The Best Movies You've Never Seen About Washed-Up Actors

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week's column shines a light on films featuring actors whose careers have become equally obscure and forgotten.)

Quentin Tarantino's 10th film is currently in theaters, and its inexplicable attitude towards Bruce Lee aside, it's a warm, affectionate, and extremely entertaining Hollywood daydream. It's an ensemble film, but at its center sits a character named Rick Dalton — an aging actor a few years past his greatest success, still struggling as both a person and an artist. Actors are a fairly common character-type in movies, and Rick belongs in the subset of washed-up has-beens desperately hanging on in pursuit of relevance.

He's in good company too as Hollywood and its cousins have gifted film fans with numerous gems on the subject. From Sunset Boulevard (1950) to Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and from Theatre of Blood (1973) to JCVD (2008), it's a character and a story we never tire of seeing brought to life on the screen. Movie stars are icons beyond our reach, but people struggling in their everyday lives and careers? Why, they're just like us!

All of the films mentioned above are worth seeing or re-watching, but I'm here to recommend some great examples you probably missed. Keep reading for a look at six great lesser-known movies about washed-up actors.

The Comic (1969)

Once upon a time, the world loved the man known as Billy Bright. He was a star of silent movies known for his comedic stylings and masterful pratfalls, but the advent of "talkies" left him forgotten amid the din. The shift in filmmaking isn't solely to blame, though, as Billy's behavior is revealed to be the true source of his downfall.

2011's The Artist remains everyone's favorite Best Picture winner (insert snark symbol here), but it was far from the first movie to explore the extreme challenge faced by silent film stars in a world that now demanded sound and dialogue. Director/co-writer Carl Reiner pairs his commentary on Hollywood's forgotten stars with a more personal tale about a man who is his own worst enemy. Billy can't get out of his own way, and it's his own pride and misbehavior that sinks him faster than the theatrical format change.

One of the film's big draws is the cast, and it starts with Dick Van Dyke in the lead role. He's always been a physical performer, and he uses those skills beautifully here to sell both Billy's talent and his frustrations. Reiner co-stars as the man's friend and agent, Steve Allen appears as himself, and Mickey Rooney shines as the only friend to remain by his side through it all. As is probably clear, the film is more of a drama than a comedy, but it shows well the truth about the two being opposite sides of the same coin.

The Comic is available on DVD.

Opening Night (1977)

Myrtle Gordon has known fame and success as an actor, but both are growing sparse in her later years. She's keeping her talent and popularity alive, though, with a new Broadway play, but what should have been an easy performance takes a hit when a young fan is killed before her eyes. The image, and the subsequent "hauntings" by the teenager, leave Myrtle in a downward spiral, and as opening night approaches it's unclear if she'll survive to see the curtain rise.

I won't pretend to be the biggest fan of John Cassavetes' filmography as director — although I flat-out love Gloria (1980) — as his films too often meander past my point of interest, but this evolving and engrossing tale of an artist in turmoil somehow cracks through to deliver a compelling experience. It's well-crafted and moves at its own pace, but the anchor holding our attention through it all is Gina Rowlands. Wife and frequent collaborator to Cassavetes, she's mesmerizing here as a woman so far out of control that she eventually circles back to find her way again.

While understandably off-putting to some viewers, the film's lack of explanation or answers works in its favor. Myrtle is a woman with issues — numerous, endless issues — but while we see the alcoholism and erratic behavior we're not made privy to the true core at the center of it all. Her struggle frustrates, but when triumph comes it thrills and delights despite the near certainty that it's only temporary.

Opening Night is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Fedora (1978)

Barry Detweiler is a film producer who's seen far better days. He's reminded of what once was when he visits a star from decades past, a woman who was also once his lover, and discovers her strange and sad secret. The height of Fedora's success saw her talent improve even as she appeared to look ever younger, but one day she disappeared to an island refuge. It's there where Barry finds answers, and with them comes the truth of her self-inflicted tragedy.

Legendary writer/director Billy Wilder previously tackled Hollywood's mistreatment of its former stars with the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, but while that film became a classic this one faded into its own ironic obscurity. The film feels "older" than it is with classic style and fairly opulent production design filling the screen alongside Wilder's occasionally biting dialogue. It was Wilder's penultimate feature, and while Barry and Fedora represent Hollywood's forgotten old guard the film's critique is aimed squarely at Tinseltown's treatment of youth.

