It’s film awards season, which means movie lovers and Academy/Screen Actors Guild/Nickelodeon-watching kid voters alike have been busy sorting out the best films from last year.
Many of the most hyped-up contenders of this year’s (or any) film awards season are truly worthy of the honors they seek. Whether it’s because of their unique, high-concept plot, sublime acting performances, perfectly executed action thrills, or some other form of excellence, they deliver on their promises.
And then you have the other films up “for your consideration”—and those that really, really thought they would be. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re tailor-made to give the appearance of depth, typically through shamelessly grandiose performances, clunky attempts to tackle Big Important Issues, or both. (And possibly a fat suit.) It’s these try-hards for whom the insult “Oscar bait” was first invented.
But in the midst of all this excellence, whether actual or ruthlessly engineered, it’s worth sparing a thought for the supposed lesser films and actors with no hope of taking home a tiny statue this year. These are the movies released on a random Friday in January—the film industry’s de facto “dump month”—or sent straight to streaming jail without even a half-hearted promotional campaign. Or better yet, made completely outside the Hollywood system by amateurs with little more than a camera and a handful of wacky ideas (and the results to show for it). Because if you’re willing to wade through the muck of these kinds of films, you may be pleasantly surprised by what they can teach us—not about badness, but instead about what passes for “good.”
For my money, there’s no better teacher than the cult film The Room, a 2003 cinematic catastrophe I find so fascinating that I edited a whole book of essays about it. Written, directed, starred in, financed, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, an untrained filmmaker of ambiguous Eastern European origins and means, The Room was supposed to be a deeply affecting story of a love triangle gone wrong. That was the intention, at least. The result, however, is a movie that is legendarily terrible: terribly shot, terribly written, and, most infamously, terribly, terribly acted.
Without even addressing the plot, or lack thereof, it’s easy to tick off the nearly infinite problems there are with The Room. Continuity is non-existent: one character announces, willy-nilly, that she has breast cancer, only for it to never be brought up again; another character disappears completely without explanation, only to be replaced by an entirely different character (also without explanation). Multiple gratuitous sex scenes (four!) go on for several minutes, in a movie that’s barely an hour and a half long. And, most memorably for fans, the dialogue ranges from utterly banal (“If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live”) to strange (“Keep your stupid comments in your pocket!”) to downright nonsensical (“My Lisa’s great when I can get it”).
It’s easy—so, so easy—to dismiss The Room as nothing more than a perfect and hilarious example of something “so good it’s bad.” But if you let yourself dig below the (extremely rough) exterior, you’re left with a cultural artifact that reveals the deep-seated pretensions of the film industry. To wit: In its laughably transparent attempt to be taken seriously, it’s an accidental but deeply cutting parody of Oscar bait.
Take the performance of its star, Wiseau, playing the movie’s protagonist, Johnny. It isn’t merely big; it’s gigantic. “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Johnny wails during a mundane argument with his fiancée, gesticulating wildly for even greater melodramatic effect.
Minus the “Lisa,” this is an exact rip-off of a famous James Dean line in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean was one of Wiseau’s idols, and Wiseau’s performance can be seen as part homage to the Hollywood legend, part improvement attempt. Throughout the movie, Wiseau also channels his other idol, Marlon Brando, and his performance as the volatile Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, in particular.
Thanks to Wiseau’s unforgettable performance (and, to be fair, the performances of everyone else), The Room has become the biggest cult movie since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s why fans flock to monthly screenings around the country and the world to gawk, smugly, at Johnny’s impassioned but utterly unconvincing cries. And yet, with The Room, Wiseau is doing, albeit very sloppily, what so much Oscar bait is accused of: trying really, really hard to convey pathos in an attempt to manipulate the viewer into feeling something.
Lacking even the most basic ability to develop plot and character, Wiseau goes all in with a brute force display of emotion. Like most shortcuts, the approach falls utterly flat. The louder Johnny shouts, the more he contorts his face to really show his heartache, the more the audience can’t help but laugh.
Unfortunately, the performances of Dean, Brando, and many recent, talented award nominees can’t just be mimicked for effect. There’s an alchemy to a truly moving performance that goes beyond good writing and acting skill (not that The Room remotely possessed either of those). The viewer usually knows when they’re being had.
It is exactly this Grand Canyon-sized gap between Wiseau’s intention (depicting a riveting domestic drama) and his execution (creating a surreal, seemingly incoherent work of possible outsider art) that makes the movie so “bad,” and thus so compelling. In this respect, The Room is like any other film that aimed so high but landed so low. Just much more so.
There is one important difference, though. Wiseau’s utter sincerity, no matter how absurd the final result, imbues The Room with a kind of authenticity that sets it apart. “You want to be fake? Not me. I hate fake stuff,” he told his crew during filming, according to The Disaster Artist, the 2013 memoir about the making of the film by The Room co-star Greg Sestero (and the inspiration for the 2017 film, also named The Disaster Artist). Indeed, Wiseau had so much faith in the emotional honesty of his work that when The Room was first released, he rented a Laemmle theater in the San Fernando Valley to show it for two weeks—the minimum run required for a movie to be considered for an Oscar.
If recent Oscar acceptance speeches are any gauge, more than a few actors (and directors, writers, and producers) believe they are creating something that transcends the mere label of “entertainment.” Some of them are. But more often than not, their goal is ultimately the same as Wiseau’s: to signal to the viewer that the movie they’re watching is important. Maybe even worthy of a top-flight award.