Jan 21, 2008
An Interview with John Wilson, Razzie Founder
Before I get to the interview, one thing to note: I know a lot of people have been clamoring for my Razzie Month 2008 article, which I promised months ago, where I would describe the experience of watching all 25 Razzie-nominated movies in the space of a few weeks. (And by “a lot of people”, I mean no people. More people have been asking for new recaps of Degrassi Junior High, and nobody is asking for new recaps of Degrassi Junior High.)
Ultimately, I realized such an article would be completely impractical. With 25 movies to cover in detail, I’d still be working on it a year from now. And even though it’s only June, the time is soon approaching when I’ll have to start handicapping next year’s nominees (2008 already has two frontrunners, The Hottie and the Nottie and Postal, which could lead to another Norbit–I Know Who Killed Me-style face-off come next February.)
But since I’m reluctant to let a entire month of my life go to waste, what I’ll do instead over the next few weeks is revive the Screencap Recap, which I discovered last year to be a pretty painless approach to documenting painful films. (We’ll see how many of the 25 movies I can cover this way before I lose my grip on my reality.) Watch for my first Razzie Screencap Recap, coming soon!
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But in the meantime, if you’re jonesing for more Razzie-related material, or even if you aren’t (but you probably are, and you just don’t know it), I’ve got a special treat for you. All my hard work in trying to handicap the Razzies this year finally paid off, and this site gained the attention of the grand Razzie poobah himself, John Wilson, the guy who created the Golden Raspberry Awards back in 1981, and is still Head Razzberry to this day.
If you’re wondering what a Head Razzberry does, I couldn’t tell you, but I do know he’s one of the founding fathers of the Bad Movie Movement. Without the Razzies, the Agony Booth and a lot of other bad movie websites wouldn’t exist today.
When John Wilson contacted me last month, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick his brain and discover how nearly 30 years of Bad Movie appreciation have affected his mind. (I mean, I need to know what’s in store for me around 2032 or so.) I was surprised to find out that not only does he mock bad movies—he’s worked on plenty of them, including none other than Agony Booth target Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Read on to find out the whole story.
(I knew this interview would be of particular interest to site regulars, so I opened things up to members of the Agony Booth Forums, asking them to send in their questions. In the interview below, my questions come first, followed by questions from forum members.)
Albert Walker: I’ll start out with a simple question: What initially motivated you to create the Razzies?
John Wilson: The Razzies grew out of several factors which all converged in 1980. At the time, I was working as a copywriter for a trailer company that sponsored a now defunct L.A. film festival. I agreed to handle all the festival paperwork in exchange for having “second dibs” on all screening passes—As a result, I saw over 250 films that year. When you see that many movies in a single year, you begin to realize that the odds favor the pitiful rather than the praiseworthy.
I also grew up in Chicago in a family with two Depression-era parents who both loved the movies, and passed along that love to me, and allowed my siblings and me to stay up each year to watch the Academy Awards. In the early ’80s, I was known for hosting a large annual Oscar night potluck dinner for friends and co-workers, and with several dozen guests attending my 1981 party, I was looking for something for the guests to do after the Academy Awards ended.
But the single experience which most directly prompted me to come up with the idea was a 99-cent double feature of two disco-era musicals I saw in the fall of 1980: The Village People in Can’t Stop the Music and Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu—Two films which still stand out as being among the suckiest (albeit funniest) bad musicals ever made. When the theater owner refused my request for a refund of my 99 cents, I starting thinking as I drove home, and realized just how many bad moves I’d already seen that year, and began to wonder why no one was doing anything like the Razzies at the time.
AW: Who was in attendance in your living room at that first magical ceremony in 1981?
Our Berry First “Ceremony” was conducted at a cardboard podium in the living room alcove of what People Magazine would later call “a rundown apartment in a seedy section of Hollywood.” Ballots were mailed out with the party invites, the “presenters” were guests hauled up from the buffet table, we showed clips from each of the 10 films nominated for Worst Picture and, after hearing each of the five Worst Song contenders (one of which, “The Man with Bogart’s Face”, was given a live dramatic reading), votes were cast for that one category during our “show”. We ended with a sing-along, as a satirical comeback to the annual “Dead Stars Montage” they always feature on award shows. My version rhymed the names of several dozen stars who’d passed away in 1980, written to the tune of “That’s Entertainment”, and entitled “Dead Entertainers”.
