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Jan 03 2014

Burning Questions: Katniss in Context

The Year in Review continues withMichael Cusumanoon Jennifer Lawrence's box office coronation,a more impressive achievement than you think.

At the sound of the closing bell,Iron Man 3clings 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 toBox Office Mojo,Catching Fire's398 million is 24 million ahead of its predecessor at the same point in its release (41 days).Since the firstHunger Games' final gross of 408 million is nearly tied withIron Man 3's 409 million,unless the grosses ofCatching Fireunexpectedly crater it's a safe bet that when we close the book on the 2013 the second entry in theHunger Gamesseries 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]

Adjusted for inflation,The Sound of Music is the third biggest hit of all time (after Gone With the Wind and Star Wars)

To my surprise I had to go all the way back to1965,the year Julie Andrews conquered the box office mountain withThe 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 asTitanic,(1997),Grease(1978),Love Story(1970),My Fair Lady(1964),andWest Side Story(1961).But apart from those romances,it's been men,men,men,from Rocky Balboa to Marty McFly toForrest 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.

They are:

  • 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 themGone 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.DittoMrs.Miniverwith Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon andThe Bells of St.Marystarring Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby.On the other hand,the Academy counted Rex Harrison as co-lead ofCleopatraand 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 thatnearlytook the box office crown for their year:

  • 2010: Disney's live actionAlice Wonderlandplaced second in its year.
  • 1980 + 1983:9 to 5's three lead actresses andTerms of Endearment'stwo leads were runners up in consecutive years,bested byStar Warssequels both times.

  • 1976 and 1968: Barbra Streisand,a true box office giant in the 70s,just missed topping the box office in the years ofA Star is BornandFunny Girl
  • 1973 Ellen Burstyn headlinedThe Exorcist
  • 1958:Auntie Mamewould've made Rosalind Russell the box office queen of ‘58 were it not forSouth Pacific(also female driven but not a solo)

  • 1933: In this year four of the top five films were lead by solo actresses.AfterQueen Christina,there wasI'm No AngelandShe Done Him Wrong,both starring Mae West,andKing Kongwith 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 truebeforereissues of the film.)

Previous Burning Questions.Follow Michael C.on Twitter at@SeriousFilmor visit his blogSerious Film

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Reader Comments (18)

Michael: I'd even say The Red Shoes is a bit of a stretch,mostly due to Anton Walbrook.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I'm semi-shocked over these statistics,in a good way though.The Red Shoes was the number one movie in its year?!Is that true?A sort of artsy-fartsy ballet movie?Amazing.And Moira Shearer is definitely the lead,but Anton Walbrook is right there with her.Sort of like Silence Of The Lambs.

Shanghai Express and Queen Christina were box office champs in their respective years?I can hardly believe that.I thought for sure it would have been gangster or adventure movies from that era.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Re: Red Shoes

The central dance number is what pushed it over the top for me.Shearer owns the film - what - 20,25 mins?So I landed on it being her movie,with Walbrook,like Lecter to Clarice,the most sizable supporting role.But It is an arguable point.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I found these statistics fascinating but also highly depressing.

The news for female-driven films gets quite a bit better if you look at each year's top ten list instead of just the top dog (almost never a bitch) although it still is depressing in how women actually lose ground in the modern era because so many of the films are sequels with (nearly always with male leads) or superhero films (always male) and also,and I've said this before,how narrow the public's taste gets in the last 20 years...it used to be any type of film could explode (musicals,dramas,comedies,historical epics,biopics,romances).But now it seems the box office behemoths are almost exclusively one type of film.

January 3,2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't know the exact figures for 1942,but as you mentioned Mrs.Miniver brought home the bacon,largely to Greer Garson's credit.And the trades tell of how her other starrer,Random Harvest,broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall.Yeah,Greer was hot.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I LOVE this post!!Bravo!Thanks so much - these are the sort of actual facts about the movie business that I find refreshing and informative.And I love it whenever someone reminds people nowadays of the remarkable career Elizabeth Taylor had in the movies.Amazing.Granted Julie Andrews is an Oscar winning actress but Elizabeth won TWO and still managed to be the top of the box office one year.Such a remarkable career.Such a remarkable woman.And I have to admit - Ms.Lawrence seems to be starting a rather remarkable career herself!!She's how old and likely looking at her 3rd Oscar nomination - for 3 very different roles - plus being a very exciting star in TWO action "intelligent"blockbusters?No wonder America is going gaga for her.Wow.You think there's anyway she could rival the stupendous fame Elizabeth Taylor had at her peak?I don't know but I suppose it's not impossible.Although even if she does match her in terms of Oscars and fame she'll never match being called the most beautiful woman in the world by SO MANY people.亚博主页Elizabeth Taylor truly was one of a kind.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbillybil

brookesboy -- yeah,it's not that women are not box office draws...just that (my theory) there aren't enough films starring women to make it a regular occurence that they can top the box office charts for an entire year.

