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The Gatekeeper of Hollywood’s Worst Movies

As an antidote to Oscar backslapping, John J. B. Wilson started handing out Golden Raspberry Awards to the year’s worst in movies 36 years ago. He’s still got plenty to say about the industry’s corniest work.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

All week, The Ringer will be celebrating Good Bad Movies, those films that are so terrible they’re endlessly amusing and — dare we say it? — actually good. Please join us as we give the over-the-top action movies, low-budget romance thrillers, and peak 80s cheese-fests the spotlight they deserve.

The Golden Raspberry Awards began in publicist John J. B. Wilson’s Los Angeles living room in 1981. Coming up with an entertaining diversion for everyone attending his annual potluck Oscar party, Wilson gave out his own DIY awards — but for the worst in film. Thirty-six years later, the Razzies are still loose and low-budget (send Wilson $40 by PayPal and you’re a voter). But the industry’s most petty awards show is also an institution in its own right, with some thick-skinned honorees coming to collect their ignominious trophies in person in a packed auditorium, and more than a thousand voting members signing up to declare the season’s movie losers.

Wilson is a genuine enthusiast who sees his irreverent ceremony as good-natured, ego-deflating counterprogramming to the backslapping Academy Awards. If anyone knows a Good Bad Movie from a plain bad movie, it’s him, so I called Wilson to talk about the best of the worst of the film industry.

I’ve struggled with the concept of a Good Bad Movie as opposed to just a bad movie. Do you see a meaningful distinction?

I see an incredible amount of movies, and I have to say, I appreciate a bad movie that’s entertaining in ways it never intended to be. Where the acting is so out there that you fall off the couch giggling. Like with one of my very favorites, Mommie Dearest, the makeup, the wigs, the costumes, the art direction, everything in that movie is nuts. I get a certain twisted kind of satisfaction when I’m entertained at the expense of the people who made this thing. I’ve always found it interesting that Faye Dunaway supposedly will not only not discuss Mommie Dearest — she will have you thrown out of the room in an interview situation if you bring it up.

So is Mommie Dearest your all-time favorite bad movie?

I have several. That movie is the perfect example of the kind of bad movie I enjoy most, because it had every credential. Dunaway had just won an Academy Award; Frank Perry was a highly regarded director. The book, I believe, sold 4 million copies, which is one of the biggest best sellers ever in the history of printing. You had every reason to think you were gonna see a good movie. And then it just explodes and disintegrates right in front of your eyes. That kind of experience is like bliss. That’s like the ultimate movie experience. It’s a very ludicrous film, but an enjoyable one.

I was reading about the awards you handed out in the ’80s, and while most of the movies seemed very obviously bad, I was really surprised when I found out that The Shining received several Razzies.

As I recall, [Stanley] Kubrick was nominated as worst director. We get crap about that all the time. The very first year, the voting group was fairly small. It was people I had invited to an Oscar party and people with whom I worked. At work, a group of us had read Stephen King’s novel and wanted to see that on the screen. We went as a group — I think it was the Chinese Theater where we saw it — and it was interesting. The people who had read the novel all hated the movie. The people who hadn’t read the novel and had come because they liked Stanley Kubrick thought the movie was fine. But he didn’t actually win the worst-director award — the very first year went to Xanadu. I think his name was Robert Greenwald, and he is now a documentary filmmaker. Staying away from roller skates and disco — as far away as he can get.

Are there movies that have won or that you initially really didn’t like, that over the years you’ve reassessed and come to enjoy?

Not really. Occasionally I will vote for something different than the members choose. The one I remember most clearly — I do think Battlefield Earth is one of the worst movies ever made, but I could see from the trending that year there was just no way it wasn’t going to win everything, and I personally loathed Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky. I found that film insulting and tasteless and inexcusable, and I actually had enjoyed Battlefield Earth. I also have an anecdote. When I saw [Battlefield Earth], it was in a theater on Hollywood Boulevard — in a multiplex on a matinee the last day it was playing and I couldn’t understand why the rest of the audience was reacting so positively to this obvious turkey. And as I left and walked to my car, I noticed that many of the other people from the theater went to their job at the Scientology office two doors down from the movie theater. My theory was that they were sending ringers. They were sending people to the theater every day to mislead the paying patrons as to the quality of the film that they were seeing.

I know that most of the winners don’t end up collecting the awards in person, but there are some exceptions. I was wondering if you had a favorite memory of a star that has come to collect their award in person.

My favorite one was one of the first — Halle Berry. It’s interesting how it came about. A British newspaper claimed that she had announced that she was going to attend. And I got hold of her manager and I said, "If this is true, we would work with her. Whatever makes her comfortable. If it isn’t true, we will leave it alone." I’m not going to badger your client and then publicly humiliate them. And I think she was so shocked that anybody wouldn’t take the option of forcing her client to show up that when she told Halle Berry about the conversation, Halle Berry got together with a friend of hers who was a comedy writer and came up with — I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s on our YouTube channel — Halle Berry’s speech accepting worst actress for Catwoman is the greatest thing in our entire history. She’s up there for eight or nine minutes. She got a standing ovation at the beginning. She got a standing ovation at the end. She got roaring laughter throughout. Her language was not something you could have broadcast on the regular network, but she was the personification of how to deal with this stuff. She was self-deprecating, she had fun at her own expense, she owned it.

