You hear the phrase "working actor" thrown around in Hollywood, but it's almost never used in a strictly complimentary sense.
Oh, if you were a nobody and had forged your way to the point that you could pay all your bills on acting gigs alone, the term "working actor" would certainly be a badge of honor. But if you're already famous and someone calls you that, it means that you probably can't afford to be selective, maybe because you've made bad financial choices that have left you working paycheck to paycheck, or you can be selective but simply choose not to be. It means that you're an actor for hire, either out of necessity (that guy in the first sentence of this paragraph) or indifference to how you're perceived (Nicolas Cage). You'll appear in anything, regardless of whether it dovetails with your sensibilities or represents you in a way consistent with the persona you're cultivating.
"I just like to work" is the phrase you imagine being put forth by people like Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy, to name three guys whose choices have always told me that they aren't too snooty about which jobs they'll accept. And while the first two are genuine stars, someone like Levy probably would be a much poorer man today if he weren't gleefully appearing in every straight-to-video American Pie sequel ever made, of which there are currently 37.
Either way, it's still "work" -- the thing you have to do, rather than the thing you want to do. At least that's the connotation of the word "work" in most contexts.
But the ones that always seem the most puzzling are not the movie stars, who you might think are addicted to the spotlight, or the character actors, who need to eat. The puzzling ones are the ones you might think of as "thespians," as actors who are always making good choices and clearly always thinking about whether their choices reflect who they see themselves to be. Sometimes even they appear just to be taking work because it's their job and they need to keep on doing it.
The reason I'm writing about this is I saw two movies on Friday night that featured actors I would describe in that way -- conveniently enough, one of them in a Nicolas Cage movie. The first movie I saw in the double feature was James McTeigue's The Raven, which featured acclaimed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as the prospective father-in-law to John Cusack's Edgar Allan Poe. The second was the aforementioned Cage movie, Stolen, directed by eternal hack Simon West. The cast includes none other than John Huston's son, Danny, an actor who always seems so damn regal that you might confuse him for a Brit.
Both movies were terrible, immediately sinking to the lower depths of my 2012 rankings. And both films certainly seemed beneath those two actors. Gleeson can probably be forgiven a little more readily than Huston, because at least The Raven seemed like a possible prestige movie. Huston couldn't have had any illusions about the quality of Stolen. Nicolas Cage's name alone should have tipped him off to the likelihood that it was a soulless enterprise.
But actors like to act, and Brendan Gleeson and Danny Huston are both actors.
Which got me thinking about other very good actors who have appeared in very bad films -- and not just films that should have been good, but went bad in the execution. Of course, when just looking at the script, it can be hard to tell the difference.
So I decided to go through the lower third of my Flickchart and see the great actors who stick out of those bad movies like sore thumbs. Which produced the following, in no particular order:
Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company (2002, Joel Schumacher). The same way that Cage's involvement in Stolen should have been a tipoff to Huston, whipping boy Shumacher's involvement in this film should have steered Hopkins far away from it. There's a strange incongruity between Hopkins and Chris Rock as well, but it was fair to hope that Rock's success on stage and TV would finally translate to film for once. Didn't happen.
Helen Mirren in Shadowboxer (2005, Lee Daniels). Speaking of incongruous casts, how about Mirren starring alongside Cuba Cooding Jr., Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo'Nique? This was of course well after Gooding was somebody, but well before the other two were. It's also before Daniels proved he was somebody with Precious. You'd think Mirren would have done a double-take if someone asked her to appear as a hitwoman involved in an interracial, intergenerational romance with Gooding, but she apparently didn't.
Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West (1999, Barry Sonnenfeld). Branagh hasn't always made Shakespeare, and he's definitely shown some impulses toward crossing over at different times in his career (as a director as well, if you consider last year's Thor). But this was as little like the Bard in quality and subject matter as you can possibly imagine. Of course, the quality problem wouldn't have been known when Branagh was cast.
Martin Landau in B.A.P.S. (1997, Robert Townsend). Considering that he was only three years removed from winning an Oscar for Ed Wood, there seems to be no explanation why Landau would lower himself to appear in this "comedy" (it's not funny at all) about two vulgar black women whose every aspect of their personal appearance is ghetto fabulous-outrageous. I do like the open-mindedness Landau's choice displays -- a sense of fairness that the movie does not remotely mirror in its portrayal of these two awful stereotypes.
Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud in Caligula (1979, Tinto Brass). The fact that this epic disaster was co-financed by Penthouse magazine should have given some indication what its pretensions toward artistry truly were. Yet all three of these esteemed thespians came on board for one of the most pornographic (not to mention shockingly violent) mainstream movies ever made. I could have chosen to give Mirren her second whammy of this list by including her name with the others above, but I don't think she was established enough yet for us to have expected selectivity from her.
Ben Kingsley in Bloodrayne (2006, Uwe Boll). A rather famous example, at least in the sense that every single negative review of the movie (and almost all of them were negative, many extremely negative) finds space enough to mention Kingsley's inexplicable involvement. Boll is considered just about the least reputable hack making legitimate movies today, so Kingsley's involvement indeed makes one wonder. If he were going to take this, he really should have taken Christopher's slasher movie on The Sopranos.
Nicole Kidman in Just Go With It (2011, Dennis Dugan). I don't know if this really works, because Kidman has made plenty of bad career choices. But at least many of her bad choices have been in genres that at least made sense for her. Her appearance in an Adam Sandler movie simply left me gobsmacked. (Also, I don't know that I think of her as really a "thespian." The terms "great actor" and "thespian" are not quite interchangeable, the latter term indicating more of a tendency to gravitate toward classical subject matter.)
Gary Oldman in The Unborn (2009, David S. Goyer). All of these interchangeable supernatural horror flicks have some kind of legit actor in the role of the priest. I just never expected it to be Gary Oldman in any of them.
Frances McDormand in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay). Oh Frances. Frances Frances Frances Frances Frances. (Again, maybe not a "thespian," but FOR SURE someone who should have known better. I wonder if the Coen brothers have some kind of relationship with Micheal Bay, because Coen regular John Turturro also appears in these movies and might reasonably have been listed alongside Frances, except that she should know better more than he should. John Malkovich is also in it, so maybe these three made a pact to collectively surrender their souls.)
William H. Macy in Cellular (2004, David R. Ellis). And another Fargo cast member shows up in a decidedly odd place. I actually thought Cellular was approaching halfway decent, one of those films that manages to get slightly better as it goes along. In fact, it may have just been the arrival of Macy later in the story that gave it its halfway legitimacy.
Since that's exactly ten movies and since I am now starting to approach "halfway decent," that's probably a good place to stop.
I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, though. Keep in mind that I limited myself to movies I've actually seen, as well as movies that I thought were definitely failures. I'd love to hear some of the other examples you have to add.