The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Imagine it’s 1990 and you’re Joe Pesci. You’ve had a solid career as a character actor for a decade. You have one Oscar nomination for Raging Bull. You’ve appeared in one big hit, Lethal Weapon 2. And you’ve just painted your masterpiece. The beginning of 1990 is pretty standard for you — small roles as scumbags in Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire and Alan Alda’s Betsy’s Wedding, both flops. But then came Goodfellas.
It’s impossible to imagine a role better tailored to your abilities than the out-of-control murderer Tommy DeVito. You’re charismatic and terrifying and immortal. In every scene, nobody knows what you’re going to do, even if they’ve already seen the movie. Your character becomes a standard reference point on SNL, on Animaniacs, on rap-album skits. You win the Oscar for Goodfellas, and you give a five-word acceptance speech. It’s legend shit. It’s the sort of creative peak that few actors get a chance to sniff.
But two months after Goodfellas, something strange happens. This little movie that you’ve reluctantly agreed to do, one that you didn’t take the slightest bit seriously, has taken off. You’ve only taken the role when your friend De Niro has turned it down and when Jon Lovitz has passed, too. You play a yammering, bumbling burglar who gets beaten half to death by some kid. You can’t even curse, so you’re left stumbling around, yelping gibberish nothings; it’s like forcing Picasso to paint left-handed. You’re so convinced that the movie is a nothing that you and Daniel Stern, your scene partner and fellow burglar, play everything big and exaggerated, just to keep yourselves entertained. You won’t even show up to the set until you’ve played nine holes of golf every morning. But suddenly, this movie is orders of magnitude bigger than Goodfellas—bigger, even, than Lethal Weapon 2. Now you’ve got little kids walking up to you in the airport, begging you to rob their houses.
Joe Pesci showing up in Goodfellas and Home Alone in the same two-month span is something I never get tired of thinking about. It’s like if Robert Mitchum had gone straight from Night Of The Hunter to playing Elmer Fudd in a live-action Bugs Bunny movie, and then that Bugs Bunny movie had been the biggest thing since Gone With The Wind. It’s beautiful in its perversity. Even the people who made Home Alone had no idea that it could be anything other than a pretty decent Christmastime moneymaker. The movie’s star was a cute kid, but a total unknown. Its director was just coming off of a notorious bomb. Its tone was both treacly and deranged. Warner Bros., Home Alone’s original studio, had passed on the film when writer and producer John Hughes couldn’t keep the budget under $10 million. In short, Home Alone took everyone by surprise.
A year before Home Alone, the Hollywood studios had learned the true value of the event film. After a near-perfect marketing blitz, Batman had made more money than anyone had thought possible. Sequels and spectacles dominated at the box office, and in 1990, the schedule was loaded with big swings that attempted to recapture that magic: Back To The Future Part III, The Godfather Part III, Rocky V, Another 48 Hrs., 3 Men And A Little Lady, RoboCop 2, the Tom Cruise/Tony Scott reunion Days Of Thunder, the absolute fucking masterpiece that is Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Warren Beatty came out with Dick Tracy, an attempt at replicating Batman that was marketed just like Batman, and apparently made under the misapprehension that the thing people really liked about Batman was the old-timey hard-boiled sensibility, not the superhero stuff. Almost all of them underperformed.
Instead, the big successes of 1990 were relatively left-field. For most of the year, the biggest hit was Ghost, a sort of Hallmark romantic comedy about a dead man made by one of the Airplane! guys. Pretty Woman, meanwhile, was a sort of Disney-princess fable about a sex worker and an ice-cold Richard Gere, and it minted a titanic new movie star. An independent film about rubber-faced turtles doing martial arts caught everyone napping. Conventional wisdom wasn’t working out.
But while Ghost and Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all surprise hits, they were also total crowd-pleasers, made with verve and showmanship. They might not have initially looked like event movies, but that’s what they were. And to the people of my tiny blip of a micro-generation—a micro-generation that also includes Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, almost exactly one year younger than me—Home Alone was the biggest event of the year.
