It should come as no surprise that some of the biggest box office flops through the years have starred some of the biggest box office celebrities.
Hello and Happy Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, of course, is synonymous with turkey, which is not a positive adjective in the movie business. “Turkeys” are box office duds, and we thought we might to glance back today at some classic “turkeys.”
Of course everyone remembers, although few have seen, Ishtar, the 1987 epic comedy directed by Elaine May starred Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty when both were hot commodities in Hollywood. It was a box office disaster.
Back in 1956 there was The Conqueror, with John Wayne and Susan Hayward in CinemaScope, no less. It was a period epic with Wayne playing Genghis Khan. The movie bombed, and is best remembered today for contributing to the disease that claimed the lives of many of those involved in the production.
You see, The Conqueror under Dick Powell’s direction was filmed on location in Saint George, Utah, a town fanned by radiation from eighty-seven above-ground atomic blasts in the adjacent Nevada desert during that period, according to Hayward biographer Beverly Linet.
One of the largest of those blasts had spawned a wind dubbed ‘Dirty Harry,’ which had swept across the desert in 1953, dropping radiation everywhere. In addition…tons of contaminated earth had been shipped back to Hollywood for further shooting, thereby prolonging the actors’ exposure.
What is indisputable is that Wayne died of cancer. So did actor-director Powell. As did Hayward and her costar Agnes Moorehead, as well as several others connected to the filming of The Conqueror.
1969 produced Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg. The film was an expensive screen version of the Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe Broadway musical about the California gold rush. During its production, Eastwood (above with Marvin) and Seberg are said to have had a passionate affair.
Both The Conqueror and Paint Your Wagon may have eventually made back their production costs after years of release, overseas release, sales to TV and finally video and so on. But both over the long haul were not box office gushers, especially when compared to their high production costs.
However, the film in strong contention for the Genuine Turkey award is The Fall of the Roman Empire. The 1964 film starring the box office darlings of the day, Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd, lost millions. Some say over $14 million (which would be over $100 million today.)
The previous year the Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton fiasco, Cleopatra, had bombed so massively that there ensued a full-scale executive upheaval at Twentieth Century Fox. Again, the movie’s humongous production cost overruns were the villain.
Of course, classic Hollywood of the Thirties had its turkeys too although not on the epic scale of The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra. But don’t forget that in the Thirties, a million bucks WAS a million bucks.
RKO took a hit with Damsel in Distress, Fred Astaire’s first musical without Ginger Rogers. And producer Sam Goldwyn memorably lost a lot of money trying to launch Anna Sten as the next Greta Garbo.
Goldwyn discovered the Russian-born Sten, and signed her up without bothering to discover that she didn’t speak English.
After a year of intensive language courses, Sten made her Hollywood debut in 1934’s Nana. Then came We Live Again the same year, with The Wedding Night released in 1935. All three movies proved to be box office turkeys, and Sten’s Hollywood career met an early end.
Finally, this upbeat ending.
Certainly one of the most notorious of box office turkeys ever is the 1980 release, Heaven’s Gate, director Michael Cimino’s epic about 19th century settlers in Wyoming. Not too many films were as savaged by the critics (one compared it to a three-hour tour of one’s own living room) and as ignored by the public. The aftershock nearly brought down United Artists.
Over the years, however, Heaven’s Gate has managed to develop a following in Europe and to some degree in the United States. This year, the film was screened in its entirety at Venice Film Festival, and the reception from critics and the public ranged from respectful to downright rapturous.