The past is as close to a vacation as we'll get right now, so the New York Times critic will be looking at retro box office numbers for inspiration.
I'm a box office watcher. The numbers are an indicator of national taste and cultural health. But we're in the midst of a pandemic; the megaplexes are closed. There's barely a box office to watch. The usual trusted sources are now featuring headlines like Friday Estimates: Nothing to Report. Everything's streaming, and streaming executives won't tell you how anything's doing. Our cultural health has become classified data. So the weekend of March 13 to 15 is the time a clock stopped.
What if, periodically, we turned the clock back and looked at the numbers for some other weekend? This is something I've been meaning to do for months, but now seems like the perfect time to start because the past is about as close as anybody's getting to a vacation. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Steven Soderbergh's Contagion because I was curious to see how it holds up as a predictor of how we might hold up. The numbers weren't on my mind.
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So let's do something perfectly obvious and go back 25 years to 1995 and the weekend of March 24 to 26, when North America's No. 1 movie, for a third week, was Outbreak, the killer-virus thriller with Drs. Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to catch a lethally adorable pet monkey that Patrick Dempsey imports from Africa.
By then, Outbreak, directed by Wolfgang Petersen (the hitmaker, just off In the Line of Fire and on his way to Air Force One), had grossed around US$70 million in today's money and arrived in the middle of an Ebola epidemic that never took hold here. Feeling voyeuristic and, perhaps, complacent, we lined up for this — Ebola: The Ride.
The 1990s had a house style, and Outbreak epitomises it: mess. Like lots of hits from this era, it's brazen, chaotic, noisy, ludicrous, confused, overlit, has J.T. Walsh going nuclear and is simultaneously underwritten and overplotted. Not only does Hoffman have to catch that monkey, he's got to stop the military from bombing an infected California town (the mission is Operation Clean Sweep!), save his failed marriage to Dr. Rene Russo and keep Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman from outacting him.
Outbreak held off three new movies: Tall Tale, Major Payne, and Dolores Claiborne, not one of which would get made now and all of which I'll get to shortly. Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump were still hits, lurking outside the Top 10 on this Academy Awards weekend, and vaulting to fourth place was four-time-nominee The Madness of King George. That movie is the perfect example of another bygone style: the alt-costume drama, exemplified by Amadeus, and the films of Sally Potter and Derek Jarman. The standards of literary adaptation and historical integrity, of decorum, were still being set by Merchant Ivory and Masterpiece Theater. Nicholas Hytner, the stage director who made King George, went a different direction, one where the cameras actually moved.
Right behind it, at No. 5, was John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, a departure from Sayles' ambitious social-realist dramas, like Eight Men Out and City of Hope. This one's a quiet Irish fable with a whiff of magic. Sayles never gets talked about in the same breath as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen. He was, locationally speaking, New Jersey to their New York. But he's feeling and intelligent and maybe the best white American filmmaker ever to consistently consider race and class as systemic, historical and personal matters. He gets it. Naturally, one of his biggest hits had nothing to do with any of that.
But it might be hard to remember during these keyed-up times — when good human resources is as crucial to a movie's moral success as a great trailer is to its commercial prospects — that, in the '90s, movies with nonwhite people and stories about race weren't rare. I don't know if the folks who made Man of the House (an obnoxious hit at No. 6, in its fourth week out) know it's a movie about a kind of whiteness, but Jonathan Taylor Thomas, at peak Tiger Beat swag, giving his mom's new boyfriend the business, feels like WASP karma, because the boyfriend is played by Chevy Chase. And an ensemble divorced-dude comedy like Bye Bye Love, with Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, and Randy Quaid and down at No. 10, is, by 2020 standards, practically a privilege-palooza and, by 1995 standards, not unfunny.
That week's Top 10 was also full of movies with black actors in big and small parts. Down at No. 8 and 9 were Just Cause and Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, (street name: Candyman 2) two movies about racism. They're terrible. And even though they revolve around white people — Sean Connery in the first; Kelly Rowan, a dead ringer for Bridget Fonda, in the other — they need to be seen to be believed. Just Cause, in its sixth week out, has Connery as a retired lawyer trying to get Blair Underwood off Florida's death row for the rape and dismemberment of a white girl.
Officially, this is a white saviour movie. But Connery is on no moral journey. He knows his W.E.B. Du Bois before he gets to Underwood's cell. He's not extraordinarily decent; he's just basically right. Laurence Fishburne plays the crooked detective on the case, who we're supposed to believe is a baaaad, what, Uncle Tom? (His character's name is Tanny Brown, which I suppose is cleverer than Negro McBlack.) He seems like the villain for half the movie. Then a trap door opens and you land in a vat of Ed Harris, the varsity-level J.T. Walsh. But maybe Connery's wife, Kate Capshaw, is also mixed up in this, which means so is their daughter, an itty-bitty Scarlett Johansson. Oh, there's a gator with glow-in-the-dark eyes, too. It's like 1991's Cape Fear but without the performances and psychology and with too much plot. Try diagraming this one. You'll end up with a Jackson Pollock.
