Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"It might be malig-nant": When good actors pretend to be crappy ones

Gwen DeMarco's tendency to repeat the computer's speech mocks the fact that most of the heroes on Star Trek and its various spinoffs are basically half-human, half-parrot.
The year 1999 was a stunning one for cinema, and one of the biggest surprises in terms of quality at the end of that year, which was full of so many inventive and exceptional films, was Galaxy Quest, an out-of-nowhere sci-fi comedy where the unlikely heroes are washed-up actors from a cheaply made '80s space opera of the same name, an amalgam of the original Star Trek, Space: 1999, Jason of Star Command and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Director Dean Parisot's gentle parody of those now-cheap-looking sci-fi shows ended up being a better Star Trek movie than the last two official Trek movies that Paramount made before the studio handed the keys of the then-in-desperate-need-of-a-tune-up franchise to J.J. Abrams, whose highly entertaining first Trek installment reinvigorated the franchise in 2009.

'Hey, I can so not see my house from here.'
One of the highlights of Galaxy Quest is composer David Newman's enjoyable score, which, like the film itself, gradually evolves from genre parody to genuine and heartfelt sci-fi epic. Aside from a Newman-produced promo CD of the Galaxy Quest soundtrack, Newman's score hasn't been made available until now, thanks to La-La Land Records. The soundtrack label's new release of the Galaxy Quest score contains additional cues that weren't on the promo CD, as well as at the end of the album, a music-related Easter egg that's a treat for Galaxy Quest fans who enjoyed the film's dead-on sci-fi convention scenes. Selections from the release are being featured during the "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue" blocks on A Fistful of Soundtracks.

Because of this release, I'm revisiting and updating an old post of mine about fake bad acting, another element Galaxy Quest pulls off so well. Sigourney Weaver's performance as struggling actress Gwen DeMarco is one of my favorite instances in which a decent or excellent actor portrays a less talented version of himself or herself. Here are 11 standout examples of a comedic device that's never not funny, starting with Weaver's character in Galaxy Quest.

Sigourney Weaver, Galaxy Quest
Weaver's Gwen DeMarco character is a biting spoof of the uselessness of the secondary actors on certain shows that carry titles that rhyme with "car wreck." DeMarco had two functions on her old show: to serve as eye candy and to repeat whatever the spaceship's computer said. In Galaxy Quest, DeMarco amusingly undoes everything that Weaver worked to accomplish in the Alien films as the iconic Ellen Ripley, one of the fiercest female characters to ever spearhead a sci-fi franchise. Well, almost everything. The little-seen Galaxy Quest 20th Anniversary Special mockumentary--an uproarious Sci-Fi Channel tie-in that was stupidly left off the Galaxy Quest DVD and Blu-ray but can be seen here, here and here--suggests that DeMarco's limited Lieutenant Tawny Madison role had some merits. The mockumentary discloses that Tawny's trademark karate kick (a nod to the fighting moves of both Emma Peel from The Avengers and Erin Gray's Colonel Wilma Deering from the disco-era Buck Rogers) inspired a whole generation of blond-wigged female "Questarians" to imitate Tawny's fighting moves, and that maybe Tawny was a better role for DeMarco than the one she turned down, "a small part in a Woody Allen movie" (a sly reference to Weaver's appearance in Annie Hall). Speaking of secondary actors on fake sci-fi shows...

Derek Jacobi, Frasier ("The Show Must Go Off")
The esteemed British thespian deservedly won an Emmy in 2001 for his hilarious guest shot as Jackson Hedley, a mash-up of William Shatner and future Frasier guest star Patrick Stewart. The episode involves the Crane brothers' reunion with Hedley, a stage acting mentor who introduced them to Shakespeare when they were kids. Because Frasier and Niles are elitist snobs, they're more familiar with Hedley's Shakespeare work than with his signature role, as the android sidekick on Space Patrol. The brothers are appalled to discover their acting idol has been reduced to a Galaxy Quest-like, post-show career of "hawking T-shirts and sci-fi gewgaws," so in another one of their misguided business ventures, they attempt to rescue Hedley from the sci-fi con circuit by bankrolling his stage comeback. But Frasier and Niles become even more horrified when they watch Hedley rehearse and realize maybe he isn't as great a thesp as they thought he was. To give you a good idea of Hedley's atrocious delivery, think Dr. Orpheus from The Venture Bros. suffering from diarrhea--and if he had taken elocution lessons from Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian from SNL.

