Critical Reassessment: 'Heaven’s Gate' And 11 More Films That Have Been Reconsidered Over Time

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 5, 2012 2:18 PM
38 Comments
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A few weeks ago, "Heaven's Gate" hit Blu-ray and DVD again in new, restored and extended edition thanks to the good folk at Criterion. It's only the latest sign of the rehabilitation of Michael Cimino's epic Western that famously brought down its studio, virtually ended the director's career, and became so synonymous with disaster that Kevin Costner's "Waterworld" was nicknamed "Kevin's Gate" by wags when it seemed that it too was headed for failure.

But over time, "Heaven's Gate" has slowly been reappraised by critics, with many declaring it an unheralded masterpiece over the thirty years since it was released. And it's far from the first; over the history of the medium, plenty of films have died on the vine with critics, audiences and awards voters, only to later find their way into the canon, or at least be picked up as pet projects by critics. This can be a blessing, but it can also sometimes be a curse. Some of these films are wonders that viewers missed the first time around, while others can be filed under the "interesting failure" category, worthy of a second look, but far from perfect.

So, with "Heaven's Gate" now available, and as we wait to see which of this year's batch will end up being reevaluated over the years ("Killing Them Softly"? "Cloud Atlas"? "Oogieloves"?), we've picked out ten notable films that were savaged at the time, and generally proved to be box office flops, but have grown in stature over the years. Not all are gems, exactly, but all are worth reconsidering to one degree or other, as our writers demonstrate below. And you can let us know which other initially-poorly-received pictures have now become your favorites in the comments section below.

"Bringing Up Baby" (1938)

The immediate box office failure and production woes of Howard Hawks's exceptional, and now even canonical screwball comedy now seems like such a footnote compared to the film's legacy. Embraced by the likes of the Cahiers du Cinema critics, production on the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant vehicle was off to a slow start thanks to a couple of factors. For example, the film's original script was rewritten and the film's animal performers, including Skippy, the dog that played Asta in some of "The Thin Man" movies, delayed the film's production. Hepburn was also apparently uncomfortable with playing comedy, so she was trained not to over-act. Grant's own fears that he was not a gifted comic actor would later motivate him to star in "Arsenic and Old Lace" six years later. But more importantly, while Hepburn did famously get into at least one fight on-set with an already on-edge Hawks, she and Grant have great chemistry in the film. Grant plays a paleontologist that must help Hepburn, the flighty niece of an entrepreneur that's interested in investing in Grant's research, in caring for a tame leopard while also capturing a feral, escaped zoo leopard. Hepburn and Grant's rapport onscreen is so good that one can't help but commend Hawks for never letting the tension that happened behind the film's scenes show in his film. Effortlessly and indelibly charming, "Bringing Up Baby" never feels labored as Hepburn is more than capable of keeping pace with Grant, who would re-team with Hawks two years later for "His Girl Friday."

“Cleopatra” (1963)

We feel bad ragging on “Cleopatra” so soon after the airing of Lifetime's “Liz and Dick,” but one needs to be dispassionate. This is still a ridiculous, bloated snooze, even if it does have much pomp and star power charisma. An infamous production that almost sank 20th Century Fox, the budget ballooned from $2 million to $44 million – which is something like $325 million in today's dollars. There were changes in directors (Rouben Mamoulian out, Joseph L. Mankiewicz in,) location (London to Rome) shutdowns for emergency surgeries and, of course, the scandal of the year, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's adulterous affair. Granted, it would have been difficult to assess this four hour movie without some sort of external prejudice at the time, but if you look at the 5-Star reviews on Amazon for the recent 3-disc set (featuring a five hour and twenty minute cut!!) you have to wonder what movie these people are watching. Then again, if you like spectacle and have ten minutes to kill, there's always the “Cleopatra Enters Rome” sequence.

"Ishtar" (1987)
Written and directed by the sorely underappreciated Elaine May (director of the undervalued “Mikey and Nicky,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and an uncredited writer on “Tootsie” and “Reds” to name a few, though she does have two Oscar noms to her credit for writing), “Ishtar” is one of the most notable first box-office bombs after “Heaven’s Gate.” A needlessly expensive picture ($50 million, becoming one of the most costly comedies of its era, and only grossing $14 million), the film, shot on location in places like far-off Morocco,  follows two inept lounge singing musicians who travel to Northern Africa looking for work and stumble into a four-party Cold War standoff. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as the aforementioned talentless hacks, “Ishtar” is admittedly dry and much of the humor of the film is supposed to come in the fact that these two are possibly the two worst songwriters on Earth (It’s perhaps a matter of taste, but the so-bad-they're-good songs are deliciously, hilariously dumb). Desperate for work, the two hapless singers fly to the fictional country of Ishtar as they travel to Morocco for a gig and accidentally start a revolution, and are caught in the crossfire of the CIA and the Emir of Ishtar. Shot by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ("Apocalypse Now") -- another sort of needless expense, though it does look great -- “Ishtar” not only earned a dreadful box-office return, but horrible reviews too.  But it’s slowly getting its a second-look reconsideration (as is Elaine May in general of late -- Vanity Fair this month carries a joint interview with one-time partner Mike Nichols). "Ishtar" received a loving screening at the New York's 92nd Street Y with May in attendance in 2011, and May’s "A New Leaf," with Walter Matthau, and "Luv," with Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon also arrived on DVD for the first time this year, so perhaps that reappreciation is slowly coming into focus, and we might see "Ishtar" get a home video release at some point soon too; the ball is in Columbia Pictures' court at this point.
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38 Comments

  • sanjuro | April 14, 2014 5:19 AMReply

    Drinking Buddies, Safety Not Guaranteed, very poor independent movies, badly written, uninteresting, with directing hardly better than TV sitcoms, that receive praise from lousy critics. Hopefully they will be reassessed and severely downgraded as they deserve in a near future. There are some much better independent movies out there.

  • Michael O'Farrell | December 30, 2012 8:27 PMReply

    To the Playlist staff: It's not true that Charles Laughton disliked his child actors in "The Night Of The Hunter. Disc # 2 of Criterion's superb presentation of the film features a 2 1/2 hour documentary consisting mainly of footage that didn't make it into the final release version : what ended up on the cutting room floor. The presentation is entitled "Charles Laughton Directs" and that is exactly what is shown :Laughton directing his actors, with numerous segments showing his brilliant handling of his child actors, who he treats sternly but really with great support and loving guidance. The fact that the movie was ignored by the studio was criminal. One of America's greatest movies went almost completely unnoticed back in 1955, and sadly Laughton, discouraged by the then poor critical and box office reception, never directed another film. The man was a genius.

  • walking on coal | December 17, 2012 7:22 AMReply

    It's only the latest sign of the rehabilitation of Michael Cimino's epic Western that famously brought down its studio, virtually ended the director's career, and became so synonymous with disaster that Kevin Costner's "Waterworld" was nicknamed "Kevin's Gate" by wags when it seemed that it too was headed for failure.

    http://www.sdfirewalk.com/

  • TommyT | December 11, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    I'm surprised not to see Terry Gilliam's Brazil in your list when you included Fear & Loathing. The battle that Gilliam had with Sid Sheinberg & Universal is legendary.

  • Toby | December 6, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    The Fountain, Bringing Out the Dead, Popeye and Speedracer for starters.

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    I'd add "Near Dark."

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:42 PM

    And "Angel Heart."

  • vortex | December 6, 2012 5:41 PM

    Also, "Streets of Fire."

  • Baley | December 6, 2012 2:26 AMReply

    Wages of Fear is by no stretch of the imagination a film noir.

  • OWEN | December 5, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    One I was sure was bound to appear, at least between the "Honorary Mentions", is Peeping Tom, a movie that basically destroyed Michael Powell career and resurfaced thanks to the championing of Martin Scorsese. There's a great entry about it in Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" (wich more or less seals the deal concerning the critical reevaluation of a film). Link! http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19990502/REVIEWS08/905020301/1023
    (By the way, I thnk Ebert is wrong when he says people rejected this movie and embraced Psycho because the macabre was expected from Hitchcock, but because Hitchcock always made clear that was all in jest, and always gave his audience escape points from all the grimness - being the humor or the characters you're clearly meant to identify with - while people rejected this movie because, as Ebert certainly notes, made them feel part of the stoking and eventual murdering of the victims. It's all about the perverse pleasures of watching in the dark, you know? Curiously this also could be considered the reason "Frenzy", a later movie in Hitch career, was one of his few flops)

  • Alex | December 5, 2012 4:36 PMReply

    Marie Antoinette. Sofia Coppola's Warhol-esque dissection of celebrity is brilliant, and it's only getting better with time. Firstly, the meticulous art direction couldn't be better, but then there's also Kirsten Dunst, who really gets deep into the psyche of a character we all hate and even makes us sympathetic towards her. Coppola's anachronistic musical choices are amazing as usual (Gang of Four! The Strokes!), and her direction shines as well--this is a really beautiful movie. Marie Antoinette is a culturally important with film that is a testament to the lasting obsession with celebrity and its emptiness that absolutely deserves a critical reevaluation.

  • Vortex | December 6, 2012 5:38 PM

    I completely agree. This one blew me away when I first saw it and it keeps getting better every viewing.

  • DN | December 6, 2012 2:09 PM

    At the risk of appearing a total snob, "Marie Antoinette" is the litmus test that a director colleague and I use to gauge the sensibilities of potential collaborators. If they're down with "Marie," they're down with us. The movie is freakin' brilliant.

  • droop | December 6, 2012 7:01 AM

    yesss

  • AdamA | December 5, 2012 11:51 PM

    I completely agree with Marie Antoinette. Upon first viewing the year it was released, I was severly disappointed. Upon watching it a second and third time I realized how good this film is. This is Coppola unique take on this well known historical story.

  • Tim | December 5, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    glad to see one of my all time favorites, Zardoz, pop up in the honorable mentions. I think recent critical opinion places that film awkwardly somewhere between the "undeservedly panned masterpiece" and the "so bad it's good" categories, which is probably about where it belongs - it's as brilliant as it is ridiculous, and a rare example of a film that comes off better today not in spite of, but rather BECAUSE of how poorly it's aged. in both the outdatedness of its style and the pointedness of its theme it serves a bizarre death knell to the hippie age.

  • OWEN | December 5, 2012 9:43 PM

    And the way it's aged I think actually helps the feeling of isolated reality the whole thing has, and in the end it works for the intention of the filmmakers of depict a society truly removed from our own. When you try to replicate that intentionally it comes off just as a retro toy, overly aware of being a movie, like this year "Beyond the black rainbow" (although I could imagine a Zardoz fan liking it, the self-awareness made it unwatchable for me).
    Also: THAT Connery suit. There are few men that can wear that with a completely straight face (a straight face attitude that makes the movie work by the way, the mere hint of ironic distance and the whole thing would fall apart).

  • TheoC | December 5, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    I really hope Argo is reassessed to "fancy TV movie of the week". Lebowski came out pretty flat, and somewhat divisive though you wouldn't think that now.

    John Carter will go the TRON route and have a pointless sequel in 30 years with the late Taylor Kitsch's head CG'ed, it will still be fucking stupid.

    This is a really good list, though I'm not buying Zardoz, I've always loved Cronenberg's Crash despite how often you have to explain it's not the Paul Haggis movie.

  • wes | December 6, 2012 10:30 AM

    Word on Argo, Theoc.

  • daniel | December 5, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    Catch-22 is another i'd throw on this list; finally folks are starting to see how great that picture was. I saw it before reading the book, and while the book is equally amazing, i have to say, the movie means yet more to me. Funereal slapstick, that movie. Genius.

  • Ken | December 5, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    Eyes Wide Shut is STARTING to get re-evaluated? It's fucking brilliant. I'm pretty sure it was one of Scorsese's top 10 films of the 1990s too.

  • Matt | December 9, 2012 5:54 PM

    Kubrick made Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Matt | December 9, 2012 5:53 PM

    Kubrick made eyes wide shut

  • droop | December 6, 2012 7:00 AM

    it is indeed fucking brilliant

  • Harley Quinn | December 5, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    Cleopatra isn't nearly as bad as people make it out to be and I'm sick of people harping on about it. Is it great? No. But is it the worst movie ever? Certainly not. If they had made it into 2 movies, as originally planned, it would've been a lot better.

  • Wes | December 5, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    Boo: Bringing Up Baby and The Game!
    Yea: Ladykillers and Crash!

  • wes | December 6, 2012 10:28 AM

    I've always thought it was overrated nowadays.

  • Chris | December 5, 2012 3:13 PM

    Wait, you're booing Bringing Up Baby? Are you kidding?

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • JJansen | December 5, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Friedkin reportedly removed a subplot that made Scheider's character look more sympathetic"

    I have done some research into this comment. This is urban legend and false. The statement is a mis-quote from the book HURRICANE BILLY about the script for SORCERER. Walon Green's screenplay contains no subplot featuring a small boy in the village. This may have been discussed, but there is no evidence of script pages or any footage to cut out of the film to upset Scheider. The novelization of the script/film also does not contain any additional scenes with this subplot idea.

    The bio book on Scheider STILL WATERS uses this false information and it is also included on the Wiki page. If you can find any evidence at all...please do so. If not, there is no reason to keep this "issue" alive in relation to SORCERER. (A great film in 1977 and still today)

  • Ricky | December 5, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    I'd also include David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to this list. It was booed when it premiered at Cannes in 1992 and was brutally received by the critics ("It isn't the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be" -Vincent Canby) later that year and was a box office bomb, but it seems like it's been reappraised over time and now seems much, much more highly-regarded, and is now analyzed and discussed as a very relevant entry in Lynch's filmography.

    Also, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which I think most seem to agree now that, George Lazenby aside (who again, isn't as terrible as most initially felt he was post-Sean Connery), is actually one of the best Bond films in the series and really laid the groundwork for the more emotional, sensitive, character-driven angle that the more recent Daniel Craig films have taken.

  • Brian | December 6, 2012 5:02 PM

    Fire Walk With Me is a favorite of mine. Thank you for mentioning it.

  • San Simeon | December 6, 2012 7:56 AM

    Agreed on both counts. Fire Walk With Me is a pretty good-to-great film that lives in the shadow of its namesake television series, but does serve as an effective prologue and coda to it. I'd be interested to see all of the deleted scenes from it, too.

  • BrianZ | December 5, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    Nice article. My only qualm, and I apologize for being one of those guys, but who is defending the Coens' Ladykillers?

  • San Simeon | December 6, 2012 7:14 AM

    I have no idea. I've never seen comment on that movie qualified as anything other than the Coen's worst.

  • Fred | December 5, 2012 4:24 PM

    Lots of people are and always have. Sorry I can't come up with a definitive list of names other than my own.

  • Chris | December 5, 2012 2:36 PM

    Yeah, I'm with Brianz. Has there been some major undercurrent of support for The Ladykillers in recent years that I just haven't noticed? The others you mentioned make sense, but The Ladykillers? Hardly.

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