That week's list featured a range of black men — medical, magical, military, mustachioed. Major Payne has Damon Wayans as a former Marine killing machine stuck teaching a bunch of bratty cadets and harassing Karyn Parsons into dating him. It's a cartoonishly strange movie that has no idea how dark it actually is.
In Disney's Tall Tale, a white boy befriends mythical men like Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze), Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown), the formerly enslaved folk-hero he-man, who saves the kid's life when he stops a train with his bare hands. You know how we're getting these politically corrected, live-action remakes of Disney classics? This is why.
Candyman 2 is different. The title character, elusively embodied by the elusively photographed Tony Todd, is a tragic magic Negro. Candy died decades ago when Reconstruction-era racists tortured and be-handed him for loving a white girl. Now speak his name into a mirror five times, and — poof — he'll be there to jab you with his hook. This movie doesn't bother with the legal pretenses of Just Cause. But its affluent New Orleans schoolteacher heroine (you read that correctly) is trying to figure out what the hell Candyman is doing haunting her family. You don't have to be Henry Louis Gates Jr. to know the answer to that one.
Candyman 2, like its sleeper-hit predecessor, doesn't wink, but it is fascinated by how much racial gothic a horror movie can accommodate. Bill Condon directed this and gets all the right stuff wrong. The impalings are laughably fake. The acting is made of cardboard, but legendary freakout queen Veronica Cartwright is playing the movie's soused matriarch — she's cardboard origami. A friend called it William Faulkner meets A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not even: It's Faulkner fired from rewriting Swamp Thing.
But you watch a movie like this or Just Cause or Major Payne and wonder: How did that happen? And why'd it stop? For one thing, there are just fewer movies being made that aren't for a global audience. This was before our current era of mixed tallies. Now, a movie's final box-office haul is usually more global than North American. But dignity has also made a return. It's cost us some of our nerve. Nobody wants to make the movie about race that leads to a hashtag boycott. But the fun of movies like Just Cause and Candyman 2 is that, in their fun, thoughtless ways, they know how integral the lurid is to the American story, how integral the lurid is to American art.
The surprise of this week's box office — Dolores Claiborne — is entirely lurid. It opened at No. 3 and is a movie that's retained its oomph. The weekend it came out I caught a bus to the mall with my best friend to watch Kathy Bates try on a Maine accent and tell off the men accusing her of one murder in the present and another murder decades before. I left bummed out. Not because the movie's a downer. This was five years after Misery, and I didn't want a better movie than that. I just wanted Misery, a horror-thriller that left me wiping away tears instead of gripping my armrests. That's how good Bates is in it. You know that. It won her an Oscar.
But Dolores Claiborne might be the better movie. It's also taken from a Stephen King novel and tries to keep its literariness intact. Along with Roan Inish and King George, it's one of few works of cinema in the batch, and I write this knowing that the director is Taylor Hackford, a reliable Hollywood hitmaker (An Officer and a Gentleman was his and, later, would be Ray, too). Maybe he's underrated as a pop-movie artist. Maybe. Dolores Claiborne has an engrossing nesting-doll structure (flashbacks inside flashbacks) built around mother-child melodrama: Why can't Dolores' alcoholic, chain-smoking journalist daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) remember how bad her father was to the both of them? And why would Dolores murder the socialite (Judy Parfitt) she's been assisting for years?
The movie's feminism might have been too subtle for teenage me. It's possible that I didn't like the two women, even though Bates and Leigh were two of my favorite actors. This is a sugarless movie, with a grim, realist acknowledgment of a woman's fate — of a poor, working woman's fate. And Bates gives it everything — salt, vinegar, acid, flames. But she needs you to know that there's a person beneath all that crust, and she's been in raging pain for a long time. The movie might have been almost too internal. That worked for a ghost story like Shutter Island, a Scorsese hit from a decade later, but there are no ghosts to play with in Dolores Claiborne, only trauma. Major pain, indeed.
This is the sort of movie that's been squeezed into obsolescence — a mid-budget yarn that isn't begging for prizes. It's the only other movie, after Candyman 2, with a woman at its center in the Top 10, and one of a handful in the Top 20; Muriel's Wedding, Circle of Friends, and Losing Isaiah were on the chart, too. This isn't a period in Hollywood that gets considered "progressive," yet some progress (and transgression) was quietly being made.
But it was Outbreak that was teaching the lessons we're living with now — a big contraption built from old Steven Spielberg architecture; see Jaws and Jurassic Park. It was adapted from Richard Preston's bestseller The Hot Zone and still feels like a remake, reboot, sequel — and coming attraction.
Domestic box office, March 24-26, 1995
2. Major Payne
3. Dolores Claiborne
4. The Madness of King George
5. The Secret of Roan Inish
6. Man of the House
7. Tall Tale
8. Just Cause
9. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh
10. Bye Bye Love
Written by: Wesley Morris
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