On the flip side, do you ever get angry phone calls or hate mail?

In general, with the industry, I like to say they treat us like the fart that happened in church. They take the attitude that if they pretend it didn’t happen, it will go away. And they’re wrong. We’ve been here 37 years. But one of the few that did respond — and for legal reasons we have to say we can’t prove it was actually him — [was] when Sylvester Stallone won worst actor of the 1980s. We got a voicemail that certainly sounded like him. And his point was: My movies make money, why do you keep picking on me? And turning a profit at the box office, while it’s unusual for something that achieved that to be a Razzie contender, it’s not unheard of. And a couple of his pictures that were big box-office hits also were Razzie winners: Rambo II and Rocky IV — pretty much every year from ’83 on he was up for something. He is still the all-time champion. Adam Sandler is kind of creeping up on him, but Stallone did a lot of awful movies. The one that stands out in my mind as just, "Why did he even make this?" is Over the Top, which you could argue was the best movie ever made about arm wrestling because it’s the only movie ever made about arm wrestling.

A lot of movies that you guys single out are mainstream hits, like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, but this year it was a little different, as it was the Dinesh D’Souza documentary about Hillary Clinton. I was wondering how that ended up coming to your attention.

It was a very close, neck-and-neck race throughout the voting process. The other one, which I think was the only one more nominated than the Hillary Clinton documentary, was Batman v Superman. But we put [Hillary’s America] on there because it was a topic of very active conversation on our forum. It was widely discussed, it was highly disparaged, and if I’m remembering correctly, it had a 96 percent negative rating at Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not like we just didn’t like it because it attacked Hillary Clinton. Also, that was one of those movies I felt forced to watch because it had been nominated. I am unaware of any other film calling itself a documentary that included special visual effects. This was not a true documentary, this was not something being filmed as it actually happened. Eighty or 90 percent of the film was staged. It was reenactment, it was fantasy, it was historical recreation, whatever. I’m sorry, that’s not a documentary. And it committed the mortal sin of being incredibly boring! I had to pause it and go do other things like dishes several times while I was trying to slog through it. I will say for Batman v Superman, it was loud, and very difficult to ignore. But to me, a documentary, quote unquote, that just makes shit up, I’m sorry, that’s the bigger offense than something that violates the backstory of Batman and Superman.

Have you ever seen the documentaries written and directed by Steve Bannon?

Did he do [The Undefeated], about Sarah Palin?

Yep.

Yes, she was nominated for worst actress for that. But if I’m remembering correctly, that was the year that Jack and Jill won literally every award. Even Sarah Palin can’t go head to head with Adam Sandler in drag.

Have you noticed a change in the kind of bad movies that are getting made?

One trend I’ve noticed over the 37 years we’ve done this is that the technology to put anything the human mind can imagine on screen has reached fruition. Pretty much anything anyone can think of, they can find a way — with a computer and a really good programmer — to create a visual to embody that. And it’s unfortunate, with that ability, to look at what they’re putting on screen. The bulk of what they’re making is overly violent, overly nonverbal, overly pandering. It’s what they think the audience wants to see as opposed to, "Let’s make this and hope there’s an audience for it," which usually leads to a better film.

If you could recommend one Good Bad Movie that you think everybody should watch, what would it be?

It actually predates our history. It’s something that I saw as a 12-year-old, and even at that age I knew that it was a bad movie. It’s the 1966 Stephen Boyd–Elke Sommer film, The Oscar. It’s very hard to find, although it shows up in rotation on some low-end movie channels these days. It stars Stephen Boyd, and if anyone even knows who he is it’s because he played Messala in the Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur. [In the movie] he’s nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor, and then decides to destroy all of the other contenders so he can win. It’s so cheesy, and so ludicrously overwritten, and so ludicrously overacted. Elke Sommer, in the film, appears to have learned her dialect phonetically. Stephen Boyd is incapable of saying lines without constricting his neck muscles. Tony Bennett appears in it … as the half-Jewish, half-Irish best friend of the Stephen Boyd character. And the Academy completely cooperated in the making of this cheese-bag thing. They actually let the crew of the film show up at a mid-’60s Oscar [ceremony] and film. They used the set from the Oscars to stage the scene where the winner of Best Actor is announced. Somehow they got Merle Oberon to be the presenter and they got Frank Sinatra to appear in the audience as one of the other nominees. It is amazingly over the top. To the point where you may literally have tears streaming down your face from laughing so hard.

It seems very appropriate that the best worst movie would be about the Oscars.

It’s like Hollywood embracing and devouring itself at the same time.