One regular subject of conversation around here is directing hot streaks. That is the filmmakers who had a run of terrific movie after terrific movie, and one name has inevitably been cited: Rob Reiner.
Many directors have hot streaks, but what was incredible about the run of films that Reiner enjoyed between 1984 and 1994 was that the films not only received acclaim, but they tended to be successful too. Furthermore, Reiner wasn’t tying himself to an individual genre. He zipped from comedy to courtroom drama, to fantasy favorite to suspense horror.
Here’s that Reiner hot streak, film by film. And what becomes very, very clear as we go along is that Reiner knows his writers. That quality of the pen clearly matters to him, be it a young Aaron Sorkin, the late, great Nora Ephron, or one of the finest screenwriters ever, the already much missed William Goldman. Take a look…
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Not a bad place to start, right?
Such is the cultural impact of This Is Spinal Tap that it remains to date the only film on the Internet Movie Database that is scored out of 11. More than that, it seems to have lost none of its undoubted ability to reduce most human beings to tears of laughter. Effectively launching the ‘mockumentary’ sub-genre as we know it today, This Is Spinal Tap is, of course, a rich parody of rock documentaries, packing in 82 minutes more laughs than Adam Sandler could pack into a very big boxset.
The skill here wasn’t just in the ensemble, though, but also the editing. It’s well known that Reiner shot an awful lot of footage and heavily encouraged adlibbing. It was the time spent in the editing room getting This Is Spinal Tap down to such a lean and special comedy that made a good film great. And while its box office was profitable, it was still modest. Yet it began to open doors…
The Sure Thing (1985)
In commercial parameters, this was perhaps the smallest long-term success of Reiner’s incredible rum, but like every single film on this list, it’s another movie that still delivers a lot of enjoyment today. It stars John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, the late Viveca Lindfors, and Nicollette Sheridan (who made her debut here and would go on to land a strong role in Desperate Housewives a couple of decades later).
Based on the experiences of Steven L. Bloom, who co-penned the screenplay, The Sure Thing might not be as well-remembered as something like Say Anything, but it’s a really good movie that notwithstanding. Cusack plays Gib, a college student heading off on a cross country trip with the intent of, erm, “enjoying the rewards of a particular human endeavor” but ends up alongside a young woman who he can’t stand. And she can’t stand him. Running to a lean 100 minutes (it’d take until A Few Good Men for Reiner to make a film that crashed heavily through two hours), the foundations of Reiner’s incredible run were in place here: excellent casting, a care for writing, and an enviable ability to get an awful lot from an ensemble. Plus, The Sure Thing is really good.
It’s worth noting again that it’d take nearly $20 million off a $4.5 million budget. Not only was he making good films, Reiner was making the money people happy. And that’d mean that he could make bigger films too…
Stand by Me (1986)
One of the few utterly exquisite adaptations of Stephen King’s writing into film, Stand By Me is generally listed alongside the likes of The Shawshank Redemption (that Reiner, incidentally, wanted to direct, although his company would ultimately oversee the film) and Misery (we’re coming to that in a minute) as peak big screen King.
Stand By Me is again a very lean film and, arguably, one of the best cast movies of the 1980s. It’s the core quartet of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell that you can’t help but root for here, with Kiefer Sutherland’s antagonist one that always convincingly sending the chills down me. Crucially for Reiner, Stand By Me started to give him real clout. With this one, he turned an $8 million budget into a $50 million+ initial return, earning yet more deserved and enthusiastic reviews. It was thus time for arguably his most beloved movie…
The Princess Bride (1987)
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It never gets old.
But again, where do you start? The 1980s were hardly shy of beloved fantasy films, but might just The Princess Bride be head and shoulders above them all? I certainly know of a few people who’d have that fight. By the time Reiner got to the film–his first collaboration with screenwriter William Goldman–he’d proven his skills with managing and bringing the best from an ensemble cast. But here was a project that had stayed stuck in development since the early 1970s, as if it took fate to bring everyone together. And Goldman and Reiner’s both distinctly New York (and Jewish) sense of humor made a perfect medling with storybook storytelling, creating an oddly timeless but distinctly late-20th century enchanted comedy.
