Debate Club: Top 5 self-aware performances in otherwise terrible blockbusters

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Mar 21, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Today we look at the most self-aware, self-amused ridiculous performances by serious actors (or serious artists) in big-budget, ridiculous genre movies. A lot of times, actors are just cashing a check in a smaller role of a massive blockbuster, a way to pay for their private, artier projects down the line. (John Turturro has made a whole career out of this.) These are our favorite examples of big stars hamming it up in front of the widest audience.

Tom Petty, The Postman (1997)

Kevin Costner's costly, ambitious dud tapped Tom Petty to play the comic relief in a small role as the mayor of a post-apocalyptic city. Except… is Tom Petty actually playing himself in the movie? There's a hint that that's the case: Costner's character seems to recognize him and says, "I know you — you're famous," to which Petty replies with a grin, "I was once, sorta."

Like most of The Postman, that doesn't make any sense, but Petty's stoned, smiling performance at least compensates a little. He seems to be enjoying his own private joke in his few scenes, and it's the only time that this somnolent movie ever feels remotely lively or fun.

Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

Since winning an Oscar for 2003's Monster, Charlize Theron has emerged as one of Hollywood's most versatile and risk-taking actresses, giving nervy performances in everything from Young Adult to Mad Max: Fury Road to Atomic Blonde. But in 2012's deeply dopey Snow White and the Huntsman (and its equally bad 2016 sequel), she's happy to just lean back and camp it up.

Theron plays the evil stepmother, icily plotting to kill Snow White (Kristen Stewart) so that she can remain the fairest in the land. The character is incredibly vain by design — anybody who spends that much time in front of the mirror would have to be — and Theron luxuriates in the character's self-absorption, essentially doing a parody of the high-end Dior commercials she starred in around that time. Any number of Theron performances demonstrate her fire and vulnerability; in the Huntsman movies, she flaunts self-mocking star power.

Alan Rickman, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

When Alan Rickman was cast to play the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, he was riding high after enjoying his Hollywood breakthrough as the supremely evil Hans Gruber in Die Hard. But his role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which won him a BAFTA award, required some fine-tuning. Rickman later admitted that the script was "terrible" and that he enlisted two close friends, comedian Ruby Wax and playwright Peter Barnes, to help him punch up his lines.

The 1991 blockbuster, which starred an unconvincing Kevin Costner as Robin Hood, needed all the help it could get, and you can sense that Rickman knows he's better than the wretched material he's been given. As a result, the revered actor (who died in 2016) delivered one of his hammiest and most winking performances, portraying Robin's nemesis as a snide villain who considers himself far wittier and more sophisticated than the dolts he's stuck with. The Sheriff may be the bad guy, but he isn't wrong in that assumption.

Anthony Hopkins, Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Hopkins seems utterly baffled – and not-so-secretly amused – to be smack in the middle of Michael Bay's fifth (and maybe worst) Transformers movie, and his bafflement is sort of infectious. Hopkins plays the delightfully named 'Sir Edmund Burton,' whose role is half to try to explain the movie's impenetrable plot to a disinterested Mark Wahlberg and half try not to break into hysterics talking about things like "Robot Dementia." That he is able to contain his composure is sort of amazing, particularly when he unleashes a particularly gnarly "duuuuuuude." To quote his robot butler: "Of all the Earls I've served, you were the coolest." Indeed, dude.

Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element (1997)

Where to start with this one? Maybe the hair? Probably the hair. It starts a third of the way across his head and then just sort of lops over the other side, the world's only bangs that start on the right side of the skull but land solely over the left eye. But then there's the buck teeth. And the weirdly yokel accent. (Why is that his accent? What part of future South Carolina is he from?)

His supervillain says he just wants to destroy things to keep the world moving, which, you know, we guess is as good a reason as any. Oldman says he "can't bear to watch" The Fifth Element, and when you go that over the top, one can see why you would have a hard time watching it again 20 years later, particularly when you're an Oscar winner. But there is beauty in the inexplicable. And there is no better way to describe what Gary Oldman is doing in The Fifth Element than that: Inexplicable.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.