Whatever happened to…?
They arrive with a flourish, grace the pages of the movie magazines under their ‘one to watch’ and ‘hot new talent’ columns, their movies grab all the attention and then… they become a lesson in the mechanics of how little control an actor has over his or her career.
If you pick a) the wrong project, b) the right project with a bad director (or script or editor) or c) the right project with the right talent but bankrolled by a studio that decides to dump it with no support, you can be yesterday’s new just as fast.
So we’re celebrating and commiserating with performers who sat on top of the heap as their first big project stormed the box office or the awards nights and who are lucky to headline a D-list straight to video erotic thriller nowadays.
1. Natasha McElhone
This English beauty launched a three-gun sortie on cinema as the love interests in The Devil’s Own (1997) and The Truman Show (1998) and the buffer in a sea of machismo in John Frankenheimer’s searing, clever action thriller Ronin (1998).
Then things just went quiet. After a humdrum romantic role in LA love letter Laurel Canyon (2002) and George Clooney’s wife in Stevhen Soderbergh’s ravishing Solaris remake (2002), McElhone made another seven or eight films you’ve never heard of, let alone seen (it’s fitting her CV contains a 2006 film called Big Nothing). TV fans will of course know she’s found her niche as the ex wife of David Duchovny’s horny, self-loathing writer Hank Moody in Californication.
2. Lou Diamond Phillips
La Bamba (1987), the story of Ritchie Valens was as sweet and energetic as it was dramatic and well acted, and fresh-faced Phillips was the stand out as the 17-year-old star (then 25). After the worthy but mostly-ignored teacher-as-saviour drama Stand and Deliver (1988) alongside Edward James Olmos, Phillips enjoyed a few years as part of Hollywood’s late 80s brat pack along with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen in films like Young Guns (1988).
Then he just disappeared. His CV is solid and regular with action, crime or supernatural thrillers but the only places you’ve seen him since are a smart role in Courage Under Fire (1996) and a bit part in Soderbergh’s Che: Part Two.
3. Paul Mercurio
It’s easy to forget, but Australia’s current standing as a legitimate producer of commercial films was launched on the back of this hunky dancer in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992). Along with love interest Tara Morice and enduring talent in the late Bill Hunter (who’d also join Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding), a whole new movement would make contemporary Australian accents and locations familiar on the big screen.
All eyes were on Mercurio to see what he’d do next. Both projects – stage show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and big budget bondage comedy Exit to Eden with Dana (China Beach) Delaney – failed to live up to expectations, and Mercurio was yesterdays news in no time.
He did another handful of films nobody saw and is now a regular fixture among the judging panels of Australia’s reality TV talent circuit.
4. Alicia Silverstone
Once occupying top spot on the young and pretty list, the wide-eyed, honey-blonded Silverstone demanded attention as the psycho teenage seductress in The Crush (1993), but it was her performance as Cher in 1995’s cellphone-generation-Shakespeare Clueless that cemented her stardom.
What went wrong? In three words, Batman and Robin – the one with George Clooney, the Starlight Express trappings and the rubber nipples. Like Chris O’Donnell her career never recovered, but Silverstone ironically came off Joel Schumacher’s 1997 turkey with some clout, forming her own production company to steer the films she wanted to make and star in. First out of the gate was the twee (but trying to be cool) kidnap love story Excess Baggage (1997), starring a then-unknown Benicio Del Toro.
Even though Silverstone continued working regularly the path’s gone steadily downhill, leading to second fiddle roles in Queen Latifah’s Beauty Shop (2005) and (the horror) Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004).
5. Christopher Lambert
The US born, Switzerland-raised action hero impressed in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) before turning into the coolest cat on the planet in 1986 speaking the immortal words ‘there can be only one’ in Highlander. In hindsight he was as close to a 10th century Scottish warrior as Ramirez (Sean Connery) was to James Bond, but it didn’t stop a role in Luc Besson’s avant-garde thriller Subway (1985).
