As the latest round of would-be blockbusters lines up at a theater near you, Popdose looks back at the box office totals of yesteryear. This week we revisit the top ten films of October 29, 1996!

10. To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (distributor: Triumph; release date: 10/18/96; final domestic gross: $4.1 million)

A psychiatrist could have fun analyzing how TV superproducer David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal) came to write a movie in which his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, is cast as a dead person. (Hogging the sheets isn’t a crime punishable by death, David. Lighten up.) Based on a 1986 play by Michael Brady, To Gillian centers on a widower (Peter Gallagher) who communicates more with his wife’s ghost (Pfeiffer) than with their teenage daughter (Claire Danes). But you know how teenagers can be — if I had a 16-year-old who was crying all the time about her feelings, I’d probably develop an emotional bond with a dustpan just to distance myself from more drama.

9. That Thing You Do! (Fox; 10/4/96; $25.8 million)

Tom Hanks had a ludicrously successful track record at the box office from 1992 to 2002, starring in or lending his voice talents to 12 movies that grossed more than $100 million, including Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Toy Story (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Cast Away (2000), and Road to Perdition (2002). He also produced 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a sleeper hit that cost $5 million and ended up grossing $368 million worldwide, and won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994).

The only movie Hanks made during that ten-year span that wasn’t a hit was his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, for which he also wrote the screenplay and played a supporting role. But the ’60s-era ensemble film received good reviews as well as an Oscar nomination for Adam Schlesinger’s (Fountains of Wayne, Ivy) title song, and nearly 15 years later Hanks is behind the camera again directing Larry Crowne, a Great Recession comedy in which he shares the screen with Julia Roberts, his costar in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). My Big Fat Greek Wedding star and screenwriter Nia Vardalos cowrote the script for Larry Crowne with Hanks.

8. Michael Collins (Warner Bros.; 10/11/96; $11.0 million)

Speaking of Julia Roberts, her career was on a downturn when she appeared in Neil Jordan’s biopic about Collins (Liam Neeson), an Irish freedom fighter who raised hell in the early 1900s. After duds like I Love Trouble (1994) and Mary Reilly (1996), many in the industry were ready to write her career obituary before she’d turned 30, but Roberts rebounded in the summer of ’97 with My Best Friend’s Wedding and still racks up decent numbers in films like Eat Pray Love. As for Jordan, his success with The Crying Game (1992) and Interview With the Vampire (1994) gave him the clout to make Michael Collins, but since then he’s made smaller films like Breakfast on Pluto (2005) and Ondine (2010).

7. The Long Kiss Goodnight (New Line; 10/11/96; $33.4 million)

New Line spent $4 million for Shane Black’s (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) script, which contains such sparkling lines of dialogue as “You want me to stick it in my pants and shoot my damn dick off?” “Suck my dick,” and “That’s a duck, not a dick.” I believe Premiere magazine said the original draft also contained the gem “I’d eat a mile of her shit just to see the ass it came from,” but it was either chopped out of the shooting script or is obscured in the final cut by one of the film’s many explosions. What a shame — that line alone is worth a million, don’t you think?

Directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2 but also The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, released within one week of each other in July 1990) and starring his then-wife, Geena Davis, as a housewife with amnesia who discovers she’s a former CIA assassin, The Long Kiss Goodnight is essentially a distaff Bourne Identity minus that film’s brain and heart. Even worse, it began filming two weeks after Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest bombs in film history, opened and closed in short order, and unfortunately for the executives at New Line, that MGM release was also directed by Harlin and starred Davis, meaning there was no way its lingering stench would be fully fumigated before Kiss arrived in the fall of ’96. Financially speaking, Kiss fared better than Cutthroat, but by no means was it a hit. Harlin and Davis divorced two years later.

