The Worst motion pictures of all time
What are some of the worst movies of all times? The worst recent extra”American Hustle”? Nah, I’d rather see “The Greek Tycoon,” an entertaining 1978 mess with a fictionalized version of Aristotle Onassis (Anthony Quinn) demanding sex from a certain president’s widow (Jacqueline Bisset). The father-son road movie “Nebraska”? Perfectly nice, but I way prefer “Strait-Jacket,” the 1964 clunker with Joan Crawford’s daughter wearing a Joan mask as she psychotically hacks people to death, creating serious suspicion around her previously incarcerated mama.
And I’m hardly alone in my terrible taste. As the mass media carry on about the quality films being celebrated at the Oscars (comin g March 2), my friends and I have an approach more similar to the Razzies (which will be announced the night before). We embrace the joys of bad movies and regularly gather in my apartment to watch them, talk about them, and sometimes talk over them, all while giggling about where it all went wrong and how much fun it is that it did.
The club unofficially started in 1997, when performer John Epperson invited me and some friends over — once to watch “Secret Ceremony,” the surreal 1968 psychodrama with Liz Taylor and Mia Farrow splashing around together in a bathtub, and then for 1971’s “The Love Machine,” about the sex travails of a ruthless TV honcho who beds everything but the furniture. Epperson also supplied fascinating old clips, like one of singer Leslie Uggams hilariously messing up the lyrics to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” during a concert on the Capitol lawn. (“I made up my own language,” Uggams told me, laughing, when I asked her about this incident years later.) We had such a goofy good time with the shameless parade of shlock that we guests moved the event to my apartment and started doing it about every three weeks, to the point where we’ve seen around 300 films and at least as many snippets. Me, fashion writer Lynn Yaeger, Paper’s editorial director Mickey Boardman, NYU’s Angelo Pitillo, graphic artist Lee Kimble, and hair stylist Porfirio Garcia (a recent addition) have gathered to watch misbegotten remakes, cheesy TV movies, lurid women’s prison flicks, and just about anything with Pia Zadora or Kim Novak.
This is actually nothing new for me. As an adolescent in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I would regularly go alone to the nearby Walker Theater, where a dollar nabbed whatever big-star vehicle had flopped in the more legit theaters. A withdrawn only child, I found my escape by watching turkeys like the 1969 travesty “De Sade,” a masochistic experience all the way around, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 “Zabriskie Point,” a heavy-handed attack on American consumerism that made ticket buyers sorry they’d spent the money. (All five of them.) I was so starved for entertainment — and so untrained in the ways of art — that I watched these films in awe, fully unaware that they were the cinematic equivalent of weapons of mass destruction. Their glamour and seeming sophistication were my escape from boredom, and afterwards, I‘d run home and write capsule reviews of them — for myself — on little index cards, convinced I was a major critic. (I still feel that way!)
Jump ahead to my movie club; I’m basically forcing friends to join in my past, reliving it with an eye to how “misery loves company,” but also with a shared enjoyment of the inadvertent hilarity and other good things you can siphon from these films as an adult. In addition to the titles from my youth, I also serve other saucy misfires that come my way — everything from “Exorcist II: The Heretic” to 2002’s “Sonny” (with James Franco as a meandering hustler), the rare modern-age film to rate with the old-time stinkers.
The best kind of bad movie, it turns out, doesn’t know it’s bad. “The Baby” is a really fun 1973 film about a woman who bizarrely keeps her grown son in a crib, only to be confronted by a social worker who wants to seize “the baby” for her own motives. (Her husband has been infantilized after an accident and needs a playmate. I’m not making this stuff up.) As you’d imagine from that synopsis, the film knows it’s being elaborately silly. It gamely winks at the camera, all the way through the scene where mama is buried alive by the social worker, by which point it achieves camp hall of fame status, not to mention my movie club’s award for all-time best drama. (Yes, we regularly vote on awards, though it’s not quite as lavish a ceremony as the Oscars. Usually we just sit around eating candy and takeout while tallying the ballots and announcing the “winners.”)
But Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 epic tale of betrayal, “The Room,” has no idea it’s bad, which makes it all the better for me. The colossally inept film — full of unexplained plot turns, unnecessary detail, and creepy lovemaking scenes — was initially greeted by derisive hoots, so it was released on DVD as a black comedy. And boy, does it deliver the laughs — from the endless talk about how “beautiful” a not beautiful character is to a weird rooftop scene where everyone’s screaming about the drug dealer Wiseau just nabbed, some of the lines emitted in wrong order (“I don’t have them anymore.” “What kind of drugs, Denny?” “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have them anymore.”) Best of all, it’s all done straight-faced, seeing as quadruple-threat Wiseau — who wrote, produced, directed, and starred — fancies himself a high-reaching auteur, as a recent book about him, “The Disaster Artist,” explains in disturbing detail. Wiseau might be thrilled to know that Entertainment Weekly compared his film to Orson Welles; they called it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.”
Other fun bad films feature the spectacle of “big stars brought low,” as Boardman likes to say. There’s “Lost Horizon,” a ’73 musical with once-dignified Oscar types traipsing around the Himalayas while trying to sing ghastly Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs. (It’s the film that caused Bette Midler to quip, “I never miss a Liv Ullman musical.”) Also, 1969’s “Angel, Angel, Down We Go,” with Oscar winner Jennifer Jones as an ex-stag-film actress who goes skydiving, and the same year’s “The Big Cube,” with Lana Turner being force-fed LSD to make her insane, though the audience gets there first.
Yaeger hates horror, so we had to practically strap her down to watch “The Manitou,” the 1978 cult classic in which the fetus on Susan Strasberg’s neck turns out to be the resurrection of a Native American medicine man. (Lynn — like Strasberg — squirmed through the whole thing. The rest of us laughed our heads off.)
Perhaps most shockingly of all, one of our terrible films will occasionally turn out to have been an Oscar nominee, making for a weird confluence of good and bad. For example, 1975’s “Mahogany” has Diana Ross as a wildly successful designer who chucks it all in order to bury her ambitions and accessorize her man. The result is a dime store riot, but it happens to have a terrific title song, which was actually up for an Academy Award. How offensive. Next time, I might just fast forward through the opening credits.
Anyway, here are my personal awards for the best worst cinematic achievements of all time. Catch them if you dare.
WORST FILM: “The Room”
Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 love triangle saga belongs in the Bermuda triangle! It’s a rivetingly awful assortment of bad dialogue, terrible acting and lousy continuity. One character is seen elaborately ordering a pizza (“half pineapple and Canadian bacon, half artichoke and pesto, light on the cheese”), adding nothing whatsoever to the narrative. But when her mother later announces that she has cancer, it’s dismissed as if she simply had a slight cold! This film seems beamed from a green screen on another planet. Ghastly! I’ve seen it 20 times!
WORST ACTOR: Tommy Wiseau, “The Room”
He mangles his own dialogue and adds creepy touches like laughing when a character talks about how a woman was savagely beaten and hospitalized. His performance has to be seen to be disbelieved. You’ll want to avert your eyes — but don’t. You will scream with laughter, and you can wash away the guilt with repeat viewings.
WORST ACTRESS: Jill Clayburgh, “Gable and Lombard“ (1976)
Clayburgh was terrific, but not here. Casting her as the winsome Carole Lombard was like assuming Schwarzenegger could play Cary Grant. James Brolin made a good Gable, though — at least on the cardboard level the film aimed for. What a plane wreck!
WORST DIRECTOR: Harmon Jones, “Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title”
Don’t bother! The cast sounds fun (Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle) but they are actually rotten in this lamely unfunny trudge of a “comedy” from 1966. That non-title is actually the beginning and end of any possible laffs. The fact that the film HAD a director is the real shock here.
WORST SONG: “Best Friend” from “Airport” (1975)
Singing nun Helen Reddy delivers this tune while fingering her guitar, to a child in need of a kidney transplant, as the audience goes into diabetic shock. Linda Blair plays the kid, and she doesn’t spew split soup for a change — though she certainly should have! As Linda and her mom (Nancy Olson) grin over having such great seats for this wonderful free concert in the air, stewardess Karen Black peeks in with a smile, and the whole thing distracts you from the fact that the plane is doomed. Alas, it only highlights the fact that the film is going down.
In Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough” (1975), a male prospect says to Brenda Vaccaro’s promiscuous character: “You have a mouth like 10 fingers and 10 fingers like a mouth.”
In the ludicrous drama “Female on the Beach” (1955), sultry Jeff Chandler asks love interest Joan Crawford, “How do you like your coffee?” Replies Joan: “Alone!”