Taking potshots at people can seem fun in the moment, but regrettable later. Especially when someone shoots back. For example, in choosing this list of the most overrated actors, I might at one time have chosen someone like Tobey Maguire, Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Gosling. At various points in the past, I was convinced that none of them could act a lick and they all proved me wrong. I could also shoot fish in a barrel, taking aim at people who are already down, like Freddie Prinze Jr., Ben Affleck, Chris Tucker, Paul Walker or Ryan Reynolds. Or Jennifer Hudson, whose flash-in-the-pan Oscar win will probably prove to be a hilarious mistake. History tends to sort things out into their proper places, which is why I ended up not choosing anyone from cinema's glorious past (I wrestled with Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, but decided against them). So in choosing this final seven, I went with people who, at this moment, feel "overrated." They're all currently working, and each could use a serious career adjustment.
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1. Ben Kingsley
Is there a more arrogant, conceited, pretentious actor alive? And why does no one ever call him on it? I wrote a nasty review of House of Sand and Fog in 2003 and got volumes of angry e-mail from his fans and supporters, but it remains that Kinglsey can barely disguise his own smugness even while acting. The last straw came during the opening credits for the small scale "B" picture Lucky Number Slevin: "Sir Ben Kingsley." If he can't even loosen up for something that silly, then what good is he? He is also a screen hog, overshadowing all his co-stars with his scenery-chewing. His one great achievement came in Schindler's List, in which he generously allowed the leads to shine, while he did marvelous things in his small, meek role. He needs more jobs like that.
Since the beginning, Hollywood studios "created" stars. Hopeful candidates received screen tests, went to talent school, dance school, voice lessons, diction lessons, etc. But in the 1990s, Hollywood grew so bold as to create new stars simply by thrusting them into the media spotlight. In 1996, to promote A Time to Kill, McConaughey turned up on zillions of magazine covers and talk shows. If you ran a Xeroxed newsletter out of your basement you could have probably landed an interview. But despite the fact that he has no personality and very little talent (his performance in We Are Marshall was the pinnacle of awful) he refuses to go away.
3. Kate Hudson
Some children of famous stars find a way to grow and develop their own personalities, away from that of their parents. Hudson, on the other hand, is very simply a pale, pale, imitation of her mother, Goldie Hawn. Hawn had a kind of sunshine goofiness, with a broad smile that hinted at something alluring just beyond her bubble-headedness. Hudson has the same smile, but it's empty. She's a staple on my yearly "worst movies" list (About Adam, The Four Feathers, Alex & Emma, Le Divorce; You, Me & Dupree, etc.). People still cling to Almost Famous as her shining moment, but that's an overpraised work, a movie about journalists that journalists adored; it's passive and blandly unrealistic. She's too arch for romantic comedy, too muted for drama, and otherwise, she's just obnoxious.
4. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger got lucky. Before Brokeback Mountain, he was on a career track to oblivion. Decades from now, nobody will ever remember The Patriot, The Four Feathers, The Order or Ned Kelly, and nobody would be able to pick Ledger out of a lineup. But then he was cast in that socially responsible epic Western, which was safe and bland and pretty and made people feel good about themselves. But at the same time, he stumbled upon a great trick, and one that hasn't been used in so long that people have forgotten it: he mumbled. Marlon Brando wowed people for years by using this trick. Apparently, if people can't understand what you're saying, they assume it's something profound. Ledger's mumbling worked so well that it didn't even matter that he obscured the film's final line of dialogue, and his momentum was such that he even earned a few rave reviews for the dim-witted Casanova, released a few weeks later. Now he has joined the Serious Brooders club (Joaquin Phoenix, James Caviezel, Eric Bana, etc.). It will be interesting to see if he can out-brood Christian Bale in the next Batman movie.
5. Ben Stiller
Stiller's shtick consists of his combination of a giant ego and crushing ineptitude. Even his funny cameo on TV's "Extras" showcased this: he brags about all the things he can do and has done, but is actually incapable of doing them (or uses them as an emotional shield). I've never understood what's so funny about this; separately I find both traits odious, and they're not much better combined. Sadly, this persona also adapts itself to the comedy formula of the "uptight" character who gets "loosened up" by an outside force (There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Along Came Polly, etc.). In his cameos, he almost always appears as a totally condescending bad guy, or at least completely crazy. In short, there's little in his personality that people can adapt to any emotional reality. But there's hope: he has directed three movies, and although two of them are duds, the third, The Cable Guy, is a fascinating and disturbingly funny look at neediness. If Stiller were brave enough to continue exploring this career path, it could be useful. Plus, in Night at the Museum, he was cast as a straight man to an army of great comedy character actors and, although a few scenes were wasted on Stiller trying to be funny by himself, it worked. He could be a great Bud Abbott, if only he would lose the ego.
6. Tom Hanks
I gained a reputation years ago for disdaining Tom Hanks, but it's more of a love-hate thing. For the first leg of his career, Hanks was a lovable comedian who made a lot of bad movies (The Man With One Red Shoe, Volunteers, The Money Pit, Turner & Hooch), but also a few good ones (Splash, Bachelor Party, Big). Every comedian goes through a period in which they realize their comedy work is not going to get them any kind of real recognition. (It's the smoldering "lifetime achievement" award instead of the blazing "Best Actor" glory.) When Big earned Hanks his first nomination, it whetted his appetite. He lusted for more. So he abandoned his comedy skills for a long series of so-called important films, socially responsible films with messages and long running times. Usually this ploy fails; audiences resist the comedian who turns serious. But for some reason, Hanks' transition caught on, and it only encouraged him. (Forrest Gump, Cast Away and The Da Vinci Code are particularly dreadful.) I maintain that all of these acclaimed films put together don't equal the power of one laugh from Bachelor Party.
A Welsh-born beauty with porcelain skin and an exotic accent, Zeta-Jones broke out at the perfect time and the perfect place as Zorro's love interest in the rousing adventure film The Mask of Zorro (1998), and she was perched on the verge of great things. But her luck proved more powerful than her taste, and (with the exception of an effective bit part in High Fidelity) she came back in one bad movie after another (Entrapment, The Haunting, America's Sweethearts, etc.). She appeared in a couple of overrated award contenders (Traffic and Chicago) and somehow charmed her way into an Oscar. But more than just uninteresting movies, Zeta-Jones is rather uninteresting herself. She doesn't particularly know how to use her beauty onscreen, or for that matter in stills. She lacks an earthy, physical, sensual quality; she's like a pristine statue. And her much-publicized and somewhat creepy marriage to Michael Douglas has further served to dampen her allure. Those few playful moments in High Fidelity, high on her own power, could be the answer.