I remember the trailers. A kid runs wild in his own house and then cartoonishly mauls the robbers who have come to invade. Sold. I couldn’t wait. I was counting days. On opening night, my theater was totally packed and fully enthralled. During the wildly violent big finale, when young Kevin McAllister tortures these hapless crooks, my theater wasn’t just laughing. It was screaming. It was like a huge cathartic release for all these little kids, watching one of their own absolutely obliterate these shitty grown-ups. It was practically a ritual bloodletting. I’ll never forget the feeling.
My parents laughed, too, but they were a little taken aback. On the drive back, they said, you know, the robbers would probably be dead in real life. If anything, this made the whole thing more appealing. At school the next Monday, my entire fourth-grade class had seen the movie. Nobody could shut up about it. Lunch and recess were just people breathlessly recounting and acting out every stunt, every injury. This was a predominantly Black public school in Baltimore, and there’s not one single person of color in all of Home Alone. That didn’t matter. Home Alone was bigger in that school than even House Party had been earlier that year. Kevin McAllister stood in for everyone.
In retrospect, 1990 might be the moment that the baby-boom generation lost control of the box office, the year their kids took over. I’m just barely too old to be a millennial, and Home Alone was perfectly laser-targeted at me and my cohort. Other 1990 hits like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Kindergarten Cop had the same sensibility, and were nearly as formative. (So, for that matter, was Total Recall, a trippy and hyper-violent hard-R fever dream that kids loved.) In 1990, baby boomers still had the juice to push a nostalgic prestige piece like Dances With Wolves to blockbuster status, but they weren’t running the show anymore.
Maybe it’s appropriate that Home Alone was the brainchild of John Hughes, a boomer who was always in tune with the kids. In the years before Home Alone, Hughes had carved out a reputation as Hollywood’s teen whisperer, the guy who understood how high schoolers talked and thought and fantasized. But by the end of the ’80s, Hughes, who cranked out screenplays at a baffling pace, was moving toward family comedy. After making the 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes had directed Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Uncle Buck, two movies about men struggling to be good friends and good father figures. He’d also worried that he was neglecting his own kids, and he imagined what his 10-year-old might do if he found himself abandoned.
Hughes didn’t direct Home Alone. Instead, he passed that job on to young Chris Columbus, who has since quietly become one of the most commercially successful filmmakers to ever live. Columbus, like Hughes, had started off as a screenwriter: Steven Spielberg had pulled a struggling Columbus out of anonymity, buying and producing his script for Gremlins. (Like so many of the movies in this column, Home Alone would’ve been unthinkable without Spielberg.) Columbus had gone on to write The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes for Spielberg’s Amblin company. He made his directorial debut with 1987’s reasonably successful Adventures In Babysitting—a sort of inverse Ferris Bueller where Chicago is a terrifying, decaying hellscape and the wisecracking kids are lucky to get back to the suburbs alive.
Columbus had bricked hard with his second directorial effort, the Elvis-themed nostalgic fantasy Heartbreak Hotel, and he’d left the job of directing the Hughes-written National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when he realized he couldn’t get along with star Chevy Chase. But Hughes offered Columbus Home Alone, and Columbus jumped at it. Home Alone turned out to be perfect for Columbus’s emerging viewpoint: A sort of hacky suburban slapstick-Spielberg thing that draws its power by putting the viewer in the shoes of a little kid. In retrospect, Columbus basically turned Kevin McAllister into a one-kid Goonies team—soulful, lost, hungry, resourceful, angry, sardonic, at least a little bit bloodthirsty.
Home Alone is more of a Columbus movie than a Hughes one. Hughes, for instance, wrote the character of the next-door neighbor—a kindly and heartbroken old man who spends most of the film silently and creepily glaring at children even though he knows they suspect him of mass murder—because Columbus thought the story needed more heart. Original composer Bruce Broughton, a TV-score specialist, had dropped out at the last minute. Thanks to a call to Steven Spielberg, Columbus finagled a playfully dreamy score from John Williams, the most famous film composer of all time—a pretty good 11th-hour replacement. In retrospect, John Williams might’ve been the biggest get in the whole enterprise—bigger than even post-Goodfellas Pesci or one-day cameo master John Candy. (I distinctly remember some kid in the theater yelling Candy’s name when he showed up onscreen.) Williams’ score makes Home Alone feel like a real movie. Like a Spielberg movie.
