The 9 Most Memorable Paycheck Roles in Modern Cinema

The Paycheck Role has long been one of the more pejorative distinctions in Hollywood, associating generally respected actors with films in which you can virtually see them holding their noses on camera. Today's news of John Malkovich and Frances McDormand joining Transformers 3 inducts a new duo into this distinguished subculture. But there's also a chance they know that for every Robin Williams cash-grab or Robert De Niro slum job, there are a tiny handful of actors who have actually established milestones of one sort or another while pulling down big salaries in bad, misconceived, underwritten and/or otherwise ill-advised films. Only time will tell if Malkovich and McDormand join the elite whom The Movieline Nine has taxonomized here; weigh in with your own additions below.


9. Helen Mirren, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

Plenty of actors have gone on from Oscar wins to disastrous big-money ignominy (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton can duke it out for the worst of the worst). Few, however, have piled on the Paycheck Roles in such quick succession as Helen Mirren, who followed her turn in The Queen with the role of Dr. Emily Appleton -- Jon Voight's ex-wife and Nicolas Cage's mother -- in the aromatic 2007 blockbuster National Treasure: Book of Secrets. That part preceded the stinker Inkheart and the slightly more prestige-crowded (and thus slightly overbaked) State of Play, where she undertook the recent, even more shameless High-Class Harpy phase of her career -- capped with her Oscar-nominated performance in The Last Station. Mirren's is one of the few instances proving you can have your paycheck and eat the scenery, too.

8. John Gielgud, Arthur (1981)

And then there's Gielgud, who actually won an Oscar for his Paycheck Role as Dudley Moore's butler and confidante Hobson in the hit comedy. (Gielgud's other, more dignified effort that year, Chariots of Fire, won Best Picture.) Gielgud returned to the trough in 1988 for the execrable Arthur 2: On the Rocks; neither he nor the audience were as fortunate the second time around.

7. Peter O'Toole, Caligula (1979)

Gielgud and Mirren also drew some sizable salaries for this epic Roman porno-folly, bludgeoned into cult submission by its warring creative team of Bob Guccione, Gore Vidal and Tinto Brass. But those actors visibly couldn't wait to get into the limo and off to the bank, while O'Toole owned his part as the raving, syphillitic Emperor Tiberius. It's impossible to know whether or not he was just taking out his humiliation onscreen or matching the depravity note-for-note. In either case, O'Toole earned his money.

6. Uma Thurman, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

Thurman has driven (at least ridden shotgun in) some industrial-strength Paycheck Vehicles over the years (Batman & Robin, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), but her 10 minutes here as Medusa -- all black leather, lipstick, and genuinely icky snake up-do -- were one of the batshit highlights of a roundly batshit franchise flagship. By the time she shrieks to Percy, "I used to date... your... Daddy!" (i.e. Perseus), you know her perfect synthesis of Joan Crawford and Greek mythology is worth every cent Warners Bros. paid her.

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  • Dimo says:

    I also like to add Michael Caine's tour de force work with Steven Segal in "On Deadly Ground"

  • Juancho says:

    Must add some love for Ed Norton in the remake of The Italian Job, though it's a legitimately entertaining movie. Paramount supposedly held an option on him for $1 million for a picture, going all the way back to Primal Fear, and he was none too happy that they exercised it.
    Also, props to Morgan Freeman. With a straight face, he said he signed up for Batman Begins because he just wanted to get paid for once. You know, unlike all those other giant hits he starred in.

  • Colander says:

    How about Angelina Jolie in almost anything?

  • SunnydaZe says:

    That baby grew up to be a man who would get laid by using one of two lines>
    1. - "You know, I have worked with Marlon Brando."
    2. - "You know, I played Superman."
    In an emergency, he sometimes has to use both...

  • TimGunn says:

    Weird, Hannah and her Sisters is being delivered to my mailbox as we speak.

  • itsimplied says:

    Johnny Depp should also be added for his participation in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie...especially since half of the lead actors and the director dropped out of this one

  • Martini Shark says:

    This could be a technicality, but I nominate Halle Barry for "Swordfish", where she got an extra half mil for losing her top.

  • I think Sean Connery in "Prince of Thieves" warrants a mention here. In 1991, he was paid $250,000 to deliver four lines in two days of shooting and supposedly gave the money to charity.

  • Louise says:

    Eh, Johnny Depp was actually nominated for an Oscar for POC. Not that he expected that outcome, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he took the role because he thought he could have fun with it and the movie wouldn't completely suck.
    Not exactly in the same league, but David Cross took a lot of shit for taking part in the Chipmunks movie. His response was pretty much "I wanted to buy property, and if you think I sold out, fuck you."

  • AnnK says:

    Ralph Fiennes in Maid to Order. Inexplicable except for the paycheck.

  • Daruma says:

    At this point in my life, I'd take one of those pay checks too! Jack, Robin, Harrison, and all of them know what I'm talking about that any one of those paychecks is more than I've made so far in this life time! Suppose I wasn't thinking about how expensive things would get as people I cared about got older. Money does make a lot of difference in how you can help people or live your life. Nothing worse than struggling when a few pennies, dollars, or barrels could make all of the difference in the world... Never know when the roles are gonna stop coming their way so...Can't blame them for taking an awesome paycheck and trying to maintain the lifestyles they or many of US all expect them to have. At least some of them try to help others in their own way.

  • I'd like to make 250k for four lines... at least he donated the money - because he probably has enough for himself and all of his "hobbies".

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