There were some things that Hollywood could really rely on back in 1991, and chief among those was the pull of star power. With salaries topping out still at around the $15m mark, the big stars weren’t cheap, but they sure knew how to pull in the punters. So while 1990’s most popular films were generally surprises, 1991 went far more to plan.
Top of the lot back then was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more to the point, Arnold Schwarzenegger in a sequel to his most popular film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a watershed in many ways, but most notably for the sheer audacity of the special effects, that would earn the film plenty of attention in the build up to its release. Then, when James Cameron delivered a strong sequel, T2’s success was all but assured. The film, almost inevitably, finished top of the shop for the year, with $204m in the bank in the US alone.
Snapping at Arnie’s heels in second place was another star whose pulling power would wane in the years that followed. That said, Kevin Costner – ropey accent and all – powered Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (replete with Bryan Adams song) to number two, with $165m in the bank. Ironically, neither Arnie nor Costner would ever punch in numbers that high at the US box office again.
Moving further down the chart, and the surprises do start to kick in. 1991 saw Disney’s return to form continue, and Beauty and the Beast was arguably as good as it good. Remaining to this day the only animated picture to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, Beauty and the Beast built on the commercial success of The Little Mermaid a couple of years before to bring home $145m. Disney’s hand-drawn animated revival would continue for a good few years to come, as both Aladdin and The Lion King were in production at this point.
Oscar arguably didn’t help the box office charge of The Silence Of The Lambs, given that it was already out on video by the time it took home a golden statue. The film was a sensation before then, and the $130m it made at the US box office was all the more remarkable given its restrictive R rating. The sleeper hit of the year, City Slickers, was in a similar boat. Jack Palance picked up a Best Supporting Actor award for his role in the film, but by then, the box office was long-banked, all $124m – enough to see it pick up fifth place for the year.
But in the midst of all the success, there were inevitably disappointments. Chief among them was Steven Spielberg’s star-laden Hook, which had been expected to jolt the box office into life come Christmas of 91. And it sort of did, but not to the scale that anybody expected. Spielberg and a Peter Pan story was as close to a commercial sure thing as you could have wished for back then, but tepid reviews and an elongated running time left it in a surprising sixth, with $119m to its name. That’s hardly a flop, but it can’t have been what its backers had in mind. Instead, come Christmas, it was run close by the cheaper and better big screen version of The Addams Family, which would snare $113m, making it the seventh biggest picture of the year.
Outside of the really big names, star and franchise power had ups and downs in 1991. Julia Roberts, for instance, was very much on the up, single-handedly powering the risible thriller Sleeping With The Enemy to a $101m take (8th place). Steve Martin proved reliable, too, with the competent remake of Father Of The Bride worth $89m (9th), although L.A. Story and Grand Canyon – both out the same year – would make more modest returns. Kevin Costner would crop up again, headlining Oliver Stone’s JFK, with the three-hour flick generating just over $70m of business (17th). And even – shudder – Macaulay Culkin proved he could pull ‘em up, with the comparably cheap My Girl raking in $59m (22nd).
The stars who didn’t quite deliver included some familiar names. The brilliant Bruce Willis vehicle The Last Boy Scout made just 21st place with $59m. Four places below was Warren Beatty’s Bugsy. The film got nominated for a shedload of Oscars, too, and didn’t win a single one. Julia Roberts, meanwhile, had a slip to go with her hit, as the tepid Joel Schumacher-helmed Dying Young brought in just over $33m, for 42nd place.
Harrison Ford moving out of action and/or comedy wasn’t what people wanted to see, either, and thus Regarding Henry slipped to $43m in 30th. But we’ll give Robin Williams a pass for The Fisher King ($41m, 31st), because the film is just so damn good. We also, interestingly, saw the last film that John Hughes has directed to date, the piss-poor-irritating Curly Sue. It brought in a solid $33m for 41st place (not bad considering its production budget), but left people wondering if this was really the work of the man who brought us The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller?
So what about the remaining franchises? Outside of cybernetic time-travelling terminators, the horse to back was Frank Drebin, as the second Naked Gun movie notched up 10th place for the year, with a smart $86m take. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles proved they had more tank in the gas than originally though, as their second movie – The Secret Of The Ooze – proved worthy of $78m (13th). And 15th went to the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, which banked $74m.
We also got what was, er, supposed to be the last Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Freddy’s Dead, which made a reliable $34m (37th), while the return of Bill & Ted in Bogus Journey made a decent profit in 34th with $38m in the bank.
The disappointments? The ensemble cast of Ron Howard’s Backdraft was surely supposed to deliver more than the $77m that got it to 14th place, while Disney had high hopes for The Rocketeer, which weren’t realised when the film got crowded out by higher profile summer films (leaving it with a franchise-killing $46m and 27th).
These, however, were offset by some interesting sleeper successes. Back when spoof movies were still funny, Hot Shots! because a late hit, taking 18th place with $69m, while higher up the chart was Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, powered by an exceptional Robert De Niro performance (12th place, $79m). Then there was Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Top Café, that soared to 11th with $82m, thanks to a good trailer and being one of the few female-targeted films (the higher profile Thelma & Louise, out the same year, grabbed $45m for 28th).
1991, ultimately, didn’t prove to be a golden box office year for Hollywood, but it did mark the start of the changing of the guard. Already, studios were lining up their 1992 fare, which included sequels to Batman, Home Alone, Lethal Weapon and Alien. Yet none of these would take the box office crown. We’ll pick the story up again next time…
Check out the 1990 box office years here.