From John Travolta to Bob Dylan, from Ed Wood to Orson Welles: ‘The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time’
Phil Hall’s The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, tagged as a “new celebration of cinematic inanity,” was published by Bear Manor on Aug. 12. According to the book’s press release, the Greatest Bad Movies “are the films that inspire wonder” – of a unique variety: “You are left wondering how seemingly intelligent people could gather together and spend money to create such bizarre productions.”
According to the author, among the most wonder-inspiring movies ever made are John Travolta’s Roger Christian-directed Scientology-inspired megabomb Battlefield Earth; John Huston’s sort of The Maltese Falcon send up Beat the Devil, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida; Robert Altman’s Health, featuring a classy cast that includes Glenda Jackson, James Garner, Alfre Woodard, Carol Burnett, and Lauren Bacall; and Richard Fleischer’s Che!, featuring Jack Palance as Fidel Castro and Omar Sharif as Che Guevara.
Greatest Bad Movies: John Wayne as Genghis Khan + Liv Ullmann musical
It gets worse (or better): John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as Tartar princess Bortai in The Conqueror, directed by former Warner Bros. crooner Dick Powell; the pre-Argo Ben Affleck collaboration with Jennifer Lopez, Gigli; Pia Zadora’s Butterfly, a black hole of a star vehicle that was directed by Jayne Mansfield’s last husband, Matt Cimber; and Halle Berry as Catwoman in Pitof’s concisely titled Catwoman, co-starring Sharon Stone.
Inevitably, Ed Wood is included by way of Plan 9 from Outer Space. And so is Tom Six’s not exactly Disney-esque The Human Centipede (First Sequence), along with the not to be missed Liv Ullmann musical Lost Horizon (I’m paraphrasing Bette Midler here), the elephantine Lucille Ball musical Mame, and the pathological Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford sing-along Mommie Dearest, which holds a special place in Phil Hall’s heart (see Q&A on the next page).
And finally, some will be surprised to find George Cukor (The Blue Bird), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Orson Welles (Mr. Arkadin), and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point) featured on the Greatest Bad Movies list. But they’re there. Curiously, the Warren Beatty / Dustin Hoffman collaboration Ishtar isn’t. Perhaps Phil considers the Elaine May-directed critical and box office disaster just a Bad Movie, period. But don’t despair: Stanley Donen’s comedy-drama Staircase, starring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as an elderly gay couple, has been included.
Phil Hall has answered a few questions about The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time. See below.
First of all, how would you define a Bad Movie? And what would make a Bad Movie ‘great’ – as opposed to a Bad Movie that’s just plain ‘bad’?
A Bad Movie is a film that fails to achieve a certain level of entertainment value. These films are annoying because the audience has invested a degree of time (and, where applicable, money) in viewing these works, only to be sorely disappointed. But mercifully, these films are quickly forgotten after the closing credits.
A Great Bad Movie – or, as I call them, the Anti-Classics – are misfired productions that fill your mind with wonder. Specifically, you are stuck wondering how such movies ever got made, let alone released. Remember that the creation of a film involves the input of many people along a lengthy stretch of time. In viewing the Anti-Classics, it is impossible not to consider that their evolution was absent of a single person raising that proverbial red flag to question problems with quality control.
The Great Bad Movies also generate a degree of enthusiasm that, in my observations, goes far beyond the appreciation of the genuine classics. For example, compare a conversation among film lovers about the merits of Citizen Kane with a conversation about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Both films are full of dialogue that can be quoted verbatim, but people have much more energy and glee when quoting Wiseau rather than Welles. (And I suspect this might be the first time that those two were ever cited together as a cinematic compare/contrast!)
Some of these films actually inspire obsessions – there’s a young filmmaker who has taken it upon himself to finance a full-blown digital restoration of Manos: The Hands of Fate. And how many books and documentaries have been created about the Ed Wood canon?
The Great Bad Movies are great – or, as Tony the Tiger would say, “They’re grrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!”
Clint Eastwood Best Picture Oscar nominee among ‘Greatest Bad Movies’
I noticed you have included some Bad Movies that were well received upon their release, e.g., Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture Oscar nominee ‘Mystic River’ (2003) and Henry King’s ‘In Old Chicago’ (1937) – another Best Picture nominee. Why are those movies not only Bad Movies, but also Great Bad Movies?
