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 pretend it’s still February 13, 2017, so we can revisit the top ten films of February 13, 1997!
10. Michael (distributor: New Line; release date: 12/25/96; final domestic gross: $95.3 million)
When Look Who’s Talking Now, the second sequel to Look Who’s Talking, arrived in theaters in November 1993, any career-comeback momentum John Travolta had accumulated from the first film’s success four years earlier was long gone. But one year later he was enjoying a second, more substantial comeback thanks to his performance as hitman Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and this time around he seemed determined not to let his good fortune go to waste. Aside from the little-seen White Man’s Burden (1995), the actor’s hot streak continued with Get Shorty in the fall of ’95 and extended into ’96 with Broken Arrow, Phenomenon, and, just in time for Jesus’s birthday, Michael, starring Travolta as an honest-to-God angel who smokes, drinks, curses like a sailor, and indulges in junk food and one-night stands, but because he smells like chocolate-chip cookies and can resurrect dead pets, he’s graded on a curve. Travolta reteamed with Michael‘s director, Nora Ephron, for the 2000 comedy Lucky Numbers, but by that point his second-comeback box-office luck had run out.
9. Beverly Hills Ninja (TriStar; 1/17/97; $31.4 million)
Dennis Dugan has directed 14 feature films since 1990. Eight of those have starred Adam Sandler, including Dugan’s last six, and if Chris Farley, the headliner of Dugan’s Beverly Hills Ninja, hadn’t died from a drug overdose in December of ’97 at the age of 33, one could easily imagine him, not Kevin James, appearing alongside his former Saturday Night Live castmate in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007), Grown Ups (2010), and Grown Ups 2 (2013), all helmed by Dugan. Would Farley have won an Oscar if he, not James, had played the iconic lead role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop? That’s an excellent question I just asked, but a more pressing question comes from senior Box Office Flashback adviser Kurt Collins: “Do you think Farley would have evolved comedically, or was dying young his best career move?”
Well, Sandler will be appearing alongside Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman later this year in a new comedy from my favorite writer-director of this century, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha), so it’s possible that Farley would similarly have grown tired of the physical humor that made him famous on SNL and in movies like Tommy Boy (1995) and wanted to try his hand at a more cerebral type of comedy. Or maybe, like John Travolta’s character in Michael, Farley is a vice-ridden but good-hearted angel currently hanging out in Iowa and cashing intellectual-property royalty checks from Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda movies.
8. Metro (Touchstone; 1/17/97; $32.0 million)
“Was this one of Eddie Murphy’s post-fatherhood, no-cursing movies?” Kurt asks. “As a father I guess I’m supposed to respect his decision to make responsible movies that he can show his kids and mine — but f**k that s**t. Why can’t he just squirm awkwardly like the rest of us dads when our children ask what ‘doggy style’ means? I’d rather sit my three girls down in front of 48 Hrs. and say, ‘Enjoy yourselves, but no talking to daddy for the next 100 minutes.'” Murphy’s turn toward family-friendly fare began in earnest with Doctor Dolittle and voice work in Disney’s Mulan one year after Metro quickly commuted from theaters to home video, so if you want to hear him drop a full arsenal of F-bombs, he won’t disappoint in this R-rated action-comedy directed by Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, Save the Last Dance). The advertising for Metro initially made me wonder why Axel Foley, Murphy’s character in the Beverly Hills Cop series, had grown baby dreads and moved to San Francisco. Had the Beverly Hills Ninja rendered his job obsolete? After a welcome return to comedic form in the 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor, Murphy didn’t need to remind anyone of his phoned-in performance in the franchise killer Beverly Hills Cop III (1994).
7. The English Patient (Miramax; 11/15/96; $78.6 million)
If Twentieth Century Fox had had its way, Demi Moore would have played Kristin Scott Thomas’s part in The English Patient. That sort of corporate thinking may explain how Chris O’Donnell, fresh off his Blockbuster Entertainment Award-worthy performance as Robin in Batman Forever (1995), came to be cast as a young Ernest Hemingway in Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War, released one month after The English Patient, so it’s a good thing that Patient‘s producer, Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus), and director, Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), stood their ground — which turned into quicksand when Fox abandoned the project shortly before filming was set to begin in Italy. Miramax Films came to the rescue soon after, and its investment paid off when The English Patient caught on with audiences — except for a certain New Yorker named Elaine Benes, as you may have heard — earning nearly $232 million worldwide and winning nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche).
