As the latest round of would-be blockbusters packs ‘em in at a theater near you, Popdose looks back at the box office totals of yesteryear. This week we revisit the top ten films of January 9, 1992! (Yes, “we” should’ve revisited these films a week ago today, but time was not on “our” side. Besides, don’t you want to know how much Beauty and the Beast‘s 3-D reissue made over the holiday weekend? Stay tuned to find out!)
“The year’s box office hadn’t been quite as boffo as many had hoped,” wrote Jeffrey Goodell in Premiere magazine as 1991 wound down. “Some in the group [of studio executives gathered for a captains-of-industry retreat] felt the downturn was no big deal, just another glitch in the market that would right itself soon enough. But others, like Universal Pictures’ [Tom] Pollock, saw deeper troubles looming. It wasn’t just the recession that was hurting them, Pollock argued. Costs were skyrocketing, revenues falling. Even the most successful movies cost so much to make that it was becoming harder and harder to turn a profit on them. For an industry that’s always focused on the short term — next weekend’s box office — the mere fact that this discussion took place suggested that all was not well in Lala Land.”
Fast-forward 20 years: on December 26 the New York Times ran a story headlined “A Year of Disappointment at the Box Office,” in which Brooks Barnes noted, “Attendance for 2011 is expected to drop 5.3 percent, to 1.27 billion, continuing a slide” and marking the lowest number of tickets sold since 1995. “Attendance declined 6 percent in 2010.”
Rewind back to ’91: on Christmas Day the Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi and Kim Masters reported that “this year is likely to be the first since 1977 in which fewer than 1 billion tickets were sold. The industry trade paper Daily Variety estimates that ticket sales will be down about 10 percent this year, the second straight year of decline, putting the lie to the notion that moviegoing is the happy exception to recession.”
Once again, history repeats itself. But for an industry that routinely pads its bottom line with remakes and sequels — and sequels like The Hangover Part II that might as well be remakes of their predecessors — the news shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
10. CAPE FEAR (distributor: Universal; release date: 11/13/91; final domestic gross: $79.0 million)
Speaking of remakes, Martin Scorsese’s update of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear provided the critically acclaimed filmmaker with his biggest commercial hit since Taxi Driver 15 years earlier. Steven Spielberg was originally going to direct the film but ended up trading it to Scorsese for Schindler’s List, a project he’d first offered to Sydney Pollack and then to Scorsese because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Once Spielberg changed his mind, however, he still had to convince Scorsese that Cape Fear was worth his time. Scorsese decided to overhaul the script, making the “good guy,” Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), a morally ambiguous lawyer whose infidelities have poisoned his marriage, and reshaping “bad guy” Max Cady (Robert De Niro) into “the malignant spirit of guilt, in a way, of [Bowden's] family,” an “avenging angel” who metes out “punishment for everything you ever felt sexually,” Scorsese told Peter Biskind in Premiere‘s November ’91 issue.
De Niro was attached to play Cady before Scorsese signed on — the actor and director had previously worked together on six films, including Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) — but Nolte wasn’t Scorsese’s first choice to play Bowden. That would be Harrison Ford, who, if I recall correctly, once said in an interview that he suggested to Scorsese that he play Cady and De Niro play Bowden. Who knows, it might’ve worked — in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986) Ford gives one of his best performances as a family man who slowly comes unglued — but since Cape Fear was De Niro’s baby, Scorsese declined, and since Ford had played lawyers in his two most recent films, Presumed Innocent and Regarding Henry, it’s easy to see why he’d pass on playing another one, even with Scorsese in the director’s chair. But before either Ford or Nolte was a household name, Nolte lost out on the part of Han Solo in Star Wars, inspiring a funny stand-up routine from Patton Oswalt, who loves how “present” Nolte is on camera, almost as if he’d been “roused from a really bad hangover and just kinda pushed towards the camera.”
De Niro received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Cape Fear — his sixth acting nomination overall, with wins for The Godfather Part II (1974) and Raging Bull — but since then, niente. Can’t say I blame the Academy for not recognizing his work in the Fockers trilogy or in horror thrillers like Godsend and Hide and Seek, but I also can’t fault the guy for just wanting to work and not be pigeonholed as a “serious dramatic actor.” Unfortunately for Bobby D, my friend Kurt Collins — yes, readers, the Kurt Collins (unless you count the more famous Kurt Collins) — isn’t so forgiving: “Don’t aging, once brilliant actors often make you so sad? At least in sports you’re forced to retire when your skills diminish. The same goes for music: for every Dylan and Springsteen I’ll give you a Billy Joel, Steven Tyler, Bryan Adams, Joe Walsh, and Huey Lewis. Some actors do still impress, but when they fail us in a cartoonish role (‘Hoo-aahhh!’) we want to take their careers out behind the shed with a shotgun: ‘Shhhhh … It’s okay, girl. The pain will be over soon.’”
(When I told Kurt about Scorsese’s initial involvement with Schindler’s List he was surprised, mainly because “there’s the whole Jewish thing. Can I say that on Popdose? Will either of your readers be offended?” I doubt it. My parents are Episcopalian.)
9. THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Paramount; 11/22/91; $113.5 million)
Halfway through production of this $15 million adaptation of a bunch of old New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams — oh, who am I kidding, it’s a remake of the ’60s sitcom of the same name — cash-strapped Orion Pictures sold its potential franchise to Paramount, which then had to pick up the tab once the budget ballooned to $30 million. But Paramount also got to reap the rewards of The Addams Family‘s $113 million box office take, while Orion filed for bankruptcy and slowly faded out over the next few years despite winning both the 1990 and ’91 Best Picture Oscars (for Dances With Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs, respectively).
