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A-List Movie Stars Whose First Films Were Bombs

Some A-list actors hit it big with their debut film, getting an Oscar nod for their performance, as Edward Norton did in "Primal Fear." But for most actors, it's a steep climb from the obscurity of uncredited parts with no lines to supporting roles and eventually lead roles. It is a rarefied few who claim a spot on the A-list. Even some who hit the A-list began their acting careers with a bomb or two before gaining recognition and making a name for themselves.

When you investigate the early films of many A-list actors, two things quickly become clear: every actor has an entirely unique path to the A-list, and when we rewatch their early flops, it's clear they already had that ineffable star quality. Looking back at these films, our future A-listers stand out in even their worst films. Join us as we look back on some of the box-office bombs A-List actors began their careers with.

Amy Adams: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

In 1999, Amy Adams' feature film debut was supporting character Leslie Miller in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a satirical mockumentary about a small-town beauty pageant in Mount Rose, Minnesota. Critics snubbed the film upon its theatrical release and gave it negative reviews, which is reflected in the embarrassing ratings on Metacritic. Audiences didn't go wild over the film either, and it was a financial flop, earning only $10.5 million gross at the box offices with a $10 million budget (per The Numbers). Adding insult to injury, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" only stayed in theaters for an average of 3.5 weeks.

This film was seriously under-appreciated upon theatrical release, but it has developed a cult following amongst those who thoroughly enjoyed this darkly comic satire, gaining a respectable audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film stars Denise Richards and Kirsten Dunst as the obvious contenders for the crown, with Kirstie Alley and Ellen Barkin playing their crazy stage mothers. But the supporting performance by Adams was a standout and suggested this young actress had a very exciting career ahead, including six Oscar nominations. Amy Adams proves just because your first film didn't hit it big, doesn't mean your career path won't lead to the A-list.

Christian Bale: Mio in the Land of Faraway (1987)

Christian Bale has been acting since he was a child, and his feature film debut came in 1987 when he played Jum-Jum in the epic fantasy "Mio in the Land of Faraway," an adaptation of a novel by Astrid Lindgren, who is best known for her "Pippi Longstocking" book series. In the film, Mio (Nick Pickard) is whisked away from his miserable existence with his adoptive family to a magical kingdom where his father is the king. There he meets Jum-Jum (Bale), and together, the two boys travel to fight the evil knight Kato (Christopher Lee).

This film was a co-production between Swedish, Scandinavian, and Soviet financing, with a large budget, estimated at 55 million Swedish Krona (per IMDb). The end result is a fantasy film with good production values and special effects reminiscent of "The NeverEnding Story." Although we can't find any box office numbers for "Mio in the Land of Faraway," the lack of hard data suggests the film never came close to earning back the large production budget. Though the acting in this subpar fantasy wasn't very good, as reflected in the weak scores on Rotten Tomatoes, Bale's potential is obvious (something we saw again in his next role as Jim in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun").

Sandra Bullock: Who Shot Pat? (1989)

Sandra Bullock had been acting for a couple of years in supporting roles when she landed a central role as Devlin Moran in the 1950s period movie "Who Shot Pat?". Bullock plays a rich college girl living in Greenwich Village who meets a teenage ruffian, Bic Bickham (David Edwin Knight), from Brooklyn. The film is about Bic, his gang, and the troubles they experience at their integrated vocational school. 

This movie isn't anything special, with an abysmal audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and zero critic reviews. Considering the film made less than $3000 at the box office and was a financial bomb, this is unsurprising (per Box Office Mojo). From the IMDb page, it is clear many of Bullock's costars didn't go on to have acting careers. It was another five years of small films like "Love Potion No. 9" and "The Thing Called Love" and various television parts before Bullock finally landed her breakout role as Annie in "Speed" with Keanu Reeves.

George Clooney: Return to Horror High (1987)

"Return to Horror High" was George Clooney's feature film debut. Clooney plays Oliver, an actor in a slasher film who leaves production for a television role in the early scenes of the film. The premise of "Return to Horror High" is what makes the film interesting — it is a horror-comedy about the production of a low-budget slasher flick being shot on the grounds of the very high school where a string of murders took place five years before. The murderer was never found, and Crippen High closed its doors and sat abandoned until the small film crew arrived to shoot its horror flick.

"Return to Horror High" is an early example of meta-horror, and it was completely ahead of its time. That's not to say the film is good. It isn't, as we see reflected in the lamentable audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. But while the film isn't great, it's fun, providing an interesting commentary on filmmaking — often, directors want to make something meaningful and unique, while producers want to make something commercially profitable.

