A few weeks ago, “Heaven’s Gate” hit Blu-ray and DVD again in new, restored and extended edition thanks to the good folk at Criterion. It’s only the latest sign of the rehabilitation of Michael Cimino‘s epic Western that famously brought down its studio, virtually ended the director’s career, and became so synonymous with disaster that Kevin Costner‘s “Waterworld” was nicknamed “Kevin’s Gate” by wags when it seemed that it too was headed for failure.
But over time, “Heaven’s Gate” has slowly been reappraised by critics, with many declaring it an unheralded masterpiece over the thirty years since it was released. And it’s far from the first; over the history of the medium, plenty of films have died on the vine with critics, audiences and awards voters, only to later find their way into the canon, or at least be picked up as pet projects by critics. This can be a blessing, but it can also sometimes be a curse. Some of these films are wonders that viewers missed the first time around, while others can be filed under the “interesting failure” category, worthy of a second look, but far from perfect.
So, with “Heaven’s Gate” now available, and as we wait to see which of this year’s batch will end up being reevaluated over the years (“Killing Them Softly“? “Cloud Atlas“? “Oogieloves“?), we’ve picked out ten notable films that were savaged at the time, and generally proved to be box office flops, but have grown in stature over the years. Not all are gems, exactly, but all are worth reconsidering to one degree or other, as our writers demonstrate below. And you can let us know which other initially-poorly-received pictures have now become your favorites in the comments section below.
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
The immediate box office failure and production woes of Howard Hawks‘s exceptional, and now even canonical screwball comedy now seems like such a footnote compared to the film’s legacy. Embraced by the likes of the Cahiers du Cinema critics, production on the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant vehicle was off to a slow start thanks to a couple of factors. For example, the film’s original script was rewritten and the film’s animal performers, including Skippy, the dog that played Asta in some of “The Thin Man” movies, delayed the film’s production. Hepburn was also apparently uncomfortable with playing comedy, so she was trained not to over-act. Grant’s own fears that he was not a gifted comic actor would later motivate him to star in “Arsenic and Old Lace” six years later. But more importantly, while Hepburn did famously get into at least one fight on-set with an already on-edge Hawks, she and Grant have great chemistry in the film. Grant plays a paleontologist that must help Hepburn, the flighty niece of an entrepreneur that’s interested in investing in Grant’s research, in caring for a tame leopard while also capturing a feral, escaped zoo leopard. Hepburn and Grant’s rapport onscreen is so good that one can’t help but commend Hawks for never letting the tension that happened behind the film’s scenes show in his film. Effortlessly and indelibly charming, “Bringing Up Baby” never feels labored as Hepburn is more than capable of keeping pace with Grant, who would re-team with Hawks two years later for “His Girl Friday.“
We feel bad ragging on “Cleopatra” so soon after the airing of Lifetime‘s “Liz and Dick,” but one needs to be dispassionate. This is still a ridiculous, bloated snooze, even if it does have much pomp and star power charisma. An infamous production that almost sank 20th Century Fox, the budget ballooned from $2 million to $44 million – which is something like $325 million in today’s dollars. There were changes in directors (Rouben Mamoulian out, Joseph L. Mankiewicz in,) location (London to Rome) shutdowns for emergency surgeries and, of course, the scandal of the year, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton‘s adulterous affair. Granted, it would have been difficult to assess this four hour movie without some sort of external prejudice at the time, but if you look at the 5-Star reviews on Amazon for the recent 3-disc set (featuring a five hour and twenty minute cut!!) you have to wonder what movie these people are watching. Then again, if you like spectacle and have ten minutes to kill, there’s always the “Cleopatra Enters Rome” sequence.