Paramount quickly set up a sequel, Addams Family Values (1993), but when it earned less than half of the original’s gross, the franchise died. (Don’t cry for director Barry Sonnenfeld. He helped birth a new franchise four years later: Men in Black. The third installment opens this summer.) In 2010 The Addams Family became a Broadway musical, closing on the final day of 2011 after more than 700 performances. Expect a revival — Broadway’s fancy word for “remake” — to be mounted once Angelina Jolie turns 50 and decides she wants to make some producers rich by playing Morticia.
Kurt notified me that on January 7 Charles Addams was honored with his own “Google doodle” commemorating his 100th birthday. Happy belated birthday, sir! I hope it was a good one despite the fact that you’ve been decomposing in a coffin the past 23 years. (Trust me, he loves that kind of joke.) Kurt would also like to say, “I always associated The Addams Family with kick-starting the whole ‘Let’s make movies about TV shows that weren’t really that good’ phase. Now we’re getting to the age where there’ll be more remakes of movies from our era, like Footloose. This is sad on two fronts: we’re old and Hollywood is unimaginative.” Which means we’re the perfect target audience for a remake of Cocoon.
8. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (Paramount; 12/6/91; $74.8 million)
After Star Trek V: The Final Frontier flopped in the summer of ’89, Paramount learned a valuable lesson: no matter how much William Shatner begs and pleads and says, “But you let Nimoy do the last two!” keep him away from the director’s chair. For the final sequel featuring the cast of the original 1960s TV series, Nicholas Meyer was put in charge, having already proven his worth as director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and cowriter of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), two of the more successful entries in the franchise. But because the Star Trek films of the ’80s didn’t do much business overseas, according to Premiere‘s “Ultimate Fall Preview” issue of 1991 — and presumably because Star Trek V didn’t turn a profit — Paramount lowered the sixth film’s budget from a proposed $41 million to $27 million and negotiated with Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to gamble on a percentage of Star Trek VI‘s revenue instead of taking a salary up front.
The film’s Wikipedia entry says it was originally envisioned as a prequel featuring younger versions of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew as cadets at Starfleet Academy, a concept eventually used in 2009 to “reboot” the series under the direction of J.J. Abrams, who wrote Regarding Henry in his early 20s, cocreated TV’s Lost, and helmed Mission: Impossible III (yes, a sequel to a remake of a TV show from the ’60s). His Star Trek grossed $257 million, far more than any other film in the series up to that point, including the four installments made between 1994 and 2002 featuring the cast of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, but if you ask me, Abrams did it by cheating. He’s openly admitted that he was a Star Wars fan as a kid, not a Trekkie, and it shows in his reboot: Leonard Nimoy guest-stars as an elderly Spock who bears a striking resemblance to Obi-Wan Kenobi, there’s an ice planet that might as well be called Hoth, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) carries himself with a Han Solo-like swagger. (Coincidentally, Pine will be taking over the role of Jack Ryan, once played by Harrison Ford, in a “reboot” of the Tom Clancy-based series that began in 1990 with The Hunt for Red October.) What’s Abrams got up his sleeve for the 2013 sequel? Puppy-like aliens who can defeat an entire Klingon army using only slingshots and cuteness?
“Is there a Star Wars/Star Trek controversy?” Kurt asked me. “Do the fans not like each other? Is one considered elitist? Which one has more street cred (most realistic, if that’s possible)? I always wondered about that.” Well, speaking for myself, I was an obsessive Star Wars fan as a child, though not obsessive enough that I got upset about the prequels as an adult (yes, they’re mediocre, but if you’re not 13 or under you aren’t the target audience). The various Star Trek TV series weren’t my thing, but the Trek movies I saw on the big screen in the ’80s had enough space battles to satisfy my Star Wars jones, and as I got older I appreciated that they had respect for their audience’s intelligence and attention span in a way that Return of the Jedi didn’t. None of the Trek movies can top The Empire Strikes Back, but I would’ve gotten a kick out of Ricardo Montalban as the Emperor: “Jessss, Luke … feeel the dark side of the Force coursing through your veins. Feeel its rich Corinthian leather.”
Oh yeah, for all the trivia buffs out there, the title of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a reference to a line in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Remember when Hamlet says, “A plague on Shatner’s folly! Whatever shall become of Star Trek the Sixth?” Of course you do.
7. BUGSY (TriStar; 12/13/91; $49.1 million)
“I believe he was blinded by love. Benny’s always put women first. That’s what makes him Benny. Only this time it’s one woman that’s got him instead of the whole damn female race.” That’s how gangster Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) describes his colleague Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, but he might as well be describing Beatty himself, who met costar Annette Bening in preproduction and immediately gave up his legendary lothario lifestyle. On March 3 they’ll have been married 20 years.
Bugsy was written by filmmaker James Toback, who met Beatty in the late ’70s. “Like Beatty, Toback had an active mind, knew a lot about a lot of things, was well read, loved Mahler, etc. etc. In short, he was good company, and kept Beatty entertained,” writes Peter Biskind in his 2010 biography Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. “Better, Toback was not going to compete with Beatty. If anything, he already had his own reputation as a dedicated womanizer, possibly even more skillful than Beatty, because he needed to be; he had less to work with.” (Do a Google image search and you’ll see what Biskind means.) In 1987 Toback wrote and directed — and Beatty coproduced — The Pick-Up Artist, starring Robert Downey Jr. as a PG-13 version of Toback, albeit one who looks more like Beatty.
