The History of Film
The 1990s

The Era of Mainstream Films and "Indie" Cinema, the Rise of Computer-Generated Imagery, the Decade of Re-makes, Re-releases, and More Sequels

Part 2

Film History of the 1990s

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Film History by Decade

Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s
| 2010s
The 1990s Decade

Trends in the 90s: Films with Serious Themes

Philadelphia - 1993The trend toward sequels from the previous decade continued, but Hollywood was also attempting to deal with serious themes, including homelessness, the Holocaust, AIDS, feminism, and racism, while making bottom-line profits. There were a number of mainstream films that confronted the issues in a profound way. Director Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993) was the first big-studio attempt to deal with AIDS, winning for Tom Hanks the first of consecutive Best Actor Oscars. He starred as a lawyer with AIDS who found that Denzel Washington was the only person who would take his case.

With seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, Steven Spielberg's long and serious B/W Holocaust 'prestige' epic Schindler's List (1993) was a significant milestone but also a grim story about an opportunistic German businessman (Liam Neeson) in Poland who ultimately saved over 1,000 Jews from a Holocaust death by employing them as cheap labor. This historical drama was released only a few months after Spielberg's major entertainment blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993).

Dances With Wolves - 1990Soon before its bankruptcy in 1991, Orion Pictures distributed the three-hour western - director/producer/actor Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), that retold the story of the Wild West from the viewpoint of Native Americans and displayed some of the subtitled dialogue in Sioux. Kevin Costner starred as Lt. John Dunbar who married Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), and inadvertently became a hero. The film won the Best Picture Academy Award and six other Oscars, the first "western" to do so since Cimarron (1931).

Orion also released Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a chilling thriller about serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and featuring Jodie Foster as young agent Clarice Starling seeking help from the psychopath to catch another psychopath named Buffalo Bill. The remarkable film swept the top five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Writer) - it was the first horror film to be so honored. [It repeated the earlier success of two other sweep films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and It Happened One Night (1934).]

Forrest Gump - 1994The immensely popular box-office hit Forrest Gump (1994) by director Robert Zemeckis looked back on the 60s and Vietnam War era through the eyes of a slow-witted Everyman (Best Actor-winning Tom Hanks with his second Oscar win), reportedly with an IQ of 75. He would spout Gump-isms ("Life is like a box of chocolates") and the film's exceptional special effects placed the unassuming Forrest within documentary newsreels - creating the illusion of meeting with Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), missing legs and the finale's floating feather.

Racial issues and social tensions were disturbingly portrayed by Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993). Actor Tim Robbins' independent film Dead Man Walking (1995) confronted the issue of capital punishment in a powerful tale with Oscar-winning Susan Sarandon portraying real-life Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean as a death-row spiritual counselor for convicted murderer and rapist Sean Penn. In Scent of a Woman (1992), Best Actor-winning Al Pacino starred as a blind ex-Marine (Col. Frank Slade), known for saying "Hoo-hah!", who intended to commit suicide - until hiring a young college student (Chris O'Donnell).

African-American Film-Makers:

Boyz N the Hood - 1991And black filmmakers, including John Singleton, Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles (among others) were making an impact. Twenty-three year old writer/director John Singleton marked his directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical Boyz N The Hood (1991), a powerful film about gang violence in South Central L.A. [Singleton's nominated film brought him the distinction of being the first African-American and the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Director Academy Award. At the time of its release, the film was the highest-grossing, black-themed film ever, earning ten times its $6 million budget.] However, the film's marketing incited some violence and trouble when it opened in various theaters.

Jungle Fever - 1991After Mo' Better Blues (1990), writer/director Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) told a story of inter-racial romance between Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes. New Jack City (1991), with actor Wesley Snipes was a realistic film about inner city drug violence. Lee's big-budget biopic of the black political and religious activist Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington in the title role as the radical 1960s assassinated leader, was an ambitious, stirring production, and caused controversy among African-American groups. Another conflict arose when the high-school basketball documentary about inner-city Chicago, Hoop Dreams (1994) failed to receive an Oscar nomination (as Best Picture or Best Documentary), although it won documentary awards from the Sundance Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the LA Film Critics Association.

Co-scripter-director Lee's Clockers (1995), co-produced by Martin Scorsese, was a penetrating, sober examination of the vicious cycle of drug-dealing on the streets in the modern urban world. The Hughes brothers' Dead Presidents (1995) followed the coming-of-age odyssey of a young black man (Larenz Tate) from his late 60s Bronx upbringing through a Vietnam tour of duty and back to his life in the 'hood in 1973. Allen and Albert Hughes directed the powerful and daring inner-city film about a conflicted teenage gang member entitled Menace II Society (1993).

Female Film-Makers and a New Feminist Consciousness:

Wayne's World - 1992Similarly, from the 80s into the 90s, female directors were exerting greater influence and demonstrating their skill within the film industry: Barbra Streisand with her first film Yentl (1983) (as director/producer/co-writer/actor) and The Prince of Tides (1991), Penny Marshall with the soul-transference fantasy/comedy Big (1988) starring Tom Hanks as a youngster in an adult body, Penelope Spheeris with Wayne's World (1992) starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey from TV's Saturday Night Live, Kathryn Bigelow with the exciting, fast-moving action-crime film Point Break (1991) and the dark, virtual reality futuristic film Strange Days (1995), and New Zealand director Jane Campion with the Oscar winning sensual and haunting masterpiece that was filmed from a female perspective The Piano (1993) - a love story set in 19th century New Zealand about the tragic consequences of an arranged marriage and erotic passion between mute Holly Hunter and native Harvey Keitel.