Written and directed by the sorely underappreciated Elaine May (director of the undervalued “Mikey and Nicky,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and an uncredited writer on “Tootsie” and “Reds” to name a few, though she does have two Oscar noms to her credit for writing), “Ishtar” is one of the most notable first box-office bombs after “Heaven’s Gate.” A needlessly expensive picture ($50 million, becoming one of the most costly comedies of its era, and only grossing $14 million), the film, shot on location in places like far-off Morocco, follows two inept lounge singing musicians who travel to Northern Africa looking for work and stumble into a four-party Cold War standoff. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as the aforementioned talentless hacks, “Ishtar” is admittedly dry and much of the humor of the film is supposed to come in the fact that these two are possibly the two worst songwriters on Earth (It’s perhaps a matter of taste, but the so-bad-they’re-good songs are deliciously, hilariously dumb). Desperate for work, the two hapless singers fly to the fictional country of Ishtar as they travel to Morocco for a gig and accidentally start a revolution, and are caught in the crossfire of the CIA and the Emir of Ishtar. Shot by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now“) — another sort of needless expense, though it does look great — “Ishtar” not only earned a dreadful box-office return, but horrible reviews too. But it’s slowly getting its a second-look reconsideration (as is Elaine May in general of late — Vanity Fair this month carries a joint interview with one-time partner Mike Nichols). “Ishtar” received a loving screening at the New York’s 92nd Street Y with May in attendance in 2011, and May’s “A New Leaf,” with Walter Matthau, and “Luv,” with Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon also arrived on DVD for the first time this year, so perhaps that reappreciation is slowly coming into focus, and we might see “Ishtar” get a home video release at some point soon too; the ball is in Columbia Pictures‘ court at this point.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)
Though it’s now regarded as an American classic, a holiday season staple and has become a Christmas tradition for many families, few would have guessed that would be the legacy of the picture when it was released in 1946. In fact, in many ways, the picture represents the beginning of the second act of Frank Capra’s career. The director was mostly missing from big screens throughout World War II, helping with the war effort, and helming a handful of wartime documentaries. Now independent of any studio, he launched Liberty Films, with “It’s A Wonderful Life” as its first of what would be only two movies in the company’s shortlived existence (the other being “State Of Union”). The film cost a whopping $2 million, quite an expense at the time, but more crucially Capra may have set himself up as a critical target. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Capra railed against a studio system in which a few studio heads dictated the kind of movies that were made (some things never change). The piece was published in May 1946, about a month after production started on the movie, was reprinted in a handful of publications including Reader’s Digest, and moreover, Capra declared his own fledgling outfit was going to rally against “the pattern of sameness.” So when “It’s A Wonderful Life” premiered in December 1946, did critics have it out for him? Perhaps, and there’s no doubt that the reception was sharply divided, but more importantly, it was audiences who didn’t take to it. The movie wound up losing distributor RKO over half a million and it was the 26th highest grossing movie of the year, and it’s not like ticket buyers weren’t rewarding quality. The top grossing movie of 1947 (the year it went into wide release)? William Wyler‘s “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” While “It’s A Wonderful Life” did wind up earning five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, the movie faded from view. It was only thanks TV reruns in the 1970s and 1980s (and lapsed rights which caused the picture to fall into the public domain for a spell) that it was re-assessed and re-discovered, and newly beloved, gaining the stature we now know it for.
“Johnny Guitar” (1954)
Later embraced by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Pedro Almodovar, Nicolas Ray‘s beautiful, manic western was initially excoriated for being, well, very strange. One such reason is that while the film’s title suggests that Sterling Hayden‘s Johnny is the film’s lead protagonist, Joan Crawford‘s Vienna is the film’s real star, and in a male-dominated genre, that led to a lot of head-scratching. Bosley Crowther was of course one of the most noisomely perplexed detractors, declaring that Crawford was more manly than Van Heflin’s rancher in “Shane.” Another reason is that the film’s creators don’t pussyfoot around embracing the melodrama at the heart of their exceptionally campy film. Vienna, a struggling saloon owner, anticipates the arrival of a railroad, but is almost driven out of town by skeptical locals and her rival, Emma (the irresistibly catty Mercedes McCambridge). Hayden’s Johhny Guitar offers to swoop in and help Vienna, partly because Emma and Vienna are both his ex-lovers. But therein lies a good part of what makes “Johnny Guitar” so winningly outre: it’s only tangentially concerned with wounded male protags. Like Scott Brady‘s Dancin’ Kid, Hayden’s Guitar is fairly inconsequential. Like more traditional western heroes, they help pave the way for Vienna’s pioneering business but neither man is more important than the promise of a new and, by the genre’s standards, bizarre future. The film is in that sense very much about itself, a squirming, hissing whatsit that, in spite of Vienna’s protests, is too freakishly exciting to be “buried…in the 20th century!”
