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It's All Downhill From Here: Ten Actors Who Will Never Surpass Their Earliest Roles

By Brian Prisco | Lists | September 24, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Lists | September 24, 2010 |

When Gabourey Sidibe got nominated for an Academy Award, I felt terrible for her. She didn’t have a wing or a prayer of winning. I wondered if she thought that from here on out, it’s always gonna be this good. She was very good as Precious — I doubt they could have found another actress to carry off that part. But what other parts will she play? Her next role is in a project called “Yelling At The Sky” that sounds EXACTLY like Precious. And I realized, there are so many actors who peaked right at the beginning of their careers, found one seminal part, and then spent the rest of their careers never being able to shake that part. Some moved into brilliant success in other areas, some even got Academy Award nominations, but really, they’ve never been able to shake the curse of that one single role.

I stuck mostly with the film actors — the TV folks will get their own list another day. I didn’t include people like Sylvester Stallone, who plays the same character in several films. I personally think Leonardo DiCaprio will never, EVER be better than he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but higher powers thought otherwise. And, I tried to avoid people like Edward Norton, who had a string of successful roles in the beginning of his career that he has never been able to touch. And I didn’t include Matthew McConaughey, who has never been good.

In no particular order:

Mark Hamill
Seminal Role: Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: A New Hope)


Hamill has had tremendous and well deserved success moving into voiceover work. I still prefer his Joker to anyone else. But as for acting on the big screen, he’s never been able to shake the looming shadow of that whiny little homicidal wamprat whacker. As he cowers, wide-eyed and overacting in the shadow of the looming Darth Vader, wailing NOOOOOO! he could very well be facing his future acting gigs.

Matthew Broderick
Seminal Role: Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Broderick had a couple successes early in his career: Ladyhawke, Project X, Wargames. He seemed the go-to guy for fragile, impish nerdlings. But John Hughes gave him the opportunity to play the greatest high school student of all time. Though he’s turned into a nebbishy, closeted version of Ferris, and though he’s simply mah-velous on stage, Broderick won’t ever be able to do better than that Wayne Newton singing kid in the leatherette leopard jacket.

Winona Ryder
Seminal Role: Lydia Deetz (Beetle Juice)


For the longest time, those sad girls listening to The Cure had no one to aspire to whilst they were cutting themselves. But Tim Burton came along and presented them with their queen: dear, sweet Winona Horowitz. She went on to greater roles, but all of them have been variations of that pale faced, solemn little Emily the Strange. She even inspired Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman to take on her same mantle. It works in Elizabethan times, it works in the future, it works even in slacker rom-coms.

Hilary Swank
Seminal Role: Brandon Teena (Boys Don’t Cry)


Oh, the Karate Kid franchise has taken down many, many careers. And though she started out as Girl Karate Kid, it was this dramatic turn that earned her her first Academy nod. She’s the reason I fear for Gabby Sidibe. Because Hilary Swank started snaggletoothing a number of performances and people just kept throwing accolades at her. Undeserved accolades. Like Julia Roberts level of undeserved. She was magnificent as Brandon Teena, but from then on out, she’s never yet been able to top that performance. I think we may finally see her dwindling away.

Kate Hudson
Seminal Role: Penny Lane (Almost Famous)


There are many who consider Almost Famous to be the perfect movie. And Kate Hudson was perfect in it. She played the hippie version of the breakdown druggie that always garners awards, but she played it to the hilt. But, we’ve had to suffer through any number of dreadful rom-com attempts because Goldie’s Little Guppy thinks she’s an actress. What Kate doesn’t realize is that we loved her through the eyes of that teen reporter.

Natalie Portman
Seminal Role: Mathilda (Leon: The Professional)


I don’t give a ratfuck at a rolling donut that she was nominated for Closer. And yes, she was fucking “the shit” in her rap video for SNL. But that doesn’t mean she will ever, EVER be more adorable and excellent than that foul-mouthed little strumpet who Lolita’s her way into a contract killer’s heart. The Professional is my perfect movie, in almost every way. I even think she got the nod for playing a stripper in Closer, because people remembered how unnervingly erotic she was in The Professional, and felt dirty thinking that way about a little girl.

Jason Biggs
Seminal Role (snicker): Jim Levenstein (American Pie)


You fucked a pie, and it fucked your career. He even lampoons this in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. But it doesn’t make it any less true. And kind of sad. I mean, Biggs never did nothing to hurt nobody. And, like Michael Cera, he’s really fucking good at playing himself. Over and over. But in every movie he appears in, spazzing and stuttering and looking awkward, like a homely Jersey Hugh Grant, you keep waiting for him to fuck a pie. Because he will forever be the piefucker.

Ralph Macchio
Seminal Role: Daniel Larusso (The Karate Kid)


Hey, he was awesome in The Outsiders. And even better in My Cousin Vinny. And he was probably in other movies. But he will forever be the fucking Karate Kid. He mine as well just tie on the fucking bandana in every role. The Karate Kid pretty much locked in several careers: Pat Morita was always Migayi, William Zabka always played preppy cocks with weird helmet hair, Cobra Kai really did never die for Martin Kove (though he does have a fucking AMAZING cameo in Middle Men) and Elisabeth Shue is still Elisabeth Shue. But Macchio, I’d love to see him land some kind of Travoltaesque jump start in an off the wall indie. There’s gotta be a new Tarantino that can breathe new life into him.

Peter Billingsley
Seminal Role: Ralphie Parker (A Christmas Story)


You’ve seen it. You’ve seen it a hundred fucking times. You’ve probably even watched it 24 hours straight. That lisping little Aryan poster child embodied all that is working-class Christmas sentimentality. And Billingsley was goddamn perfect. I don’t even know if he was in other movies after this. He’s since taken to producing and directing. And well, while his output’s been less than spectacular, if someone’s gotta be making those crap rom-coms, I’m glad he’s armed with a Red Ryder BB gun.

Haley Joel Osment
Seminal Role: Cole Sear (The Sixth Sense)

Well, he was baby Forrest Gump, and then he saw dead people, and then he saw the death of his career. I guess people only could take so much squinty whispering. Child stars always take it hard. I’m interested to see if Osment rebounds. He’d have to go totally fucking apeshit bananas in some kind of unexpected role. But I can see him taking a turn for the Edward Norton in his late twenties. So, while he’s kind of out of it now, I’m not totally counting the kid out. Still, his IMDb looks like the filler at That Which Once Was Blockbuster.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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