By John H. Foote
In the spirit of Battlefield Earth (2000), Cats (2019, and Exorcist II – The Heretic (1977), this was a truly dreadful film, created by great artists, with seemingly everything going wrong. From the creation of what was obviously an ugly place to exist within, the bizarre bad performances of gifted actors, and Milos Forman’s weak direction, everything stunk to high heaven.
Czech filmmaker Milos Forman twice won Academy Awards as Best Director, as well as winning two Best Director awards from the Directors Guild of America. His films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) remain two of the finest American pictures of the last 50 years, along with several others he directed.
Hair (1979) is magnificent, bursting with the youthful energy of the sixties, a stunning musical hailed by critics, ignored by audiences, but re-discovered on Blu Ray. Easily among the best films of the year, I remain shocked it failed to find an audience.
Ragtime (1981), Forman’s bouncy, jaunty epic of early 20th century New York remains a masterpiece yet criminally underrated. Nominated for a whopping eight Academy Awards, it failed to garner nominations for a Best Picture or Director, both which it clearly deserved. Beautifully acted, written shot, scored, designed and directed this is among his finest films.
After the massive critical, financial and awards success of the extraordinary Amadeus (1984), the brilliant adaptation of the beloved a Peter Schaffer play, Forman decided to adapt another play/ novel and directed Valmont (1989). The trouble was the year before he was beaten to screens with the same story in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which was a smash with audiences and critics. Truth to be told the 1988 film moved with greater urgency, and though Forman’s film was excellent, with an excellent Annette Bening performance, the film was overshadowed and really, never found an audience.
It was seven years before we were treated to another Forman film, and when The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) was released it was greeted with rapturous reviews and solid box office. Forman and his star Woody Harrelson were nominated for Oscars, Best Director and Actor respectively, and he drew an astonishing performance from grunge rocker a Courtney Love which swept the year end critics awards but was snubbed for Oscar attention.
Another high-profile biography followed, this time the subject was controversial comic Andy Kaufman, portrayed brilliantly with eerie accuracy by Jim Carrey. Though again, the reviews were raves, the Academy ignored the film, which in hindsight was rather shameful.
Which brings us to his last film, by far the worst of his career, the dismal Goya’s Ghosts (2006) an American-Spanish co-production that topped many 10 worst lists in 2006. What happened? Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. From the tone of the film, to the laughable performances, it was, is, truly a terrible film from one of cinema’s crown jewels of film directing, Forman.
The film explores the famous painter Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) called by friends to assist in a grave misjustice. A young woman Innes (Natalie Portman) has been accused of crimes against the church, and once accused it is virtually impossible to be found innocent. Beaten, tortured, stripped naked and raped in prison, she endures horrific punishments without ever really recognizing her crimes. Asked to intervene, to lend his assistance, the infamous painter Goya tries, but makes things worse without meaning too.
Fifteen years later, France releases the prisoners of the Inquisition and Innes is turned loose, the beatings and rapes having impacted her mind. It turns out she had a child in prison, which was taken from her, and now makes a living as a courtesan. Also portrayed by Portman, the young woman happens to look exactly like Innes.
How could a great, world class director with a brilliant cast fail so miserably? After guiding actors and actresses to Oscar wins (3) and nominations (5) how could the performances in this film be so utterly dreadful?
It turns out a high member of the church Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) is the father of her child, having raped Innes in prison after encountering her naked. Returning to Spain after fleeing the justice threatened from Innes’ family, Lorenzo is stunned the child survives and now attempts to cover his hypocrisy.
In my life I have seen two truly terrible performances by great actresses, one of which is in this film. The first was a Helena Bonham Carter as a shuffling, muttering Ophelia in Hamlet (1990) directed by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring Mel Gibson as the brooding Dane. Carter was unwatchable, truly horrible yet we know she is among the most respected actresses in the English language. What went wrong?
Here Oscar winner and nominee Natalie Portman does the worst work of her career, just brutal as imprisoned Innes and her look a like daughter, Alicia. Jaw twisted, borrowing that same bizarre walk from Carter the actress ACTS up a storm but not for one second is she even remotely believable. We know Portman is blessed with extraordinary talents, she was Oscar nominated in Closer (2004), should have been nominated as a child in Leon: The Professional (1994) and Beautiful Girls (1996), before winning the Academy Award as Best Actress for her troubled ballerina in Black Swan (2010). Six years later, she surpassed that work, giving a startling, eerie performance for the ages as Jackie Kennedy in the days after her husbands’ assassination in Jackie (2016).
So, what happened?
And she is far from alone as Javier Bardem gives a strangely muted performance as Lorenzo, a pious man of God not above raping a defenceless, innocent young woman to satisfy his lust. Randy Quaid is embarrassing as the King of Spain, with only Skarsgard giving anything resembling a performance. His moments as the now deaf Goya are very good, but he is surrounded by horrific work.
Watching the film for a second time I could not find one truthful moment, instead I see a film loaded with pretension and ACTING which of course is never supposed to be seen.
A horror show in every way without a shred of humanity shown. And Miss Portman? Hopefully this is forever forgotten. It should be.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.