Once actors and musicians reach a certain level of celebrity, they inevitably turn their attention to more personal movie projects that they now have the clout to get made. Often referred to as “vanity projects,” these personal movies usually end in disaster. Many times it is because the tastes and interests of the celebrity in question do not mesh with the tastes and interests of the public. Other times it is because budgets snowball out of control or studio executives are not able to say “no” to their biggest stars. Whatever the reason, many of the most personal movies ever made end up being regretted by the stars, the studios that produced them, and the audiences who shelled out their hard earned money to see them. Here is a list of 10 movie projects that never should have been made…
10. Beloved (1998)
With her syndicated television show at its zenith, and her influence nearing cult-like proportions, Oprah Winfrey turned her attention to the movie project she longed to make—Beloved. This movie is based on a book by Toni Morrison and is about a slave woman who is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter. Given Oprah Winfrey’s popularity and clout, it was only natural that Beloved should be an A-list project all the way. Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) took the helm and Oprah Winfrey’s co-stars in the movie included Danny Glover and Thandie Newton. And given that Oprah had scored an Oscar nomination for her last film, 1985’s The Color Purple, everyone assumed that Beloved, too, would prove to be bait for the Academy Awards. Not the case. The movie was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. Making it one of the biggest bombs and disappointments of 1998. Oprah Winfrey would later say that Beloved was her career low point.
9. The Postman (1997)
Most people think of the 1995 film Waterworld as Kevin Costner’s Waterloo. But the reality is that Waterworld was a minor hit that ended up being very profitable on home video. The real stinker for Kevin Costner, and the film that ended his string of box office hits, was the 1997 movie The Postman. A three hour post-apocalyptic snore fest about a postman who tries to unite warring tribes was laughed out of theatres and dismissed by audiences. And although the movie had a budget in excess of $50 million, it earned only $20 million worldwide—putting Kevin Costner in the dog house with movie studios. Worse, Kevin Costner also co-produced and directed this bomb—leaving many people to wonder if the actor/director’s success with Dances With Wolves was a fluke.
8. Harlem Nights (1989)
Eddie Murphy was the undisputed box office champ in 1989 following a string of hits that included 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop and The Golden Child. His stand-up movies Delirious and Raw also earned tons of cash for studio executives. And so one can understand when Eddie Murphy turned his attention to the project he always wanted to make—a movie co-starring his idol, Richard Pryor. And on paper, Harlem Nights must have looked like a match made in heaven for Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor—arguably the two most influential comedians ever. Unfortunately, in true vanity project fashion, Eddie Murphy also wrote and directed this period piece about gangsters in 1930s New York. The great costumes and sets could not cover over a weak and unfunny script, as well as a noticeable lack of onscreen chemistry between Murphy and Pryor, who was then in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis. Harlem Nights ended up being Eddie Murphy’s first box office bomb… though not his last.
7. Swept Away (2002)
All of Madonna’s acting attempts have been met with a critical drubbing—remember Shanghai Surprise? But nothing beats the 2002 mess that is Swept Away. Madonna was still Madonna in 2002, so when she teamed up with her then-husband, director Guy Ritchie, for a movie it seemed like a quasi-good idea. Especially since Guy Ritchie was riding high after his first films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch performed very well. However, while Swept Away was designed as a star vehicle for Madonna, this awful remake of the classic movie, starring Lina Wertmuller about a spoiled rich woman marooned on a deserted island with a deck hand from her yacht, ended up being a disaster for all concerned. The main problem was Madonna’s terrible acting, as well as a weak script. Nobody escaped this mess unscathed. Madonna has not starred in a movie since this debacle, and Guy Ritchie didn’t get his directing career back on track until he divorced Madonna.
6. Under The Cherry Moon (1986)
Probably the only singer to top Madonna in terms of a terrible movie project is Prince, with the 1986 trainwreck Under The Cherry Moon. On top of the world after the success of 1984’s Purple Rain, Prince decided to not only star in his next film but direct it too. Under The Cherry Moon is about a charlatan who scams wealthy women out of their money. Things go awry when Prince falls in love with the latest woman he is trying to con. Sadly nobody involved with this project told Prince he could neither act nor direct. And Under The Cherry Moon ended up being a box office turd when released—showing up on countless critics’ worst movie lists and putting an end to Prince’s foray into acting and directing movies. Even the soundtrack to this film bombed.