6. The Associate (Hollywood; 10/25/96; $12.8 million)

A racial variation on Tootsie (1982), this comedy stars Ted Danson in blackface as a man who— No? You’re sure about that? Well, if you say so …

The Associate stars Whoopi Goldberg as a financial adviser who, in order to be taken seriously on Wall Street, disguises herself as an old white man. Dustin Hoffman wearing makeup and a wig is one thing, but once comedies like The AssociateMrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Big Momma’s House (2000) made viewers pretend that someone would subject him- or herself to five hours of latex-prosthetics application every morning just to be closer to one’s children or advance a career, I cried foul, America. There just isn’t enough rope in the world that’ll allow me to suspend my disbelief for that particular narrative conceit.

The Associate costars veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, who I recently saw going into the men’s room at a movie theater in Chicago. I’m not enough of a fan to have followed him inside and hounded him for an autograph at the urinals, but I instantly knew it was him; I just couldn’t remember which movies I’d seen him in. That’s the great thing about being a character actor, of course — people on the street may recognize you, but how many of them are going to walk up to you and ask, “Where have I seen you before?” like the scene in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is accosted by a “fan” who knows he’s seen Alvy on TV but can’t remember where, and won’t leave him alone until he finds out.

As Pendleton was leaving the theater I told my girlfriend how a friend named Mike once saw Charles Durning in a bar in New York and said hello but couldn’t remember the titles of any of Durning’s movies. “I wish I’d mentioned Dune,” Mike told me, but I told him I was pretty sure Durning isn’t in that film. (He is in Tootsie, though.) It turns out Kenneth McMillan, who died in 1989, played the role that Mike credited to Durning in his mind. It also turns out Durning and Pendleton were in The Muppet Movie (1979) together as Doc Hopper and his assistant, Max, respectively, so the next chance I have to accost Austin Pendleton in a public restroom, that’s what I’m leading with.

5. The Ghost and the Darkness (Paramount; 10/11/96; $38.6 million)

This movie’s exactly like Romancing the Stone, except it’s suspenseful instead of funny, Kathleen Turner’s part is played by Val Kilmer, and Danny DeVito’s been replaced by a pair of man-eating lions. But despite a script by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), this “Jaws of the jungle” Michael Douglas vehicle — he’s also one of the film’s producers — doesn’t pack much of a punch. Arriving in theaters shortly after Kilmer’s Island of Dr. Moreau remake belly flopped with critics and audiences, it looked as if the actor’s decision not to play Batman again after 1995’s Batman Forever would come back to haunt him — or his children’s college fund, at the very least. However, once Batman & Robin debuted in ’97, with George Clooney in the Batsuit, it was easy to imagine Kilmer and Keanu Reeves — who’d skipped Speed 2: Cruise Control, another franchise-killing sequel, that same summer — laughing about their good fortune over a few beers.

4. The First Wives Club (Paramount; 9/20/96; $105.4 million)

Before Jon Stewart was the most trusted fake-news anchor in America, he was the former host of a failed late-night talk show trying to start an acting career. One role he landed was in The First Wives Club, Paramount’s biggest hit of 1996 after Mission: Impossible. The only problem is, he’s not in the film — his role as Goldie Hawn’s boyfriend was left on the cutting-room floor. Bronson Pinchot (Risky Business, Beverly Hills Cop) made it into the movie, though, as Bette Midler’s boss, and he gave his account of the diva’s working methods in an interview last year with the Onion A.V. Club: “Bette Midler was such a bitch to [director Hugh Wilson]. While he was directing, she would be rolling her eyes, pantomiming with her favorite actors, and she made it very difficult. And he was at his wit’s end. He was actually a very nice man, but she was very unkind to him on that movie.”

In that lengthy Q&A the star of TV’s Perfect Strangers also took time to explain why Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy are homophobic and therefore might be overcompensating for something, yet he also spends a good deal of the interview stressing how much he likes women, and vice versa, just in case you thought the guy who played an effeminate art-gallery owner in Beverly Hills Cop and an interior decorator in The First Wives Club was … well, you know. (For the record, Pinchot thinks Tom Hanks is “a wonderful and genuine and lovely and down-to-earth person.”)

