Putting Hollywood’s biggest bombs back together

Editor’s Note: How did bad films become so beloved? Read this and trace their history.

Story highlights

Big-budget films can pick up particular scent of failure

Budget, gossip, politics all become fodder for criticism

But movies aren't always as bad as they're portrayed

How did bad movies get such a following, anyway?

CNN  — 

It was once considered “the worst musical extravaganza in Hollywood history.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s 1975 film “At Long Last Love” was ripped by critics and flopped at the box office. The movie, starring Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds in a throwback to 1930s romantic comedies, was criticized as much for its cost – $6 million, a fortune at the time and reputedly four times its original budget – and the gossip surrounding Bogdanovich and Shepherd as it was for its cinematic drawbacks. (Even Bogdanovich admits that the film needed more fine-tuning, like a Broadway musical undergoing out-of-town previews.)

Bogdanovich on hits, flops and surprises

No matter: The “bomb” label hung over the work like a bad smell.

Over the ensuing decades, it earned a sarcastic write-up in the Medved brothers’ compendium of bad film, “The Golden Turkey Awards,” received a withering 1 1/2-star review in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide and seemed doomed to a life on late-late shows and third-tier cable channels.

But, somewhere along the way, the film was resuscitated – and reconsidered.

The Fox Movie Channel ran it, Netflix streamed it, Bogdanovich hosted a theatrical screening and just last month it came out on Blu-ray. The new release, which benefited from edits at the hands of a studio archivist and Bogdanovich himself, has earned praise from some quarters and grudging recognition from others.

It turns out that “At Long Last Love,” once reviled as “At Long Last Lousy,” is quite charming – no “Singin’ in the Rain,” perhaps, but certainly not “one of those grand catastrophes that make audiences either hoot in derisive surprise or look away in embarrassment,” as Time magazine said in its 1975 review.

In these days of bloated tentpoles and equally hyperbolic coverage, it’s worth keeping in mind that “bomb” doesn’t always mean “dud.”

A short history of bad movies

“If you judge a movie whether or not it’s good or bad based on box office – and a lot of people do, unfortunately – it’s a very weird correlation,” says Drew McWeeny, who writes about and reviews movies for Hitfix.com. “Unless I have a stake in the movie, why would I care what it made? I think there are a lot of movies that have taken their lumps because they weren’t hits.”

‘They’re waiting for you’

These days, there’s a lot of pleasure taken in bad movies.

There are film festivals devoted to them. The Golden Raspberry Awards honor the worst each year from Hollywood. And, certainly, there are countless blogs that parse, debate and reassess films that, in the pre-Internet and pre-video age, would have been assigned to the celluloid scrap heap if not for the intercession of devoted film fans.

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But there remains a special place in Hollywood Hell for the big-budget, big-star mess. They breed whispers of money shoveled into bottomless pits. Of bickering among stars, directors, producers, staff and studio chiefs. Of hothouse romances, breathtaking ego trips and questionable creative choices.

By the time the film is finally released, the critics and public are ready to gnaw like a shark in chum-filled water. Occasionally the conventional wisdom is turned on its head – as with “Jaws” and “Titanic,” two waterlogged films that became box-office and critical successes – but more often, everybody piles on until the film seems well and truly dead.

But for films that don’t succeed, do too much money and too much publicity automatically equal terrible film? After the tide goes back out, it’s not at all certain that many so-called “bombs” deserve their much-mocked fates.

“Cleopatra,” the 1963 extravaganza, became infamous for the torrid love affair between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as the monumental problems in mounting the film, which took three years to make. (Among other things, it was slowed by Taylor’s emergency tracheotomy and terrible weather.)

The final result was actually well-reviewed, nominated for nine Oscars and winning four. It was the highest-grossing film of the year. But today, it’s still a synonym for “debacle,” thanks to the gossip and its rumored $45 million budget (more than $300 million in today’s money).

Similarly, “Heaven’s Gate,” the 1980 Michael Cimino drama, spawned tales of directorial excess and drug usage. The theatrical release, which initially ran 219 minutes, was greeted by poor reviews and terrible box office. The film cost more than $44 million and grossed less than one-tenth of that.

Bodganovich was a victim of such chatter during “At Long Last Love.”

The film was intended to be a happy crowd-pleaser, a lighthearted nod to Ernst Lubitsch comedies and Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. But there were whispers: a focus on budgetary issues, gossip about Bogdanovich’s then-scandalous love affair with Shepherd and the sense that the director – a film scholar himself – had grown arrogant.

In the midst of a friendly call to Bogdanovich, reviewer Judith Crist asked how the movie was coming. Pretty good, Bogdanovich replied.

“It better be good,” Crist said. “They’re waiting for you with the knives out.”

The film never had a chance, the director recalls.

“The picture had to be almost as good as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in order for us to get good reviews,” he says.

‘Home video changed the landscape’

Video has helped restore some luster to movies once quickly and brutally dismissed.

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There was a time, a generation ago, when “bombs” would have been forgotten, doomed to occasional television airings or revival theater showings. (You kids can look up “revival theater.”)

Now you can rent movies, record movies, watch movies at your leisure and do so over and over again.

“I do think home video changed the landscape,” says Dan Herbert, a film professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s easy now to return to movies, and that wasn’t always the case. Home video built up this more eclectic breadth of taste and options.”

All this watching lends itself to our current pop culture moment, when nothing is really gone and every opinion is up for grabs.

“Taste has really been fragmented,” says Herbert. “We use movies more and more to distinguish ourselves and our personalities and our identities. People who celebrate bad movies are using it to differentiate themselves from the mass and saying, ‘I don’t agree with the standards of evaluation.’ “

So films once buried get revisited. It’s happened before – the French New Wave directors first made their mark as essayists who re-evaluated genres and filmmakers before entering the business themselves – but now there are armies of bloggers who can watch a film on video and announce that it got a bum rap the first time around.

“There’s much more of a participatory sense to film conversation now, in terms of a critic puts something out and people immediately start to respond,” says Hitfix’s McWeeny. He makes a distinction between a critic and a guy with a random opinion – a good critic provides context and knowledge – but it all becomes part of the stew.

So, want to defend “Ishtar”? (McWeeny believes it’s underrated.) Think “John Carter” doesn’t deserve its rep? (You have company.) Want to make the case for Adam Sandler, auteur? (Hey, the French pulled it off with Jerry Lewis.)

The fact is that the movie-loving world has plenty of room, including plenty of room for second opinions. Even if the first wave of opinions – the one involving initial reviews and box-office performance – aren’t all that great.

There’s just something about movies that engage us, says McWeeny.

“We are fascinated by our relationship to movies, by the fact that we don’t always understand why they work on us the way they work on us,” he says. “I’d love to get past being embarrassed by a film you liked. There’s a lot more interesting conversations to be had about film when we look at why people attach themselves to them.”

Hollywood bombs reconsidered: What we missed