It's a particularly humorous commentary for a film with a reported budget of $1 million (via the Los Angeles Times), earning just shy of $1.2 million at the box office (per Box Office Mojo). Despite being a bomb, one thing is abundantly clear in this movie: the camera loves George Clooney. He also has the privilege of being the first kill we see on screen in "Return to Horror High," so don't be too disappointed when he gets it!

Leonardo DiCaprio: Critters 3 (1991)

Probably the only thing "Critters 3" is famous for is being Leonardo DiCaprio's feature film debut. DiCaprio plays Josh, the stepson of the man who owns a rundown apartment building infested with critters. As Rolling Stone said, "DiCaprio isn't too bad as a pissy kid; indeed, he seems to be the only cast member who can actually act." The first two films in the series were commercially successful despite being a derivative "Gremlins" knock-off, gaining a surprising cult following, as reflected in the Rotten Tomatoes audience scores.

This lucky streak ended with the third film in the franchise. "Critters 3" has embarrassing scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The first two films were profitable during their theatrical release, but the third film in the series was a direct-to-video disappointment (per The Numbers). Obviously, his first film, being a financial flop, didn't dampen DiCaprio's career prospects. In 1991, he landed a role on the television show "Growing Pains." In 1993, he was cast as Arnie in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," and he earned his first Oscar nomination for his performance.

Vin Diesel: Strays (1997)

Vin Diesel's feature film acting debut was also his feature-length debut as a writer, director, and producer in his small-budget indie film, "Strays." In the film, Diesel plays Rick, a drug dealer who wants more out of life than one-night stands and hanging out with his buddies. But Rick finds it difficult to leave his group of friends behind as he tries to find fulfillment in a romantic relationship. The indie film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1997 and was released many years later on DVD in 2008 (per IMDb).

Diesel funded "Strays" himself, raising around $50,000 by working as a telemarketer." Although the film wasn't financially successful, the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes aren't awful. According to The National, "Strays" and Diesel's short "Multi-Facial" gained the attention of Steven Spielberg, who wrote a minor role for Diesel in "Saving Private Ryan." After his part in the lauded war film, Diesel's career gained momentum, leading to him becoming the A-list actor he is today.

Angelina Jolie: Hackers (1995)

Angelina Jolie was in a series of music videos, a direct-to-video sci-fi sequel (the critically reviled "Cyborg 2"), and had a tiny part in one of her father's films before she landed her first lead role in a theatrical film in the 1995 box-office bust "Hackers." Jolie was cast as the romantic lead Kate, who meets Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), a teenage hacker who was once known as Zero Cool but now goes by the handle Crash Override. After being convicted for crashing 1500 computer systems at 11-years-old (some on Wall Street), Dade was banned from using a computer until his 18th birthday. When Dade's new friend is framed for cyber terrorism, the team takes on a powerful fossil fuel corporation to try and clear their names.

"Hackers" was expected to make a big splash but only lasted in theaters for a few weeks, making under $8 million at the box office (per The Numbers). While this is a decent chunk of change, it didn't make a dent in the estimated $20 million budget (per IMDb). "Hackers" has since developed a cult following, reflected in the better audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. While Jolie's first leading role wasn't in a hit, it did bring her to Miller, whom she started dating while filming and married soon after. From here, it was three years before Jolie captured significant attention after being nominated for an Emmy for her performance in "Gia," beginning her ascent to the A-list.

Jennifer Lawrence: The Poker House (2008)

Before Jennifer Lawrence got an Oscar nod for her performance as Ree in "Winter's Bone," she had already experienced moderate success for her role in "The Bill Engvall Show" and a supporting role in an indie film. But Lawrence's first leading role in a feature-length film was as Agnes in "The Poker House." The indie film was actress Lori Petty's debut as a writer/director and was inspired by her troubled youth. Agnes' mother, Sarah (Selma Blair), is a sex worker, raising her three daughters in a card house where men come to gamble and be entertained by women.

Critics, who praised the performances, expressed a mixed response to the plot and directing, as we see reflected in the respectable scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The theatrical release of the film was so limited there are no box-office numbers available for the project other than the production budget of $1 million (per The Numbers). "The Poker House" premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2009 (per IMDb), and Phase 4 Films later distributed the film on DVD. Although Lawrence's first lead role was in a box-office flop, it wasn't long before "The Hunger Games" and "X-Men" launched her onto the A-list.