Three years earlier Beatty offered his friend the chance to write Bugsy. Toback, a notorious compulsive gambler, knew Siegel’s life story by heart, and told Beatty he would deliver a first draft in ten days. Six years later, after countless drafts — roughly 5,000 pages, Toback estimated, in an essay he wrote for Premiere‘s January 1992 issue that’s both arrogant and charming, much like a confident pick-up artist, I suppose — he delivered a draft to Beatty with the hopes that he’d get to direct Bugsy. Instead Beatty, as the film’s producer, informed him that he’d already hired Barry Levinson, who closed out a hot streak in the ’80s — Diner; The Natural; Tin Men; Good Morning, Vietnam — with a Best Director win for Rain Man, which was going to be directed by Spielberg (and Sydney Pollack before that) until he decided to honor a decade-old handshake agreement with George Lucas and direct Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Bugsy, argues Biskind, was the most productive display of Beatty’s three-headed “hostile intelligences” theory of filmmaking. “Essentially, it was an insurance policy that works this way, to paraphrase him: If one person runs the show, he is hostage to his own mistakes, originating in ego, stupidity, or plain bad judgment. If two people share the responsibility, one is going to dominate the other, so in effect you still have only one person making decisions, or worse, neither will prevail and there will be a standoff. With three, he says, ‘usually the right thing prevails.’” Beatty, Toback, and Levinson made a strong actor-writer-director team, and all three were rewarded with Oscar nominations — two each for Beatty and Levinson, in fact, since they also produced the film with Mark Johnson. Bugsy received a total of ten nods, more than any other film that year, but lost all of the major awards to The Silence of the Lambs.
Levinson’s next movie was a long-dormant pet project. Toys reunited him with Good Morning, Vietnam star Robin Williams but was a critical and commercial failure. “There isn’t an ounce of insecurity in Barry,” Mark Johnson once remarked to Peter Biskind, but after Toys Levinson’s big-screen career faltered. Disclosure did well at the box office in ’94, and Wag the Dog got good reviews a few years later, but Levinson’s biggest success of the past decade seems to be the 2010 HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino in an Emmy-winning performance as Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
6. THE LAST BOY SCOUT (Warner Bros.; 12/13/91; $59.5 million)
Bruce Willis’s own pet project, Hudson Hawk, crashed and burned in the summer of ’91. “There’s a fascination lately with box office numbers, and did a picture ‘open,’” he kvetched to Entertainment Weekly in May of that year. “Nobody has to think about the movie itself. You know, my dad knows the box office scores and whether a film opened or not. My father’s a retired welder!” You mean like Jennifer Beals’s character in Flashdance? That movie made a whopping $92 million in 1983!
I just hope Bruce’s dad — and Bruce, for that matter — never read John H. Richardson’s article “The Woes of ’91: The Ten Most Important Films of a Troubled Year” in the February ’92 issue of Premiere, because landing at number six was Hudson Hawk. Richardson wrote, “File this along with Billy Bathgate under Star power, the death of. Not because the movie didn’t make any money but because it didn’t open. Bruce Willis, who so recently seemed to float in the empyrean with Arnold and Tom, couldn’t open it.”
For the record, Willis also appeared in Billy Bathgate, but in a supporting role; Dustin Hoffman is the star in question in Richardson’s piece. But along with another supporting role in Mortal Thoughts the same year, plus an easy paycheck for a few days’ work on Look Who’s Talking Too and an above-the-title turn in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities as 1990 wound down, you couldn’t escape Willis’s constantly smirking mug in ’91. (You never see his face in Look Who’s Talking Too, but I swear you can hear him smirking.) Even worse — at least for his sake — none of those films were hits, and Bonfire‘s meltdown was fully documented in Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy, in which the former star of TV’s Moonlighting comes across as an egomaniac, at one point directing a scene as if De Palma had already left for the day.
By the time The Last Boy Scout arrived in theaters in the final weeks of 1991, Willis had nowhere to go but up (though I’m sure his $14 million paycheck provided a nice cushion on the way down). Luckily for his career, The Last Boy Scout, a “buddy cop” action movie directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun, True Romance), became a modest hit. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s fast, crass, and loud, and playing a down-and-out private eye suits Willis just fine. Damon Wayans costars as his partner in crime fighting, a washed-up ex-quarterback, and stand-up comedian Taylor Negron is surprisingly good as a psychotic henchman. A young Halle Berry plays Wayans’s girlfriend. (Trivia question: What’s the name of Willis’s other “buddy cop” movie in which he costars alongside a black male alumnus of Saturday Night Live who isn’t Eddie Murphy? Answer correctly in the comments section below and I’ll say, “You answered correctly!”)
As for the math behind the movie’s box office gross, Joel Silver crunched the numbers in Premiere‘s December ’91 issue: “The action-genre audience roughly tops out at $60 million. The shitty ones do 40, 45. But if women come, it’ll go more than that. Die Hard did $82 million because it attracted women. Road House did about $30 million, all women — no men came to see Road House. If they had, it would have done $90 million!” I’ve always argued that Willis’s costar in 1995′s Die Hard: With a Vengeance should’ve been Road House‘s Patrick Swayze wearing his To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar drag-queen outfits, but nobody listened. Would’ve easily crossed $200 million domestic with or without the help of Bonnie Bedelia.
