The Most Controversial Movies Of 1990s Movie Stars

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Vote up the '90s movie star vehicles that earned their controversial reputations.

Even movie stars get bored, and the film industry in the '90s had plenty to offer them if they wanted to spice things up a bit. During this decade, erotic thrillers, blockbuster action movies, and stylized indies thrived. Controversial directors like Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma, and David Cronenberg had their niches carved out but were still treated seriously by studios and critics. Meanwhile, movie stars were ready to take risks. Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Denzel Washington, and Tom Hanks all stepped out of their comfort zones during this period, and while some risk-takers like Sharon Stone and Brad Pitt were rewarded with career-defining performances, others, like Woody Harrelson and Bruce Willis, fell on the wrong side of controversy.

From Fight Club to Eyes Wide Shut, here are the most controversial movies that offered '90s movie stars a respite from their usual fare and stoked public debate. Whether you love them or hate them, vote up the ones that earned their contentious reputations.

  • Of all the controversial star-led movies of the 90s, Natural Born Killers sticks out as a brazen example of stylized violence that hasn’t mellowed with time. Stories about young lovers on the run from the law aren't new, but Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis’s characters display a level of graphically violent psychosis that shocked critics and surpassed every other variation of the familiar tale. The actors play Mickey and Mallory, a married couple who travel around the country committing scores of murders. As their infamy grows, they become national celebrities with their crimes played out on live television. 

    Based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, the movie became a product of director Oliver Stone’s imagination through extensive rewrites. He explained that he wanted it to be less of a satire than a reflection of the current culture, saying that the story of Mickey and Mallory “could happen any day now.” His prediction became chillingly accurate when, a year later, a teenage couple went on a killing spree they claimed was inspired by the movie. Since that incident and the lawsuit against Time Warner and Stone that followed, at least 11 other violent crimes had direct links to the film, including the Columbine massacre. The specter of these tragedies has tarnished the movie’s legacy, but even before the copycat crimes took place, Natural Born Killers was divisive. Critics labeled it an “empty, manic meditation on society's glorification of violence” and “narcissistic filmmaking,” while others, like Roger Ebert, championed it as a searing indictment of our fascination with real-life crime. For Harrelson, it was a decisive break from his long-running role on Cheers and marked a shift toward darker projects. More than a decade after it was released, Entertainment Weekly named Natural Born Killers one of the most controversial movies ever made.

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  • Shortly after winning an Oscar for The Piano in 1993, Holly Hunter starred in a movie so controversial and disturbing that Francis Ford Coppola refused to hand the director the Special Jury Prize at Cannes that he’d won for it. The movie touched off a firestorm of press attention and was temporarily banned in England. Decades later, critics are still debating whether it’s “sick and depraved” or a serious piece of art. Directed by David Cronenberg, Crash follows a community of car crash victims who derive sexual pleasure from car accidents. They recreate them, take photographs of dead victims at crash sites, and fetishize each other’s open wounds - the less healed, the better. James Spader and Hunter play the newest members of the group who strike up an affair after their car crash results in the demise of Hunter’s husband. 

    Cronenberg’s trademark body horror permeates the film, but critics were more offended by the sexual perversity and lack of moral judgment underpinning it. One reviewer claimed (improbably) that it was “one of the most p*rnographic movies” that he’d ever seen, while members of the British ratings board who gave it the equivalent of an NC-17 rating were targeted and publicly outed by those who wanted the movie to stay banned. In the US, Ted Turner, the head of the distribution company Fine Line Features, refused to release the film for months due to his aversion to it. Cronenberg took aim at the detractors, pointing out that there are no weapons or beatings in the movie, and that the sex, “no matter how rough and strange,” only takes place between consenting adults. Hunter also defended the film, explaining that the challenge it poses to viewers was the reason she took the role in the first place. “So often movies tell us, 'This is how we should think, this is how we should feel,'” she said, “And you sit back and have this thing happen at you. Cronenberg isn't insulting in that way. He demands your participation.”

  • At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Hollywood’s least controversial leading man took on a role that confronted the homophobic paranoia sweeping the country head-on. In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a closeted young lawyer who is fired from his job for being HIV positive. The only lawyer in town who will take on his case is a cash-strapped homophobe played by Denzel Washington, who gradually grows to respect Beckett and become his fierce advocate. It was the first major studio movie to directly confront AIDS from the perspective of a gay character, but activists criticized the lack of authenticity in its portrayal of homosexuality. 

