Films fly under the radar all the time. They often feature quality actors...even fairly well known ones. But when your name is on the tip of the tongues of movie goers - when you've been on the awards podium - or top of the box office charts - or even mentioned in all the supermarket tabloids, it's a bit harder to have a catalogue of work containing entries no one has actually heard of. Or, at least, escaping memory... as if they had never existed.
I'm not talking about a case like The Beaver, where Mel Gibson had so poisoned his image that moviegoers and critics alike were inclined to turn their backs on this interesting performance, in effect throwing the courageous efforts of director Jodie Foster under the bus as well. (The subject matter concerning mental illness is not exactly a box office magnet and may be partially to blame but one senses the public simply had enough of Mad Mel.)
And there are countless examples of those who went on to fame with their earlier (and, often, embarrassing) movies unearthed for re-release to cash in on their new found status. Sylvester Stallone still has to live down Italian Stallion (AKA The Party at Kitty and Stud's). Robert De Niro found his earlier Sam's Song footage re-edited into something called The Swap (AKA Line of Fire), an ubiquitous DVD offering at most $1.99 discount bins, usually packaged with some other public domain dredge. And I also don't mean the infamous case of Jerry Lewis putting a release kibosh on his own The Day the Clown Cried...or bromance buds Leonardo DiCaprio and Toby Maguire legally teaming up to stop the domestic release of Don's Plum, just as their careers were accelerating.
I'm referring to big name Hollywood talent pretty much in their career primes, who happened to have a film released that for a multitude of reasons hardly gained the least bit of traction or attention. So far, in a more or less chronological pattern, I've been able to remember the following cases:
Peter Sellers - The Optimists (AKA The Optimists of Nine Elms) - 1973
Career Status - Maybe not on a super-high point for Sellers. This film was at a fair distance from the success of the first Inspector Clouseau roles and closer to the period of his iffier (but not necessarily disastrous) offerings (The Magic Christian, There's a Girl in My Soup, Where Does It Hurt? - let's not bother to go through The Party again). Still, the Pink Panther resurrection and Oscar nod for Being There were not that far off.
The Film - Sellers portrays a down-on-his-luck street musician who befriends a couple of kids from the same lower income area of London in their pursuit of obtaining a pet dog they can call their own.
Sellers provided an enjoyable, relaxed performance and the film is far from terrible. Still, it's not that hard to see why this low budget effort didn't make waves. The storyline is as thin as the distribution push the project received and while pleasant, The Optimists is a dime-a-dozen offering in the feel-good category.
Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine - The Wilby Conspiracy - 1975
Career Status - Poitier's historic Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (like this movie, directed by Ralph Nelson) may have been in his rear-view mirror but this film was sandwiched between two big hits (and directorial efforts) - Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again. Caine still had the aura of his Oscar nominated performance in Sleuth around him and another hit, The Man Who Would Be King, was just around the corner.
The Film - Set in South Africa at the height of the Apartheid era, Shack Twala (Poitier) is released from prison but immediately gets tangled up in more legal intrigue and has to go into hiding. The British engineer Jim Keough (Caine) wants nothing to do with the political situation around him but reluctantly becomes involved in revolution, diamonds, and a racist police officer portrayed by the film's scene-stealer, the late Nicol Williamson. (Trivia note: Persis Khambatta of Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame also has a role.)
Too political for the tastes of the United Artists marketing department? Were the somewhat shoddy production values (inferior cinematography, choppy editing) a box-office crippler? Did the iffy reviews upon the UK release torpedo any chances the film had in North America? Would there have been a better choice than Nelson for balancing the film's action sequences with its political focus?
All I know is that in Canada the film basically opened and closed in one week. Pity - strong performances by Poitier, Caine and Williamson are left unappreciated.
Steve McQueen - An Enemy of the People - 1978
Career Status - This film was in the can only two years after McQueen received top billing in the star-studded disaster epic The Towering Inferno. Even though he would never make anything on a Bullitt or The Great Escape level again, he was still THE Steve McQueen...king of cool...Hollywood icon.
The Film - Based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, a fully bearded McQueen cast himself (he was the executive producer) in the role of Doctor Thomas Stockmann, the one resident of a small community determined to warn all of the environmental dangers caused by the pollution of a hot springs designated for tourist appeal. With self-interests prevailing, family and friends turn against the doctor as his reputation is sullied.
Was it the beard? The lack of bullets and car chases? Probably. As pointed out, being a big movie star can imprison an artist looking to break out of the typecast mold. McQueen worked on this project for years, only to see Warner Brothers shelve this First Artists production until it received a very limited release in 1978. (In recent years it has found its way to DVD.) I've never seen the film but here's a clip to provide a taste of how un-McQueen like it was.
Johnny Depp - The Libertine - 2004
Career Status - This film came in-between a number of releases that had the words "Pirates" and "Caribbean" in them - toss in a Willy Wonka and you have a pretty hot run (although Depp has himself joked that he has built his career on making flops).
The Film - The exploits of the second Earl of Rochester AKA John Wilmot (Depp) are examined as he returns from exile in London to write a play for Charles II (played by John Malkovich). Passionate in his art, Wilmot also displays gusto when it comes to sex and alcohol. The king's displeasure with the play, combined with the syphilis ravaging his body, leads to a tragic end for Wilmot.
As he says at the beginning, "You will not like me!" And there's sure no Captain Jack cuteness to be found in this one. More than anything else, the movie was torpedoed at the box office by the rash of negative reviews, many harping on issues with the screenplay, direction and cinematography. Regardless of the reasons, this film grossed less than $5 million in the U.S.A. - chump change at that point of Depp's career.
So there you have it so far - five big names with their four films that failed to fly at all during pretty high points in their careers (you may of course argue with the Sellers selection). I'll keep researching for a follow-up but I'd now like to know what others remember as being similar film fates.
Remember the criteria - we're not asking about the unknown movies done by actors that hit the jackpot with later works. What other A-list performers had complete duds when you'd least expect it in their calling?