The ‘summer movie season’. Future generations might have to look up the dictionary definition, but for those of us old enough to remember, Hollywood once used to wait until the summer to flood cinemas with their most expensive and hopefully most profitable blockbuster movies of the year. ‘Cinemas’. Our kids might have to look that up too. You’d sit in a big room with lots of other people and watch a movie on a big screen. It was great fun.
The summer of 1994 had been a record-breaking affair with two bona fide über-hits in The Lion King and Forrest Gump, which between them had taken close to $1.5 billion.
The following summer failed to offer up anything that came close to matching that kind of phenomena. However, there was a pretty consistent level of quality across the board – with some noticeably stinky exceptions. In fact, four of the eventual five Best Picture nominees (including the eventual winner) were released during the summer, which is unheard of.
If anything, the most interesting cinematic stories of the summer came not from the movies themselves, but from the behind-the-scenes gossip. Waterworld’s ever-ballooning budget, Hugh Grant’s unique publicity drive for Nine Months, and most gloriously, the revelation that Tommy Lee Jones told Batman Forever co-star Jim Carrey that, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”
The third movie in the Batman franchise was something of an unknown quantity. While Batman Returns had been a hit back in 1992, the backlash against Tim Burton’s mischievous Gothic blend of sex and violence was so widespread that Warner Bros though the entire series might have been derailed.
A complete overhaul was ordered including a new Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer), a new director (Joel Schumacher) and a new kid-friendly, bright, neon aesthetic as represented by the arrival of Robin (Chris O’Donnell). Only Michael Gough’s Alfred and Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon were retained as connective tissue to Burton’s dark vision.
One thing remained: the villains getting all the attention. As with Batman Returns, the caped crusader faced not one but two villains. Fresh from his Oscar win, Tommy Lee Jones was cast as Harvey “Two Face” Dent, but actually played it with a singular dementedness. The big coup was in landing Jim Carrey as The Riddler after his unbelievably successful 1994.
Returning to the poppy, camp tone of the Adam West series – ‘Holy rusted metal, Batman!’ – and letting their big star steal the show, Warners were rewarded with the biggest hit of the summer. Sadly as we now know, it gave them the misplaced confidence to double down on Schumacher’s vision, paving the way for the pure hell of Batman & Robin two years later.
Early word had suggested that Disney’s Pocahontas would be the biggest hit of the summer following the colossal success of The Lion King but in the end they had to settle for a bronze medal. A perfectly decent animation, its $135m haul was roughly half of what Simba and his pals had pulled in twelve months ago.
Pocahontas had to share the kid market with a friendly ghost with a surprisingly wide box office appeal. Casper was the other big kids’ film of the summer – Operation Dumbo Drop had been touted as the other other big kids’ film…until somebody actually watched it.
Casper was the first of a left-field one-two for Bill Pullman who, having played the hopelessly dull fiancé in Sleepless In Seattle, was promoted to romantic lead in the summer’s biggest sleeper hit (literally) – While You Were Sleeping, which along with The Net, consolidated Sandra Bullock as one of the most dependably charming movie stars of the age.
Speaking of dependable movie stars, Clint Eastwood, who was on perhaps the biggest winning streak of his career, made a much-delayed move into romantic drama with his adaptation of Robert James Walker’s sob-fest bestseller, The Bridges of Madison County. Eastwood’s pared-back treatment struck a chord with adult audiences and gave Meryl Streep another Oscar nomination to go with her 87 others.
There was uncertainty at the time as to whether Jerry Zucker’s follow-up to Ghost, the determinedly old fashioned First Knight with Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Sean Connery as King Arthur, would replicate the success of his spectral 1990 blockbuster, but it proved to be a bit of a damp squib. Fans of sweeping historical drama were far more taken with Mel Gibson’s rousing, woad-crusted epic Braveheart, which to the consternation of history academics, went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.
I might ask those same historians just why there was so little to laugh about in the summer of ’95, but all you need to know is that the biggest comedy of the summer was Nine Months, a film with the wit, humour and laugh-rate of a documentary on botulism. The film ended up becoming the trailer for its own publicity, when Hugh Grant rather unexpectedly went and got himself arrested for lewd behaviour on the sunset strip with sex worker Divine Brown – to the unbridled, tap-dancing delight of the tabloid journalist community. Down at the other end of the comedy charts lay the more middling, whimsical pleasures of French Kiss (worth it for Kevin Kline’s accent), Billy Crystal’s Forget Paris and Something To Talk About starring Julia Roberts.
