17 acting careers ruined by a single role: ‘Overnight I lost everything’

Most movie stars can survive a flop or two. But then there are roles that completely upend an actor’s career, leaving them out of work or forever changed in the eye of the public.

It’s not really possible to talk about Faye Dunaway’s career without mentioning her notorious performance in Mommie Dearest, for instance. Or to google Brandon Routh in any other context than “what happened to Superman Returns star Brandon Routh?”

Often this is unfair – women historically tend to bear the brunt of career-shaking backlash, and there are typically many different reasons why movie stardom hits a wall. But whenever an actor does seem to drop off the radar, it’s usually a specific film that is to blame.

From Meg Ryan’s unfairly maligned erotic thriller to the body-swap comedy that prevented Judge Reinhold from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars, here are 17 films that derailed the fortunes of their stars single-handed.

Released in 1981, the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest – starring Faye Dunaway and adapted from a harrowing bestseller by Crawford’s daughter Christina – painted the star in a less than flattering light. Namely, as an unhinged tyrant prone to chewing up her daughter as well as the scenery of every room she was in. The latter, in fairness, was more Dunaway’s fault – and it promptly took a pick-axe to her leading-lady roles. She drew the worst reviews of her career, along with a Worst Actress Razzie, and Dunaway was so embarrassed by the film that she rarely spoke about it again. In a series of rare comments made in 2016, Dunaway said the film “turned my career in a direction where people would irretrievably have the wrong impression of me,” adding: “That’s an awful hard thing to beat. I should have known better, but sometimes you’re vulnerable and you don’t realise what you’re getting into.”

Expectations were high for the release of Showgirls in 1995. It marked a reunion between Basic Instinct’s director and screenwriter – Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas, respectively – while many assumed the film’s star, the former Saved by the Bell actor Elizabeth Berkley, would be shot into the Hollywood stratosphere much like Sharon Stone after Basic Instinct. Then people actually saw Showgirls. While the film’s reputation has (rightly!) turned around in the decades since – along with appreciation for Berkley’s broad and undeniably mesmerising performance – the film’s dismal initial response cratered Berkley’s fledgling movie career practically overnight. “There was so much cruelty around it,” she said in 2020. “I was bullied. And I didn’t understand why I was being blamed. The job as an actor is to fulfil the vision of the director. And I did everything I was supposed to do. No one associated with the film spoke up on my behalf to protect me. I was left out in the cold and I was a pariah in the industry I had worked so hard for.”

When Shannen Doherty left the Nineties teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 in 1994, she had aspirations to launch a movie career. She had, after all, starred in a number of hit movies before going to TV, including the 1988 teen classic Heathers. But her choice of project – Kevin Smith’s slacker comedy Mallrats, alongside then-unknowns including Ben Affleck and Jason Lee – was a box-office flop, and as the biggest name in the cast she took the blame. “It died and so did my film career,” she said in 2024. “People literally thought that I was carrying the movie so [because] it was a box-office failure, it was completely on me. There was no film career after that, which was a little brutal.”

Now best known for putting his sunglasses on and then taking them off again in the long-running CSI: Miami, David Caruso was at one point positioned to be a bonafide movie star. After a high-profile dispute with the show’s producers over pay, he’d left the cop drama NYPD Blue in a blaze of negative publicity in 1994 with designs on film stardom. But his two 1995 star vehicles, the cop actioner Kiss of Death and the erotic thriller Jade, crashed and burned. The latter, for which he was paid a $2m salary, was the kind of expensive disaster that few could climb out from under, let alone an actor who’d already burnt so many bridges in Hollywood. “When Jade came out and did $4m at the box office, the town went silent,” Caruso said in 1997. “I could have taken my telephone and my answering machine and thrown them both in the dumpster.” That year, he slunk back to TV.

No one is exactly complaining about The Godfather: Part III killing Sofia Coppola’s acting career, let alone Coppola herself – she never had a love for acting, and was only pulled into the movie by her father Francis at the last minute because a number of other actors were unavailable. Cast as Michael Corleone’s doomed teenage daughter Mary, Coppola saw her performance widely panned upon the film’s release on Christmas Day in 1990, with one newspaper describing her as “hopelessly amateurish”. “It was embarrassing to be thrown out to the public in that kind of way,” Coppola said in 2020. “But it wasn’t my dream to be an actress, so I wasn’t crushed. I had other interests. It didn’t destroy me.” Coppola only acted twice more – once in an indie film called Inside Monkey Zetterland and again, sans dialogue, in a not-so-indie film called Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Instead she became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated female directors, responsible for films including The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. What a happy ending!