6. Evita (Hollywood; 12/25/96; $50.0 million)
Before I go any further, Kurt would like me to mention that he leads a writing workshop in Atlanta for high school students. Could your child be the next Hemingway? Or, at the very least, the nonthreatening Chris O’Donnell version of Hemingway, a.k.a. the Papa next door? As Kurt says, “I have years of experience writing and editing — specifically, writing e-mails to the parents of students who turn in papers without editing them first.” He also has some unfiltered thoughts about Madonna, the star of Evita, so let’s indulge him: “Average singer. Average songwriter. Average looks. But she had the most unbelievable timing with MTV being in every household by 1985, combined with the fact that the American public could still blush at the word ‘virgin.’ And didn’t I read that she recently talked about her undying love for Sean Penn once again? I would like to think that my ex-girlfriends speak of me with such reverence, but I never punched them, so probably not.”
I’ll try a more diplomatic approach and say that Madonna’s never needed to be the greatest singer or actress since her most impressive talent has always been her marketing prowess. (And that’s why I think Mr. Why Aren’t More Parents Signing Their Damn Kids Up for My Workshop? has such a problem with her.) She won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Eva PerÁ³n in Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Evita, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice stage musical, but it didn’t catch on with Oscar voters the way Chicago did in 2003 — 13 nominations and 6 wins, including Best Picture — or La La Land did this year — 14 nominations and 6 wins, excluding Best Picture, as it turned out, but if Vladimir Putin had been able to influence the voting process, I’m sure La La Land would’ve won that award too. Nevertheless, Evita was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Song for Webber and Rice’s “You Must Love Me,” the title of which could have easily doubled as Madonna Inc.’s corporate motto in the ’80s and ’90s.
5. Scream (Dimension; 12/20/96; $103.0 million)
Donald Trump is the Scream of U.S. presidents: he’s funny and scary all at once. Actually, that’s not fair, because Scream is never unintentionally funny. Many Americans hope to prevent a second term of office for Trump in 2020, but Scream, directed by Wes Craven one year after he made the much less successful Eddie Murphy horror-comedy Vampire in Brooklyn, spawned three sequels, and Scary Movie, a spoof of Scream, generated four of its own, despite Scream already being a clever satire of horror-movie conventions and cliches. (Making matters even more meta, Scream‘s working title was “Scary Movie.”)
Scream, Evita, The English Patient, and Metro were all distributed by Disney through various subdivisions — Dimension Films, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films, and Touchstone Pictures, respectively — but in 2010 Disney sold Miramax and its Dimension label to an investment group for $663 million (it had purchased the company for only $60 million 17 years earlier), while Hollywood was shuttered as a ministudio by 2001, followed by Touchstone’s demise about six years later. Disney now has glossier, less adult-targeted subdivisions with names like Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm; five of the ten highest-grossing movies of 2016 came from Disney and those subdivisions, including the top three, Rogue One (Lucasfilm), Finding Dory (Pixar), and Captain America: Civil War (Marvel).
4. Jerry Maguire (TriStar; 12/13/96; $153.9 million)
In January the Chicago-based video collective Everything Is Terrible! opened a pop-up store inside Los Angeles’s iam8bit art gallery stocked with nothing but VHS tapes of Jerry Maguire. None of the tapes were available for rental or purchase; instead, Everything Is Terrible! charged admission for live music to raise funds for construction of a pyramid of its 14,000-plus (and counting) Jerry cassettes. They claim it’s the title they’ve come across more than any other in the past decade while searching thrift stores for obscure videotapes, so if you’re one of the thousands who discarded your copy after it debuted on home video in 1997, your memories of writer-director Cameron Crowe’s Best Picture nominee may be as muddled as Kurt’s: “Not sure if you’ve heard of this one, Robert, because it kind of came and went, despite Cuba Gooding Jr. winning an Oscar for his performance as O.J. Simpson. It wasn’t shown on basic cable that much, either. Plus, I believe that for a movie to be memorable it really needs to try and create a buzz through the use of clever catchphrases spoken by tortured romantics and outlandish costars, and this one just didn’t do that. Ironically, Jerry Maguire is all about the pitfalls of being a sports agent, but it actually led to a dramatic increase in universities offering newly created sports-management majors.”
Jerry may be a fictional character, but he chose the right career path: in a recent Vanity Fair article about the increase in technology and decrease in profits that are currently “disrupting” the entertainment industry, Nick Bilton wrote, “Actors, in many ways, have been disrupted for years — from the reliance on costumed superheroes to the rise of C.G.I. filmmaking. Many agents whom I’ve spoken with already seem to know this and have moved their portfolios away from Hollywood to include, among others, clients from professional sports.” Tom Cruise was paid $20 million for Jerry Maguire, which, appropriately enough, popularized the catchphrase “Show me the money” — never mind that Jerry is fired 20 minutes into the movie for writing a mission statement for his agency that includes the directive “Fewer clients. Less money” — but when the home-video market began to shrink a decade later, cutting off a lucrative source of posttheatrical revenue that had once encouraged studios like Disney to invest in Miramax and Touchstone’s medium-budget movies for adults, so did the majority of those $20 million paychecks for stars not already attached to franchises. (Creative Artists Agency, the dominant talent agency in Hollywood from approximately 1985 to ’95, created CAA Sports in 2006.)
