In retrospect, T2 was both a harbinger for things to come—a sequel borne out of a brand name and nascent special effects—as well as a monument to an impulse that has gone largely extinct in Hollywood: to push the envelope in unexpected directions.
Terminator 2 might’ve been the unrivaled box office champ in summer ‘91, earning $204 million, but the same summer also saw the releases of Thelma & Louise, City Slickers, Boyz n the Hood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, What About Bob?, Jungle Fever, Point Break, Backdraft, and The Rocketeer. Each multiplex was a rich ecosystem of competing genres, niches, and audience interests. And with the exception of The Rocketeer, every single one of those aforementioned films was a major box office hit, with nearly all of them going on to have legacies ranging from the profound to the cult.
For instance, consider Thelma & Louise, the R-rated buddy film about two women (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) who go on a road trip-turned-crime spree. It opened in fourth place that Memorial Day weekend, grossing less than Hudson Hawk in the same frame. The picture never topped the box office charts once, but it was able to do steady business the entire summer, nearly tripling its $16.5 million budget. On those meager week-to-week numbers, it even found a large enough audience to enter the zeitgeist and become a significant cinematic touchstone for a generation of audiences who embraced a fable where women kill an abuser and refuse to bend to society’s demands. It also made Brad Pitt an instant movie star, despite being in a third billed part.
Thelma & Louise was able to carve that legacy despite being dwarfed by the likes of T2 throughout the summer, and before Arnold there was City Slickers, which is itself one of Billy Crystal’s best comedies—this one about middle-aged New Yorkers playing cowboys. City Slickers, in turn, became an Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser despite spending most of its release in the shadow of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was the second biggest blockbuster of the year. And for all its faults, the Kevin Costner Robin Hood is still fondly remembered as a grand adventure by millennials of a certain age range, despite it never setting up a sequel, prequel, or expanded universe. It even had an unusually dark soul for a blockbuster romp meant for the whole family.
These are just a handful of examples of what was then considered box office material. Perhaps most striking though is John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood, which became a surprise hit when it opened in second place among original releases on July 12 (behind Terminator 2). It went on to be one of the 20 highest grossing movies of the year. Today, its bittersweet subject matter about young Black men growing up in South Central would instantly consign the film to streaming or being placed in an arthouse box, which would mean it’d need to premiere at Sundance or several other high-profile film festivals in order to secure distribution and an awards campaign that could draw speciality audiences’ attention. In the ‘90s, Columbia Pictures bought Singleton’s script while he was still in school.
When looking at this three decades later, it would be too easy to fall into golden age thinking or pretend things were strictly better “back then.” Nostalgia is a dangerous delusion, especially for an era you weren’t really there for (I was technically around in ’91, but too young to see The Rocketeer, much less Terminator 2). And yet, when studying recent anniversaries from that era, I’m struck by the variety of stories being told. There’s a genuine sense of diversity, in the classical sense, with numerous audiences, age ranges, and even genres being serviced. Yes, there are the big action spectacles, but there are also adult-skewing thrillers, small budgeted Black dramas selling a significant amount of tickets, and even the long-lost romantic comedy.
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