When the whole thing was over, almost every guest expressed how funny, on-target and entertaining my idea was. The next day, I composed a quick “press release” and sent it out to local media. One newspaper (which happened to employ one of those first night guests) ran an article on us, and the Golden Raspberry Awards were officially launched.
AW: If you could go back in time and give Razzies to any film that came out before 1980, which ones would you pick?
At this point in my life, I’ve seen about 4,500 movies, the majority of which were, in truth, merely mediocre. My personal preference is for bad films that set out to be serious dramas, and wind up being screaming laughter fests. Among my all-time favorite pre-1980 examples of this highly entertaining genre are:
- The 1966 “showbiz exposé” The Oscar, featuring an all-star cast hamming it up shamelessly, in a luridly written script with some of the most hilariously bad dialogue ever spoken. Rarely shown in recent years, The Oscar is scheduled to air on TCM on Monday, June 16. If you’re a Serious Bad Movie Lover, mark your calendar now!
- The 1968 Sunset Blvd/Vertigo rip-off The Legend of Lylah Clare, a turgid tale of Hollywood scandal with elements of cross-dressing, lesbianism, rape, and murder. It was so over-the-top that MGM actually tried (unsuccessfully) to market it as a “camp” movie. It’ll be shown on TCM this August.
- The 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon, in which not one cast member sings, dances, or acts credibly, and every musical number is a test of endurance. This one is so legendarily awful it’s rarely shown anywhere, and is very hard to find.
- The mid-’70s low-budget wonder (and MST3k target) The Giant Spider Invasion. In one scene, a “giant spider” is portrayed by a Volkswagen with dangling wire legs and a black fur rug draped over its roof!
- And the Worst Sequel Ever Made, that insanely incoherent, scare-free fouled-up follow-up, Exorcist Too, The Heretic. This one has a special place in my heart, because it played at the theater where I worked while attending film school at UCLA, and I got to hear audiences laughing at it derisively night after night for weeks on end.
- In terms of sheer fingernails-on-a-blackboard horrible movie-making, my standard has always been an obscure 1951 cornpone “comedy” entitled Honeychile, starring yodeling country singer Judy Canova. When I was writing The Official Razzie Move Guide, I made a concerted effort to see either this film or another one in which Canova takes on a Nazi spy ring (1942’s Joan of Ozark). Both are so obscure that I was unable to get my hands on a print, DVD, or screener of any kind for either of them.
AW: How did it come about that Halle Berry accepted her Razzie in person? Who’s idea was it, and what do you think was Halle’s primary motivation in accepting the award personally?
I saw an online item attributed to an Irish newspaper, “quoting” Halle Berry saying she intended to attend our ceremonies if she won for Catwoman, and “strut proudly up the red carpet” to accept. When I called Berry’s publicist to either confirm or deny the quote, I was told that it was fabricated and that Halle already had a charity event she was booked to attend on Oscar Eve in 2005 (the night of our 25th Annual awards). I then told the publicist that if the quote was untrue, we had no intention of pursuing the matter, and I appreciated her taking my call.
Apparently, that set things in motion, and Berry then spoke with several friends and fellow actors from Catwoman, all of whom seem to have encouraged her to show up as a lark. About 28 hours before the ceremony was scheduled, I got another call from Halle’s publicist, letting me know that Berry did plan to attend, and setting some ground rules: I was to tell no one she would be showing up; We had to sneak her in backstage, so neither the audience nor the press in attendance would know she was there until she walked out to accept her Razzie; and that I had to read the publicist the section of the show script that dealt with Berry and her performance.
One of the most amusing devices we’ve used over the years is finding the funniest (i.e., nastiest) actual critic’s quote for each of the nominees. For Berry, we had a newspaper quote which read: “Yoo-hoo, Miss Berry—The Academy’s calling… they want their statue back!” When I read the publicist that quote, she laughed and said Halle herself had read the quote to her over the phone when the film was released. The publicist suggested that “maybe some fun could be had” playing off the quote.
