Nipped in the Bud Pt. II
We were surprised and hurt at your charges of sexism in response to our brutally honest critiques of the careers of eight actresses who failed to make the grade. To prove just how fair we are, we've now asked three writers to tell us what went wrong with the careers of eight actors (and Steve Guttenberg) who didn't become the next Brando.
Sean Penn's the only man thus far to make the cover of People magazine twice for divorcing his wife once: Sean and Madonna separated, reconciled, then divorced for good between '87 and '89 and People was all over them like a cheap suit. Penn, one of the most talented of the 30-and-under Hollywood actors, is today better known for marrying--and losing--the Marilyn Monroe of the '80s than for any acting he's done. In the beginning, they were calling him the next De Niro...
But when De Niro emerged as the heir-apparent to Marlon Brando, he did so with a twist, eschewing the limelight Brando, in his heyday, could not avoid. Penn seemed to steer himself right down Brando's dubious collision course with bad publicity. He even got sued for assaulting reporters and photogs. Still, Penn's current career crisis can't be blamed on the press--it's the public that's been avoiding his films for five years. Taps, Penn's first film, won him good reviews as the only normal, likable cadet at a rebellious military academy. He looked like another actor altogether in the comedy hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and his hilariously on-target portrayal of lost surfer dude Spicoli made him a star. Bad Boys, a surprisingly powerful little teens-behind-bars saga, wasn't big box office, but prompted Newsweek to crown Penn "Son of De Niro." Then in 1984, Racing With the Moon failed to ignite (the film's producers blamed the failure on Penn's refusal to do press and he became a "difficult" actor over night).
From then on, Penn's good acting tended to occur in little-seen films like At Close Range, while the abysmal Shanghai Surprise, made with spouse Madonna, earned him his first negative reviews. Of the films that followed, only Colors was anything like a hit, and director Dennis Hopper, not Penn, got the good reviews. The failure of the turgid, unfunny comedy We're No Angels, in which Penn and his idol De Niro were accused of trying to out-mug each other, must have been particularly painful. In Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, Penn so inflated his personal mix of Brando and De Niro mannerisms that he became a one-man parody of Method Acting. His latest film, the grim, soulless State of Grace, finds him in De Niro's New York for the very first time--the film's a veritable homage to Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Unfortunately for Penn, Gary Oldman gets to play the over-the-top De Niro role, while he's called on to be the hero. Well, no one said it would be easy. But if talent has anything to do with scrambling back to the top, Penn should be up there again. Lamar Petersen
Lately this once very gifted actor's screen technique has been limited largely to the manipulation of his cheeks. In the silly and abominable soft-core porn flick Wild Orchid, he had his cheeks astonishingly puffed up through what one suspected were some grievous, artificial means, and that, combined with either an otherworldly sunburn or unusually bad makeup, gave him the look of a scalded chipmunk. Then, in Homeboy, Rourke's own straight-to-video pet project about a brain-damaged (at least I hope he was brain-damaged) boxer, he had his cheeks sucked in so tight one could not help thinking that his character's taciturn style had a physiological foundation. Suffice it to say, the we have seen lately is a surreally awful distortion of the young actor who stole his one scene opposite William Hurt in Body Heat and displayed in Diner an array of cohesive, unexpected assets--a lilting voice with a counterpoint street accent, an alternately angelic and angry face, and mannered but believable body language. Rourke read as an original, despite visible influences (i.e., Brando). Coppola played him as such in the super-stylish Rumble Fish, but it was a film all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Pope of Greenwich Village, a Mean Streets clone, sandwiched him between ultra-geek Eric Roberts and a landlocked Daryl Hannah (a nightmare duo of co-stars for any actor). Then came Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon, a film that caused a ruckus with Asians (they were upset about racial stereotypes, not the casting of an Asian model who couldn't act), and with critics, who hated it. This is about the point in Rourke's career when he began to seem really nuts.
It is redundant to say that many actors tend to be screwed up. Rourke, however, sets a fast pace even in this crowd. Doesn't it seem that when a guy who has come to stardom quite literally from the street begins to get hostile with the powers that be, with the press, and with his audience (_Homeboy_ is audience abuse), there just might be a substantial self-esteem problem at work? A discomfort with the disparity between internal and external circumstances? (Watch his recent Johnny Handsome as a disguised autobiography.) Rourke was okay until he became a star, whereupon anything that crossed him turned him back into the boxer he used to be. Unfortunately, the critics had incentive to egg him on: 9 1/2 Weeks was no place for an actor of Rourke's avowed seriousness; and Angel Heart, an inflated voodoo doll of a movie, was one more film in which a good Rourke performance was a waste of his and our time. Moreover, the over-the-top sex in that film, added to his romp with Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks, began to give Rourke a ludicrous, narcissistic edge. How could anyone willing to look like shit on screen, as Rourke is (e.g., Barfly), be thought narcissistic? Well, the whole business of movie stars deliberately making themselves ugly on the big screen is narcissism--an inverse version of the garden variety. Supposedly, they're so brilliant they can eschew their customary beauty and still thrill us. Uh-huh. These days, Rourke is a big star in Europe (then again, so is Stallone), but he's on shaky ground here. And because he's personally such a nightmare, what with his motorcycle entourage, his love-hate thing with publicity, the impingements of his personal life (a while ago he swore off actresses because they're too neurotic; he was moving on to something healthier--models), it's hard to believe that filmmakers all over town are dying to work with him. His buddy Cimino tapped him for the remake of The Desperate Hours. Let's hope we see the old Mickey. He's never going to be the star he might have been. But he might yet be the actor he was born to be.
It isn't always talent, or timing: sometimes it's just plain dumb luck. What else can the career of Steve Guttenberg possibly be attributed to? His looks and ability led a friend of mine to observe, "I always thought he seemed like a nice Jewish dentist from Long Island." Exactly: the New York-born Guttenberg was, in fact, attending UCLA as a pre-dental student when Allan Carr decided to give him a big break--along with the equally talented Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, and The Village People-- in the 1980 disco musical Can't Stop the Music. By all rights, the film's belly-flop (and Guttenberg's charismaless performance in it) should have ended the whole matter of his career right there. But--lucky Steve--Barry Levinson put him into the well-regarded Diner. Sort of a personality-free Elliott Gould, Guttenberg at this point basically became someone who got hired only when a lot of better-known players turned down a part, in movies like The Man Who Wasn't There. It seemed clear he'd be better off back in dental school, but instead he elected to go the low-budget, low-brow route, and he got lucky again: Police Academy 1 and 2 both hit big with juvenile humor fans.
This was as far as Guttenberg would have gotten, had Ron Howard not cast him as the colorless straight man amid scene-stealing senior citizens and aliens in Cocoon, the monster hit of 1985. His performance in this film is nothing more than amiable, but that's more than can be said of his work in Bad Medicine and Short Circuit (another hit, thanks to a cute robot). Returning to the surefire, puerile formula of Police Academy 3 and 4, Guttenberg kept working past such 1987 flops as Surrender and The Bedroom Window. The last contains his best work to date--playing an adult for once, he's not bad--but instead of trying to play a second grown-up, he signed to be one of the trio of Peter Pans in Three Men and a Baby, another amiable-at-best performance, another runaway hit. Has any one actor, ever, had less to do with the success of the films he appears in? (No.) Stinkers like High Spirits, Cocoon: The Return, and Don't Tell Her It's Me would, and do, sink other actors' careers, but other actors don't have Guttenberg's sheer luck. At year's end he'll be back in Three Men and a Little Lady. Just our luck!