Fedora's secret involves shame, botched plastic surgery, and a daughter with an uncanny resemblance to her mother, and the film's revelations highlight an industry focused so heavily on image that artists are too often pushed into making unwise choices to stay looking young. Today's powerful talents can utilize CG — thanks Lola Visual Effects! — but the primary method for most remains surgery and the refusal to accept the natural process of aging. It's not a new conversation, obviously, but it's one used to engaging, melodramatic effect here with the great William Holden as our guide.

Fedora is not currently available.

Flashbacks of a Fool (2008)

Joe Scot's best days are behind him, but his bank account allows him to stay busy with alcohol, women, and the occasional acting gig. He's not getting the kinds of roles he wants anyway, but his focus changes when he hears news that a childhood friend has died. Flashbacks reveal relationships cut short, and a return to the present sees Joe realize it might not be too late to change.

Daniel Craig headlines this light but affecting British drama as the adult Joe left adrift by his own actions and choices. Does it feature a scene with Joe literally adrift in the ocean as he begins to reflect on his life? Sure, but that on the nose imagery gives way to the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film, and it's here where viewers get a glimpse of the events that shaped the boy into the man. It's an effective character piece in that regard as we see the aspects of his life that led him to a life both as an actor and a selfish prick.

While the flashback holds most of the film's heart and character, it's at its strongest in the present with Craig. He's just a compelling presence, and while it's easy to believe the narcissism and ego he displays in the first act it's just as easy to buy into his redemption in the third. More time with Craig would have benefited the film and character greatly, but even as it stands there's more than enough here to make a watch worthwhile.

Flashbacks of a Fool is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

A Serbian Film (2010)

Milos spent several years as a successful adult film actor with numerous productions to his name, but he's slowed down some in part to spend more time with his wife and young son. The desire to provide as much as possible for them draws him back into the porn world, though, and when he gets a lucrative offer from an unknown filmmaker it's too good of a payday to pass up. Unfortunately.

I'll just say this right off the bat — you probably shouldn't watch this movie. That's not a challenge as odds are you'd absolutely hate it anyway, but while no film is for everyone this film is the epitome of that phrase. It's explicit in its sex and gore, it's nihilistic and indifferent in its tone, and it crosses multiple lines of taste and decency. Seriously.

Of course, for some of us this is also something of an under-appreciated gem celebrating the blackest of black comedy. The filmmaker may claim otherwise, but this is not a movie layered in meaning or heavy with commentary. This is an absurd, ridiculous, and over the top film about the danger of moving backward at any cost. The in-film filmmaker is attempting to explore atrocity in a rare time of peace in their country, and in turn, Milos gives too much weight to past success leaving his attempt at replicating it to end in tragedy. It's extremes are, well, extreme, but in addition to being at times brutal they're also ridiculous. The mildest example? Milos kills a one-eyed man by "stabbing" his eye-socket with his erection. I mean, come on.

A Serbian Film is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Guidance (2014)

David Gold once ruled the airwaves as a child star on television, but roles haven't come as easily as an adult. Desperate to make ends meet he fudges his paperwork and resume and applies for a job as a high school guidance counselor. He's hardly cut out for the job, but his bad behavior and refreshingly honest way of speaking to the teens soon makes him indispensable (to the kids anyway).

Writer/director Pat Mills plays the lead here and does so in large part from experience. He started his own acting career as a child actor on Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That on Television, and while he's worked in the industry as an adult it's more often than not been behind the camera. His film is something of a rarity for this sub-genre (of sorts) as it doesn't quite come from a place of anger or cynicism at where the character has ended up. David doesn't quite accept things quietly, but his focus and troubles come from other areas.

David's dealing with issues beyond his lack of adult stardom, and it stems in large part from his struggle to accept his sexuality. The end result is an acerbic man-child whose lack of maturity equals a lack of a filter, and while faculty and parents don't appreciate it the kids find his candor and humor a welcome change of pace. It's a fairly familiar setup, character specifics aside, but Mills does great work keeping both the energy and humor moving as his character comes to terms with life.

Guidance is available to stream and on DVD.

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