And now, a word from Kurt Collins. “The Last Boy Scout is the rare sports movie — the plot involves legalizing sports gambling, so it counts — that I never saw only because I already knew that a football player takes out a gun in one scene and shoots someone before scoring a touchdown. That was enough.” Kurt, I feel the same way when characters shoot up their own houses in movies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Way to bring down your neighbors’ property value, jerks. But please continue … “I will now probably alienate myself from all 12 of this post’s readers” — I just gained ten readers?! — “but I love sports, and sports movies, and hate sci-fi and fantasy. I fully realize how annoying loud and boisterous sports fans are, and I apologize, but the readers can’t turn their backs to me because that’s what jocks did to geeks in school and it would be hypocritical. Right? And that’s why I never saw Star Trek VI. Or I through V.”
5. JFK (Warner Bros.; 12/20/91; $70.4 million)
Back to the death of star power for a minute: Bruce Willis may not have opened Hudson Hawk, and Dustin Hoffman may not have opened Billy Bathgate — perhaps audiences were turned off by alliterative titles in the early ’90s — but the same is true of stars like Johnny Depp 20 years later. Audiences adore him as Captain Jack Sparrow in the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which have earned a staggering $3.7 billion worldwide since 2003, but his most recent film, The Rum Diary, had a $5 million opening weekend here in the States last October. Did The Rum Diary fail because the majority of Depp’s fan base still can’t get into R-rated movies without a parent or adult guardian?
I don’t know, but Brooks Barnes spared Depp in his aforementioned “Year of Disappointment” article for the New York Times, instead singling out Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in Cowboys & Aliens, Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist, and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne. But at least those three films earned back their budgets — The Rum Diary cost $45 million and returned only $21 million worldwide. Depp will always have a home at Disney, though, which bankrolls the Pirates movies. The most recent installment, 2011′s On Stranger Tides, took in a series low of $241 million in the U.S. on a budget of $250 million, but overseas it grossed more than three times that amount, pushing its international total over the billion-dollar mark.
Even so, the Wall Street Journal reported in August that “high production and marketing costs eroded profits” for the film, and in the January 9 New York Times an article about the president of Disney’s marketing division noted that “global advertising now costs at least $150 million for a major event film,” which is why the studios and their financial partners continue to stick to the tried and true to reduce their risk: sequels, remakes, and stars who can sell those sequels and remakes to the public — until they’re no longer stars, of course. (Once all the holiday receipts have been counted, it’s expected that the list of the ten highest-grossing films of 2011, stateside, will include nine sequels and Thor, which, like Captain America: The First Avenger, The Incredible Hulk, and the two Iron Man movies, is essentially a prequel to this summer’s The Avengers.) Next up for Depp and Disney: a $215 million remake of The Lone Ranger. That’s right, a $200 million western. I guess Larry McMurtry wasn’t kidding in Hollywood: A Third Memoir when he said that horses and cattle have become increasingly expensive to use in movies over the years. This means that if the horse from 2010′s Secretariat has to be “put down” someday soon, we can’t just assume that a broken leg is the cause; more likely it’s because he asked for a bigger trailer.
(In case you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Oliver Stone’s JFK, it’s my circuitous way of saying that I think Trigger fired the fourth shot. You laugh, but who would ever suspect a horse? And because Roy Rogers’s sidekick died in 1965, we’ll never know what really happened, will we?)
Kevin Costner stars in JFK as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, whose investigation into the Kennedy assassination provides the factual basis of Stone’s docudrama. “There are only two stars in the business right now,” a longtime agent told Premiere‘s Jeffrey Goodell in 1991. “Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner. They’re the only ones who guarantee asses in seats.” Nineteen ninety-one was indeed a very good year for Costner: his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, overcame bad buzz — the three-hour western was nicknamed “Kevin’s Gate” as soon as he went over budget (the culprit: thousands of buffalo all demanding their own personal assistants, makeup artists, and bodyguards) — becoming a box office hit and winning seven Oscars that spring, including Best Director and Best Picture (with coproducer Jim Wilson) for Costner. In June he played the mythical lead in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the highest-grossing movie of the year after Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and in December came JFK, another three-hour behemoth that scored with audiences.
Costner’s winning streak didn’t last. The Bodyguard (1992) took in $410 million around the globe and launched a soundtrack album headlined by costar Whitney Houston that sold 44 million copies, but Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), featuring one of Costner’s best performances, only caught on with critics, not moviegoers. Costner then starred in another three-hour western, Wyatt Earp (1994), but it tanked, and Waterworld (1995) couldn’t overcome bad buzz about its budget ($175 million) the way Dances With Wolves had, though it still managed to haul in a respectable $264 million worldwide. Tin Cup (1996), a reunion with Bull Durham director Ron Shelton, restored some of Costner’s luster, but his fortunes sank once again with his second directorial effort, The Postman (1997), a three-hour western of sorts — it takes place in a postapocalyptic future, much like Waterworld — that earned less than a quarter of its $80 million budget. On the bright side, his most successful film since The Postman is 2003′s Open Range (final domestic gross: $58 million), his third film as director, and yes, it’s a western.
Costner was set to play a vicious slave master in Quentin Tarantino’s next film, Django Unchained, also a western of sorts, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts presumably caused by his upcoming History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, directed by Kevin Reynolds, who previously directed, and famously clashed with, the actor in both Robin Hood and Waterworld. It likely would’ve been an effective change of pace for Costner, akin to his shades-of-grey role in A Perfect World. If anyone knows how to reignite an actor’s career it’s Tarantino, who’s since recast the part with Kurt Russell, star of his 2007 film Death Proof.