Alec Baldwin, SNL "Soap Opera Digest" sketch
In a 1993 sketch that's funnier than his most popular SNL bit, the balls-deep-in-double-entendres "Schwetty Balls," Baldwin delves into his soap opera acting past (The Doctors, Knots Landing) to play Trent Derricks, the star of Doctors, Nurses and Patients. Actually, Derricks isn't that bad of an actor. That is if you overlook his tendency to give interesting pronunciations to medical terms ("We believe it might be a pole-yip. It might be the Big C: canker! It might be benig. It might be malig-nant.") and names of Ivy League universities ("There's no class at Yeah-leh Medical School that can prepare you for this!"). (The sketch can be found on the SNL: The Best of Alec Baldwin DVD.)

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock ("Jack-Tor")
I know it's Baldwin again, but the guy just excels at pretending to be a subpar performer, whether it's inebriated '60s variety show host Joey Montero, the Dean Martin analog in the recent live episode "Live from Studio 6H," 30 Rock's delightful homage to live TV, or Jack Donaghy, a network exec with no clue about how to say a simple line or two in front of a camera. Lorne Michaels, whose company produces 30 Rock, must really be good-humored about himself because the "Jack's outtakes" montage in this episode is clearly star/showrunner Tina Fey's jab at Michaels' stilted cameos on SNL.

Any of the actors who played Jack Horner's porn stars in Boogie Nights
Almost everyone has a favorite moment from Boogie Nights. Heather Graham stripping to nothing but her roller skates. The shout-out to I Am Cuba. Mark Wahlberg mangling that cheesy theme song from The Transformers: The Movie. The drug deal-gone-bad sequence. The end credits--for those of you with a weak bladder. For me, it's Graham stripping to nothing but her roller skates. Coming in a close second is any of the footage from Jack Horner's movies-within-the-movie, in which we glimpse the genesis of John C. Reilly's dimwitted comedic personas ("Let's get some of that Saturday night beaver..."). Amber Waves' stilted delivery right before her first sex scene with Dirk Diggler always amuses me. Julianne Moore is a whiz at portraying vacant-eyed starlets like Amber. The character has never quite left Moore: a little bit of Amber seeped into a surprisingly funny SNL Ladies Man sketch where Moore stole the show because of her performance as a ditzy spokesmodel, as well as into her Cookie's Fortune character, an amateur actress who participates in a cheesy production of Salome at the local church.

Worst Danny Glover impression ever.
(Photo source: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Wiki)
Charlie Day, Danny DeVito, Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia ("Dee Reynolds: Reshaping America's Youth")
Failed actress-turned-high school drama teacher Dee Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson) is having trouble connecting with her bored students, so she hopes to win them over by taking them on a field trip to New York. Because this is It's Always Sunny, the trip to take in all the sights and sounds of Broadway gets massively downsized to a trip to a movie screening of Othello at Paddy's Pub, the always underpopulated Philly bar run by Dee, her brother Dennis (Howerton), their ex-dad Frank (DeVito), Charlie (Day) and Mac (McElhenney).

And because this is long-suffering Dee, Dennis and Mac trick her and sabotage her video projector so that they can debut their racially offensive, ultra-low-budget fourth sequel to Lethal Weapon, a movie that first-time directors Dennis and Mac finally manage to get finished after what I assume are hours and hours of arguing over whether blackface is offensive and totally missing the point of why so many African Americans find it offensive (the best moment is Mac's use of Lord of the Rings to defend blackface: "Ian McKellen plays a wizard. Do you think he goes home at night and shoots lasers into his boyfriend’s asshole?").

Most sitcom episodes with an "our gang makes a movie" plot usually bug me because of the implausibly high quality of some of the footage that was shot by characters who are supposed to be amateur filmmakers. For instance, we're supposed to chuckle over how The Brady Bunch's home movie about the first Thanksgiving was directed and edited by a kid who's a first-time director, but why does Greg Brady's slo-mo footage of the Pilgrims in peril look like it was shot by Sam Peckinpah? (And where does a kid in 1970 get the editing technology to artsy-fartsily slow down a home movie and then flip it to Keystone Kops speed? And why do I keep looking for logic in a sitcom where the dad is an architect who built a house for a family of eight and gave it only two bathrooms?) Fortunately, It's Always Sunny doesn't make the same mistakes and instead fills Lethal Weapon 5 with nothing but mistakes (jump cuts that are unintentional instead of artsy; Charlie mangling his lines; Dennis and Mac inexplicably switching roles halfway through the movie; Dennis playing Murtaugh with just a fake mustache while Mac plays Murtaugh in full Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder-style blackface).