I need to begin my answer by insisting that my new book is strictly about opinion. I don’t pretend to be the author of a be-all/end-all encyclopedia on the subject. Many people may disagree with the selection of films, both from an inclusive viewpoint and from the consideration of what was omitted. And I respect the difference of opinions.
Mystic River was included for two reasons. First, I believe that Clint Eastwood is one of the least talented directors in Hollywood today. Yes, he made several extraordinary films – Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby deserved every award they received – but if you look at his output, his crummy films far outnumber his hits. I felt that his representation was required in this book.
Second, have you ever seen this film? There are some of the craziest performances I’ve ever seen in my life! You have Sean Penn imitating Frank Gorshin’s imitation of Kirk Douglas, complete with clenched jaw and fists pounding his chest. You have Tim Robbins wandering around like Lon Chaney Jr. from Of Mice and Men. You have Marcia Gay Harden doing an Edith Bunker imitation. You have Laura Linney standing on the sidelines for two hours, then launching into this over-the-top Lady Macbeth soliloquy that is completely out of character. Really, what can you say about a movie where the most sedate person on screen is Eli Wallach?
In Old Chicago is also a riot of misplaced acting. Tyrone Power is, admittedly, gorgeous, but his performance is strictly all grins and tailored clothing. Alice Faye is a fun musical presence, but she was not a dramatic actress – a failing that she freely admitted. And Alice Brady somehow won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the most ridiculous Irish stereotype ever put on film. I could also go into depth about the film’s wildly egregious rewriting of the history of the Great Chicago Fire – including having Mrs. O’Leary’s son as the assassinated mayor of the burning city – but that might weigh down your bandwidth.
Any other Great Bad Movies you wish could have been included in your book?
Oh, God, yes. That’s why I limited myself to 100 films – I could spend the rest of my years writing on the subject.
A few minor pangs of regret involve the weighing of Robot Monster against Dance Hall Racket – I only wanted one of these films to represent the brief but bizarre career of director Phil Tucker. While Robot Monster is deliriously funny, I ultimately chose Dance Hall Racket because it was an astonishing waste of a great talent: in this case, Lenny Bruce in his only film acting role. For no clear reason, Tucker had Bruce play a Lawrence Tierney-style gangster in a crime drama. I still can’t figure that out. In the event that this book spawns a sequel, Robot Monster will return.
Your book features 100 titles. If you had to narrow them down to ten, which ones would be the Greatest Bad Movies ever made?
For me, the Bob Dylan four-hour incoherent odyssey Renaldo and Clara tops the list – I’ve never seen anything like it, and with luck I never will again. All This and World War II, which combined newsreel footage from the 1940s conflict with covers of Beatles tunes, is the most brilliantly reckless film ever made – it has the single worst concept imaginable, and yet it is impossible not to watch it without wondering how 20th Century Fox enabled the theatrical release of a movie that showed the destruction of Pearl Harbor while the Leo Sayer recording of “I am the Walrus” blares on the soundtrack.
I have a great fondness for that zany documentary Chariots of the Gods, which planted the seeds of the screwball theory involving extra-terrestrials as the uncredited architects of the pyramids and the Easter Island statues. That film was Oscar nominated, incredibly. As a kid in the 1970s, I have a fondness for some of the Anti-Classics of that decade: the musical Lost Horizon, the Lucille Ball debacle Mame, the disastrous disaster flick Airport 1975, and the Mae West swan song Sextette stand out for me.
Of course, the usual suspects like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space come to mind. And while fans of the Monkees will hate me for this, I should add Head to my top ten list – that film offers invaluable instruction on how to destroy a band’s career in less than 90 minutes.
And finally, would you have a list of the ten Greatest Bad Performances in film history?
Off-hand, I don’t – bad performances are part of the overall failings of a Great Bad Movie. We must not forget that Anti-Classics are built on the foundations of terrible screenplays and molded with inept direction. We shouldn’t blame the actors solely for the flops.
At the risk of being a bit of a cheat, I would say that one performance could easily occupy all ten slots on that list. And I don’t even need to identify the performer and the film. I can say just one line of dialogue and you will know who I am talking about: “No wire hangers ever!” Really, how can anyone possibly top that?
Joan Crawford / Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest photo: Paramount Pictures.
John Travolta in Battlefield Earth photo: Warner Bros.