, that his acting career after the success of Iron Man has pretty much been confined to Marvel’s Tony Stark – since The Avengers in 2012, his only sizable non-MCU roles have been The Judge and Dolittle, both of which could be charitably described as letdowns. His role as the animal-fluent doctor in Dolittle must be the worst, however – a charmless and insipid spin on a classic children’s premise.

Tom Hardy – Capone (2020)

As an actor, Tom Hardy makes big choices. This is what makes him great; it’s a big part of what imbued films like Bronson or Mad Max: Fury Road with such unique, specific energy. But these big choices don’t always pan out, leading to bizarre results in films such as last year’s strange Al Capone biopic. The film was savaged by viewers on social media, with one critic writing that Hardy “grunts, coughs and s***s his way through scenes that lack any form of direction, sympathy and/or purpose”.

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in ‘Capone' (Vertical Entertainment)

Adam Sandler – The Ridiculous 6 (2015)

So many of the Sandman’s performances can be described as broad, lowbrow, or just plain bad, it’s easy to forget just how great an actor Sandler is. When he applies himself, either in his self-produced comedies, or in more dramatic projects (Punch-Drunk Love; The Meyerowicz Stories; Uncut Gems), he can be a force to be reckoned with. In the Ridiculous 6, however, he’s not even a force to be tolerated. Playing a white orphan who was raised by Native Americans in the Old West, Sandler is, frankly, terrible. The film is similarly poor, and was the recipient of a rare zero per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Leonardo DiCaprio – J Edgar (2011)

It’s a testament to DiCaprio’s consistency that there’s not much to choose from by way of bad performances; J Edgar, however, is an outright stinker. Filmed back in the heady days before DiCaprio’s Best Actor win, the turgid biopic was a transparent ploy for Oscar gold, and saw the actor don terrible prosthetics to play an elderly version of the controversial FBI director. He’s scarcely much better as a younger J Edgar Hoover, mind – this is a bad, indulgent film, one which the Titanic star does not manage to elevate.

Read more: 25 brilliant films that bombed at the box office

Michael Caine – Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

It should have been a coup to land Michael Caine for the fourth entry in the Jaws franchise. With Roy Scheider having left the franchise after Jaws 2,  it was in need of some star presence. Alas, Caine did not exactly cover himself in glory. For his part, the British thespian was droll about the film’s dubious merits, famously saying: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Michael Caine in ‘Jaws: The Revenge' (Universal Pictures)

Naomi Watts – Diana (2013)

This year has seen a superlative portrayal of the late Princess Diana on screen, when Kristen Stewart tackled the role for the bold, revisionist biopic Spencer. Previous attempts to capture the “people’s princess” haven’t proved quite so fortunate, however, with the 2013 biopic Diana standing as the nadir of Naomi Watts’s career. The Mulholland Drive star is all sorts of bad in her attempt to inhabit the royal, but the film itself is a shoddy and ill-conceived piece of work.

Idris Elba – Cats (2019)

Glance at the screen during any frame of the 2019 musical Cats and you’ll see a bad performance; this spot could equally have gone to Judi Dench, or Ian McKellen, or Ray Winstone. It’s not necessarily Idris Elba’s fault so much as the cursed CGI, but Macavity is a creepy, alien creation – and not in the ways he’s supposed to be. The lofty heights of The Wire’s Stringer Bell have never felt so far away.

Idris Elba in ‘Cats' (Universal Pictures)

Meryl Streep – Into the Woods (2014)

Meryl Streep’s place in the Hollywood hall of fame has long been beyond doubt; she practically has Oscar nominations on a yearly subscription. Nonetheless, some of her performances and acting tics have drawn dubious reactions from critics – with her role as the witch in Into the Woods standing as one of her lowest ebbs. Stephen Sondheim’s masterful musical was robbed of much of its charm and bite for this Disney-produced film adaptation, and Streep’s performance is hammy and off-putting. The section in the opening song where she has to rap is also nightmarish.

Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Glenn Close’s turn in this patronising slice of rural Americana may just be one of the worst performances ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Close has proved herself one of the finest actors of her generation – delivering diverse but first-rate performances in everything from 2017’s The Wife to the FX cop drama The Shield – but as hard-bitten grandmother “Mamaw” in Hillbilly Elegy, Close is sadly over-indulged. Everyone seems to agree that Close is long overdue an Oscar win; thank God it didn’t come for this.

This article was originally published in January 2022

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