This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Self Indulgent Vanity Movies, but merely some of the most egregious examples that sprang to mind. To qualify for this list, a film must: 1) be primarily about gratifying the whim of its star(s) over, say, such elements as plot, character, or dialogue; 2) be about glorifying the star to a nakedly transparent, downright embarrassing degree; and 3) possess few redeeming qualities, or none at all. Note that these bad films are not made by people at the bottom, but those at the top, those with so much power there is no one to check it. Usually the film will have either a weak director (cowed by the star) or the star will direct the film himself. In either case, in these examples, it’s the same as having no director.
Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)
Milton Berle’s only true starring vehicle after having become Mr. Television — and it’s a weirdie. Essentially, Berle plays a character who is indistinguishable from himself: America television’s top tv star and a man so obnoxious you want to throttle him. What makes it weird is that it’s such an unflattering portrayal: he’s manically ambitious, screws over his friends, dumps women when better ones come along, and basically drives everyone away with bad jokes. Appearing in this film, released at the top of his fame, seems like almost some sort of penance, a masochistic martyrdom of some sort. The thing is, Berle was a pretty good actor when given the chance to demonstrate it. After his tv career wound down, he made a pretty heavy push to appear in films, usually only landing supporting parts. But that’s okay, he does enough scenery chewing in this movie for fifteen films. Those he upstages include Bert Lahr as an older competitor; Virginia Mayo, Ruth Roman, and Iris Adrian as some of the women in his life; Alan Hale, Grace Hayes, Wally Vernon, Max Showalter, et al.
Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)
I wanted to hate on Sinatra far more than this, believe me, but to my astonishment, when I went down his list of film credits, what I saw was mostly a lot of excellent movies, about half of them musicals and half of them dramas. But there’s plenty to hate about these two films. In fact, it might plausibly said that the Rat Pack ethic is what spawned nearly every other bad film on this list. Oceans 11 broke the sound barrier in terms of not supplying any of the ingredients of a good movie, under the presumption that the documentary presence of the film’s stars would be more than sufficient. The entirety of its breathtakingly amoral plot is that its “heroes” (Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) rob five major Las Vegas casinos. That is the WHOLE plot. No one has moral misgivings. No one gets caught. There are no consequences. It’s a movie for moral bankrupts and sociopaths. While the movie was being shot, the stars picked up extra dough performing in the casinos at night, and did a lot of drinking, gambling, and womanizing both on camera and off. That is the extent of the thing. I cannot tell you how much I despise this lazy, self-indulgent non-movie. I’ve not bothered watching the remake or its sequels on the assumption that they operate on the same plane. I can’t imagine why anyone would watch it.
Robin and the 7 Hoods gets on my nerves for different reasons. By contrast, this one has a plot, but it irritates because of its meta relationship to the real life stars. It seems to owe something to Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which Sinatra was to star in but walked out of, and both of them build on Guys and Dolls. Peter Falk appeared in both Robin and the 7 Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. The former film also has Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby (replacing Lawford, who was now banned from the Rat Pack) and Edward G. Robinson. This film galls especially as an exercise in what I call “hoodlum inoculation”. Sinatra, a guy with a thousand REAL Mafia ties, overplays a cute, cuddly, stereotyped “gangster” in order to prove that he really isn’t one in real life. That’s what every minute of the film feels like to me. Let’s make this fantasy as unrealistic as possible; let’s make organized crime appear as unbelievable as we can. I find myself particularly irritated by the hoodlum voices they all (particularly Sinatra and Peter Falk use) They don’t HAVE to use those voices. They are perfectly believable as gangsters with their natural voices.
Are there Rat Pack movies I like? Yes! Some Came Running, Sergeants Three and Four for Texas are all pretty palatable because the actors are playing characters, not demanding that you bask in the sunshine of their existence.
Jerry Lewis in the late 1960s
Staking out my position on Lewis’s movies is always very difficult (not that anyone cares!) The majority of people outright hate him and dismiss him out of hand. That’s not me. I almost always find him enormously interesting, though almost always equally mortifying and irritating. And while I think it can be plausibly said that ALL of his film performances and outings as a director are self-indulgent to put it mildly, new horizons were broached between the years 1966 and 1972.
To be fair, when Lewis entered his 40s and middle age, he was confronted with a serious problem. How to age his character, who was essentially an adolescent? About half of the films of this period deal with it by abandoning the slapstick character altogether. Unfortunately, the other Jerry, the “real” Jerry comes off as an unlikable creep, essentially variations on Buddy Love, his jerky alter ego from The Nutty Professor. So there are all these essentially unwatchable “sophisticated adult” comedies: Boing, Boing (1965); Three on a Couch (1966); Way, Way Out (1966) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) which appeal to almost nobody. And then there are other ones like The Big Mouth (1967), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front (1969), where he reverts to form a bit more as a performer but is now 42 years old. The latter one breaks new frontiers of cinematic self-indulgence. I seem to recall one scene where he holds the same shot for many, many minutes while he does a seemingly endless number of double-takes — perhaps 15. (That is a lot of double takes). Of course, none of us has yet seen what is reported to be his masterpiece of self-indulgence, his sad-clown-in-a-concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), although, as we reported here, there is now hope that we will see it in our lifetimes. He retired from directing for a time, but not before giving us:
Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)
Well, Jerry never did get back together with Dean for a film, but he did collaborate with his fellow Rat Packers Sammy and Peter for a pair of pictures. I wrote about those unseemly spectacles here.