3. Stephen King’s Thinner (Paramount; 10/25/96; $15.3 million)

The only horror movie on this list, unless you really weren’t in the mood to see The First Wives Club on “date night” 14 years ago, Thinner revolves around — waaaaay around, ba-dum-bump — an overweight lawyer who’s cursed by a Gypsy to lose three pounds every day, no matter how much he eats. But considering we have a serious obesity problem here in the U.S., we could use more “curses” like the one in King’s novel, which he published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1984 (therefore the title of the movie should actually be Richard Bachman’s Thinner, But Stephen King’s Stock Portfolio Just Got Even Fatter). Arizona, if we agree to deport all those Mexicans you don’t want anymore, will you agree to replace them with Gypsies? Don’t worry — they like to roam, so by this time next year they’ll probably be skiing in Utah.

2. High School High (TriStar; 10/25/96; $21.3 million)

I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s 1,987 books, but a Saturday Night Live bit that’s stuck with me since 1987 involves the hyperprolific King, played by Jon Lovitz, banging out his latest novel as he’s being interviewed on “Weekend Update.” Near the end of the interview he suddenly stops typing; when “Update” anchor Dennis Miller asks King what’s wrong the author replies, “I’m burned out. I’m blocked. That’s it.” But one little dramatic pause later he says, “No, I’m okay,” and starts typing again.

After five seasons on SNL, Lovitz left in 1990 to pursue movie roles. He appeared with Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in A League of Their Own, a big hit in 1992, but a couple years later he starred in three duds: City Slickers II, North, and Trapped in Paradise. However, as the voice of movie critic Jay Sherman on the low-rated but fondly remembered animated series The Critic in 1994 and ’95, Lovitz did some of his best work since SNL.

In ’96 he played a teacher in High School High, a parody of Dangerous Minds and other dramas in which disillusioned inner-city (read: black) kids turn their lives around with the help of a hard-nosed yet sympathetic (read: white) instructor. (The Substitute, in which Tom Berenger portrays a mercenary who goes undercover at a public school to get revenge on the gang members who injured his fiancee, came out earlier in ’96. It’s not a comedy, but it’s pretty funny all the same.) Written by Naked Gun 33 â…“‘s David Zucker, Robert LoCash, and Pat Proft and directed by PCU‘s Hart Bochner (who’s probably best known as Bonnie Bedelia’s scenery-chewing cokehead coworker in Die Hard), High School High had a funny trailer, but, from what I’ve been told, once you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the best parts of the movie.

1. Sleepers (Warner Bros./PolyGram; 10/18/96; $53.3 million)

Like Michael Collins, The Ghost and the Darkness, and my fascinating anecdote about Austin Pendleton, Sleepers is based on a true story, though the facts of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s 1995 book have been disputed. Directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man), the film deals with weighty issues such as justice, revenge, innocence lost, and whether or not Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, and Billy Crudup cancel out each other’s hunkiness when they’re all on-screen at the same time.

The thing I remember most about Sleepers is that the scenes set in 1982 make no attempt to duplicate the fashions or hairstyles of that period, as if it’s enough to show a billboard for Dreamgirls on Broadway and then just let Brad be Brad. It’s not like Sleepers was a low-budget movie that could only afford the acting services of Jon Stewart, Bronson Pinchot, and Jon Lovitz — Jordache jeans, Izods, and feathered bangs could’ve been procured for Brad, Jason, and Billy if Levinson had only cared enough. And if I ever run into him while urinating, I’ll be sure to tell him.

Box-office tallies and release-date information provided by Box Office Mojo and IMDb.

About the Author

Robert Cass

Robert Cass lives in Chicago. For Popdose he's written under the Sugar Water, Bootleg City, and Box Office Flashback banners and collaborated on the series 'Face Time with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger.

View All Articles