Now that I’ve completely exhausted the topic of star power and its unpredictable nature, let’s get back to JFK. “Good movie, better directing. Stone’s best, I think. The way it’s shot is very cool, kind of like a kaleidoscope or a shiny seashell,” Kurt says, throwing in a tongue twister for no good reason. “Some of Garrison’s projections are questionable, and Stone drinks the Kool-Aid, but it’s still great. I will now say that this movie was also a go-to movie when I worked in D.C. after college and my friends and I played a movie game at work that involved secretly linking movies while the next person had to guess the link. So many stars in JFK, but it’s only a coincidence — or is it? — that Kevin Bacon shows up.” It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma is what it is. There are so many stars in JFK, in fact, that Gary Oldman, who plays Lee Harvey Oswald, and Tommy Lee Jones, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Clay Shaw, couldn’t get past the trailer’s velvet rope (see below).
4. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Walt Disney; 11/13/91; $171.3 million)
“Animation tends to top out at around $80 million,” Premiere stated in its 1991 “Ultimate Fall Preview” as it listed potential roadblocks to Beauty and the Beast‘s success. Breaking tradition, the Disney film grossed $145 million, adding another $25 million in 2002 via an IMAX reissue, and last Friday Beauty returned to theaters once again, this time in 3-D, earning an estimated $23.5 million over the four-day holiday weekend for a second-place finish behind the Mark Wahlberg action movie Contraband. The studio is hoping to capitalize on the success of The Lion King, the 1994 blockbuster whose 3-D edition earned a surprisingly robust $94 million last fall; only Puss in Boots and Paranormal Activity 3 grossed more. Disney plans to reissue The Little Mermaid (1989) in 3-D in September 2013, while the studio’s Pixar division will add an extra dimension to Finding Nemo (2003) this September and Monsters, Inc. (2001) next January.
Beauty and the Beast held the distinction of being the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture until 2010, when its streak was broken by Pixar’s Up. That film had an advantage, however: it was one of ten Best Picture nominees, not the standard five of years past. Toy Story 3 was similarly nominated for Best Picture with nine other films a year later. For 2012 the Academy’s rules are a little different: “There may not be more than ten nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast.” Next year I predict that the Academy will implement a controversial “designated winner” rule since Meryl Streep is great in everything, and in 2014, as part of a last-ditch effort to improve Nielsen ratings, the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore will host the Oscars telecast, at least until they get bored around the two-hour mark and decide they’d rather go somewhere and drink.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise had never directed a feature-length film before Beauty and the Beast, and though their efforts weren’t recognized by the Academy, the film received six nominations in all, winning for Alan Menken’s musical score and the title song, written by Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. The latter’s Best Original Song Oscar was awarded posthumously: Ashman died of AIDS during production of Beauty and the Beast; the film is dedicated to his memory.
However, he also cowrote three songs with Menken for Disney’s next big animated film, 1992′s Aladdin, which outgrossed Beauty and the Beast with $217 million stateside, upping the ante for The Lion King two years later. That film’s $312 million gross permanently broke the $80 million ceiling mentioned by Premiere, and a year later Pixar, courtesy of Disney’s distribution arm, released its feature debut, Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated film. Not only did Pixar add a technical sophistication previously unseen in animated movies, it raised the bar for storytelling sophistication and visual and verbal wit with films like Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), and Up, paving the way for Steven Spielberg and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Pictures to create its own digitally animated films, including the Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda series. But Pixar still reigns supreme when it comes to quality assurance — I’ve heard that the two Cars movies were disappointing, but hey, nobody’s perfect — and it’s safe to say that Disney’s army of accountants sleep much better at night knowing that Pixar is under their roof and not some other studio’s, especially since its stable of a dozen films released between 1995 and 2011 have grossed an average of $252 million per film.
Can we argue that Beauty and the Beast and its Best Picture nomination ushered in a golden age of animation in the early ’90s that continues to this day? (Credit must also be given to The Little Mermaid, the 1989 Disney film that won Oscars for Alan Menken’s score and the song “Under the Sea,” penned by Menken and Howard Ashman, and boosted morale at the Mouse House after box office disappointments like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective in the mid-’80s.) Yes, we can, says Kurt Collins, disappointing me with his agreeable nature. I said “argue,” dammit!
“It makes the original golden age of Snow White and Fantasia look pathetic. It reminds me of baseball now as opposed to the so-called golden age of baseball in the ’40s and ’50s. Did you know that to test for German spies in World War II American officers would ask questions about baseball that every typical American man should know, such as what team Ted Williams played for? Would you have been shot, Private Cass?” It’s impossible to say, but I would hope that my photographic memory of the New York Knights’ successful 1939 pennant drive under the leadership of Roy Hobbs would ultimately save me. “Anyway, that particular ‘golden age’ of baseball had the worst attendance figures ever. It’s all been romantically blown out of proportion,” Kurt says.
“But moving forward, those Pixar movies you mentioned changed entertainment. I love watching them with my kids. The Incredibles (2004) was great; the Toy Story movies were awesome. I remember my mom forcing my sister to take my twin brother and me to The Rescuers (1977). She was pissed, and even at seven years old I knew the movie sucked. Maybe I shuffled out of the theater thinking, ‘One day Hollywood will get it right …’ And not to sound all feminist, but I can’t stand the old Disney movies like Cinderella and Snow White, where the heroine falls for the nameless, faceless guy because he has money. To come full circle, Beauty and the Beast changed the leading lady forever. I love ya, Belle!”