Viva Knievel (1977)
I wrote about daredevil Evil Knievel and his massive influence on American popular culture in the 1970s here. Viva Knievel is a bizarre exercise in megalomania in which Knievel plays HIMSELF as a crime-solving superhero who also clears up people’s personal problems and heals a crippled child while giving out action figures of himself and doing death-defying motorcycle jumps. At the climax, he gives an anti-drug speech to kids in which he swears (yes, uses curse words) several times. When the film was in the can, Knievel and his cronies beat the hell out of its promoter with an aluminum baseball bat, and that hurt the film somewhat at the box office.
The Greatest (1977)
The Greatest goes Viva Knievel one better by being an “autobiography” of its star Muhammad Ali — starring Ali, playing himself. Once you’ve done that, what is there left to do?
Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), et al.
Burt Reynolds was America’s top box office star for at least part of the 1970s, and did he let it go to his head? Nah! The thing is, Reynolds has proven himself a good actor on many an occasion when he puts his head and heart into it. And it’s kind of hard (for me anyway) to pinpoint precisely when he went completely bad. There are many films in which he plays good ol’ boys or football players or the like, and they’re not all bad. The catalyst for descent appears to have been Hal Needham.
Hal Needham had been the stunt coordinator on several Reynolds pictures: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and — most relevantly — W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975). In 1977, he was finally given the keys to the vehicle as it were and was allowed to direct Smokey and the Bandit, which became a monster hit. Now, in no way, shape or form do I object to a stunt man becoming a movie director on principle. No true lover of silent comedies ever could. In the silent days, that very transition happened all the time, the most natural thing in the world. Certainly it’s as natural as a choreographer becoming a film director and that happens frequently, too. Now, I really liked both W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and Smokey and the Bandit when I was a kid, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re both the same movie. Almost character for character, plot point by plot point. It’s just that the latter film was bigger and splashier, and got all the publicity and box office. And that’s fine. That’s how most directors start out, imitating a previous movie. The problem is that then he went on to lots of other movies.
For me, the Cannonball Run movies are the nadir. They make Oceans 11 look a like a towering mountain of integrity. Both the Cannonball Run movies are essentially just a bunch of stars (some big, most of them minor, people who were known for being on a sit com for a year or two, ten or twenty years prior) driving in an illegal cross country car race and having mishaps along the way. The “characters” are somewhere on the order of the “characters” teenagers play in the school talent show, or guests play when they show up to a Halloween party. I would tell you who’s in it and what they do, but it’s too embarrassing. (But I will take this opportunity to point out Jamie Farr in the Arabian Oil Sheik costume in the poster above). And Cannonball Run II is worse by an order of magnitude. They should have called it Cannonball Run to the 10th Power.
Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)
Tops as a songwriter, musician and singer, Paul McCartney was easily the worst actor of the four Beatles, trailing behind the other three by a good distance. He also had a fairly dismal track record as a cinematic mastermind (the critical disasters Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be were both his ideas and were produced largely under his supervision). Still…when there’s no one around to tell you you can’t do something…I guess you go ahead and do it. Especially when you’re one of the richest men in the world. He wrote the screenplay for Broad Street himself, a film in which he plays himself (poorly) and nothing happens except that the master tapes for his next album are lost or stolen, and he doesn’t precisely look for them, or track them down so much as occasionally wonder what happened to them. There are lots of songs, but in between songs this is all that happens.
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Bruce Willis seems to have gotten the mistaken idea from the success of Moonlighting that he could make an entire movie out of fourth wall breaking asides, ad libs, smug self-referential in-jokes and getting bonked on the head. It is relentlessly irritating, and was co-written by Willis. Willis plays the titular safecracker. Danny Aiello is his equally unendurable sidekick. Skip it! Even skip reading any description of it.
Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997)
High and giddy off the smash success of Dances with Wolves, the now all-powerful Kevin Costner seized his newfound power to play a self-glorifying savior figure in no less than two big budget post-apocalyptic action films — and to direct both of the sprawling, expensive messes himself. The photo above was carefully chosen: the end of The Postman depicts a town full of people gazing worshipfully at a statue of Kevin Costner. He seems somewhat chastened by the failure of these films. While he continued to produce his own vehicles, he only directed one more, the much less ambitious and better realized western Open Range (2003).
Beyond the Sea (2004)
Look at that poster. “The Voice, the Passion, the Confidence”? “The chutzpah” is more like. Look at how that woman is gazing at him! Kevin Spacey himself is obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless, so it kind of stands to reason that it would be his life’s ambition to play the obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless Bobby Darin. Leaving aside the mean criticism that he’s too old for the part, it’s simply torture to watch Spacey do all these smug, sickening musical numbers in between the endless paint-by-numbers bio-pic scenes about the ups and downs of a rich singing star. But it’s really all on screen only so that we can know that Kevin Spacey can sing — it’s evident in every frame.