Movies: The Best and the Worst, by Dan Coffey | It All Starts with Plan Nine from Outer Space

With summer and its blockbuster films approaching, we might pause to ask, “What’s the worst movie ever made?” Most people would say Plan Nine From Outer Space, the sci-fi/zombie film that made director Ed Wood such a legend that Tim Burton made a tribute picture starring Johnny Depp as the cross-dressing auteur. I’m sure Plan Nine deserves ranking in the bottom five, but I’d have to add The Majestic, where Jim Carrey tries but fails to convince us he can really act, as in drama, and Showgirls, where the lead spends most of her time naked, and I spent the latter half of the movie wishing she’d put her clothes back on and shut up.

Actually, anything made by Ed Wood would make the bottom ten list, especially Bride of the Monster, where Bela Lugosi seems to be the only one unaware that he’s mugging. Others insist Battlefield Earth, the Scientology movie starring John Travolta, is positively unwatchable, but I wouldn’t know as I had the prescience to avoid it. Other people hated Ishtar, where Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman traded roles as the swinger and the nerd, but I kind of liked it. It lost even more money than Heavens Gate, which held the record for biggest box office bomb after Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s shenanigans on Cleopatra cost 20th Century Fox its back lot, and gave birth to Century City.

The year 1953 was especially bad for low-budget films made in the LA vicinity. That was when Robot Monster and Glen or Glenda were made. Robot Monster features a man in a gorilla suit with a fish tank over his head running around LA’s Griffith Park. He’s supposed to be an alien. His ray gun is a rabbit-ears TV antenna. Watching this movie in an exercise in empathy, for you feel great pity for the poor slob in the gorilla suit, trying to earn a living by scurrying on the scorching rocks, hoping for an Oscar. Glen or Glenda pretends to be a documentary about cross-dressing, but it’s a transparent excuse for Ed Wood, the director, to cross dress and play himself. He’s even a worse actor than he is a director. It’s just stupid, but harmlessly so, and watching it doesn’t make you feel bad.

I guess the movie that makes me saddest is The Jazz Singer, Neil Diamond’s remake of the first talkie. Like a lot of movies of the early ’80s, it seems like a porno movie. It makes you hate Southern California. It makes you feel like you’ve done something dirty when you watch it. The movie is built around my favorite Neil Diamond song, “Love on the Rocks,” which I turn up whenever I’m alone in a car and it comes on the radio. But I would never publicly admit to liking a Neil Diamond song, and he’s as wooden an actor as is possible to imagine. To think that it was the last film Laurence Olivier ever made! What a sad end to a great career. 

With the exception of camp classics like The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, nobody starts out to make a bad movie. Those first script read-throughs with the assembled cast are always hopeful affairs. It’s fun to muse over all the movies that make you wince, but I think the one that makes me shudder the most is Pearl Harbor, which manages to combine everything uniquely bad and false about American movies. It had a big budget, beautiful people, amazing hair styles, and it starred Ben Affleck, who isn’t a bad actor as much as a bad judge of scripts. Who knows, it probably even made money. As H. L. Mencken observed, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

I’d now like to consider the best movies I’ve ever seen. That list comes easily. East of Eden, Bonnie and Clyde, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Nights of Cabiria, Amarcord, The Bicycle Thief, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, Lolita, Bitter Moon . . . stop me before I go list crazy.

There are certain directors like Tarkovsky who are just so gifted and idiosyncratic that I’d have to say “anything made by Tarskovsky” should be on that list, though I don’t think in good conscience I could recommend any one of his snail-paced, abstract oeuvre to most people.

Fellini never made a bad movie, because, like Tarkovsky, he was true to his Muse. And unlike many directors, he had a muse, one who helped him make intelligent, gifted, humorous, compassionate films that were as delightful as they were insightful.

Let’s hope that when the stupid movies of summer retire to DVD, real cinematic art will again raise its beautiful head to surprise us when we least expect it.

You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.

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