Orlando Sentinel critic Roger Moore appears to agree with Kurt. In his January 13 review of Beauty‘s 3-D edition he writes, “It’s still glorious, from story to songs to vocal performances to the message that this nonprincess Disney princess tale from 1991 passes on: Don’t let customs and social restrictions hold you back. Be yourself, girls, especially if you ‘want much more than this provincial life’ … Twenty years and the rise of Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Sony Animation and Blue Sky Studios later, and no child’s cartoon has topped that for message.”
3. THE PRINCE OF TIDES (Columbia; 12/25/91; $74.7 million)
The message of The Prince of Tides, Barbra Streisand’s adaptation of Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel, is similar to that of Beauty and the Beast: Don’t let the ethical restriction of sleeping with your psychiatrist hold you back, especially if she also happens to be the director who’s steering you toward your first Oscar nomination. Okay, so technically Streisand’s Dr. Susan Lowenstein is treating the suicidal sister of Nick Nolte’s Tom Wingo, not Tom himself, but like any make-believe shrink who’s worth her salt, she fixes what’s broken in Tom after just a few weeks of unofficial therapy sessions designed to help Dr. Lowenstein uncover the childhood source of his sister’s pain. “A story of mothers and sons … husbands and wives … friends and lovers,” intones the narrator of the movie’s trailer. “Behind all the joy … and all the tears … lie the memories that haunt us … and the truth that sets us free.” As Kurt says, “It sounds like something I wrote in tenth grade for a book report on a book I didn’t read.”
Robert Redford was initially interested in playing Tom Wingo. Streisand and he sported an easy chemistry in Sydney Pollack’s 1973 romance The Way We Were, and had been looking for another movie they could star in together. But Redford “couldn’t commit to it,” Streisand explained to Premiere‘s Nancy Griffin. “You know, he’s like Warren Beatty — they don’t commit.” (Tell it to Annette Bening, sister!) Nolte was eventually cast, and, thanks to The Prince of Tides and Cape Fear, had the best year of his career as far as box office receipts are concerned. He received his second Oscar nomination in 1999 for Paul Schrader’s Affliction, but because the members of the Academy were curious to see how badly Roberto Benigni would embarrass himself if he won Best Actor for Life Is Beautiful, Nolte wuz robbed. (In case you missed it, Benigni didn’t disappoint.)
“I think Nolte was initially hired as an actor in the ’70s for his hunky Marlboro Man/David ‘Hutch’ Soul looks,” says Kurt, “but I actually think he shows a lot of heart in The Prince of Tides. Streisand’s part is kind of annoying because she directed the movie — you can see how much time was spent to make her look good.” Maybe that’s why she wasn’t nominated for Best Director — it was her second go-round behind the camera, after 1983′s Yentl — but it’s not as if blatantly obvious movie-star vanity prevented male actor-directors like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson (1995′s Braveheart), or Warren Beatty (1981′s Reds) from being nominated for — and winning — that award (Beatty was also nominated for codirecting 1978′s Heaven Can Wait with Buck Henry).
I cry misogyny! But I also cry whenever I want my Facebook friends to know I’m sadder than they are about the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the death of Steve Jobs, the way Facebook occasionally makes minute changes to my profile page that momentarily disrupt the flow of original thoughts — okay, fine, my complaints about the judge who keeps taking my iPhone away from me in the jury box — that my friends have come to expect from me 19 hours out of every day, etc. I guess what I’m trying to say is: (A) that judge really sucks, and (B) I’ll declare on Facebook that Oscar hypocrisy sucks too if you promise right now to “like” it.
The Prince of Tides was recognized by the Academy with seven nominations, including Best Picture, but the omission of Streisand from the ’91 ballot certainly raised the hackles of Linda Richman, the host of “Coffee Talk,” the popular Saturday Night Live sketch created by and starring Mike Myers as Richman. When Roseanne and Tom Arnold hosted the show on February 22, 1992, she and special guest Madonna joined Myers on the “Coffee Talk” couch, and according to the SNL Archives website (snl.jt.org), all three were genuinely surprised when Streisand herself dropped by at the end of the sketch.
2. FATHER OF THE BRIDE (Touchstone; 12/20/91; $89.3 million)
The original Cape Fear had Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. The original Father of the Bride (1950) had Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. A hard act to follow, but for the remake the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers — he directed, she produced, they both worked on the screenplay — cast Steve Martin as the father and newcomer Kimberly Williams as the bride, with the always reliable Diane Keaton as the mother (she’d previously starred in the couple’s 1987 film Baby Boom) and the always inventive Martin Short as a wedding planner with an impenetrable accent. The “Shmyers,” as they were collectively known in Hollywood at the time, even threw in a Culkin for extra insurance: Macaulay’s younger brother Kieran, who plays, naturally, the younger brother of the bride. It’s a family comedy that’s held up quite well over the past two decades, “and as a father of three girls I would probably cry if I saw it today,” says Kurt. But first allow me to cry on my Facebook wall about your touching, candid sentiment, old friend. (Is it blasphemous to refer to that particular wall as my wailing wall?)
The Shmyers attempted to build on Father of the Bride‘s success three years later with I Love Trouble, a romantic comedy in the style of screwball classics like His Girl Friday (1940). It stars Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte, who used his newfound clout from The Prince of Tides and Cape Fear to earn a big fat paycheck on this one, but Roberts and he have both reportedly called it the worst movie they’ve ever made, and she’s quoted as saying that Nolte is “a disgusting human being.” When asked to respond to her comment in 2003, Nolte told a reporter, “It’s not nice to call someone ‘disgusting.’ But she’s not a nice person. Everyone knows that.” (Guess who Roberts originally pursued for the role? Harrison Ford.)