5. Grindhouse (2007)
There was a lot of hype surrounding Grindhouse before it was released in 2007. And rightly so. The movie brought together two acclaimed directors in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who were each making separate exploitation films that would be packaged together like old drive-in B movies that were affectionately known as “Grindhouse” pictures. But, unfortunately, audiences did not embrace the concept and did not appear to look back on B movies from the 1970s as affectionately as Tarantino and Rodriguez. And even with all-star casts that featured Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis and Josh Brolin, Grindhouse tanked at the box office. The public reaction to the movie was so bad that the studio was forced to split the movies apart and issue them separately on DVD and Blu-Ray. And Grindhouse put a quick end to a potential revival of B movies and drive-in exploitation films. Grindhouse stands as the worst performing movie of Quentin Tarantino’s career.
4. The Last Movie (1971)
Actor turned director Dennis Hopper revolutionized Hollywood with his 1969 biker movie Easy Rider. Hollywood executives felt that Hopper had captured the zeitgeist at the time and threw scads of money at him to make his next movie entitled The Last Movie. Turns out the tile of the film was quite prophetic as this could have turned out to be the last movie for everyone involved. Dennis Hopper, who was then into a serious drug problem, took the money given to him by Universal Pictures and went into the jungles of Peru, where he basically disappeared for a year—doing drugs, sleeping with the aboriginals and shooting tons of incomprehensible film footage. The completed film is a total mess about reality versus fiction, told from the point of view of a stuntman, of all people. Universal lost a ton of money on this film and was thoroughly embarrassed. And when Hopper finally sobered up in the 1980s, he spent the rest of his life apologizing for this fiasco.
3. Battlefield Earth (2000)
The movie that knocked John Travolta off his high horse, Battlefield Earth is roundly reviled as one of the worst movies ever made. A vanity project that sprung from Travolta’s connections to the Church of Scientology, Battlefield Earth is based on a story by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard about humans who fight back against an alien race that has enslaved them in the year 3000. Strange to the point of being ludicrous, this movie became an embarrassment to everyone involved with it, including actors Barry Pepper and Forrest Whitaker. It also made John Travolta look extremely bad and began what has continued to be a box office slump for the actor who triumphantly returned to movies in the 1990s with Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. Even the Church of Scientology distanced itself from this turkey.
2. Freddy Got Fingered (2001)
There was a brief time at the turn of the century when Canadian shock comedian Tom Green was extremely popular. His television show on MTV and marriage to actress Drew Barrymore garnered him a lot of attention and admirers among high school and college students. But when Tom Green was given the greenlight to write, direct and star in his own movie, the result was the absolutely terrible Freddy Got Fingered—which turned out to be far more offensive than funny. Scenes in the movie involve swinging a baby around by its umbilical cord and wearing a dead deer as clothing. Oh, and the movie has no discernible story or plot. I guess Tom Green thought it would be enough for him to pull together a collection of his gross out gags into a two hour film. Nobody else agreed. The movie was destroyed by critics and Tom Green’s career never recovered. He has since become a more conventional comedian and ditched the gross out humour. Good move, Tom.
1. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
The film that put movie studio United Artists out of business and has become synonymous with the term “vanity project,” 1980s Heaven’s Gate is the biggest box office bomb in film history. After the Oscar winning success of 1978’s The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino was given full artistic license and reign for his next film project, the ambitious Heaven’s Gate. Based on true accounts of a battle between land barons and immigrants in late 19th century Wyoming, Heaven’s Gate went massively over schedule and budget as Michael Cimino built sets only to tear them down and rebuild them. He also hired hundreds of extras and kept them hanging around as he spent days upon days filming clouds. The studio tried to intervene only to find that Michael Cimino barred them from his movie set. The whole thing ended in disaster when Heaven’s Gate opened to disastrous reviews and was quickly pulled from theaters. The movie cost a then whopping $44 million to make ($126 million in today’s dollars) and earned just $3.5 million at the box office ($10 million today). The fiasco led to the shuttering of United Artists, sent Michael Cimino into exile in France, and ended the days when film directors had control over their projects. The studios would never again let directors have personal control over the movies that they funded.