The Star Billing Problem on The Firm

Tom Cruise headlined 1993's The Firm - but his co-star wasn't anywhere to be found on the poster...

While summer 1993 is often looked back on for its being the year that Steven Spielberg struck gold with Jurassic Park, you’ll also find a smattering of good hits around at the same time. One of which was The Firm, the first screen adaptation of a John Grisham book, and a project that was headlined by Tom Cruise.

Cruise took the lead role of Mitch McDeere, after it had been turned down by Jason Patric, and the movie was directed by the late Sydney Pollack. Paramount Pictures had high hopes for the production, and wanted to attract a powerhouse ensemble cast. It got one, too. Alongside Cruise in the movie are Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter (who was Oscar-nominated for her performance in the film, even though she was only on screen for less than six minutes), Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Gary Busey, David Strathairn and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

Not that you’d necessarily guess that from the poster. The film was sold very much as a Tom Cruise vehicle, with the poster not even playing up the fact that The Firm was based on a John Grisham bestseller (although Grisham wasn’t quite the best-selling powerhouse thriller author he would become). Tom Cruise. A Film By Sydney Pollack. The Firm. Those were the only names anyone could read.

Dig into the spider-y credits list at the bottom of the poster, and the quality of the ensemble becomes clear, albeit with one exception. Hackman’s name is nowhere to be found, in spite of having a sizeable, key role in the movie.

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The catalyst for this was a case of conflicting contracts, not helped by Hackman joining the movie late in the day. His role – Avery – was present in the book, but come the movie, the producers wanted to make the character female. Meryl Streep had been sought for it and cast, but John Grisham overruled the casting. With production edging closer, Hackman – fresh off winning his latest Oscar for his supporting role in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – agreed to sign on the dotted line.

read more: The Underrated Movies of 1993

By this stage, Paramount was well into plotting its marketing campaign, that was built around the star power of Tom Cruise. Cruise’s contract stated that only his name could be above the title. The problem was that Hackman’s standing contract also featured a clause that said his name should come before the title too. The two contracts were clearly incompatible with one another, and Paramount was only going to veer one way when faced with a choice of which star name to plump for. Not least because it was paying Cruise six times what it was paying Hackman for the film.

Hackman, therefore, took the unusual step of having his name removed from all promotional materials for the movie. In the on-screen credits at the start of the movie, Hackman gets second billing. But his name is nowhere on any of the posters.

There’s no suggestion, incidentally, that Cruise and Hackman didn’t get on when working on the movie, nor that there was lingering unhappiness. Hackman did reportedly do a day of publicity for the movie as well. But as his spokesman said to the Los Angeles Times around the time of the movie’s release, “this is a town of precedents and (Hackman is) so firmly established above the title, why should he be below the title?” He continued, adding “he came to the project late, after they started filming, and was offered the role after (Paramount) had constructed a marketing plan built around Tom. He had the choice of saying ‘no’ or working out some other billing situation.”

Everyone, to a degree, won on this one too. Hackman received good notices for his work, and Paramount got its huge Tom Cruise-headlined hit, with The Firm earning over $270 million (back when that was a lot of money) off its $42 million negative cost. As for Grisham, for a short period of time, his books became fought over in Hollywood. Hackman himself would star in the eventual adaptation of The Runaway Jury, too. He made it to the poster of that one…

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