Rupert Everett was, for a time, a real anomaly: an out gay actor who Hollywood really wanted to invest in. But then he made 2000’s The Next Best Thing, a catastrophic romcom about a gay man and his female best friend (an unsurprisingly miscast Madonna) having a baby together, and things went awry. “Career death is rather like real death, so it gives you an opportunity to see what real death feels like,” he said in 2017. “One minute, you’re careering round the corridors of power, and everybody’s going: ‘That’s a fabulous idea.’ The next minute, you’re still careering around but you’re like the Canterville Ghost: everybody’s walking right through you and you’ve died, and you didn’t realise.” The film was a critical and commercial disaster, taking out both Madonna’s acting career and Everett’s mainstream, name-above-the-title Hollywood career in one fell swoop. “It blew my new career out of the water and turned my pubic hair white overnight,” Everett wrote in his must-read 2004 memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

With all due respect to the Back to the Future star Lea Thompson, it remains somewhat baffling why she agreed to star in a sci-fi movie in which her character apparently has sex with an anthropomorphic extra-terrestrial duck. Released in 1986, this was a superhero movie for kids, by the way. Howard the Duck remains one of the most infamous disasters of Eighties cinema, with Thompson later suggesting that while she appreciates the film’s cult notoriety today, it did have professional side effects. “In the course of a year, I was in the biggest hit [Back to the Future] and the biggest bomb,” she said in 2022. “So that probably destroyed my film career. Even though I did some good films after that, it was really difficult.”

One of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history, the 1995 pirate movie Cutthroat Island helped curtail Geena Davis’s career as a leading lady and briefly derailed the career of director Renny Harlin. But worst off was the film’s star Matthew Modine, who seemed set for leading-man stardom before Cutthroat sank. In 2016, the actor said that he made the error of reading a review of the film the morning of its press junket. “It was horrible! And then I picked up another one of them and it was more horrible! And then I thought, “There’s got to be one that’s good.’ And it was just one after the other that was horrible, horrible, horrible. And I went downstairs to have breakfast and I felt like everybody in the café was looking at me going like, ‘Oh my God! The walking dead,’ you know?” He added: “It hurts to get kicked like that really hard. And I think in some ways it kind of damaged my career.” Modine has always worked – notably in The Dark Knight Rises and Oppenheimer – but hasn’t led a major studio movie since.

An Eighties staple, Judge Reinhold seemed set to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood comedy, particularly after major supporting roles in hits including Beverly Hills Cop and Ruthless People. But his run of star vehicles bombed, with 1988’s Vice Versa – in which his character swapped bodies with his 11-year-old son – his critical and commercial nadir. “That was really the end of my highfalutin Hollywood career,” Reinhold said in 1992. “That’s when the phone stopped ringing.” Wounded, he left Los Angeles for a small town in New Mexico, and was forced to confront his past poor behaviour on film sets. “It was an extremely painful thing for me – to recognise and take responsibility for the damage that I’d done,” he explained. But he even expressed gratitude for his career downturn. “If Vice Versa had become a success, I might not have dealt with any of this and I’m not sure where I would be now.”

Somewhat inexplicably, the winner of the very first season of American Idol was contractually obligated to star in a musical romantic comedy film. For Kelly Clarkson, who won the series before achieving global superstardom, that meant appearing alongside the show’s runner-up in From Justin to Kelly, a 2003 disaster that remains her one major acting role. “It was a very miserable time of my life,” she said in 2019. “I can get over the fact that it’s silly and cute – that’s not embarrassing to me at all. I just don’t find it very cool that somebody makes you do something that is not your passion and you don’t want to do.” Clarkson begged to be let out of her film contract, to no avail, but did manage to convince her team to release her first single – “Miss Independent” – before the film’s release. “I think that literally saved my career,” she said. “The fact that [“Miss Independent”] was successful, I think that overcame what the movie was.” Clarkson hasn’t acted in a live-action film since, but has lent her voice to animated movies including The Star and Trolls World Tour.

