The Year in Review continues with Michael Cusumano on Jennifer Lawrence's box office coronation, a more impressive achievement than you think.
At the sound of the closing bell, Iron Man 3 clings to the title of top grossing domestic release of 2013, but Tony Stark should savor the honor while it lasts. He is all but certain to relinquish the crown to Katniss Everdeen in the early weeks of 2014.
If one wants proof that this is all but a done deal, one need only compare the grosses of the first Hunger Games to its sequel. According to Box Office Mojo, Catching Fire’s 398 million is 24 million ahead of its predecessor at the same point in its release (41 days). Since the first Hunger Games’ final gross of 408 million is nearly tied with Iron Man 3’s 409 million, unless the grosses of Catching Fire unexpectedly crater it’s a safe bet that when we close the book on the 2013 the second entry in the Hunger Games series will hold true to its protagonist and emerge from the arena the final victor.
That a film with a strong, capable female protagonist as its sole lead is the year’s number one film is reason to cheer. That I was unable to recall the last film to duplicate this feat emphasizes the rarity of the achievement. It made me curious:
When was the last time a film led solely by a female character topped the domestic box office in its year? [The answer is after the jump]
To my surprise I had to go all the way back to 1965, the year Julie Andrews conquered the box office mountain with The Sound of Music, to find a film with solo female lead sitting atop the chart.
To be sure, there are a handful of other year-topping titles between now and then with women as co-leads. Films such as Titanic, (1997), Grease (1978), Love Story (1970), My Fair Lady (1964), and West Side Story (1961). But apart from those romances, it’s been men, men, men, from Rocky Balboa to Marty McFly to Forrest Gump. Even searching the box office charts all the way back to the end of the silent era* doesn’t expand the list all that much. In the 83 years since talking pictures took over, I count six annual box office champs led, solo, by a women.
- 1965: The Sound of Music – Julie Andrews
- 1963: Cleopatra – Elizabeth Taylor
- 1948: The Red Shoes – Moira Shearer
- 1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Adriana Caselotti
- 1933: Queen Christina – Greta Garbo
- 1932: Shanghai Express – Marlene Dietrich
There are a handful of borderline cases that you could argue belong on this list, chief among them Gone With the Wind. However, while Scarlett O’Hara is clearly the protagonist of 1939’s all-time champ, in terms of screen time and importance it’s hard to argue that Clark Gable does not qualify as co-lead. Ditto Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and The Bells of St. Mary starring Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby. On the other hand, the Academy counted Rex Harrison as co-lead of Cleopatra and while that makes sense in Oscar terms, I don’t see how you classify the film as anything but the Liz show.
As you dig through the box office charts the scope of Jennifer Lawrence’s impending box office coronation becomes all the more impressive. Even when you include the runners up, the solo female leads remain few and far between.
Some notable films that nearly took the box office crown for their year:
- 2010: Disney’s live action Alice Wonderland placed second in its year.
- 1980 + 1983: 9 to 5’s three lead actresses and Terms of Endearment’s two leads were runners up in consecutive years, bested by Star Wars sequels both times.
- 1976 and 1968: Barbra Streisand, a true box office giant in the 70s, just missed topping the box office in the years of A Star is Born and Funny Girl
- 1973 Ellen Burstyn headlined The Exorcist
- 1958: Auntie Mame would’ve made Rosalind Russell the box office queen of ‘58 were it not for South Pacific (also female driven but not a solo)
- 1933: In this year four of the top five films were lead by solo actresses. After Queen Christina, there was I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong, both starring Mae West, and King Kong with Fay Wray (But yes, you could argue Fay Wray is a co-lead)
* The further back in time you go the more unreliable are the box office figures, so take the earliest records with the appropriately sized grain of salt. (Disney animation was excluded unless its #1 of the year status was true before reissues of the film.)