Bette Midler jumped the gun when she named her 1976 album, Songs for the New Depression. She should have saved the title for 1991, when Hollywood was really singing the recession blues. As the movie industry rang out the old year, it was somewhat buoyed by a handful of last-minute hits that partially offset previous disappointing returns: The year’s total box office receipts climbed to $4.85 billion, down just 3 percent from 1990’s $5.02 billion. But the New Year’s celebrations were tempered by memories of a 12-month ride on a scary financial roller coaster.
The year started out on a deceptive, giddy high as two blockbusters from 1990 — the pint-size Home Alone (which grossed $281.5 million), and the majestic Dances With Wolves ($183.8 million) — kept up their blistering pace. They were quickly joined by two February releases, the chilling The Silence of the Lambs ($130.7 million) and the melodramatic Sleeping With the Enemy ($100.4 million), which kept the crowds coming.
And then the manic-depressive pattern that would characterize 1991 set in: isolated frenzies of ticket buying, followed by long stretches of audience apathy. With the predictable exception of lucrative Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II ($78.6 million), the studios’ spring releases faded fast to red. The box office didn’t pick up again until Fourth of July weekend, when the hero worship accorded Terminator 2: Judgment Day ($204.3 million) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ($165.5 million) finally seemed to signal an end to the long drought. But, except for a trio of comedies — City Slickers ($123.5 million), The Naked Gun 2 1/2 ($86.9 million), and Hot Shots! ($68.3 million) — the boom quickly faded. Fall was pronounced a disaster in no time, and it wasn’t until The Addams Family ($101.8 million) arrived for Thanksgiving that Hollywood regained its balance.
Which set off a debate: Was the bad box office caused by the recession or simply by bad movies? We’re still waiting for the definitive answer. Certainly clinkers such as V.I. Warshawski ($11.1 million), The Marrying Man ($12.4 million), and the indefensible Hudson Hawk ($17.2 million) deserved their cold shoulders. And proving that quality still counts, John Singleton’s passionate Boyz N the Hood ($56.1 million) and Disney’s rerelease of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians ($60.7 million), were potent draws.
But in their attempt to make better movies, too many Hollywood filmmakers seemed to be addressing each other rather than reaching out to audiences — especially in the cycle of yuppie mea culpas that clogged theaters this summer. Only City Slickers, which leavened its back-to-basics message with comic timing, proved to be a hit, while Regarding Henry ($42.7 million), The Fisher King ($40.6 million), and The Doctor ($38.1 million) all struggled to find sympathetic fans.