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15 Actor Passion Projects That No One Wanted To See

Updated February 2, 2021 861 votes 172 voters 29.3k views15 items

List RulesVote up the actor passion projects that should have been left unmade.

Wealth and fame are just two of the benefits that come with being a Hollywood movie star. Another perk for bankable actors is the leverage to get their vanity project movies produced. Would Battlefield Earth get made if John Travolta wasn’t one of the most popular actors in the world? Would The Postman ever see the light of day if Kevin Costner didn’t have an Oscar-winning past to back up his vision?

The short answer is probably not. The scripts for both of those films were not very good. Producers only banked on those stories because of the star power Travolta and Costner had during the height of their Tinseltown fame.

Some of these passion projects ruined careers, while others were just tiny bumps in the road. A couple of these vanity affairs have even gone on to find an audience and become cult classics. Vote up the passion projects that you think should have never been made.

  • Following Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta became one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s. His career stalled a bit in the '80s, then came roaring back in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction. After a string of '90s hits and misses, Travolta's career took another step back at the tail end of the 20th century.

    As one of the faces of Scientology, Travolta was able to get funding for his passion project, an adaptation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's 1982 science-fiction novel Battlefield Earth. The film adaptation hit the big screen in 2000. The response from critics and audiences was immediately devastating, with many calling it one of the worst movies ever made. Indeed, it had few redemptive qualities. Everything from the script to the acting to the special effects to the cinematography was roundly mocked.

    The movie made just under $30 million worldwide on a $73 million budget. It won the Razzie for "Worst Movie of the Decade." The sci-fi disaster's screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, accepted the Razzie and went on to make a lengthy apology that started with the following:

    Let me start by apologizing to anyone who went to see Battlefield Earth. It wasn't as I intended - promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn't really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those.

    Travolta continued to work following his passion project's epic fail. However, his star power definitely dimmed. He never regained his post-Pulp Fiction swagger. In fact, his name will forever be linked with one of the biggest cinematic disasters ever.

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  • Will Smith came up with the idea for After Earth while watching television. His vision eventually evolved into a science-fiction story that takes place in the year 1000 AE - or 1,000 years after the human race left planet Earth because of pollution and global warming. The plot features a father and his teenage son who crash-land on Earth. The teenager must save his injured father on what has become a hostile planet. 

    Smith developed the movie as a star vehicle for his 14-year-old son, Jaden. The actor sold his post-apocalyptic vision to M. Night Shyamalan to direct. The high-budget vanity project also brought in Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith's brother-in-law, Caleeb Pinkett, to serve as producers. 

    The $130 million Smith-family affair hit the big screen in 2013 and was instantly met with harsh criticism, scoring 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics lambasted pretty much every detail, including a plot that was generally regarded as boring and lifeless.

    "The problem is that the film is chockfull of clichés and stymied by production design and CG effects that look as if the worst of the Star Wars series was being devoutly copied," wrote a critic from GO London

    Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian was even harsher:

    He's done it again. M. Night Shyamalan has done it again. Again. Done it. Again. He has given us another film for which the only appropriate expression is stammering, gibbering wonder that anyone can keep making such uncompromisingly terrible movies with such stamina and dedication. This one is a sci-fi drama of such incredible boredom that your synapses will be turned to Bostik, featuring a triple-whammy of abysmal acting, directing, and story.

    Two years later, Smith called his experience with After Earth "the most painful failure" of his career, adding, "That was a valuable lesson for me."

    In 2013, Smith's career was already a step down from his 1990s glory days. The epic awfulness of his vanity project certainly didn't help reestablish his star power. Jaden focused more on his music career after 2013. He hasn't starred in any other high-budget feature films since.

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  • Madonna is one of the most successful pop stars in music history. Director Guy Ritchie is a contemporary auteur who made his reputation with feverish British crime comedies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Madonna, who showed she could act in Evita and A League of Their Own, had the desire to remake Lina Wertmüller's classic romantic comedy Swept Away with her own husband behind the camera.

    There are two immediate problems with 2002's Swept Away. The first is that Ritchie isn't a rom-com director. The second is that Madonna is not a versatile actor. Swept Away calls for an actor who can handle comedy, romance, and drama. Madonna was pretty good in a Evita because she could overact in the role of Eva Perón. Amber Leighton is not Eva Perón, and Madonna couldn't hide behind the musical theater of Argentina's celebrated first lady.

    Swept Away scored just 5% with Rotten Tomatoes critics. Madonna's acting talent became the focal point of nearly every critic's scorn. Ritchie, who also wrote the screenplay, received his fair share of outrage as well. Critic Gil Jawetz wrote, "Apparently willing to scuttle his own career, Ritchie writes and directs a film in which he does everything possible to make his own wife look ugly, rotten, and despicable."

    Even Madonna's rabid fan base didn't show up in theaters. The romantic comedy made less than $600,000 at the domestic box office against a $10 million budget. Swept Away nearly swept the Golden Raspberry Awards. It won for worst film of the year, worst remake of the year, worst actress of the year (Madonna), worst director of the year (Ritchie), and worst screen couple of the year (Adriano Giannini and Madonna). The failed romantic adventure is the last time Madonna headlined a film.

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  • Don't remember Bobby Darin? He's the singer-songwriter behind the 1950s hits "Splish Splash," "Mack the Knife," and "Beyond the Sea." How a biopic of the somewhat-forgotten crooner came to the big screen starts with an early-2000 lunch meeting between Darin's longtime friend and manager Steve Blauner and Oscar-winning movie star Kevin Spacey. 

    Spacey told Blauner that his Hollywood passion project was to write, direct, and star in a film about Bobby Darin. Spacey also wanted to sing on the soundtrack. According to an article published in The Los Angeles Times, Blauner reportedly told Spacey something like, "You're too old, you shouldn't sing, and you're out of your mind to direct."

    By the end of their lunch meeting, Spacey convinced Blauner that despite being in his 50s, he could play Darin in his 20s and 30s. Fast-forward to 2004. Beyond the Sea is released to mixed reviews. Some critics enjoy the biopic of Darin's life, while others don't buy Spacey's performance. 

    Critic Mick LaSalle was especially harsh in his review:

    Beyond the Sea is jaw-droppingly awful, a misbegotten and ill-conceived vanity project, in which Spacey - as writer, director, and star - takes an amazing showbiz story and kills it dead. The casting of Spacey, the movie's reason for being, is also its central flaw. He's wrong for the role in every possible way. In a black toupee, he looks nothing like Darin and more like a middle-aged woman. It's a project that didn't call for a green light but rather an intervention.

    Beyond the Sea flopped at the box office. It earned around $8.5 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. Spacey would not direct another feature-length film.

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