I particularly like how Lethal Weapon 5 is overlit like a softcore porno. Speaking of porn, how about that hysterical MacGruber-style sex scene between Frank as Riggs and Murtaugh's Indian casino owner adversary and a bored prostitute as a bored prostitute? DeVito is just so fearless during intentionally bad love scenes like Lethal Weapon 5's candle-lit and hilariously overlong bedroom scene, which reminds me of both the fake gay porno DeVito appeared in with Dana Carvey during a late '80s SNL sketch that had Gene Siskel (Kevin Nealon) and Roger Ebert (Phil Hartman) reviewing gay porn and DeVito's later SNL performance as Joey Buttafuoco in a spoof of all those trashy '90s TV-movies about Amy Fisher.

The most disturbing-looking O-face since George Lucas' face when he raped Indiana Jones on South Park.
So Dee does end up making her students happy, but not in the way she intended, as we see the guffawing teens have a ball over the incompetence of Dennis and Mac's cinematic train wreck as if it's Tommy Wiseau's The Room.

Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs, Community ("Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples")
The cult favorite has thrown its characters into so many situations where they've proven to be terrible actors, whether it's a Greendale Community College TV commercial, children's theater or extremely awkward PDAs. But the "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" episode's brief glimpse at the religious movie directed by Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and starring Troy (Glover) and Britta (Jacobs) stands out because of Troy's pronunciation of "Beatitudes" and Britta's silly dance moves.

Fran Kranz, The TV Set
The breakout performance in the wildly funny 2007 indie movie The TV Set belonged not to David Duchovny (although in The TV Set, he's pitch-perfect as a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter) but to the then-unknown Fran Kranz, who, since The TV Set, has become a favorite actor of Joss Whedon's (who's no stranger to poking fun at sucky acting) and appeared in Whedon productions like the two-season curio Dollhouse and the long-delayed Cabin in the Woods.

Loosely based on writer/director Jake Kasdan's own experiences in the TV industry, the Judd Apatow-produced TV Set mocks everything that's wrong with the business today, from network interference--which Kasdan and Apatow had to deal with while working on one of my all-time favorite cult shows, Freaks and Geeks--to the rise of so-called reality TV to the power trips of self-absorbed and needy actors from scripted shows. Kranz played one such self-absorbed and needy actor, the fictional Zach Harper, the scenery-devouring star of The Wexler Chronicles, yet another legal drama about a young lawyer in love with the one that got away (a network exec is overheard describing The Wexler Chronicles as "a little Northern Exposure, a little Ed," but the show looks more like Ed meets October Road meets Ally McBeal, except without the lame peeks into Ally's brain).

Though Leverage is filmed in Portland, it hasn't yet succumbed to the local temptation of 'putting a bird on it.'
Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), Leverage's
resident grifter and expert on playing pretend
In one of The TV Set's funniest moments, Duchovny--whose writer character is The Wexler Chronicles' showrunner--watches in horror on the show's set as the inexperienced Harper overplays the anger during a subdued dramatic scene in which the show's hero has to mourn the death of a loved one. Kranz's humorous turn as an overemotive ham in The TV Set was the first place where I took notice of Kranz's talents, which Whedon put to great use in Dollhouse, where Kranz, who played an insane techie genius who programs "Actives" like Eliza Dushku's Echo, deftly shifted back and forth between comic relief and tragic figure.

Gina Bellman, Leverage
A comedic standout as ditzy bisexual Jane on the Steven Moffat-created Britcom Coupling, Bellman is also one of the few British actresses who can pull off an American accent, as she's proven time and time again on Leverage as Sophie Devereaux, a British grifter who moonlights as a theater actress when she's not busy grifting. In the Rashomon-style episode "The Rashomon Job," Bellman's skills with many accents besides American ones fueled a terrific running gag in which each flashback retold by Sophie's Leverage teammates offered a different take on her British accent.

