It's the age-old question: Genetics or environment?
Are certain actors by some defect of birth destined to appear in ungodly strings of awful films, or do they plummet to the depths of career degradation once they find themselves firmly entrenched in Hollywood?
It's a pertinent question, as this summer is shaping up as one of the worst, aesthetically speaking, in recent memory. Films have opened big, but audiences all but disappear after a couple of weekends.
Way too many actors seem to be making careers out of churning out assembly-line-processed, sorry movies. Consider this -- if Boeing marketed airplanes without wings or McDonald's came out with the McBotulism burger, there would be a tremendous uproar, yet nothing is done about horrible movies.
And so they continue. Scientists doggedly and devotedly continue to investigate the problem of why, and have come up with the following list of a few of the phenomena that account for the perpetual presence of the celluloid equivalent of wingless airplanes.
The "Saturday Night Live"/"SCTV" curse. In which once-brilliant comedians are relegated to loping hopelessly through the same sort of junk they once mocked.
The a-hit-or-two-long-ago wonder. In which studio executives with selective memories allow stars whose appeal has dissipated to continue to churn out embarrassing variations on long-tired themes.
The ego-out-of-control. If you weren't surrounded by sycophants, you'd know who you are.
The oddball force that Hollywood simply cannot harness. Bankers, businessmen and attorneys -- that is, the guys who run the studios -- just don't get these people, so they shoehorn them into projects they likewise don't understand. No one wins.
The I'm-trying-to-extend-my-scope-even-if-nobody-cares star. Bruce Willis and "In Country." Goldie Hawn with "Deceived" and "Crisscross." Patrick Swayze in "City of Joy." Sylvester Stallone and comedy.
The just-give-me-the-money cynic. OK. Hack. We said it.
And here is a short list of those stars whose very name on a theater marquee spells almost-imminent disaster. In most cases, those named below fit in a number of the above categories.
Remember -- we're not saying these people aren't good actors (though we're not denying that, either). We're just suggesting that maybe these folks could be just a smidgen more discerning in their choice of material in the future. If, in fact, they have a future. Or a choice.
* Chevy Chase. He turned a smirking stumblebum into a cottage industry and then learned to sleepwalk through bad movies. He's sired enough dogs to open a kennel. Examples: "Modern Problems," "Fletch Lives," "Three Amigos," "Under the Rainbow" -- gee, the list goes on and on, let's just get to his latest dud -- "Memoirs of an Invisible Man." For the sake of moviegoers, here's hoping his Fox network late-night talk show comes through.
* Dan Aykroyd. The most versatile performer on the original "Saturday Night Live" has become the most dreaded name on a movie marquee. Has he carried an even moderately acceptable movie in the past decade? His list of duds is even longer than Mr. Chase's, culminating with his disastrous "Nothing but Trouble," which he wrote and directed and which was nothing but interminable. His self-absorbed and insight-free column in Premiere magazine disappeared after three months.
* John Candy. The anti-Midas: Everything he touches turns into a leaden bore. Every character he plays is the same -- the pathetic, dopey fat guy longing for a beauty -- which just isn't that appealing anymore.
* Jim Belushi. His films ("Curly Sue," "Taking Care of Business," "Mr. Destiny," "Once Upon a Crime") makes brother John's duds ("1941," "Continental Divide") look like sage career moves.
* Julia Roberts. The biggest star who has never made a really good movie -- "Pretty Woman," "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Dying Young" and "Hook" are competent at best and usually far worse. Ms. Roberts is a Republican pinup girl -- she always plays women desperately dependent on their men, and when she gives an interview, she's denying everything and blaming the media. This is our actress of the '90s?
* Goldie Hawn. Ditsy ("Protocol," "Wildcats" "Overboard," "Bird on a Wire") or serious ("Deceived," "Crisscross"), Ms. Hawn's projects tend to be star-driven vehicles with plot lines that don't come close to meeting the recommended daily amounts of intelligence.
* Bruce Willis. Somewhere along the line, his smirk began reeking of insufferable smugness, and he began to think any piece of junk he wink-winked through would be a charmer. "Blind Date," "Sunset," "Hudson Hawk" and "The Last Boy Scout" have proved him wrong. Beware, Meryl Streep: Your co-stars in your upcoming "Death Becomes Her" are Mr. Willis and Ms. Hawn. It doesn't stand a chance.
* Melanie Griffith. She plays a squeaky ditz, much like Ms. Hawn, but put her into a serious role in an allegedly thoughtful drama -- which too many people seem to have done of late -- and the film becomes instant camp. Ms. Griffith was woefully miscast in "Paradise," "Shining Through" and the recent "A Stranger Among Us." Next up for her is a remake of "Born Yesterday," which is apparently what those who finance her movies think her audiences were.
* Eddie Murphy. In Hollywood, it's called Eddie Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will, but it just won't matter, because audiences will go in droves anyway. After admitting that his past few movies have really stunk, he said that "Boomerang" would signal a new direction. To making movies that only sort of stink.
* Kim Basinger. At least she's cute.
* Patrick Swayze. At least he's cute.
* Steve Guttenberg. And he's not even cute.
* Sylvester Stallone. "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," his latest dud, would have sounded more effectively threatening had the title been "Stop! Or I'll Make Another Movie!"
* Teri Garr. She hasn't been seen on the big screen lately -- for good reason -- but she re-enters the fray with "Mom and Dad Save the World," a film so good the studio has thoughtfully prevented critics from sitting through it (too bad they don't provide the same service for paying audiences). We like her better when she makes her talk-show rounds with nothing to plug.
* Sean Young. She's young, she's talented -- and she has every actor and director in Hollywood terrified of her.
* Mickey Rourke. Mr. Rourke, the highly respected social scientist, recently blamed the L.A. riots on filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton. Like he's made socially responsible movies lately: "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man," "Wild Orchid," "White Sands."
* James Woods. If he's so darn smart -- interviews invariably mention his impossibly high IQ -- how come he hasn't been in a good movie since "Salvador"? Weirdest career move to date: Playing the love interest opposite Dolly Parton in "Straight Talk" -- be thankful the person who came up with that idea works in the movies and not in the nuclear industry. Up next: "Diggstown," due next month.
* Burt Reynolds. Thank heaven he's found a home on television -- his more recent films suggested that he was tapped out, and no one would want wife Loni Anderson, the baby or the hairpiece doing without life's finer amenities.
* Tom Selleck. The wretched "Folks!" opened during the L.A. riots but was ruled out as a cause. If Mr. Selleck had made one decent movie, he wouldn't have to be seriously contemplating a "Magnum, P.I." reunion film. If he doesn't manage a quick turnaround, "Mr. Baseball" could be his last at-bat on the big screen.
* Shelly Long. After appearing in such dismal failures as "Don't Tell Her It's Me," "Hello Again" and "Troop Beverly Hills," she has long been absent from the big screen. Her last prestigious -- or, at least, paying -- gig was narrating the "M*A*S*H" TV reunion show. Let her be a lesson for the rest of these actors: It can happen to you.