The Inimitable Insanity of Billy Zane

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October 13, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

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Tonight I saw Titanic for the first time in its entirety. It was alright, but this is irrelevant. Last night, I watched Michael Stephenson’s excellent documentary, Best Worst Movie, on the cult following of the “film” Troll 2. This is crucial.

I think the key to Troll 2’s “brilliance,” or at least what makes the movie so entertaining and watchable – in other words, what makes it the “best worst movie” – is that Troll 2 is earnest. The writer-director husband and wife duo, Claudio Fragasso and Rosella Drudi, believe their film is a masterpiece. Claudio calls it a film about “hunger, life, death, and family,” and Rosella Drudi explains her decision to use villainous vegetarian trolls as the primary antagonists as “important,” because her friends had started becoming vegetarians and “this pissed me off.” These of course are not things one would know simply from watching Troll 2, and yet, hearing these facts after having viewed the film multiple times, they make complete sense. Claudio and Rosella believed in their film. They believed in their art, and that passion and level of earnestness comes through. The film, for all its absurdity, is honest. Which I’d argue is precisely what draws people to the film and to films like it: Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, Manos: Hands of Fate. As entertaining as similar movies like Sharknado and Birdemic may be, they feel different, insincere.

Billy Zane is not a good actor. And yet, much like Troll 2, he’s infinitely entertaining. Moreover, also like that film, everyone seems to be in on the joke, a subtle and assured cult following. Last week’s episode of New Girl even included a joke about the character Schmidt starting a Billy Zane fan club, The Zaniacs (Zane-iacs?). After finally watching Titanic, I understand it now. Billy Zane, if nothing else, is honest. For all his exaggerated delivery and extensive, ill-advised eyeliner, you can’t help but feel Zane believes in his work. Like when he chases after Leo’s Jack Dawson, shooting at him maniacally, before finally giving up and laughing to himself, realizing he no longer possesses his giant diamond: “I put the diamond in the coat, and I put the coat on her!” He’s clearly an insane person in this scene – a cartoonish, 1920s nickelodeon-style movie villain, and yet he’s so damn entertaining. Because you look at him and instantly know that Billy Zane genuinely believes this is how people behave. Billy Zane can play crazy; he just can’t play someone with any semblance of normality. Titanic, The Phantom, Pocahontas II, and a Zoolander cameo all demonstrate this. It’s a shame he never play a Batman villain, because the role would play right into his skill set.

But, like Troll 2, can we really say Billy Zane is the BEST worst actor? Nicolas Cage easily comes to mind, and by a wide margin. And I love Ol’ Nicky Cage, but the internet tends to feel otherwise, and often appears more derisive towards Cage. Sure, some of the mocking comes from appreciation, but not with the same cult-like enthusiasm that Troll 2 or The Room garner, or even Billy Zane.

Billy is different. And maybe it’s because Nicolas Cage can sporadically act really well (i.e. Leaving Las Vegas, The Family Man), and maybe it’s because he seems to understand he’s made terrible career choices. But Zane, like the best worst movies, seems to believe he’s playing it normal when he’s really acting like an insane person. Like in Titanic, when he giddily exclaims to Rose, “God himself could not sink this ship!” or later, when he angrily exclaims to Rose, “Where are you going? To him? To be a whore to a gutter rat?!” One can’t help but be entertained by such a manic performance, and perhaps most importantly, such an earnest performance. Billy Zane is a one-man cult, of which he himself is also a member. He is, as far as I can surmise, the best worst actor.

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