Cruise, who’s usually savvy about his career choices, may have sensed by the mid-’90s that a fundamental shift in the movie business was beginning to take shape: six months before Jerry Maguire arrived in theaters, he starred in Mission: Impossible, a feature-length version of the 1966-’73 TV series that doubled as his first producing credit; the sixth film in the franchise begins filming in April for a July 2018 launch. Since 2012 Cruise has also made two movies based on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, and this summer he stars in The Mummy, Universal Pictures’s attempt at big-banging a series of interconnected monster movies (e.g., Dracula, the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, the president of the United States of America, Steve Bannon, etc.) akin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has provided Robert Downey Jr. with supersized paydays for playing Iron Man, a character that Cruise attempted to bring to cinemas ten years before Downey won the part. The single-season Saturday Night Live alumnus was reportedly paid $40 million up front for both Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War, with millions more added to his money pile once those movies’ box-office receipts were tallied.
Frankly, I miss the days when Tom Cruise starred in $100 million-grossing crowd-pleasers that didn’t require him to fire a gun or commit to a sequel. That exclusive club includes Rain Man (1988), A Few Good Men (1992), and The Firm (1993) but also Jerry Maguire, which completely fails the Bechdel test — when I watched it again recently I noticed that every conversation between Jerry’s assistant and eventual love interest, Dorothy (Renée Zellweger), and her sister, Laurel (Bonnie Hunt), centers on Jerry until Dorothy finally says, “Can we talk about something else?” — but for the most part it holds up as a big-hearted comedy that receives a shot of adrenaline whenever Cuba Gooding Jr. appears on-screen as Rod Tidwell, a brash but insecure wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. It’s a performance that continues to impress — Cameron Crowe, to his credit, gifted the actor with a three-dimensional character — although Gooding is given a run for his money by Jonathan Lipnicki, who may just be the cutest kid ever cast in a motion picture. My mom especially loved Lipnicki, which is why I bought her Jerry Maguire on VHS 20 years ago. Now, of course, I’m wondering if, and when, she donated it to the Salvation Army.
3. The Beautician and the Beast (Paramount; 2/7/97; $11.4 million)
Fran Drescher made a memorable film debut in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever when she asked John Travolta’s dancing machine, Tony Manero, “Are you as good in bed as you are on that dance floor?” The Queens native didn’t become a household name until she headed to the small screen 16 years later to cocreate and star in The Nanny, but the CBS sitcom’s successful six-season run gave Drescher the clout to headline a big-screen comedy of her own, The Beautician and the Beast, in which she plays an American beauty-school instructor who somehow ends up teaching the children of a gruff Eastern European dictator (Timothy Dalton).
Speaking of Americans under the thumb of foreign dictators, President Trump made a cameo on an episode of The Nanny in 1996. Twenty years later Drescher’s ex-husband, Nanny cocreator Peter Marc Jacobson, told Newsweek, “We sent the script to Mr. Trump, and in return I got a message from casting that said, ‘Mr. Trump has a problem with the line above: “Do all you handsome millionaires know each other?”‘ I was actually impressed and thought, Isn’t it nice that he’s humble and doesn’t want to call himself a millionaire? Then I read the rest of the note, and it said, ‘Since he’s a billionaire, he would like the line changed accordingly.'” And since he’s now the president, he probably refers to Newsweek as Fakenewsweek, but that’s okay, because on November 8 life began imitating Mike Judge’s 2006 dystopian-future comedy, Idiocracy, so all news seems fake now anyway.
2. Dante’s Peak (Universal; 2/7/97; $67.1 million)
Timothy Dalton only got to play James Bond twice, in 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence to Kill, before the series was put on hold for six years due to a legal dispute between producer Albert R. Broccoli and MGM/UA, the studio that distributed the films. Dalton was replaced by Pierce Brosnan, originally the top candidate to replace Roger Moore in ’86 when it looked like his TV series, Remington Steele, was going to be canceled after four seasons. But when it received a last-minute renewal from NBC, which had noticed an increase in ratings once rumors began to circulate that Brosnan might be the next Bond, Broccoli lost interest in the actor because he “didn’t want his 007 tainted by television,” according to People magazine. (Remington Steele was canceled a year later after a shortened fifth season of just six episodes.)