The chameleonic Sophie is amazing when she pretends to be someone else (whether it's as an American federal agent or as a half-Indian businesswoman) during the Leverage team's cons. But as the Leverage pilot points out in a flashback to Sophie in Macbeth and as her teammates later note amongst themselves after they're forced to endure one of her local plays, a misguided restaging of Death of a Salesman, Sophie's terrible when she has to act onstage.

Speaking of lousy versions of Death of a Salesman...

Kevin Kline, Soapdish
In this wonderfully scored (Alan Silvestri in Perez Prado mode!) and frequently quotable 1991 farce about the behind-the-scenes turmoil and ego-tripping at the fictional daytime soap The Sun Also Sets, the funniest moment of Kline's role as washed-up former Sun Also Sets star Jeffrey Anderson takes place not during the Sun Also Sets scenes. It takes place before the unhappy Jeffrey rejoins the soap (Kline's knack for farcical rage in A Fish Called Wanda won him an Oscar, and that knack is also on display in Soapdish).

Seduced by current Sun Also Sets cast member Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty) into getting her rival Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) off the show, producer David Barnes (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to rehire Celeste's old on-screen (and off-screen) romantic partner Jeffrey, whom Celeste despises. Jeffrey has been out of the network TV radar for quite some time, so when David tracks down Jeffrey in Florida, he's floundering in a dinner-theater production of Death of a Salesman.

In an A.V. Club "Random Roles" interview, Kline, who actually appeared early in his career on a daytime soap (Search for Tomorrow), said that he identified with Jeffrey's experience in dinner-theater hell.

"That's the scene that got me when I read it. I just laughed out loud; that whole idea is so funny," recalled Kline. "'Don't call me Mr. Loman!' It was a good experience. 'This is not what I do! I'm a classical actor! I'm a serious actor!'"

The absurdity of delivering dramatic Arthur Miller dialogue while waiting tables reminds me of an unintentionally funny Revolutionary War/Civil War school play I saw when I was a kid. Because the junior high school's theater department couldn't afford mic packs, the students had to hold a mic in front of them as they spoke, so this resulted in long and awkward pauses between the dialogue as they handed the mic back and forth to each other. It was funnier than The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.

Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
I don't think I've seen a more entertaining statement about how stupid and offensive blackface, brownface and yellowface are than Downey as bad Method actor Kirk Lazarus as Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the 2008 showbiz satire Tropic Thunder. The Ben Stiller-directed film establishes that Downey's Aussie thespian is a five-time Oscar-winner who's so dedicated to his craft he'll have plastic surgeons darken his skin color for a role like Osiris the African American Vietnam War soldier, but when you see Lazarus-as-Osiris speak in a voice that sounds like it was crafted from an hour of watching clips of Danny Glover on YouTube and listening to '70s black sitcom theme songs, you think, "Really? This is Oscar-caliber acting in Lazarus' universe?" Rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a co-star in the film-within-the-film who's actually black, must think the same thing too because he's frequently offended by the Aussie's attempts at emulating black people.

Downey buried himself so well into the part of a Method actor who buries himself too well into his latest part and has trouble getting out of character that he earned an Oscar nomination in what has to be the first example of an actor receiving an Oscar nod for fake bad acting (personally, I thought Downey's even more hilarious in-character DVD commentary was more deserving of a nomination, but whatever). His transformation into the cliché-spouting black soldier, an even more clichéd Vietnamese farmer and the dude playing both dudes proves how pale--no pun intended--Tom Cruise's equally praised comedic turn as Flo Rida-loving sleazebag studio exec Les Grossman is in comparison. When you watch Lazarus-as-Osiris or Lazarus-as-himself, you barely notice any traces of Downey's normal voice or mannerisms, whereas despite being hidden under an equally huge amount of prosthetic makeup (reportedly developed by Cruise himself), Cruise didn't bother to change his voice, so you're all too aware it's Cruise. Now that's genuinely bad acting.


  1. Jimmy, this is a funny list. Gwen DeMarco was great and I'm sure it's just as fun for the actors as the viewers.
    - Maurice Mitchell
    The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr

    1. Thanks. I've been enjoying the concept art you've been posting over at your Film Sketchr blog.

  2. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.

  3. "This comment was removed by a blog administrator"? What the what?