Thursday, April 06, 2006

Oscar's Nemesis: An Interview with John Wilson, founder of the Razzies

John Wilson lives a dual life in Hollywood. By day he is a humble trailer maker, helping to convince you to go see the movies Hollywood churns out. By night, he gets his revenge. As founder of the Razzies, he and his merry members— consisting of critics, fans and industry members, many working ironically in PR, they are about 700 strong— have spent the last 26 years (and counting) skewering Hollywood’s worst offenders. Taking place the night before the Oscars each year, the Razzies mock the establishment by handing out its “dishonors” for Worst Film, Worst Actor, etc. The list of nominees and winners are released through the wire services and the Razzies Web site, but the show has never been broadcast, mostly because the stars and the studios would never cooperate in their mockery (Halle Berry, Tom Green and Paul Verhoeven are among the few exceptions). Over the years he has made some enemies in the industry—Sylvester Stallone, to cite, but one example—but that only seems to fuel this Blackwell of bad movies.

I profiled Wilson and the Razzies in the April issue of Penthouse (which, unfortunately, is not online accessible), but found him to have such a sharp and amusing with that I decided to follow up in this space with an email interview. Below is the transcript, edited slightly for length.

The Razzies move beyond a simple skewering of Hollywood's worst into the realm of social satire. Was this always your intention, or did that evolve over time?
I have long thought the RAZZIES® could move beyond mere film criticism and into the realm of social satire. And with Fahrenheit 9/11 giving us the opportunity in 2004, I decided to list President Bush and his minions on our Nominating Ballot just to see what our Voting Members' reaction would be. I was convinced until the final ballots were counted, that Ben Affleck had the inside track for Worst Actor of that year [for Gigli], but he was handily beaten out by Dubya. I got a large number of angry e-mails from supporters of the President after the results were announced (many of them using language I don't remember being used in the Bible).

This year's special category for Most Tiresome Tabloid Targets was concocted in response to the blurring of the lines between celebrities' on-screen and off-screen lives, and between what they do in "private" and what they do to garner publicity for their product. Again, we got a number of angry e-mails defending Tom Cruise, but far more agreeing with our choice.

Do you believe that the Razzies serve a purpose in Hollywood?
In general…our "purpose" is to remind the incredibly over-indulged and self-impressed members of "the Industry" that when they blow it big time, someone is watching and waiting in the wings with a pea shooter to pop their pompous, over-inflated egos.

In our prior conversations, you told me that the Hollywood establishment is, by and large, not amused by the Razzies and that some celebs downright hate it. Why do they care?
Hollywood thrives on relationships. You never know if the guy you slam today will be in a position to do you dirt tomorrow. That being true, "The Biz" is the ultimate "PC Community.” And The RAZZIES® are anything but PC. One some level, I can understand that if you invested $150 million in something like Catwoman and lost your shirt, you'd find it hard to laugh about. But on a basic level, when you bomb as big as that, you can't really ignore it. Even without us out there pointing at you and laughing, everyone knows about it, so why not accept your failure and move on (as Halle Berry so brilliantly did by accepting Worst Actress of 2004 for Catwoman).

Unlike the Oscars, most people don't know what the Razzies ceremony is really like. To me—and I mean this as a compliment—it seems like a cross between camp and community theater. Take me behind the scenes of this year's show. Were any winners consider showing up? Did you try to get Tom Cruise to show up?
While it's true that a good number of those familiar with The RAZZIES® don't know that we put on a ceremony every year, doing so is one of the joys of running the Foundation. Our shows almost always feature deliberately tacky musical numbers, deliciously vicious actual critics' quotes about the nominated films, film-makers and performances, and a tone that clearly resembles all those 537 other movie awards shows, but with the insane twist that we're putting on a show to "dis-honor" WORST Achievements in Film.

This year, I actually made a concerted effort to get three of our "winners" to attend, and in one case, we were turned down after weeks of back-and-forth negotiating. Then, when I returned home after the ceremony, there was a voice mail saying that they had decided at the last minute they did want to attend. As for Jenny McCarthy, everyone I know who has ever worked with her suggested that she would have attended if she were told ahead of time—and I did make every effort I could to do so. I am unclear why she was a "no show," but suspect that her representatives with whom I dealt may not have actually told her about it (which seems to happen a lot with The RAZZIES®).

What is your all-time favorite Razzie moment? Least favorite?
My favorite would have to be when I took to the stage at our Gala 25th ceremonies and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, Halle Berry!" You could tell from their reaction that many in the audience assumed we were planning some kind of tacky costume joke -- But when they saw the Oscar hoisted over Halle's head in one hand, and her newly "won" RAZZIE® hoisted in the other, their reaction was electric. She brought down the house, got a well-deserved standing ovation, and then proceeded to deliver a seven-minute speech that was perfectly in tone with the rest of our show. Berry managed to be both hilariously self-deprecating and incredibly classy at the same time. Not an easy feat.