I Love Trouble wasn’t loved by its stars, but critics and audiences didn’t care for it either, so the Shmyers returned to familiar territory the following year with Father of the Bride Part II (1995), a sequel to a remake but also a remake of a sequel: Father’s Little Dividend (1951), starring Tracy and Taylor once again. Meyers directed the couple’s next outing, The Parent Trap (1998), before splitting up with Shyer in ’99. She reunited with Diane Keaton for 2003′s Something’s Gotta Give and Steve Martin for 2009′s It’s Complicated, but so far she hasn’t written me back about my treatment for Father of the Bride Part III: Aunt Bed, in which Martin’s 17-year-old grandson knocks up the daughter Keaton gave birth to at the end of Part II. Yeah, it’s a sleazy premise, but if you ask me, Meyers’s movies have been stuffed with so many upper-middle-class people living in comfortable, spacious surroundings that it’s about time she made a visit to the trailer park.
1. HOOK (TriStar; 12/11/91; $119.6 million)
In Steven Spielberg’s $70 million semisequel to J.M. Barrie’s beloved play Peter Pan (1904) — the basic setup is “What if Peter Pan finally grew up?” — Julia Roberts is Tinkerbell, but in “Peter Pandemonium,” Fred Schruers’s December ’91 article for Premiere, the Georgia native is rumored to have been nicknamed “Tinkerhell” on the set. A-ha! Nick Nolte was right! But hold on a second — in the play and Barrie’s subsequent 1911 novelization, Peter and Wendy, Tinkerbell is by turns sweet to Peter and hostile to Wendy, whom she views as a romantic threat. “The extremes in her personality are explained … by the fact that a fairy’s size prevents her from holding more than one feeling at a time, so when she is angry she has no counterbalancing compassion,” says the Wikipedia entry for everyone’s favorite fairy. Sounds to me like Roberts was just being true to her character, and besides, did you see how small she was in Hook? Hollywood’s leading ladies practically have to starve themselves to remain on the A list, but Roberts went one better by shrinking herself to the size of a pint glass. You’d be a tad grumpy yourself.
“I’ve never seen Hook, and I don’t know the story of Peter Pan,” Kurt confessed to me, so here’s a one-sentence summary from Fred Schruers’s Premiere article: “Peter is a lad who’s run away to Never Never Land to escape growing up, living there as a leader of a gang of lost children.” Do you know why that sounds familiar, Kurt? Because it’s also the story of Jesus Christ, or so said the clergyman who delivered the best/worst Christmas Eve sermon I’ve ever heard just last month at a church that shall remain nameless (you’re welcome, sir).
His “hook,” if you will, was that Peter and Wendy was published one hundred years ago, and because we celebrate the birth of Jesus every Christmas the son of God never grows up, just like Peter Pan, or something like that. I’m sad to say that this guy actually used the phrase “Peter Pan-demonium” in his sermon, yet he never quoted from “Never Never Land,” a song featured in the 1954 Broadway musical Peter Pan whose lyrics, courtesy of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for heaven as well as God Himself: “It’s not on any chart / You must find it in your heart … It may be miles beyond the moon / Or right there where you stand / Just keep an open mind / And then suddenly you’ll find / Never Never Land.” Instead he ended his sermon by stating that the Bible’s most hirsute Jewish carpenter lives in “Everland.” Oy vey …
Kurt, why don’t I let Dustin Hoffman, a.k.a. the star who couldn’t open Billy Bathgate, explain J.M. Barrie’s creation to you instead? “He says a rather profound thing, Barrie: he says that Peter Pan doesn’t want to grow up, because being a kid exemplifies youth and joy and innocence — and great selfishness,” the titular villain of Hook told Schruers. “Once you give that up, you become more of a person and, at the same time, lose your innocence.” And if you’re Jesus you eventually get nailed to a cross after being betrayed by a “lost boy” named Judas, but don’t worry, Kurt — Spielberg’s movie rewards its protagonist (Robin Williams) with a decidedly happier ending.
Premiere‘s “Ultimate Fall Preview” issue predicted that Hook might nab Oscar nominations for Hoffman and Williams and finally provide Spielberg with a Best Director Oscar. But before you ask “Who spiked their apple cider with pixie dust?” keep in mind that the magazine made its forecast before anyone had actually seen the movie. And it’s worth noting that Williams did win an Oscar six years later for Good Will Hunting (Best Supporting Actor), and Spielberg did win Best Director, first in ’94 and again in ’99 (for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, respectively). Moreover, Julia Roberts won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich in 2001, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who wasn’t yet a star when she played the young Wendy Darling in Hook‘s flashback scenes, won Best Actress herself two years earlier for Shakespeare in Love. (Hoffman had already won Best Actor twice, for Kramer Vs. Kramer in 1980 and Rain Man in ’89. His next project, the HBO series Luck, premieres January 29 and costars Nick Nolte, which means Harrison Ford must have been unavailable.)
Hook turned out to be a good-luck charm for its actors, you could say, but it represents Spielberg at his most middling. A Peter Pan movie seemed like a natural fit for the director who hadn’t yet grown up — Schindler’s List made critics see him in a new light, of course, despite earlier “adult” successes with The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) — but Hook lumbers across the screen, as if Spielberg had already moved on in his mind to directing the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), leaving the less predictable monster-sized personalities of Hoffman, Williams, and Roberts far behind. (Five-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close has a cameo in Hook as a male pirate. Talk about getting your homework done early — Close is in a select number of theaters now with Albert Nobbs, in which she plays a woman who passes as a man for 30 years in 19th-century Ireland. The movie expands to a wide release on January 27.)
