Poor old Hollywood. It tries to adapt to contemporary trends and to keep one step ahead of the curve, but try as they might the fickle old general public always manage to defy their best laid plans.
It wasn’t the whip-fast, vein and muscle-strapped hare that took the box office crown though, but a sweet little spectral tortoise called Ghost, filmed and released without fanfare, and for a quarter of the cost of Die Hard 2. Moreover, the four highest grossing films of the whole year – Ghost, Home Alone, Pretty Woman and Dances With Wolves – were to a man, relatively low budget, sweetly sentimental films with little or no expectations to succeed. The caring, sharing Nineties had begun.
One year later, as summer 1991 rolled into town, the emphasis had shifted from who had the highest body count, to who could generate the most tears. Having taken off his battered fedora, Harrison Ford was now learning to reconnect with his family after a gun-shot leaves him acting like a nine year-old in Regarding Henry – written by 25 year-old Jeffrey “JJ” Abrams – and instead of pulling houses off cliffs and blowing up docks, Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner changed gear and made Radio Flyer, about two kids escaping reality on airborne red toy wagon.
Above all, there was the queen of 1990, toothsome box office phenomenon Julia Roberts, tending to leukemia-stricken Campbell Scott in Joel Schumacher’s Dying Young, which Premiere magazine predicted would be the biggest hit of the summer: ‘Love and death worked for Ghost; Julia works for everyone. It’s the Love Story of the ‘90s!’
Only it didn’t. Forgettable even while you were watching it, humourless and crass, Dying Young did just that, returning just $33m to a clearly miffed 20th Century Fox. Regarding Henry sank without trace too and Radio Flyer barely opened.
Disney’s sweet-natured romantic adventure The Rocketeer similarly failed to take off, and Bruce Willis paid a heavy price for swapping the ass-kicking, bone-crunching antics of John McClane for the goofy, groaningly unfunny shenanigans of cat-burglar Hudson Hawk – the biggest financial disaster of the summer.
The public appetite for action was back with a vengeance. The end of the Cold War and a quick victory in the first Iraq War had made America feel good about itself, and the public had been dazzled by the leaps in military technology, broadcast live on CNN.
The arrow p.o.v. shots in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for example, with the camera seemingly mounted just behind the fletching, were a direct reference to the laser-guided missiles that audiences in their millions had seen being flown into their targets.
Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves was the mid-point in one of the most extraordinary years that any actor ever had. In March, he picked up his Oscars for director and Best Picture for Dances With Wolves. In December, he was headlining another future Best Picture nominee, Oliver Stone’s classic JFK.
His Robin Hood: curious mid-western accent, slight paunch and Chris Waddle mullet notwithstanding, was the centre of the most purely fun family entertainment of the year, made all the more enjoyable by an all-the-way-up-to-eleven performance by the hugely-missed Alan Rickman as the rotten old Sheriff.
The Gulf War may have been a boost for US morale but however much the coverage looked like a video game, war is always hell and in times of conflict, audiences seek laughter like a drowning man seeks a dinghy.
Comedies repeatedly struck gold in the summer of 1991. Bill Murray was on top form in What About Bob? and Detective Frank Drebin was back creating chaos in Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear – “From the brother of the director of Ghost.” – and Charlie Sheen went ‘funny’ for the first time in Hot Shots!
Riding on up ahead was City Slickers, which consolidated Billy Crystal’s star-status and took everyone by surprise by raking in $124m to become the third biggest hit of the summer. It also led to Jack Palance’s first Oscar and the slightly ungainly, though unquestionably impressive sight of the septuagenarian actor doing one-armed press-ups on the stage after winning his award.
Struggling to keep up at the back were well-received films like Ron Howard’s fire-fighting drama Backdraft, and the sweet Michael J Fox comedy Doc Hollywood, which was unofficially remade almost scene-for-scene by Pixar as Cars.
Joining Hudson Hawk among the many casualties, now largely forgotten were Demi Moore’s Ghost follow-up, The Butcher’s Wife, which was pure nonsense. Mobsters with Christian Slater and Patrick Dempsey was supposed to be The Godfather for the MTV crowd but ended up looking like Bugsy Malone without catchy songs, and VI Warshawski, in which Kathleen Turner bet the farm on becoming the star of a major franchise, and lost everything.
Rising like sunflowers up through the shattered debris of such failures were a couple of little films that struck a contemporary nerve and are now seen as classics. Boyz N’ The Hood came out of nowhere to showcase with great humanity, humour and intelligence, the heartbreaking reality of life in South Central, LA and made John Singleton the youngest ever Best Director nominee at the following year’s Oscars.
Also nominated was Ridley Scott, who directed Thelma & Louise as a contemporary western with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as a Butch & Sundance for the 1990s, right up to their shared fates. One of the best-reviewed films of the year, it also launched the career of Brad Pitt, who worked his way in to the hearts of millions using nothing more than a cowboy hat and a hairdryer.
One forgotten chapter in the story of Summer ’91 is the most unsuccessful British invasion since The Battles of The River Plate or Shawaddywaddy’s attempt to crack America in 1977; namely the disastrous attempts by big-name British comedians to launch their Hollywood careers.
You might not remember Mel Smith as one third of a Three Stooges-style trio in Lame Ducks (because no one can actually remember the film), but Rik Mayall’s Drop Dead Fred and Lenny Henry’s True Identity had hopes riding high. The end result was a pair of atrocious non-coms and a pair of one-way tickets back to Blighty.
Ultimately, the summer of 1991 belonged to one film, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Its now legendary status as one of the best sequels ever made is carved in stone. However, there were plenty of fingers being crossed up until the film’s release, not least from the board of executives at Carolco, the production company (now a bankrupt relic of the past) that had stumped up the cash.
T2 (that whole ‘abbreviating acronym-style ID4 etc movie title’ thing started here) was rumoured to have been the first $100m movie. That kind of money will only buy you a romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore these days, but at the time it was an astonishing line to have crossed and the project was by no means a sure thing.
Cameron’s last movie was The Abyss which cost a fortune and only just about broke even. Then there was the seven year gap between the first Terminator film, which in purely fiscal terms had made $35m off a $6.4m budget.
However, once it opened on the 1st of July, it was clear where every red cent of the budget had been spent. Terminator 2 was one of those rare things: something no one had ever seen before. The revolutionary liquid morphing special effects were close to unbelievable – I distinctly remember the guy next to me in the cinema, at the moment the helicopter pilot’s reflection is spotted in the silvery T1000, gasping in disbelief “Oh my God!” – and were married to some of the best stunt work and the biggest set-pieces of the decade.
All of the FX were there to serve a relentless, gripping narrative and proved that we, the audience, were in the hands of a master storyteller. As remains the case today, James Cameron is constantly about ten years ahead of everyone else in terms of redefining the limits of what is and isn’t possible. There were plenty of other hits in 1991, but Terminator 2 was the only event picture of the year.
The other key to T2’s success was, of course, the star of the show. Since his break-out in Conan The Barbarian and the original Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger had gone on to headline several R-rated films with moderate success. Going all PG in Twins in 1988 brought him major crossover kudos, which he capitalised on with two 1990 blockbusters from opposite ends of the ratings spectrum, Total Recall and Kindergarten Cop. Three years later, Last Action Hero happened and so began the vertiginous decline but in 1991, Schwarzenegger was the biggest (and longest) name in the world and Terminator 2 was his absolute zenith.
So there you have Summer 1991, and I managed to get all the way to the end without mentioning Everything I Do (I Do For You) by Bryan A…… Dammit.