For a movie that wasn’t a box office success on its initial release, it remains one of the most cherished films for many of the last three decades.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
It’s hard to think of another film that could rival When Harry Met Sally for the prize of the best romantic comedy of the 1980s. Happy to take suggestions, but When Harry Met Sally’s benchmark is extremely high. In any other career, what filmmaker would object to it being called their best film? In Reiner’s, it was the latest in a line of genre classics.
The beating heart of When Harry Met Sally lies in the exquisite writing of the late Nora Ephron. Ephron would go on to direct many films herself–Sleepless In Seattle would even feature a Rob Reiner cameo–but I do think she found a natural partner for her material with Reiner. Likewise, the central casting of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as two friends who over time explore whether that’s all they are, is equally inspired.
There are standout moments to When Harry Met Sally that inevitable grab the attention: “I’ll have what she’s having” is a one-liner par excellence. But it’s also the quiet, vulnerable humanity at the heart of it that resonates. Genuinely, a romcom for grown-ups. Miss those. And Reiner would be rewarded with the best box office of his career up to that point.
Reiner reunited with William Goldman to bring Stephen King’s Misery to the big screen, and the claustrophobic horror-thriller would bring Kathy Bates a richly deserved Oscar, Her performance as Annie Wilkes, an extreme fan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), is an absolute knockout. What’s more, for a film that’s effectively a two-hander, Reiner always manages to make it feel like a piece of cinema rather than the stage play it would go on to become (Bruce Willis made his Broadway debut in the role of Paul Sheldon a year or two back).
Reiner opted to shoot Misery in sequence, so as to build up the tension for his two lead actors. And released around the time as The Silence of the Lambs, Misery not only held its own, but secured a very strong audience, and no shortage of acclaim, all for itself. Furthermore, it showed that Reiner and Goldman had a keen eye for a strong, character-driven thriller, which makes it more the pity that the pair of them haven’t tackled the genre more since.
Top tip: if ever you hear anyone say the words “you dirty birdie,” run for the hills.
A Few Good Men (1992)
There was a great article in Empire magazine around the time of A Few Good Men’s release when then novice screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talked about working with Rob Reiner in bringing A Few Good Men to the screen. Sorkin, who would pen the underrated The American President for Reiner a few years later and would, of course, create The West Wing, had written the stage play. Reiner decided that he and his company Castle Rock would take on the film, and the director started working with Sorkin in getting the screenplay ready. Sorkin recalls phone calls from Reiner in the middle of the night, booming at him with ideas and thoughts. And after a period of being shellshocked, Sorkin realized that Reiner was helping make it better.
A Few Good Men may not, then, be the finest film in Reiner’s incredible streak, but it’s often forgotten how good a movie it really is. It’s dominated by Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessop whenever he’s let near the screen, and Sorkin’s dialogue crackles. But considering this is a movie star film–and Tom Cruise has rarely been more Tom Cruise-y than here–it rarely feels the weight of its 138 minute running time. Instead it’s a pacey, interesting, character-driven court room thriller that would earn Oscar nominations and an awful lot of money at the box office. It would also, for Reiner, mark the end of a very fruitful era…
What Happened Next?
All good runs must come to an end, and if Reiner felt like he had a target painted on his back by his prolonged period of success, then it didn’t dampen his courage. He thus dressed Bruce Willis in a rabbit suit for the underwhelming family movie North, which impressed neither critics nor bean counters. The knives were duly out and plunged in.
It’d be remiss to say that was that for Reiner, though. He bounced back with some style with the aforementioned and quite excellent The American President, a film in which you can see the foundations of The West Wing in. Audiences this time didn’t take to the movie, however, and box office was less than expected.
Reiner kept going though. Ghosts of Mississippi is a very worthy film, if not a great one, and it’s most notable for a terrific standout supporting performance by James Woods. Reiner then took two movie stars, Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer, and delivered a surprisingly downbeat romantic drama, The Story of Us. He would step in at the last minute–well, a few weeks into production–on the equally humdrum Rumor Has It, starring Kevin Costner, a few years later, slipping the generally forgotten Alex & Emma in the middle of those.
The most acclaimed film Reiner has made in recent times is arguably The Bucket List back in 2007, that gave lead roles to Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two men heading toward death’s door with a list of things they need to do. It was a solid box office hit that also got interest from awards bodies, but I think most of us would say it was still in the shadow of that amazing earlier run.
I can’t help but salute the work of a man who not only had a successful sideline in acting, but also directed a run of films that feature so many favorites, across so many genres. Who else can match the run that he had?