Thank God then for Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s wonderful, hilarious modern-day update of Austen’s Emma, which gave Alicia Silverstone her signature role as Cher Horowitz and co-starred Paul Rudd, who stopped ageing once filming wrapped. A dazzling time-capsule of American youth in the mid-nineties, it may have grossed less than Mortal Kombat at the time (!), but has perhaps endured more than any film of the summer.
Action fans who craved more excitement than could be provided by Under Siege 2: Dark Territory were amply served by Die Hard With a Vengeance, which gained greatly from the return of John McTiernan in the director’s chair and the new addition of Samuel L. Jackson. Despite a hastily reshot climax, the film was one of only five films to cross the $100m line that summer. (The original ending, by the way is…well, see for yourself. It’s different.)
Both Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson had benefitted from the game-changing effect of Pulp Fiction the previous year. Quentin Tarantino put in two appearances in Summer ’95: in front of the camera in Destiny Turns On The Radio and, with considerably less embarrassment, as an uncredited – though unmissably present – script polisher on Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide.
A brutally efficient, claustrophobic actioner with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington locking antlers aboard a nuclear submarine, Crimson Tide was one of the high points of the Simpson/Bruckheimer era. The fabled producers also enjoyed success with Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer gave To Sir, With Love a modern twist, and gave Coolio one of the most ubiquitous hit songs of the decade.
The summer of ’95 was littered with plenty of low-budget indie movies that have successfully withstood the ravages of time. The mid-90s was a breeding ground for experimental filmmakers making hay from the creative freedom afforded by a low-budget and a thriving art-house circuit. Wayne Wang’s delightful Smoke, Todd Haynes’s Safe, Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion were all big hits with the critics.
At the upper-end of the indie box-office spectrum was the Tarantino-inspired success and ‘Best Ending Ever’ mainstay, The Usual Suspects. At the bottom end was Jeunet et Caro’s rather misunderstood, audience-dividing sci-fi romance The City of Lost Children, which lost a fortune in the bargain.
Excepting Species, which was an unexpected hit, sci-fi had an especially rough summer in 1995. Keanu Reeves blew a year’s worth of Speed-based good will on the moronic Johnny Mnemonic. Worse was to come when Judge Dredd broke the great unwritten law and removed his helmet, revealing a miscast Sylvester Stallone. The hearts of 2000AD fans shattered amid howls of fury, rage and calls (sadly unheeded) for Rob Schneider to never be given an acting role ever again.
For sci-fi fans and aficionados of juicy Hollywood gossip, all eyes were fixed upon Kevin Costner’s futuristic adventure, Waterworld. For about six years, Costner had absolutely owned Hollywood but there was a palpable sense at the time that he needed taking down a peg or two. When word got out about an out-of-control budget (the biggest of all time, back then) and spats with director Kevin Reynolds, there was suddenly blood in the water and the tabloid sharks came a’circling.
Ripe speculation built up over the summer until the end of July, when Waterworld made its debut splash. To the dismay of many, “Fishtar”, as it had been dubbed was no disaster, indeed is was a pretty bold, solid and inventive adventure. It performed well though not spectacularly; not enough to hose away the stains of perceived disaster. It certainly stands up well 25 years later, though Costner’s status as Hollywood’s Golden Boy never really recovered.
If science-fiction had something of an aestas horribilis in 1995, science-fact had a field day. Costner’s heir anointed box-office champion Tom Hanks returned following his Forrest Gump glory in Ron Howard’s real-life space drama Apollo 13, which took audiences thrillingly back to 1970 and NASA’s ill-fated third mission to the moon. Hanks’s star power and Howard’s giddy fascination with the ingenuity that enabled the safe return of three stranded astronauts, powered Apollo 13 to the silver medal at the summer box office and a Best Picture nomination to boot.
Just when summer was finishing up and the leaves of Autumn were beginning to rust, an unlikely hero emerged – from a pig sty. George Miller, he of the hard-as-nails, high-octane Mad Max movies, also gave the world Babe, a sweet-natured, disarmingly charming children’s tale about a pig that wanted to be a sheepdog. It became the unexpected hit of the year and another big Oscar contender – insert joke about ‘bringing home the bacon’ here.
It was a summer of few surprises and, fittingly for the mid-point of the decade, a well-balanced, evenly-weighted selection of something-for-everyone. Truthfully, it was only after summer 1995 had pitched up its tents and headed for the hills that the really good stuff rocked up – Toy Story, Se7en, Heat, Casino, To Die For, Dead Presidents and James Bond’s return to cinemas in GoldenEye. Ah yes, cinemas. How we miss them.