Thirty years later, of course, everybody wants to be tainted by television. Last year Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta received Emmy nominations for their work in FX’s The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and in April Brosnan returns to series television in the AMC western The Son. Twenty years ago, however, the success of his first Bond film, GoldenEye (1995), had landed Brosnan supporting roles in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, both released in the fall of ’96, followed by a lead role opposite Linda Hamilton in Universal’s Dante’s Peak, one of two disaster movies centered on a volcano eruption that competed to see which could reach theaters first in ’97. The other movie was Fox’s Volcano, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, which lost the release-date race by bowing on April 25; it ended up grossing $18 million less than Dante’s Peak in the U.S., though it also cost $26 million less to produce. In the end neither film was a runaway success, possibly because the disaster-movie stakes weren’t high enough: one year later Paramount and DreamWorks’s Deep Impact opened in May and earned $140 million, but Disney’s Armageddon topped its box office by $61 million when it arrived in multiplexes a couple months later; a comet threatens to destroy life on Earth in the former, while in the latter an asteroid threatens to destroy any future chance of Michael Bay directing five Transformers movies and Donald Trump being elected president, so thanks for nothing, Bruce Willis.
1. Star Wars: Special Edition (Fox; 1/31/97; $138.2 million)
In Premiere magazine’s February 1997 issue, actors and filmmakers such as Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ron Howard related their memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time. Somehow President Trump’s first wife, listed in this particular sidebar article as “Ivana [Trump], socialite,” also made the cut: “I saw it in 1977, when Donald and I met and we married. I’m a very realistic person, so I see it and I go, ‘Oh, stop! It’s not my kind of movie.'” Now our country is run by Donald. It’s not my kind of democracy, but life is often stranger than (science) fiction.
In ’97 many moviegoers, myself included, were excited to see Star Wars and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), on the big screen for the first time in more than a decade. Fans had been told that George Lucas, the creator of the series, had cleaned up the special effects in all three movies and even added a few scenes, including one in the first film, now commonly referred to as “A New Hope,” featuring a digitized Jabba the Hutt trading lines with circa-1976 Harrison Ford, as Han Solo. The special editions are like plastic surgery that comes as a surprise to the patient’s loved ones, but if a few nips and tucks make that person feel better inside, so be it. But then the patient goes back for more surgery every few years — Lucas made additional changes to the trilogy for its 2004 DVD release and 2011 Blu-ray release — and really starts to alarm those loved ones by destroying photos of “the old me” — the original versions of the three films have, so far, only been released on DVD as not-so-high-definition “bonus” discs inserted into a 2006 reissue of the 2004 DVD set.
While promoting the special editions, Lucas teased the first of the series’s three prequels, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, which would hold the distinction of being his first directing credit since Star Wars 22 years earlier. When The Phantom Menace was released in May of ’99 it was a gigantic box-office hit, as expected, but many fans of the original trilogy hated it. Lucas had changed the formula and given them New Coke without fair warning, it seemed, even though the original trilogy, like the prequels, was made for children, who generally don’t nitpick story logic and character development the way adults — or, at the very least, man-children — do. I was 23 in 1999; I didn’t go into The Phantom Menace thinking the best parts of my childhood would be restored for two hours, but I was reasonably distracted by Lucas’s all-digital galaxy of bright, shiny objects, as I was with Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith in ’05. But as Han Solo says in Return of the Jedi upon being told that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) earned his degree from Jedi Knight school while Han was frozen in carbonite, “I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur”: the prequels are in sore need of a Solo-type audience surrogate who’s not afraid to question the quasi-religious ways of the Force or side-eye a goofy character like Jar Jar Binks.
When Lucas sold his company to Disney in 2012 and the studio decided to reboot the Star Wars franchise with the characters he’d created but not the story line he’d proposed for a third trilogy, I felt bad for him — but also somewhat relieved. The first film under new management, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), more or less recycled the plot of “A New Hope,” but it introduced intriguing new characters like Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), brought back old favorites like Han, Chewbacca, Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke, and, most importantly, made Star Wars fun — and funny — in a way it hadn’t felt, at least for me, since I was a child. Most of the credit goes to director J.J. Abrams and his cowriter, Lawrence Kasdan, who’d previously cowritten The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but the effervescent original formula that so many people still love is unmistakably George Lucas’s. No one can take that away from him, but if you happened to like the taste of his New Coke, try Rogue One, the first Star Wars spin-off film, which grossed more than $500 million in the U.S. alone without the help of a single memorable character.
Last December, a month after Donald Trump won the presidential election, a rumor circulated on Twitter that the extensive pre-election reshoots for Rogue One — which was advertised on TV with multiple shots that don’t appear in the finished film, so feel free to sue Disney for false advertising, moviegoers — included a rewritten ending that would “bash Trump.” Absolutely true, according to Fakenewsweek, but not true at all if you actually saw the movie. Honestly, I don’t see why any Trump supporter would have a problem with Rogue One: it’s about a Mexican-Chinese-European suicide squad whose successful mission is quickly forgotten after three white Americans come to the rescue a few weeks later and blow up the bad guys’ headquarters. What’s not to love, Trump-ettes? I mean, am I wrong, Kurt?
“I had no idea Star Wars was even in the theaters in ’97.”
As the most eloquent U.S. president currently in office would say: “Sad!”