But no matter who, or what, he’s putting in front of the camera, Spielberg will always love popcorn movies. “I think it would be a real boring community if all of us sat around and made wonderful little films like Driving Miss Daisy, The Commitments, and Boyz N the Hood,” he told Premiere in ’91. “Now, those are terrific films, but if every studio only made films like that, there would be a tremendous craving for T2 or Batman 5.” He’s right, you know. As soon as I have the chance later this year to watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Netflix, I’m almost certain I’ll skip it and watch Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk in The Avengers instead.
“I know there are certain studios that I’m very involved in that have suddenly said, ‘We’re only going to make one megamovie a year, as opposed to three,’” Spielberg continued. “And that’s smart, but what will happen is that the nation will have to go on a diet: they’ll have to accept low-cal movies. The films with a lot of fat content — as well as a lot of iron — are going to be fewer and farther between.”
Fat chance, actually. Twenty years later the studios are relying more and more on outside partners to cofinance their blockbusters — Columbia teamed up with Paramount to produce Spielberg’s current blockbuster, The Adventures of Tintin, and Spielberg’s DreamWorks partnered with Mumbai-based Reliance Entertainment to bring his current historical drama, War Horse, to the screen through a distribution deal with Disney — but they’re still cranking out the high-calorie junk food, hoping to reduce risk by paradoxically spending more and more. (In case you were unaware, War Horse focuses on the conspiracy theory that President Kennedy was killed by Trigger because he wanted to pull American troops out of Vietnam, which would have adversely affected the fortunes of the U.S. military-industrial complex.)
“To save itself, Hollywood has to keep growing, finding new markets to exploit,” Jeffrey Goodell wrote in Premiere 20 years ago. “The foreign market continues to grow, albeit slowly, as more and more countries emerge from the dark ages to build and update their movie theaters.” Naturally, some filmmakers were already missing the good old days in 1991. “There used to be more time between the manufacture and the selling of the product,” Warren Beatty lamented to Peter Biskind. “[Audiences] had time to adjust to the newness of it. Now the product has to be sold immediately. Bang! One week in thousands of theaters. Therefore the product has to be similar to past products. With jokes they can get right away. It’s all because of the cost of television advertising. Because of greed. We’re reaching for the long ball every time. The amounts of money that are gambled are so large that we don’t gamble with the art. We’re not trying to make movies, we’re trying to make hits.”
That hunger for hits continues unabated, but because of the increased availability and popularity of on-demand viewing, DVRs, and “streaming” websites like Netflix and Hulu, “the traditional way of turning out a broad audience — TV commercials — has been undercut by the splintering of television viewing,” reports the New York Times. (“Another breakthrough in technology that may eventually give the business a shot of adrenaline [is] pay-per-view,” Jeffrey Goodell predicted. “The FCC’s recent decision allowing telephone companies to carry video may open the way for movies to bypass conventional broadcast media. Dial up exactly what you want, when you want it — no need to run out to the video store.” Why weren’t you reading Premiere in 1991, Blockbuster Video executives?) And as of 2010 foreign ticket sales accounted for roughly 68 percent of the American film industry’s combined box office total, according to the Wall Street Journal. Understandably, Hollywood is paying attention to those figures, but it’s also catering to the interests of international audiences. For example, Disney pulled the plug on a romantic comedy called “Wedding Banned” in 2009 before it went into production because its stars, Robin Williams and Diane Keaton, aren’t international stars anymore, and because American jokes are often lost in translation once they cross borders. Excuse me for a second while I toss my Father of the Bride Part III treatment back in the drawer …
“There’s a whole generation moving in behind our generation,” Spielberg said in ’91. “The true technocrats have come in. We’re the last generation that learned movies from movies. This new generation has learned movies from TV. I think MTV has been one of the most destructive influences on the current crop of movies that are being made … MTV is giving you a four-minute video on a song and bombarding you with eighteen-frame cuts.”
In 1991 a 26-year-old Wesleyan University graduate named Michael Bay directed the video for the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself,” a prescient title considering that he’s since built his feature-film career on masturbatory action movies like the Transformers series, of which Spielberg is an executive producer. (In fact he’s the one who hired the guy in the first place! Shame on you, sir.) Right or wrong, Bay’s style has been influential enough to give rise to the term “chaos cinema”: in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine Alex Pappademas wrote, “The standard knock on Chaos Cinema filmmakers is that they’re constructing narratives entirely from rupture and collision. But if movies are going to go there, they should really go there. Let’s stop asking directors who clearly have no affinity for story or character to pretend otherwise.”
And if movies are primarily going to be watched on tablet computers and smartphones in the future by people with even shorter attention spans than ours, why not just shoot action scenes completely in close-up starting now, without any remaining sense of compositional space or visual logic? Like Pappademas says, if movies are going to go there, they should really go there. In her New York Times review of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo last November, Manohla Dargis pointed out that in the early 1890s the first movies were made available to the public on Kinetoscopes, “peephole machines that enabled viewers to watch brief films, one person at a time,” with the images projected “less than two inches wide.” Sounds a lot like the iPhone I used to watch the Bradley Cooper-Robert De Niro movie Limitless during jury duty.
Once again, history repeats itself. Only this time it comes with a bunch of cool apps.