Thelma and Louise - 1991Ridley Scott's radical wide-screen film Thelma and Louise (1991) with a debut script by Callie Khouri (that won a Best Screenplay Oscar) has been noted as the first feminist-buddy/road film with two raging female heroines. Although controversial and defiant (like its counterpart Easy Rider (1969) was in its day), it offered splendid character roles to two actresses Susan Sarandon (as fed-up, overworked waitress Louise) and Geena Davis (as housewife Thelma) portraying outlaw women in flight across the American Southwest from abusiveness in marriage, rape and the law. [Incidentally, the film also launched Brad Pitt as a new star.] Director Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (1992) was the true story of WWII manpower shortages that impacted baseball. Tom Hanks managed an all-female baseball team which included Geena Davis and Madonna.

Writer/director Nora Ephron, famous for When Harry Met Sally...(1989) created the witty, simple romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993) (a re-make of An Affair to Remember (1957)) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as the perfect couple brought together by a talk-radio program. Ephron also directed the fantasy comedy Michael (1996) with John Travolta as the atypical title character - an angel (with wings) who drank, smoked, swore, and lived in Iowa. After her success in The Silence of the Lambs (1990), actress Jodie Foster became a producer and director for Egg Pictures, releasing her directorial debut film Little Man Tate (1991) and then a comedy about family relationships on Thanksgiving weekend titled Home for the Holidays (1995).

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991), adapted from Fannie Flagg's popular women's novel, starred Jessica Tandy as an elderly storyteller in a nursing home and Kathy Bates as an emotionally-repressed housewife who found strength and independence through the recollections. Another feminist film The Joy Luck Club (1993), an adaptation of Amy Tan's novel with the theme of mother-daughter relationships, told of four mothers from China (who met weekly to play Mah-Jongg) whose daughters were born in America. The First Wives Club (1996) was about three friends (Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton) who decided to get revenge on their unfaithful ex-husbands.

As a sign of the times, the Alien films (1979, 1986, 1992, and 1997) spotlighted a self-reliant female heroine - Lieut. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). [The popular protagonist was killed off in the third installment, David Fincher's Alien3 (1992), but then brought back through cloning in the fourth film, Alien Resurrection (1997)].

Action-Thrillers Dominate the 90s:

Face/OffThere seemed to be a significant shift toward action films in the 90s - with their requisite speed, kinetic hyper-action, and of course, violence. Most of the biggest and popular films were not dialogue-based and character-driven. One of the greatest summer smashes of the decade was Andrew Davis' The Fugitive (1993) - a spin-off from the celebrated 1963-67 TV series (with David Janssen), with Harrison Ford as the wrongly-convicted surgeon Dr. Richard Kimble in flight from dogged US Marshal (Tommy Lee Jones) and in pursuit of a one-armed man. Brian De Palma's big-budget slick summer blockbuster Mission: Impossible (1996) derived from the popular 1960s TV series, was financially successful given its Tom Cruise star power and huge marketing campaign. Sylvester Stallone was in the title role of Demolition Man (1993) in pursuit of Wesley Snipes in futuristic San Angeles.

During the 1993 filming of the martial arts action-thriller adapted from a comic book, The Crow (1994), Bruce Lee's actor son Brandon was killed in an accident on the set. Hong Kong action director John Woo proved that he could make mainstream Hollywood films with the high-powered Broken Arrow (1996), his second US film, and filled with Woo's trademark action sequences. He also directed Face/Off (1997), a brilliantly-acted film with stars John Travolta as an FBI agent and Nicolas Cage as the villain - who both swapped faces after plastic surgery.

Speed - 1994Jan de Bont's action disaster-thriller Speed (1994) was just as its title suggested - a fast-paced, out-of-control tale about a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) vs. an LA SWAT team cop (Keanu Reeves), and a runaway suburban LA bus (driven by Sandra Bullock) wired to explode if it slowed below 50 mph. The vacation-cruise sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) paled in comparison. The producers of Top Gun (1986) made their last film The Rock (1996) - Michael Bay's successful action thriller with an all-star cast set on the island prison Alcatraz, with renegade Marines (led by Ed Harris) and a task force teaming Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.

After their 1995 successes with Braveheart (1995) and Apollo 13 (1995) - a true story about a near-space disaster (with Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell), Ron Howard teamed with Mel Gibson for the suspenseful crime-kidnapping thriller Ransom (1996), a remake of the 1950s film Ransom (1956) starring Glenn Ford. Two mid-air thrillers included:

  • Stuart Baird's debut directorial film Executive Decision (1996) - an Islamic terrorist hijack story on a 747 jetliner
  • Simon West's glossy mega-movie Con Air (1997), with action star of the decade Nicolas Cage aboard a federal marshal's plane with an assortment of vile criminals

Film History of the 1990s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

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