“The Last Movie” (1971)
Listen: now it doesn’t seem so shocking to consider “Easy Rider” a fluke. At the time, however, you could forgive a movie studio (in this case, Universal) for giving Dennis Hopper the freedom to do whatever the heck he wanted and to come back with another counter-culture hit. Hopper took a million bucks, went to Peru, then took the footage to New Mexico and worked on it for years until he emerged with a Cubist assemblage of skits and free-form sequences that hinted at an underlying narrative. (One that had to do, naturally, with the making of a movie in Peru, just to keep things more complicated.) While it did well at the Venice Film Festival it did zero business in the United States and critics weren’t quite prepared to buy Hopper as a bonafide artiste. In 2005 it played at some art houses (including the Anthology Film Archives in New York) and a number of critics came out to say “Hey, this isn’t quite the turkey you think it is.” Among them, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, who went so far as to call it a masterpiece. It has yet to make the jump to (legal) DVD, but it is bandied about as a possible Criterion title, at least if this message board discussion is any indication.
“The Night Of The Hunter” (1955)
As the directing debut of legendary actor Charles Laughton, “The Night Of The Hunter” must have been keenly anticipated at the time. But the film was poorly received by critics and audiences (it was partially buried by the studio, in favor of another Mitchum vehicle, “Not As A Stranger“), and a heartbroken Laughton never directed again. An adaptation of the novel by David Grubb, it’s a piece of Depression-era Southern Gothic about two children, John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), whose father is sentenced to hang from a robbery. Only John knows where the stolen loot has been hidden, but his father’s cellmate, a fearsome would-be preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), is on the trail, marrying the children’s mother (Shelley Winters) in order to get closer to them. It was dismissed as a potboiler on release; Time damned with faint praise by saying it was a “garish, unbelievable but fairly exciting nightmare,” while Variety wrote that the film “loses sustained drive via too many offbeat touches that have a misty effect,” and that Mitchum played his villain with “barely adequate conviction.” They, like the audiences who shunned it and the Academy who ignored it, were wrong. Laughton has an amazingly visual eye, the film shot in an manner entirely uninterested in naturalism by DoP Stanley Cortez, all chiaroscuro and contrast. The blend of terror and magic, while cooly regarded at the time, has become hugely influential over the years, on everyone from Terrence Malick to David Gordon Green (the pair paying direct homage to the film on their collaboration “Undertow.”). Laughton’s years as an actor pay off too, with a cross-generational mix of talent, from the child actors (who Laughton actually disliked, choosing to leave much of their direction up to Mitchum) to silent veteran Lillian Gish. Best of all is Mitchum; complete with iconic L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E knuckles, he’s one of the great screen psychopaths, one you would have thought had just strolled out of the gates of hell. Lord knows what critics missed at the time, but its reputation has been fully restored by now; in recent years, it’s been the AFI’s 34th favorite thriller, Cahiers du cinema’s second most beautiful film, and preserved in the Library of Congress. And oh yeah, The Criterion Collection has issued it in a must own edition.
“One From The Heart” (1982)
With some of these selections there’s been an undercurrent of “Yes, not that bad, but, hey, not really that good, either.” But none on this list sums it up so succinctly as “One From the Heart,” and the thing it is most known for, its soundtrack. Bluntly, it features Tom Waits (always relevant) and Crystal Gayle (known for having long hair.) Shot on heavily stylized interior sets made to look like the Vegas strip, this film is all neon and deep colors and Nastassja Kinski wearing wispy clothes in a giant martini glass. Francis Ford Coppola isn’t afraid to go put a stylistic stake in the ground (he’d do so again with “Rumble Fish” and with “Tetro”) and “One From The Heart” is, indeed, a visual treat. The characters don’t quite gel, however, and it is no wonder that this movie didn’t connect with audiences. A $26 million budget netted around $640,000 domestically, forcing Coppola to declare bankruptcy. (Some of that money went toward then-new video editing technology that enabled a live camera-mounted feed and the ability to “call shots” like a TV director, look at live playback and have blueprint assemblies made instantaneously.) The two-disc DVD came out in 2003, a re-release hit select cities in 2004 (the San Francisco Chronicle called it “an integral piece of the oeuvre of one of America’s great directors”) and a Blu-ray comes out this week with the new Coppola box set.