Brad Pitt: The Dark Side of the Sun (1988)

Brad Pitt had a few uncredited parts in movies and a handful of roles on television, but his first leading role in a feature film was in "The Dark Side of the Sun." He played Rick (Pitt), a young American who has traveled to Yugoslavia with his parents to see a healer, hoping to cure his rare skin disease. Rick is photosensitive, and light can kill him, so he lives his life covered in leathers looking like a sadist in a horror movie. Rick casts off his leathers, spending the handful of days he has left trying to woo a young American actress, Frances (Cheryl Pollak), while traveling with a theater troupe.

"Dark Side of the Sun" was filmed in the former Yugoslavia but went directly to DVD nearly a decade after being filmed (per Movie Archives). Although there's a rumor that the film reels were lost during the civil war only to be recovered after the conflict was over, it remains that — a rumor. A straight-to-video release isn't an illustrious beginning for a movie star, especially considering the film wasn't distributed until after Pitt was well on his way to stardom, but it was certainly part of his journey as an actor. Despite the deceptive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, you can give this throwback a pass.

Keanu Reeves: Teenage Dream (1986)

Before Keanu Reeves became famous playing Ted Logan in the cult comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," he played Tommy Warneki — a teenage boy with an acute case of unrequited love — in "Teenage Dream." This forgettable Canadian sports drama centers on Robin (Olivia d'Abo), an aspiring competitive gymnast who can't train after being injured in a tragic car accident that killed her father. 

For gymnastics fans, this film has a plethora of gym scenes with an embarrassing '80s synth soundtrack playing in the background as Robin struggles to get back in competition form. This movie is so obscure, we can't even find box-office information, and it has zero ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, where it's listed under the original title, "Flying." You can stream a very grainy version through the Free Movies+ app on Roku or rent it for $0.99 cents on Amazon. The movie is terrible, but it's obvious Reeves was a star in the making in this forgotten flop.

Julia Roberts: Satisfaction (1988)

Julia Roberts' feature film debut was in "Satisfaction" as Daryle, a member of the teenage band the Mystery. The group gets a gig playing a bar at the beach the summer after graduating high school. The film was intended as a star vehicle for Justine Bateman, who had gained notoriety for her role on the television show "Family Ties." Bateman played Jennie Lee, the leader of the band, and received top billing on the film, despite it also being her feature film debut (per IMDb). 

Unfortunately for Bateman, "Satisfaction" was a box-office bomb, only making an $8.25 million return and staying in theaters for just a couple of weeks (per The Numbers). It wasn't just unpopular at the box office either — critics also hated the movie. The New York Times called it "a typical, low-budget summer movie." Despite "Satisfaction" being a box-office flop, Roberts played Shelby in "Steel Magnolias" in 1989, earning an Oscar nomination for her performance before hitting the A-list with "Pretty Woman" in 1990.

Will Smith: Where the Day Takes You (1992)

Although Will Smith was already a TV star and a successful rapper, his feature film debut wasn't all that illustrious. He co-starred in an ensemble cast as a homeless teenager named Manny, who is in a wheelchair because his legs were amputated. The last portion of the independent film, "Where the Day Takes You," is excellent, filled with the up-and-coming actors of the '90s, including Dermot Mulroney, Laura San Giacomo, Sean Astin, Ricki Lake, Balthazar Getty, and Lara Flynn Boyle. Other famous faces also took supporting roles to flesh out the cast.

Unfortunately, this film didn't come anywhere close to recouping the $3 million budget, making it a box-office bomb (per IMDb). Despite not being profitable, this is actually a really wonderful film, reflected in the positive scores with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is often sad and difficult to watch, but the actors gave themselves to their roles, delivering solid performances. Taking a role in "Where the Day Takes You" didn't adversely affect Smith's rising star. If anything, it showed the range he was capable of.

Uma Thurman: Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1987)

Long before Uma Thurman became Quentin Tarantino's muse in "Pulp Fiction" and the "Kill Bill" films, her screen debut was in the low-budget thriller "Kiss Daddy Goodnight." Thurman played Laura, a young model who makes extra cash by meeting men in bars before drugging and robbing them. After someone Laura knows is murdered, someone begins to stalk her. "Kiss Daddy Goodnight" was released at the AFI Film festival in 1987 (per IMDb), but the movie is so obscure that we can't find any box-office information.

You can watch a grainy version of the film on YouTube, but we wouldn't recommend it. The sound quality is terrible, the story is forgettable, and the performances are subpar. Only a handful of the cast had acting careers, with Steve Buscemi and Thurman being the biggest stars to come out of this movie. Audiences gave the movie an abysmal score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is unsurprising. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for Thurman, it was only up from here!