Remember When... 'City Slickers' Achieved Peak Billy Crystal?

Remember When... 'City Slickers' Achieved Peak Billy Crystal?

Jun 08, 2016

The early '90s may not have been great for fashion or pop music, but they were a golden age if you were into crystals. Well, Billy Crystal, specifically. Though he'd had plenty of success during his 15 years in the public eye (TV's Soap; a stint on SNL; a comedy album), it was now, with George H.W. Bush in the White House and Roseanne on TV, that Crystal reached his pinnacle. 

First, he hosted the Oscars every year from 1990 to 1993, presiding over some of the show's most memorable moments and setting a new standard for viewers too young to remember when Bob Hope reigned. And in the midst of that -- 25 years ago this week, in fact -- he starred in City Slickers, the highest-grossing comedy of 1991 and an eventual Oscar-winner itself. 

City Slickers might now be best remembered because of Jack Palance, the veteran tough guy who played the grizzled cowboy and stole the show out from under Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby. Palance's rugged face was a familiar one; he'd appeared in some 80 movies and a couple of one-season TV series over the previous 40 years, and earned Oscar nominations early on for his supporting roles in Sudden Fear (1952) and Shane (1953). But it was the role of Curly that finally won it for him, and he used the moment to become part of pop-culture history:

Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups during his acceptance speech was THE thing that people talked about for days, weeks afterward. (Funny to think that in the Internet Age, something like that would have a shelf life of about a day, followed by maybe a week of memes before being forgotten forever.) But it wasn't just the pushups that did it. By referring to that moment and making jokes about it throughout the rest of the show, Crystal crystallized the moment. It became iconic because the host made it so. Crystal was good at his job. 

But back to City Slickers. Written by sitcom veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley), it has a lot of sitcom-style zingers ("The older you get, the younger your girlfriends get. Soon you'll be dating sperm!"), along with some real heartfelt laughs -- a perfect fit for Crystal, who's as good with old-timey shtick as he is with sentimental schmaltz. 

City Slickers got good reviews, but it also benefited from fortuitous timing. The "aging Baby Boomer" was a popular entertainment trope (TV's thirtysomething had just spent four seasons dwelling on it), and movie comedies in general were doing well. Seven of the top 20 movies of 1991 were live-action comedies, with similar numbers for the years surrounding it. The top 20 movies of 2015 only included one, and it was Pitch Perfect 2

In fact, with its $124 million gross, City Slickers is still the highest-grossing live-action movie of Crystal's career (the Monsters Inc. films were bigger). That's not adjusting for inflation, either -- it made more than Analyze This, America's Sweethearts, even When Harry Met Sally.... The sequel, three years later, only made a third as much but was still profitable. Palance's return undoubtedly helped. Crystal was probably only too happy to share the spotlight. 

One more thing. Crystal plays a 39-year-old man in the movie but was actually 43. Twenty-five years later, at 68, he STILL isn't as old as Jack Palance was then.


When City Slickers was released, on June 7, 1991...

- It opened in first place with a healthy $13 million, more than twice as much as No. 2 film (Backdraft, which had opened two weeks earlier). City Slickers' fellow new releases, Jungle Fever and Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, landed in 3rd and 6th place, with What About Bob? and Soapdish between them. The rest of the top 10 included Thelma and Louise, Only the Lonely, Hudson Hawk, and Drop Dead Fred.

- The Smashing Pumpkins' debut album had hit shelves a few days earlier, the general public as yet unaware that the band's lead singer was actually just a rat in a cage. This would also be the summer of the first Lollapalooza tour, of Pearl Jam's first album, and of Van Halen's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (which 16-year-old me found incredibly clever).

- As you drove to the theater, the radio soothed you with such top hits as "More Than Words" by Extreme; "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd; "Rush Rush" by Paula Abdul; "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M.; and "Unbelievable" by EMF.

- John Grisham's The Firm and Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt were on the bestseller lists. In non-fiction (or semi-fiction) Kitty Kelley's gossipy Nancy Reagan biography was selling well, as were bios of Woody Allen (by Eric Lax) and Michael Jackson (J. Randy Taraborrelli). And that was the last whiff of scandal we ever heard about any of those celebrities! 

- On this day, some 200,000 people gathered in Washington D.C. for a parade of 8,800 troops returning from the Persian Gulf War. Elsewhere in D.C., Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall was 10 days away from announcing his retirement. He didn't know it, but he was going to be replaced by Clarence Thomas. 

- MTV had just launched Liquid Television, the animation showcase that would bring us Beavis & Butthead and Aeon Flux. Twin Peaks would air its final episode on June 10, and Dallas, thirtysomething, and 21 Jump Street had all recently ended their runs. Notice how almost every show we just named has since been made into a movie.

- Born on this very day were actress/model Emily Ratajkowski (Gone Girl, the "Blurred Lines" music video) and hip-hop artist Fetty Wap, though only one of them was born with that name. Azealia Banks was a few days old and had probably already started a Twitter feud with somebody. 

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