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?
When my wife was a teenager, she had to wear a name tag that read “Gump.” At her place of work, everyone did. She was a clerk at Blockbuster Video. Forrest Gump came to home video in April of 1995, 10 months after the film opened in theaters. As part of the promotional rollout for the release, everyone who worked at that Blockbuster became a Gump. My wife’s name tag, for instance, read “Bridget Gump.” You would think that people would see this and understand what was happening. Nope. About 10 times a day, by her count, people would look at her name tag and say, “Oh, hey! Like that movie!”
This is apparently what happens when a saccharine, tender-hearted drama comes along and utterly dominates at the box office: Someone at some company makes a decision, and thousands of teenagers spend weeks internally cringing every time someone asks them if they’re related to the fictional character Forrest Gump. In the mid-’90s, things like this were happening all the time. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the chain of seafood restaurants spun off from Forrest Gump, opened its first location in 1995, and waiters at the 42 Bubba Gump locations around the world still have to engage customers in Forrest Gump trivia—a rung of service-industry labor hell that many of us can only begin to contemplate.
Forrest Gump, the highest-grossing movie of 1994, has endured multiple waves of backlash and anti-backlash backlash ever since its release—a chain of events set off before the movie even opened, when the deeply conflicted love-it-or-hate-it reviews began coming out. Forrest Gump essentially swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture and Actor and Director and Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing and Visual Effects, holding Pulp Fiction to one lonely Best Original Screenplay statue. As far as consensus Oscar travesties go, this is right up there with Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas or The King’s Speech over The Social Network.
But it would’ve been insane to expect anything else of the Oscars. Forrest Gump was an old-school social-conscience spectacle, a hymn to American uplift that seized the zeitgeist and became a cultural phenomenon. The Academy Awards were created to heap laurels upon movies like Forrest Gump. The film would prove to be one of Hollywood’s last chances to reward this kind of digestible, down-the-middle movie. Hollywood was never going to miss that opportunity.
If you look at the big earners at the 1994 box office, two films stand far outside everything else: Forrest Gump and The Lion King, soul-stirring epics about family and homeland and finding your place in the world. Both were bids for monocultural dominance, and both more than doubled the box office earnings of any of the year’s other films. (Thanks to myriad re-releases, The Lion King is now the highest-grossing film of 1994. In the moment, though, Gump was the champion.)
For all its majesty, The Lion King was a children’s movie. Almost every movie that did business in 1994 was a children’s movie, and most of them were cruder, noisier things. 1994 was the year that Jim Carrey made Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask and Dumb And Dumber, cementing his place at the top of the Hollywood food chain. Broad family comedies like The Flintstones and The Santa Clause also made money, as did big-budget action pictures like True Lies, Clear And Present Danger, and Speed. With the possible exception of Clear And Present Danger, all of those movies, including the R-rated ones, were aggressively marketed to children and teenagers. Forrest Gump was not, though plenty of children and teenagers ended up seeing it anyway. Forrest Gump was for their parents.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a film quite as generationally self-aware as Forrest Gump. It takes decades of American history—the entire baby boomer lifespan up to that point—and presents them as a greatest-hits slideshow. For its main character, Gump offers up an angelic cipher. Forrest Gump radiates decency from every pore, but we never see him as someone who makes active decisions. Gump has feelings and ideals, but he’s also a blank canvas. He never tries to shape history. Instead, history acts upon him, and it brings him into contact with many of the titans of the American dream life, from Elvis Presley to Bear Bryant, from Abbie Hoffman to three different presidents.
Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, born in 1952, had spent an entire career mythologizing his own generation. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Zemeckis’ 1978 debut, was a story of teenagers trying to gain entry to see The Beatles make their debut on Ed Sullivan—a Gump-level event if ever there was one. I Wanna Hold Your Hand wasn’t a success, but it was the first time Zemeckis worked with executive producer Steven Spielberg, his mentor and perhaps the ultimate boomer filmmaker. (In 1995, Spielberg handed Zemeckis his Oscar for Gump.) Later on, Zemeckis made truly great popcorn movies like Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, figuring out how to manipulate American nostalgia. In Forrest Gump, Zemeckis mashes that button again and again.
Incredibly, he was not the first choice to turn Winston Groom’s 1986 novel into a movie; both Terry Gilliam and Barry Sonnenfeld turned it down. The film could’ve easily ended up with another star, too. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and John Travolta all reportedly passed on the role. (Imagine the smugness level of a Chevy Chase Forrest Gump.) But Tom Hanks, born in 1956, was exactly the sort of sentimentalist needed to bring this story the humanity that it needed. A couple of years after Forrest Gump, Hanks cashed in the credit he’d earned from one of the most remarkable leading-man runs in Hollywood history to make his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, exactly the same sort of starry-eyed nostalgic fable that Robert Zemeckis might’ve once imagined.
Forrest Gump came right in the middle of that movie-star run. Hanks, once a sitcom star, had come up through ’80s comedies, jumping to a new level and scoring a surprise Oscar nomination with 1988’s Big, then recovering from the notorious clusterfuck of Brian De Palma’s failed 1990 Bonfire Of The Vanities adaptation by knocking out A League Of Their Own, Sleepless In Seattle, and Philadelphia in quick succession. Those three films were all big hits and supremely watchable movies, and each of them allowed Hanks to display a different but complementary sort of fundamental goodness. He crushed all of them. He crushes Gump, too, in his way—at least to the extent that anyone could’ve crushed Gump.
In Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks plays a saintly, selfless figure with mental and physical disabilities—a risible movie trope that was everywhere in the closing days of the 20th century. (A few years earlier, Dustin Hoffman had won his second Oscar and scored his own dominant box office hit with Rain Man, a slightly more nuanced take on the same old cliché.) Against his own better judgment, Hanks also played Forrest Gump as a character with a deep, marble-mouthed Alabama accent, a decision that has led to far too many terrible impressions over the years. Gump reacts to virtually everything with blank acceptance, barely showing any glimmer of internal life. When he finally does break down and cry over his wife Jenny’s tombstone, it’s the most stirring moment in the film, at least in part because it’s the only one where Forrest really gets a chance to outwardly emote.
Hanks makes all of this work, to an extent. He’s good at stillness, at comic timing, and at communicating things with his eyes. Virtually any other actor would’ve been lost. (Bill Murray probably could’ve done something with the character, but his version would’ve been very different, and it’s probably better for everyone that he made Ed Wood that year instead.) Hanks makes Forrest Gump into a memorable, empathetic character, not a joke, which is all anyone could’ve asked of him.
The other stars of Forrest Gump have tougher jobs. Gary Sinise has the best and showiest role, a broken man who screams at God before finally being beatified by Gump’s presence. Sally Field, as Forrest’s mother, has the thankless role of constantly looking upset over Forrest’s difficulties. (Field is only 10 years older than Hanks. Six years earlier, she’d played his love interest in Punchline.) Robin Wright’s Jenny gets the rawest deal. While Forrest glides, befuddled, through the back half of the 20th century, Jenny gets the sad task of embodying her generation’s perceived excesses. She gets involved in anti-war demonstrations, and then in drugs, before presumably dying of AIDS, though nobody ever says the name of the virus. Jenny is the one who tries to shape the world, to sing Bob Dylan in a strip club. The story gives her nothing but pain in return.
The view of history on display in Forrest Gump is frustratingly vague. The film envisions both military brass and anti-war demonstrators as sneering, braying caricatures. When Zemeckis drops Forrest Gump into Vietnam, it turns into an opportunity to riff on a couple of decades of Vietnam movies—to parody something like Born On The Fourth Of July, right down to the clangingly obvious needle drops of the truly obnoxious soundtrack. When Gump bumps up against history’s great figures, it’s simply a chance for cheap jokes, and for Zemeckis to show off what was then cutting-edge technology.
Forrest Gump won the Best Visual Effects Oscar, defeating the louder and showier displays of True Lies and The Mask. These days, the CGI in the Forrest Gump stock-footage scenes looks like absolute dog shit. But then, realism isn’t really the point of Forrest Gump. The movie does not depict a plausible American life. Instead, it works as a dream-logic fable, a warm reassurance that America is a good place at heart. You see it in Forrest Gump himself and in all the people who sit at the bus stop, listening to his endless story. Forrest Gump works to remind its audience that everything is more or less okay.
But that kind of soft-hearted nostalgia can turn rancid. A few months after Forrest Gump hit theaters, Newt Gingrich led a right-wing revolution, brandishing his so-called Contract With America as the Republicans took over both houses of Congress. Many of those Republicans weaponized the same kind of nostalgia that’s on display in Forrest Gump. Robert Zemeckis spoke of it as an apolitical film, one that would leave nobody out. But nothing ever stays apolitical.
For a little while, there was a Forrest Gump sequel in the works. Winston Groom wrote a follow-up novel called Gump & Co. in 1995, and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth turned it into a script in 2001. Zemeckis, Hanks, and Roth all abandoned those plans after 9/11. Maybe history was moving too quickly; maybe it could no longer be safely trapped in amber. But who knows? Every successful movie gets a reboot or a remake or a sequel these days. Maybe one day, Haley Joel Osment will return to the role of Forrest Gump Jr. and give the millennial version of the story. Maybe we’ll see Forrest Gump Jr. bumping into Eminem and Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. Maybe he’ll get laid off in the 2008 financial collapse or test positive for COVID-19. But in this hypothetical sequel, Forrest Gump Jr. will never work at Blockbuster. He’ll never have to wear the Gump name tag.
The contender: Pulp Fiction, the second film from Quentin Tarantino was, as mentioned above, never going to win any Oscars against Forrest Gump. Still, the mere fact that it could compete in those categories is some kind of miracle. It’s also some kind of miracle that Pulp Fiction, an insurgent film-festival favorite, could pull in more than $100 million, enough to make it the No. 10 hit at the 1994 box office.
The hype surrounding Pulp Fiction was deafening: the Tarantino cult of personality, the John Travolta renaissance, the wave of imitators that sprung up almost immediately. But the movie itself remains a whole lot of nasty fun, with its intricate setups and its vividly observed details and its mundane situations that suddenly spiral off into surreal violence. Today, Pulp Fiction probably seems too pleased with itself at times, and it’s even harder to figure out why Tarantino thought it was cool to film himself throwing around a particular racial slur so happily. But it’s still a fucked-up blast of a movie, which is not something you could ever accuse Forrest Gump of being.
Next time: Tom Hanks returns in a very different form: leading the Pixar revolution in Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated film.