i mean SHIRLEY TEMPLE,DORIS DAY,BARBRA STREISAND,GREER GARSON,SANDRA BULLOCK,these were (or in bullocks case still is) all *very* bankable stars with huge hits as a reliable occurence...

January 3,2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Really enjoy this post even though it's a bummer.I knew it was uncommon,but wow.And of course half of them were from the 1930s - the early days for movies seem to be better than any other time in movie history for a woman to open a film,unfortunately.

It also makes me really happy that Catching Fire is such a good movie,even if it's not Oscar fare.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Nathan,ITA with your theory about the larger effects of the sidelining of actresses in Hollywood.Greer is often referred to as one of the biggest box office draws MGM had in the early to mid-1940s.Love that line in the Judy Garland biopic when Judy Davis is trying to make it through rehab: "Tell Mayer I'll be goddamned Greer Garson."HA.

I've been cool to Sandra Bullock until this year,when I've begun to see her in a new light,but I have to get her credit for sustaining that elusive bankability most female stars can only dream of.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

A little more fuel for the fire: by the end of this weekend,Frozenwill be at #4 for the year,and I've seen projections that if it doesn't collapse now that the holidays are done,it might just barely be able to scramble up to #3.

TWO female leads,even if they're both animated.

January 3,2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Wow.Shocked by that list...I never knew Dietrich had luck at the box office in America!I knew Garbo did.Just so funny to see the films that people went to see -- god,we used to have such better attention spans!

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I think Catching Fire's numbers may have a lot to do with the fact that tween- and young teenage girls (ages 10-14) have almost NOTHING catered toward them in the movie business (with the most recent exception of Twilight--but those girls are now in their 20s),The Hunger Games trilogy is a very popular book series,this was the second movie,AND Jennifer Lawrence is now a major role model/idol.Most age-appropriate fare for that particular demographic is on television (e.g.,Supernatural,Pretty Little Liars,Once Upon a Time,The Middle,and re-runs of Buffy).These girls are desperate for movies they can relate to (and that are NOT based on books by Nicholas Sparks).If the first Divergent movie with Shailene Woodley is half as as good as the first Hunger Games,I would expect similar box office.The audience at my showing of Catching Fire was filled with female tweens and teens;I brought seven of them with me.

Where are the stats on MAMMA MIA!?What topped it in its year?

Brookesboy--some day you and I will have to have a conversation about our love for Greer Garson!

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Pam - Dark Knight,Iron Man and Indiana Jones topped the box office in 2008.Mamma Mia finished just outside the top 10

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Pam--you got it!She really had something special...and that gorgeous voice!DAY-UM!

January 3,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This is frustrating.I think for almost ten years,a woman was the box office champ,or very close to it.That would be the Doris Day-Julie Andrews-Barbra Streisand trifecta.Am I right on that at all,or am I losing it?

I don't really think that has happened again in my lifetime though Julia and Sandra have had their heyday.I don't see why it couldn't happen again if Hollywood really got inspired (yeah,I know TV is the new actressland).

This is such an interesting statistical article that it makes me want to find out any other "wierd"stats for the boxoffice successes in any given year.

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Mamma Mia!was 2008.The Dark Knight was that year's biggest grosser.The interesting thing: Mamma Mia!was 5th Worldwide,but only 13th in the USA/Canada.

But as Nathaniel pointed out,take a look at that range!!!

January 3,2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I wouldn't put Alice in that list either.Depp is almost certainly co-lead in that movie IMO.
But yay,go Lawrence.I do truly think she's a large part of Hunger Games success.Yes they're based on books but the books got really big after the movies came out.I had never even heard of them,as opposed to Twilight.

January 4,2014 | Unregistered CommenterBroooooke

and katniss didn't even need 3D to top the year.

January 4,2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

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