He tried to follow it with weighty historical drama in the forgotten The Sicilian (1987) and if Highlander II (1991) hadn’t been such a creative mess Lambert’s career might have been different. His only subsequent high profile roles were the Australia-shot prison sci-fi thriller Fortress (1992) and Mortal Kombat (1995). But while he next showed up looking considerably wrinklier playing a small part in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), he’d made over 15 years worth of straight to video tosh.
6. Jason Scott Lee
You’d think nobody with a role in Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991) would have a bright future ahead of them in the film industry, but it was his role as martial arts legend Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) that bought namesake Lee to the attention of Hollywood. His kinetic sense of movement and ever-ready, megawatt smile made him a magnetic personality so nothing can really explain what went wrong for him.
He was a similarly strong presence in the highly anticipated but kind of ropey Rapa Nui (1994), the Kevin Costner-produced story of Easter Island, but no other projects enjoyed the same profile. Last seen as a samurai-like ping pong player in Dan Fogler vehicle Balls of Fury (2007).
7. Ewen Bremner
The case for Spud’s gradual demise isn’t so much that he’s disappeared from view as much as he needs to fire his agent for the schlock he’s appeared in.
It’s true he wasn’t the most distinctive character in Danny Boyle’s zeitgeist-establishing Trainspotting (1996), but having set both the director and Ewan McGregor as Renton on their respective stratospheric rises, the film could have done much more for Bremner.
He didn’t exactly emerge from auspicious circumstances, with a bit part in Stallone turkey Judge Dredd (1995), but of everything he’s done since, you’ve only seen him in two kinds of films. The first is cockney, smart mouthed Brits serving as background comic fodder in films like Snatch (2000) and Death at a Funeral (2007), and the second is overcooked characterisations in overblown American blockbusters like Pearl Harbor (2001) and Fool’s Gold (2008).
8. Tom Hulce
As Larry in Animal House (1978) Hulce didn’t have much to do – he was simply the fulcrum for much bigger personalities like Bluto (John Belushi) to orbit.
It was his portrayal as classical music’s enfant terrible in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) that blew through the awards landscape and conquered the box office. Hulce played Mozart as a prodigal but childish force of nature, his story the perfect metaphor for how great art can come from very flawed human beings.
A great role in Ron Howard’s Parenthood (1989) is his only subsequent role of note, even though he’s had blink-and-you’ll-miss parts in films as diverse as Will Ferrell ‘smart’ comedy Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and Doug Liman’s risible actioner Jumper (2008). Obviously keeping his interests broad, Hulce is currently helping produce the Green Day stage show American Idiot.
9. Linus Roache
Nothing says awards bait like ‘gay priest’. Roache’s turn as father Greg was kind of stiff and insipid if you watch it again today, but actors with less talent have become stars on the coattails of similarly political subject matter.
He was the romantic lead in The Wings of the Dove (1997) opposite Helena Bonham Carter, but whether he already knew his star was fading or not, his next project was John (Tropfest) Polson’s Siam Sunset (1999). After that Roache found himself locked in straight to video purgatory until his next big screen credit thanks to one Christopher Nolan, playing Bruce Wayne’s murdered father in 2005’s Batman Begins.
10. Djimon Hounsou
If there’s a part in your movie for a wise, soft-spoken, benevolent, authoritative and elderly black man, you have to cast Morgan Freeman – it’s the law in Hollywood. If he’s African-born, you have to cast Djimon Hounsou (though you can ask for approval on Chiwetel Ejiofor if he’s not so senior in years).
Amistad wasn’t Hounsou’s first film, but as the slave Cinque in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historical epic about America’s cruellest labour practice he was the heart and soul of the film as the human face of slavery. The scene of his staring reverently at his own hands might still bring a lump to your throat even if it’s a bit overwrought as a freedom metaphor.
After that he did well as Juba, the sometime Robin to Maximus’ (Russell Crowe) Batman in Gladiator (2000), but just browse through his resume since then – The Tomb Raider sequel (2003), Queen Latifah’s love interest in Beauty Shop (2005 – but of a theme developing there) and the head government spook in limp rag mutant thriller Push (2009). All’s not lost though. Salvation might come in the shape of the forthcoming Conan spin-off as sorcerer king Thulsa Doom.