Macaulay Culkin had a lot to do with making Home Alone a real movie, too. Hughes had worked with Culkin in Uncle Buck, and he knew the kid was funny and charismatic enough to carry a picture. Columbus auditioned upward of a hundred kids before agreeing. Culkin is everything you could possibly want in a lead kid actor: He’s cute as a button. He’s got comic timing. He can communicate the feeling of being a freaked-out kid without going all the way maudlin with it. But more importantly, Culkin has personality—a kind of weird affectless deadpan thing that fully centers everything erupting around him. Even when Kevin McAllister is being a little shit—terrifying a pizza delivery boy for no reason, for instance—you still root for Macaulay Culkin.
Macaulay Culkin became a full-on movie star after Home Alone, something that rarely happens with kid actors, even after big movies. Henry Thomas wasn’t plastered all over every billboard after E.T., for example—which, for a time, was one of only two movies that outgrossed Home Alone. But for a solid four years after Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin was getting millions to headline big-budget films. (Culkin also introduced his little brother Kieran in a great little Home Alone role as the cousin who pees the bed, a 30-years-early rough draft for Roman from Succession.) He was one of the most famous people on the planet before he was out of elementary school. That’s not a healthy way to live, which may account for his more reclusive nature in adulthood.
Kevin McAllister probably came out of the whole situation pretty scarred, too. Home Alone works hard to avoid making its parents loathsome, and comedy queen Catherine O’Hara puts everything possible into communicating the panic of this mother. But Kevin basically still has to mangle two adult men, shooting them in the dick and torturing their feet and repeatedly dropping heavy things on their skulls. If you stop to think about it for even a second, Home Alone stops being a family slapstick romp and turns into something much darker.
In canon, Kevin’s story gets even worse when you consider what happens in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York two years later. Home Alone 2 is a weird rewatch today, for reasons that go way beyond the scene on the World Trade Center observation deck or the six-word Donald Trump cameo. For one thing, Kevin’s parents manage to lose him again, which is just some biblically terrible parenting. If you do that twice, that’s not a charming accident; that’s a pattern. For another, the Home Alone 2 Kevin is disturbed enough to actually seek out his old enemies and visit new torments upon them when they aren’t even trying to rob him. The scene where he repeatedly crushes Marv’s head with bricks is some real sick shit.
But Home Alone had to have a sequel; you can’t leave that kind of money on the table. And there probably wasn’t a way to sequelize it without doing the beat-for-beat retelling with a switched-up setting. But Home Alone 2—one of 1992’s biggest hits—is where the whole thing abruptly stops being fun.
A few years ago, a stringy-haired, freaked-out Macaulay Culkin brought back the Kevin character for a web comedy short. This time around, the joke was that Kevin had been so deranged by his Home Alone experience that he’d become a serial killer, a horror-movie villain. It was pretty persuasive. Looking at the bigger picture, Goodfellas might not be the most intense, fucked-up movie that Joe Pesci made in 1990.
The runner-up: John McTiernan’s The Hunt For Red October, the No. 6 movie at the 1990 domestic box office, might be the last great Cold War thriller, and it’s also one of the last great airport-paperback adaptations. Red October relies on a whole lot of suspension of disbelief; you have to buy, for instance, that the extremely Scottish Sean Connery is a Soviet Naval captain. It also relies heavily on the image of people squinting at elaborate control panels and listening to sonar pings. The movie still sings.
Among studio filmmakers, McTiernan, at his peak, had the rare gift of taking far-fetched situations and making them feel viscerally real while still populating them with charming movie stars. Red October gets a lot from Connery’s larger-than-life swagger and from Alec Baldwin’s willingness to play against type as an office nerd forced into action heroics. The film also moves with the silent efficiency of one of those Soviet water-propulsion systems. In McTiernan’s hands, the story never loses you and never lets up. Die Hard is probably McTiernan’s best movie, but Red October might be his greatest flex.
Next time: Terminator 2 introduces a new generation of CGI effects, turns the ’80s-style action movie into a bigger spectacle than ever before, and imprints itself on a couple of generations of kids who are probably too young to be watching hard-R robot-war flicks.