Gossip has always surrounded the first “talkie” starring the silent movie superstar John Gilbert, who found fame as a handsome – and quiet – romantic lead. Released in 1929, His Glorious Night cast Gilbert as a military officer who falls in love with a princess. On paper, it bore close resemblance to the films that made Gilbert a box-office draw, but audiences were reportedly bothered by the actor’s “squeaky voice”, which had previously been concealed in his silent era. Gilbert’s family have long disputed this, however, claiming that his career was sabotaged by studio boss Louis B Mayer – who disliked him – and that his voice was actually fine. Whatever the truth, Gilbert’s career declined in the wake of the film. He died at the age of 38 following a battle with alcoholism.

The pop band – think a manufactured Beatles – never recovered from their surreal 1968 film endeavour Head, which members of the band went so far as to suggest was a deliberate ploy to ruin them. A deliberate stream-of-consciousness movie not unlike the Spice Girls’ sole Hollywood vehicle Spice World, Head sees the band – playing variations on themselves – rebel against their corporate overlords in search of creative freedom. Head was a massive flop, both soiling the band’s fortunes as musicians and as aspiring movie stars. Band member Michael Nesmith once compared the movie to a “murder” of the band, something engineered by their creator Bob Rafelson – who’d go on to direct films including Five Easy Pieces. “By the time Head came out, the Monkees were a pariah,” Nesmith said in 2012. “There was no confusion about this. We were on the cosine of the line of approbation, from acceptance to rejection…and it was over. Head was a swan song.”

It’s quite miraculous that the maligned sequel to Grease is a mere footnote in Michelle Pfeiffer’s long career – her leading man Maxwell Caulfield, who was positioned to professionally sky-rocket à la John Travolta, wasn’t as lucky. The 1982 film was a box-office bomb, and while Caulfield eventually bounced back on TV, his major movie career flatlined in an instant. “I didn’t work for practically two years, I was stone cold dead in Hollywood,” he said in 2022. “I had a three-picture deal going into that movie with Paramount and it died a death. They’d given me this huge break and so they wanted to stitch me up for two more movies of their choosing as long as they wanted to make them. But because the film was so rush released, the film came and went and they didn’t exercise their option.” He added that the experience was a bit like getting past the velvet rope in a nightclub, “but then you just gotta try and stay in the night club and not get thrown out the fire exit.”

In the aftermath of Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey seemed to have Hollywood in the palm of her hand. But then an incident on the set of 1992’s yachting drama Wind convinced her to get a nose job, and her career was never the same. As she recalled in her 2022 memoir, Grey was filming Wind when the movie’s cinematographer asked her about “a bump” on her nose. It was the latest in a number of remarks about her nose, which led her to finally get it “fixed”. But she was floored once she saw what her surgeon had done. “The way the nose was oriented on my face was all wrong,” she wrote. “This nose looked truncated. Something about the proportion was off. The placement.” Her co-stars no longer recognised her, and reshoots for Wind – which were ordered after she’d had surgery – had to be shot in a specific way to conceal her new facial feature. She didn’t act in another studio film for eight years in the aftermath. “Overnight I [lost] my identity and my career,” she wrote in her book. “I spent so much energy trying to figure out what I did wrong, why I was banished from the kingdom. That’s a lie. I banished myself.”

After the release of Bryan Singer’s Superman reboot Superman Returns in 2006, the actor Brandon Routh – who’d been chosen from thousands of auditionees to play the Man of Steel – never quite managed to build a movie career. Other than small roles in Scott Pilgrim vs the World and the comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, he has largely acted in TV, with Superman more of a hindrance than an asset. In 2020 he revealed that he struggled in the wake of what should have been his star-making role. “Thankfully, I didn’t lean on drugs or alcohol,” Routh reflected. “Superman Returns did not pan out the way I thought it was going to [or] the way everyone around me thought it was going to. I really had to come to terms with a lot of that. There was no sequel. The movie was widely well-reviewed. People liked the movie. It made almost $400m worldwide but that wasn’t enough and it was a very slow fizzle out over the possibility of a sequel over the next two/three years.”

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