“Ryan’s Daughter” (1970)
Sir David Lean‘s run of big fat friggin’ epics had no equal. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” followed by “Lawrence of Arabia” followed by “Dr. Zhivago” showed that he could bring gorgeous imagery and exuberant drama back from any corner of the globe. At least until he went to Ireland. Reteaming with ‘Lawrence’ and ‘Zhivago’ writer Robert Bolt for a loose adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” “Ryan’s Daughter” is 195 minutes of Super Panavision 70 mm footage of Robert Mitchum and a bunch of other guys standing around in wool getting wet. Okay, that’s not an accurate description, but it’s how we emember it. In 1970 Vincent Canby accused it of substituting grandeur for depth and Roger Ebert said it was “less than met the eye.” In 2006 it got the double-disc DVD release with Lean’s original cut (206 rainy minutes!) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center has programmed it for a New Year’s Eve screening as part of its “See It in 70mm” series. David Kehr’s accompanying blurb on FilmLinc’s website (from a review written in 1985, so ahead of the curve reassessment-wise) trumpets “crazy mismatches in scale contribut[ing] to the film’s sense of romantic delirium.” So maybe it might be worth giving this another shot.
Ever-controversial filmmaker William Friedkin has been fighting on behalf of his winningly grimy remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s 1953 film noir “The Wages of Fear” from its initial 1980 production to present. His still ongoing lawsuit against Paramount Pictures for ownership of the film is a testament to how sticky the film’s legacy has become. But like Clouzot’s film before it, Friedkin’s movie is brimming with the over-the-top pulp realism and vicious sense of humor that makes it so spectacular. A key influence on Stephen Soderbergh‘s “Che,” Friedkin’s film follows a team of desperate Nicaraguan migrant workers that offer to ferry a shipment of unstable dynamite 200 miles across the jungle. Roy Scheider stars in a role that Friedkin originally wanted to cast Steve McQueen in, and that Scheider was later reluctant to talk about (Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider’s character look more sympathetic). But the film is as over-sized as it is because Friedkin is effectively making three different films: the first is a spy thriller, the second a docudrama about the gruesome and inhumane conditions Nicaraguan peasants live in, and the third is a sweat-and-blood-covered ticking-clock thriller. The results are almost as immediately gripping as Clouzot’s original, though never quite as engrossing. In fact, Friedkin, a great admirer of Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” has recently said that while he’s satisfied with the film, he himself doesn’t think it could ever touch “Wages of Fear.”
“Zabriskie Point” (1970)
Hungry freaks, daddy. MGM throws a bunch of money at some crazy Italian “artist” (Michelangelo Antonioni) in the hopes of getting the kids all worked up. Sam Shepard collaborates on the script (but travels to Europe by sea because he’s terrified of flying.) The result is a movie that’s half Marxist blathering and half naked hippies rolling around in the dirt. Then a cantilevered modern home explodes and Wonder Bread wrappers float by the camera in slow motion. It was a box office disaster that the squares hated (naturally) but the kids by and large rejected it, too, because it seemed to come a little too late. Few critics were kind. It never sank into total obscurity, though, for a number of reasons. Despite having no stars (the leads were bonafide revolutionaries, man) the soundtrack featuring Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and others had some choice tracks, so it was a ubiquitous curiosity at video stores forever. In the mid-1990s a nice print showed up at New York’s Anthology Film Archives and suddenly people were paying more attention to the cinematography (the way the billboards of LA are framed are, indeed, something special) than to the subtle-as-a-battle-mace dialogue. Once again our friend Dave Kehr leads the voice of revisionism, this time in the New York Times in 2009. For the release of the Blu-ray he writes the film has “grown stranger and more compelling with the passing years. What once seemed like a bluntly didactic fiction from the European left (beautiful young idealists brought down by the Man) now looks politically ambiguous and artistically elusive.”
Honorary Mentions: Other films you could consider in the same category include “The Shining” (which saw Shelley Duvall nominated for a Razzie), the coolly-received ‘Blade Runner,” Scorsese’s “New York New York,” Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and “Frenzy,” Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” Brian De Palma‘s “Dressed To Kill” (and indeed, much of the director’s work, which maintains a fervent critical following), Friedkin’s “Cruising,” John Boorman‘s “Zardoz,” Ken Russell‘s “The Devils” and even “Bonnie & Clyde,” which was initially dismissed, only to get a second win soon after thanks to Pauline Kael, among others.
And then there’s more recent fare that’s starting to get re-evaluated: David Fincher‘s “The Game,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “Eyes Wide Shut,“ Terry Gilliam‘s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas,” David Cronenberg‘s “Crash,” the Coen Brothers‘ “The Ladykillers” and even Kenneth Lonergan‘s “Margaret.” What films, older or recent, would you like to see get a second shake of the critical stick? And which films from this year do you think will get a reappraisal in decades to come? Weigh in below.
– Jordan Hoffman, Simon Abrams, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton