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.
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."
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.
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.