My least favorite moment would have to be the first time two nominees ever showed up at our ceremony: The twin body-builders Peter and David Paul (who called themselves The Barbarian Brothers) in 1988. Apparently they were unaware of the nature of our Awards until they arrived at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and one of them yelled loudly enough that it echoed: "You mean this Award says we suck? Then what the fuck are doin' here?!?!?" Things went downhill from there when The Misters Paul failed to "win"their category, Worst New Star, but proceeded to take over our stage to accept a trophy anyway. When their speech proved less-than-amusing, they became belligerent with our audience, who began throwing popcorn at them to express their disapproval. By the time they left our stage, to a resounding round of loud "boos," the entire show had ground to a halt, and it never recovered. I felt like someone had taken away an entire year's worth of work solely to salve their own egos. To this day I have never bothered to edit—let alone look at—the video coverage of that year's show, our 8th.

Would you mind sharing the anecdote about calling up Madonna's rep to invite her to accept for Body of Evidence?
Madonna deservedly "won" her third Worst Actress RAZZIE® for Body of Evidence, which I recently named as one of the 10 Funniest Bad Movies Ever Made in my book, The Official Razzie Movie Guide. By this time, we'd been around for 14 years, and were well-enough known that I decided to go ahead and call reps for our two top "winners" to invite them to attend. The spokesman for Burt Reynolds (who was that year's Worst Actor for Cop and a Half) sounded as though, had he not been pre-committed to attend a charity event in New York that same night, he might have considered showing up. The spokeswoman for Madonna, though, had a decidedly different attitude. When she realized who I was, and why I was calling, she icily asked: "And what makes you think Madonna would accept an award like that?" At this point, it was clear to me that the conversation wasn't exactly going well, so I blurted out: "Not to put too fine a point on it, but your client did earn this award!"

What was the most memorable reaction you have gotten from a celebrity you have dishonored?
I think my favorite took place months after the "winners" had been announced for 2000. On a press junket for his follow-up film to call-time RAZZIE® champion Battlefield Earth, John Travolta was asked by a reporter from The Calgary Sun for his reaction to the film having "won" a record-tying 7 trophies. "I didn't even know there were such awards," said Travolta. "I have people around me whose job it is to not tell me about such things. They're obviously doing their job." The idea that a star can hire someone to keep them from ever hearing that anyone doesn't like them or their work totally personifies why The RAZZIES® exist, and what they exist to make fun of...

What is your all time favorite bad movie?
I have several, but it depends on how you're defining "favorite." If you're talking about "enjoyably bad," it would probably be between Showgirls (which was clearly going to be a RAZZIE® Contender from the time it was announced that the writer and the director of Basic Instinct were re-teaming to create a "serious drama" about lap dancers in Las Vegas) and Mommie Dearest (a film with every possible credential -- An Oscar® winning star, a top-notch director, and a major studio creating a movie based on an all-time best-selling memoir -- that still managed to be laugh-out-loud funny when it was trying to be dead serious).

Is there an under-appreciated gem of awfulness?
That would be our 1983 Worst Picture "winner" (and the first film ever to receive more nominations than we had categories) Pia Zadora in the title role of Harold Robbins' The Lonely Lady. It beat the record then held by Mommie Dearest when it copped six RAZZIES® from its 11 nominations (it got dual nods for both Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Original Song) and it held the RAZZIE® record until Showgirls came along in 1995. A truly tasteless, trashy exercise in adapting Robbins' truly trashy and tasteless novel, Lonely Lady is now the focus of a serious effort on my part to create the first ever Official RAZZIE® DVD. Out of print on VHS and unavailable for years, this film simply hasn't gotten the disrespect it so richly deserves. I actually had the job of creating Lonely Lady’s entire theatrical release campaign, and as part of the proposed Special Features package for the DVD, I'd love to include scenes that were deleted after I saw it in rough cut, as well as the "Joke Trailer" my client and I created for it to maintain our sanity while working on such an insane project.

What defines a great Razzie movie?
Generally, the bigger the budget (and the bigger the bomb) the better. In choosing our nominees each year, we look at box office, critical response, word-of-mouth and what I call "RAZZIE® Pedigree,” the previous RAZZIE® track record of the people involved in making the film...Personally, I adore the ones that are so awful you can't help laughing at them in all the wrong places...

What was the worst Razzie decision, in your opinion?
Although it garnered us some wonderful publicity when Bill Cosby became the first "winner" ever to ask for his RAZZIE® Awards, I have always felt that Leonard Part 6 was nowhere near as "good a bad movie" as one of that year's other Worst Picture choices, Ryan O'Neal in Norman Mailer's adaptation of his own novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film that turned out so poorly that, before the critics got the chance to trounce on it, Mailer beat them to the punch by announcing he'd meant it as a comedy all along. This was another film for which I did the theatrical campaign, and everyone at the releasing company was taken totally off-guard by Mailer's decision to essentially deride his own film. The funniest thing was that, taking Mailer's word for it, many film critics actually praised Tough Guys as a brilliant satire of the who-dunnit genre!

How much time do you spend working on the Razzies each year?
With the Web site ( www.razzies.com ) I spend a few hours each day adding additional material, but between the first of the year and the date of the show, it's literally a full-time job...

You don't make money from the Razzies. You even said that it took you away from your wife a bit when your son was born in 1996 (the year of Showgirls). So, what do you get out of it?
It may be hard for many people to understand my putting this many years into something that hasn't yet made me rich, but my compensation comes from knowing that something I created and nurtured has given people all over the world something to laugh about. And in this day and age, we all need more to laugh about. May I come down from my soapbox now??

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