    Writing in the LA Times, playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who himself was dying of the disease, said that the movie “doesn’t have anything to do with the AIDS I know, or with the gay world I know.” He criticized its chaste portrayal of Beckett’s love life, where the most intimate moment between him and his partner doesn’t even involve kissing. Kramer also expressed anger at the movie’s avoidance of the government’s ongoing inaction on the epidemic, as well as the implausibly enthusiastic support that Beckett receives from his family. “Philadelphia is a heartbreakingly mediocre film,” he wrote, “[...] and it breaks my heart that I must say it’s simply not good enough and I’d rather people not see it at all.” Director Jonathan Demme defended his decision to keep the romance to a minimum. When questioned about the lack of physical intimacy in the movie, he argued that audiences weren’t prepared to see such “shocking imagery” between two men. While this painfully cautious approach seemed regressive to many at the time, Philadelphia went on to gross more than $200 million worldwide and deliver Hanks the Academy Award for best actor, proving that the director’s conservative portrayal of the subject had a broad appeal despite (or perhaps because of) the censorship that activists protested.

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  • Matt Damon: 'Dogma'
    Photo: Lions Gate Films

    Writer/director Kevin Smith has basked in irreverence since his low-budget indie debut Clerks in 1994, but he took things to the next level with his fourth film, Dogma. Following a pair of fallen angels who discover a loophole that would allow them back into heaven but destroy humanity, the movie is provocative in the extreme and faced backlash even before it was released. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play the prodigal angels who have been hanging out in exile in Wisconsin for a couple thousand years. Alan Rickman plays a managerial angel sent by God to stop them from undoing creation, while Chris Rock plays Rufus, the “13th disciple” who didn’t make it into the Bible because he’s Black. Even more controversially, Linda Fiorentino plays a distant relative of Jesus who happens to work at an abortion clinic, and Alanis Morissette plays God. 

    Dogma is jam-packed with profanity and Catholic satire that prompted a tidal wave of fury from religious institutions. Smith received multiple death threats, and organizations like the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights tried to stop the movie from being released. The protests were so highly publicized that Miramax caved to the pressure and sold the rights of the film to Lions Gate. From the beginning of the controversy, Smith claimed confusion over the outrage, pointing out that he himself was a practicing Catholic. “Dogma was from first to last always intended as a love letter to both faith and God almighty,” he said when the movie was released. This did nothing to appease the protestors, but it made more money at the box office than his previous three movies combined. 

  • In the decades since its release, Fight Club has surpassed the benchmark of a cult favorite and become a mainstream classic. When it was released in 1999, however, it simultaneously flopped at the box office and provoked outrage. Chuck Palahniuk’s source novel courted controversy from the outset with its blackly humorous depiction of recreational violence, alienated masculinity, and skewering of terminal illness support groups. David Fincher’s adaptation was unflinching in its recreation of the author's tone and created a grimy visual style all its own. The story follows a bored office worker played by Edward Norton, who cures his insomnia by attending various support groups. After meeting a charismatic salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), he's sucked into an underground cult of bare-knuckle fighting and anarchy. 

    When the movie was released, critics were disturbed. Both The Hollywood Reporter and The New Yorker invoked the word “fascist” in their reviews, while The Evening Standard said it was “an inadmissible assault on personal decency.” The reaction can be partly explained by the cultural climate of the late ‘90s. Shortly before Fight Club was released, the Columbine tragedy rocked the country, prompting the government to evaluate the impact of Hollywood on impressionable teenage boys and consider legislation combatting it. Pitt’s character was ground zero for the criticism - a charismatic sociopath who makes soap out of human fat and goads average citizens into bloodthirsty mayhem. The actor had already distanced himself from the pretty-boy roles of his early ’90s movies with films like KaliforniaSe7en, and 12 Monkeys, and he purported to be unconcerned by the controversy. When asked about taking the role, he said, “it didn’t seem gutsy to me at all. It seemed like it would be foolish not to do it.” His nonchalance paid off. Less than a decade after Fight Club was released, Empire Magazine named Tyler Durden the greatest movie character of all time.

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  • Since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, conspiracy theories have abounded over who was responsible. In 1966, Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, spurred further speculation when he began investigating the event and questioning the Warren Commission’s assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Although he failed to prove his case in court, Garrison’s story lived to fight another day when Oliver Stone brought it to life in 1991’s JFK. For the lead role of Garrison, Stone cast Kevin Costner, who had recently starred in the crowd-pleasing all-American movies Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves. Although JFK was his most controversial movie to date, Costner’s impassioned, poetry-laced courtroom soliloquies give Stone’s shaky facts an authority they wouldn’t otherwise merit. Before critics could see his performance, however, the movie was the subject of intense scrutiny.

    From the beginning of production, Stone was hounded by journalists who caught wind of the vast conspiracy theory that underpinned his script. Before filming had wrapped, newspapers including The Washington Post, Time, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times had published articles about the “far-out fringe” ideas he was passing off as fact, pointing out that even experts who doubted the Warren Commission’s report dismissed Garrison’s arguments as fiction. Stone fought back in open letters and articles, and even invited journalists to the production’s research department to witness his self-proclaimed dedication to accuracy. In the end, the movie was well-received for its cinematic prowess but criticized for its flexible and manipulative approach to historical facts. Long after its release, JFK is credited with setting off a wave of enthusiasm for conspiracy theories that continued for decades.

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