When Berry arrived backstage halfway through our ceremonies, she had an entourage with her, including Alex Borstein, who played her best friend in the film, and her manager, who had a black velvet bag in his hand. Just before I went onstage to announce that Halle had “won”, the manager pulled Berry’s Academy Award out of the velvet bag and asked, “Do you have any problem if she brings this out with her?” I thought the idea was hilarious, and suggested that I actually hand her her Razzie before she came out, so she’d be entering with an Oscar in one hand and a Razzie in the other. Her entrance almost literally brought down the house—She got a minute-long standing ovation, then launched into a joke and expletive-peppered parody of her own Oscar speech from a few years earlier, totally endearing herself to our audience and the press.
AW: Are there any actors or filmmakers that you’re amazed have yet to win a Razzie?
The first name that comes to mind is Keanu Reeves, who’s been Razzie-nominated for a total of 8 “achievements” (including Worst Razzie Loser of Our First 25 Years), and has yet to walk off with any spray-painted gold. His female equivalent, also nominated as Worst Razzie Loser of Our First 25 years, would be Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, whose career total also includes 8 Razzie-nominated “achievements”.
I was also personally disappointed when Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance was beaten by Bill Cosby in Leonard Part 6 as Worst Actor of 1987. O’Neal’s performance in Tough Guys (especially the scene where he reads a note from Isabella Rossellini while standing atop a sand dune) is one of the Great Bad Acting Moments in Film History.
Another Razzie Repeat Offender who has yet to “win” one of our awards (but it’s only a matter of time) is World Class Bad Movie Maven Uwe Boll, who’s a shoo-in for a Worst Director nomination for 2008 for In the Name of the King, Postal, and anything else he somehow manages to get released in the U.S. this year. Boll is also under consideration for a possible Worst Career Achievement dis-honor at our 2009 ceremony.
From forum member feitclub: “Given that online video is so accessible at this point, when can we expect to see the Razzies ceremony ‘broadcast’ over the Internet? Failing that, might we be able to see some kind of video highlights via YouTube or a similar site?”
In fact, we recently signed an option deal with the New York firm Combustion Marketing & Management to see if we can finally get next year’s ceremonies broadcast, one way or another. Initial interest from several parties looks promising.
Incidentally, the main reason we haven’t had our ceremonies broadcast after all these years is that no one in a position to put us on-air has ever had the gumption to negotiate for rights to clips of the nominated films and performances. Most of the industry is either terrified of even acknowledging we exist, simply “doesn’t get” the basic joke of the Razzies, or actively wishes we’d just go away.
From staff recapper Jack Spencer, Jr.: “Are any past ‘winners’ a guilty pleasure movie you pop into the DVD player every once in a while?”
Mommie Dearest, The Lonely Lady, and Xanadu are among past “winners” I can sit through and laugh at time after time. In fact, I tried putting out feelers to MCA Home Video about releasing a 25th Anniversary “Official Razzie DVD” of Lonely Lady this year, but could never get anyone to return my calls.
For My All-Time Favorite Bad Movie, see below.
From forum member MysticFett: “Since you’ve seen so many bad movies, I’m curious to know what your favorite good movies are.”
My Berry Favorite Good Movie of all time is Sunset Blvd., which I’ve seen so many times by now I can practically recite the dialogue along with the movie when I watch it. Others that rank high on my list of Berry Favorites, each of which I’ve seen multiple times, include Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the original Manchurian Candidate, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Judy Garland in the 1954 musical remake of A Star Is Born. In fact, my favorite movie-going experience ever was attending a screening of a 70mm/Cinemascope/Six Track Stereo print of Star Is Born at the film festival my employer used to sponsor—And they were showing it to the public for free!
From staff recapper Sillstaw: “A lot of the winners seem to be tabloid targets and high-profile flops. Are there any lower-profile bombs you wanted to highlight, but didn’t?”
