The history of cinema is rife with cringe-worthy examples of miscasting, from John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror to the across-the-board insanity of The Bonfire of the Vanities. But usually the poor casting is just one of a bad film's many problems. The films in this list would have all been substantially improved had they not been sullied, derailed, or even ruined by one lousy actor.
- SOFIA COPPOLA, The Godfather Part III. As you may know, Francis Coppola had cast Winona Ryder in the pivotal role of Michael Corleone's daughter in his highly anticipated sequel to the Godfather saga, but she dropped out due to "health reasons". Rather than recasting the part from a pool of thousands of worthy, talented actresses, Coppola took a chance on his untrained, nervous young daughter Sofia, presuming that he could direct her to greatness. He failed, she failed, the film failed. Pappa Coppola's career never recovered, but Sofia had the last laugh, becoming a celebrated filmmaker in her own right.
- MARTINE CAROL, Lola Montès. Carol was the Brigitte Bardot of her day, the sex symbol of postwar France. That did not mean she knew how to act, as evidenced by her dull-as-dishwater starring role in the legendary Max Ophüls' visually stunning 1955 drama about the 19th actress/lover/adventurer Montès (actually Montez). I'm not going to claim that this mistake cost Ophüls his life, but he did die less than two years later.
- WILLIAM HOLDEN, The Bridge on the River Kwai. This film is acknowledged as a classic, and I won't argue with that. But Holden's hammy 1950s wise guy affectations do not stand up to the excellent, realistic performances by Alec Guinness and a mostly British and Japanese cast. Holden's part was written for Humphrey Bogart, who likely would have been more believable but his studio wouldn't let him out of his contract.
- TIPPI HEDREN, Marnie. Considered by Alfred Hitchcock aficionados as either the last film of his "golden age" or the first of many disappointing features in his late career, this already iffy drama about a kleptomaniac is sunk by a floundering Hedren, Hitchcock's discovery and infatuation. It's fair to say that Hedren was never really a good actress, and after the film flopped, so did her nascent stardom.
- LEONARDO DiCAPRIO, The Aviator. Somewhat inexplicably, Martin Scorsese has been casting the baby-faced DiCaprio in nearly every picture he's helmed of late, whether the star is right for the part or not. Thus, whereas Leo did well as a young Boston cop in The Departed, he was out of his league as he tried to capture the incredibly complex essence of Howard Hughes.
- DIANA ROSS, The Wiz. Whether The Wiz would have been a great musical with another woman in the lead role is debatable, but there are enough good moments in it – namely, those with a still-dark-skinned Michael Jackson and a surprisingly effective Nipsey Russell – that it surely would have been more enjoyable had any appealing young actress played Dorothy instead of the frightened-looking Ross, who at 34 was way too old for the part, and whose acting at any rate was plain awful.
- MICKEY ROONEY, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Even devoted fans of this classic comedy/drama will concede that the one thing that wrecks it is Rooney's broad, offensive portrayal of Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor. Even if you could look past the racist stereotype – and how could you? – it's an irritating performance. If overrated director Blake Edwards had cast an actual Asian actor and treated the character with more sensitivity, this movie might have been ageless. Instead, it's sorely dated.
- NORAH JONES, My Blueberry Nights. There's something a lot of films on this list have in common: not just a bad actor, but the misguided, arrogant decision by a director to cast somebody who was not up to the task, perhaps convinced that he could coax a great performance out of absolutely anybody. This is likely what happened with the talented Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, who, for his first English-language film, cast singer Jones in the lead. She is as wooden as they come, and she prevents My Blueberry Nights from being anything more than a curio. Too bad.
- KEANU REEVES, Dangerous Liaisons. This list would be incomplete without at least one Keanu movie. Bram Stoker's Dracula is usually singled out as the worst example of Keanu-casting, and would make a fitting bookend to this list, but the fact is, Dracula had two horrid performances, from Reeves and Winona Ryder (which suggests that Ryder might not have been good for Godfather III). In contrast, Reeves was the lone loser in Stephen Frears' otherwise outstanding Dangerous Liaisons cast. His stiff work withers next to the titanic achievements of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, and others.