Among the possible contenders for 2008 is a perfect example of what you’re talking about: Strange Wilderness, a truly terrible little “comedy” that was recently released on DVD. It was so horribly dim-witted, dopey and indefensibly lazy that even I could not get myself to sit though it in its entirety. It’s just one of about 30 titles now under discussion on our Official Razzie Forums as a potential nominee for next Spring’s 29th Annual Razzie Awards.
I am always impressed whenever our Voting Members do choose to give Worst Picture to a deserving little turkey like Burn, Hollywood, Burn or Dirty Love over bigger-budget, in-your-face bad fare like Armageddon or The Dukes of Hazzard.
On a personal note, several years ago when Battlefield Earth swept our awards—and was referred to throughout our ceremonies as Plan 9 from L. Ron Hubbard—I realized that with about 93% of all the votes going to Earth, I was free to go against the tide and vote for what I thought was a far more egregious “lower-profile” bad movie: Little Nicky. There’s something about Adam Sandler and his deliberately dumb “humor” that I have never found funny. I’m also put off by the arrogance of the man (which was on rampant display in his recent MTV Movie Awards appearance, in which he performed a nearly five-minute musical tribute to himself). And, while Little Nicky was supposed to be a comedy, I never laughed once while watching it. Battlefield Earth was supposed to be a dramatic sci-fi film, and I found it one of the funniest movies ever made. So, at least on that level, Earth was a more entertaining movie than Nicky.
From staff recapper Sillstaw: “Other than working on the marketing for The Lonely Lady and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, have you done any other film work?”
Shortly after graduating from the UCLA Motion Picture/TV department in the late 1970s, I began working as a writers’ assistant at one of the largest movie promo houses in the business. By the time I left there in 1981 to go freelance, I was a full-fledged copywriter, and have worked as a self-employed creative consultant and writer ever since. Among the many campaigns I’ve worked on are those for Silence of the Lambs, three of the four Christopher Reeve Superman movies, both Gods Must Be Crazy films, and the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for a recent Academy Awards broadcast. Among my other assignments have been political campaigns, network print ads for TV Guide, and a gig with Fox Movie Channel during which I created on-air promos for several hundred Fox movies dating from 1927 on. I’m also the author of two published books: Everything I Know I Learned in the Movies, and The Official Razzie Move Guide.
From me: Which of the four Reeve Superman movies did you not work on? I’m guessing Quest for Peace?
Actually, the Superman movie I didn’t work on was Superman III. The company I had worked for did the campaign, but I had left and gone freelance by then. I worked on Quest for Peace as a freelancer for Cannon Films nearly a decade after I had done promos for the first two. Incidentally, Quest was nominated for two Razzies.
From forum member snicks: “My all-time favorite bad movie is The Lonely Lady, and its 6 wins held a record for years. Of the top 4 all-time Razzie champs (Lonely Lady, I Know Who Killed Me, Showgirls, and Battlefield Earth), which is your personal favorite? And if all four films were competing against each other for Worst Picture of All Time, which one do you think would win? “
Lonely Lady, for several reasons, ranks near the top of my All-Time Best of the Worst list. But in a head-to-head showdown, I think I might pick Showgirls as the most eminently re-watchable of the four titles you suggested—Unlike Lady, Showgirls had a big budget, an established director, and a high-priced screenwriter to its “credit”. And while it’s fairly easy to see how investors might have thought a low-budget movie based on a sleazy Harold Robbins best-seller (even with Pia Zadora in the lead role) would be a reasonable risk, the notion of a serious “drama” about lap dancers in Las Vegas, featuring enough nudity and simulated sex to all but guarantee an NC-17 rating, looks doomed from the get-go. Also, as wonderfully dunderheaded as much of the dialogue and acting in Lonely Lady is, Eszterhas, Verhoeven, and Elizabeth Berkley have the edge for world-class crassness. As I often suggest in interviews, try watching the DVD of Showgirls with the closed captions enabled; something about seeing all those bald-faced sexual “entendres” printed across the bottom of the screen makes them even funnier (if that’s possible).
And now, if I may, I’d like to end with a blatant plug for the official Razzie web site, where readers can participate in our forums and join ongoing discussions about current and past bad movies. And if you’d like to be part of razzing this year’s Worst Achievements in Film, here’s how to become a voting Razzie member!