The '90s saw a new generation of Hollywood leading men, many of whom began as teen heartthrobs. Their rise coincided with a surge in action-packed blockbusters and angsty TV shows about high school, which offered the perfect vehicles to cement these young stars as industry royalty. Some, like George Clooney and Denzel Washington, have gone on to even greater heights, while others, such as Chris O’Donnell and Brendan Fraser, have never managed to regain the stature they had in their youth.
All of these actors enjoyed their share of box office success, but even the most famous stars make great movies that don’t connect with audiences. The '90s were full of so many industry-revolutionizing blockbusters that a lot fell through the cracks. For every Titanic, Matrix, and Fight Club, there are smaller, less flashy, but equally praiseworthy films to appreciate.
Vote up the under-the-radar films that gave these heartthrobs the chance to shine.
- Photo: Fine Line Features
Keanu Reeves is perhaps the only actor to achieve global stardom through a major motion picture franchise and still maintain an indie mystique. He rose to fame with the 1989 slacker time travel movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but hit gold when he landed the role of Neo in the Wachowskis' The Matrix series. Despite his flair for action hero roles and doing his own stunts, he has eschewed big paychecks in favor of smaller projects, appearing in indies such as The Gift, Thumbsucker, and Generation Um…
One of his best performances is in My Own Private Idaho, a film he made before the release of his breakthrough action role in Point Break. On the face of it, a movie about teenage sex workers based loosely on a Shakespeare play and directed by arthouse filmmaker Gus Van Sant was not an obvious choice for two rising Hollywood stars. Adding to the risk was the fact that, at the height of America’s homophobia over the AIDS epidemic, the film centers on a gay love story. Despite these concerns, Reeves and co-star River Phoenix were determined to do it together. They sealed the deal with a handshake, and were prepared to go the distance to bring Van Sant’s controversial vision to fruition. Reeves plays Scott, a rich kid who leaves his family for a version of freedom on the streets. Phoenix is Mike, a younger hustler who suffers from narcolepsy and is haunted by visions of his mother, who abandoned him as a child. Phoenix’s raw performance exudes fragility and the ache of unrequited love for his best friend. It drew raves from critics, but the tragedy of the movie wouldn’t work if Reeves hadn’t delivered an equally moving performance. Both actors were just starting their careers when My Own Private Idaho was made, and it demonstrates the talent and commitment to serious projects that they had from a young age. Phoenix died two years after the movie was released, while Reeves would go on to an illustrious career. My Own Private Idaho contains some of their best performances, and is considered a groundbreaking contribution to queer cinema.
- Photo: TriStar Pictures
No matter how many Scorsese movies he stars in or Oscar nominations he receives, Leonardo DiCaprio will always be remembered for playing the boyish hero Jack Dawson in Titanic. The doomed romance between Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose made hearts across the world go into overdrive when the movie was released in 1997. DiCaprio became the greatest heartthrob of his generation (even more than he had been upon the release of Romeo + Juliet the year before), and no one has let him move on since. But if anyone could get out from under the shadow of a juggernaut like Titanic, it’s DiCaprio. Since the movie became the biggest box office success of all time, he has done more than enough to earn his reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Movies such as The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood have shown his versatility and staying power.
Even before Titanic, DiCaprio was a critically acclaimed actor for movies such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life. One of the best films he made during that period was The Quick and the Dead, an overlooked Sam Raimi western that was meant to revitalize Sharon Stone’s career. It follows Ellen (Stone), a mysterious gunslinger who shows up in a small town to enter a dueling tournament and avenge her father’s death. It boasts a stellar supporting cast, including Gene Hackman and a young Russell Crowe. DiCaprio plays “The Kid,” a swaggering would-be gunslinger desperate to prove himself. He was 21 when he made the movie, but looks about five years younger. The studio reportedly didn’t want to hire him, believing him to be too much of an unknown. Nevertheless, Stone insisted he be cast and even took a pay cut to make it happen. The Quick and the Dead was a box office bomb and received mixed reviews. It’s an unabashed genre movie, bearing all the hallmarks of a classic Spaghetti Western; this, combined with the unconventional choice of putting a woman in the lead, may have kept audiences away. But it’s a splashy, stylish film that shows Raimi at his best, and DiCaprio’s star potential bursts from the screen.
- Photo: TriStar Pictures
Denzel Washington planned to become a doctor before he discovered acting, and it’s easy to see how this mindset carried over into his acting career. The empathy, skill, and gravitas he brings to each role has all the hallmarks of a great medical professional, and sets him apart from his peers. He’s played villains, heroes, Shakespearean kings, and washed-up alcoholics. In movies such as Training Day and Flight, he’s turned what should be straightforward characters into people whose flaws are so nuanced and believable that it’s impossible to decide whether to love them or hate them. He’s won two Oscars and been nominated for eight others, breaking ground for future generations of Black actors in Hollywood along the way.
One of the most underappreciated movies to showcase his talent is 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Based on the popular Walter Mosley private investigator series, it follows Easy Rawlins (Washington), a World War II vet who is ensnared in a murder mystery involving a white woman with ties to the Black community. It’s a stylish neo-noir in the mold of L.A. Confidential and Blood Simple. But Easy is not your classic PI. As a Black man investigating crime in 1940s LA, he is forced to confront racism from cops, suspects, and strangers in the street. Washington embodies the disillusionment and hidden vulnerability of a man who has fallen into a dangerous profession out of necessity and talent rather than choice. The movie was made when Washington was on the brink of global stardom. An Academy Award for 1989’s Glory, rave reviews alongside Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and a hit thriller opposite Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief pushed him toward quintessential leading man status. Within a few years of Devil in a Blue Dress, he showed his talent as an action hero in movies such as Fallen and The Bone Collector, cementing his place as one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars.
- 486 VOTESPhoto: Gramercy Pictures
Brad Pitt’s fame skyrocketed the moment he slouched into Geena Davis’s rearview mirror in Thelma and Louise in 1991. As the cowboy hustler JD, he established himself as a heartthrob possessing more than a hint of danger, a combination that became the foundation of one of the most enduring careers in Hollywood. But Pitt worried early on that his pretty boy persona would severely limit his opportunities. After the double successes of Thelma and Louise and A River Runs Through It, he went looking for a film that would test the public’s perception of him. The one he chose was so extreme that few people had the stomach to see it.
Directed by Dominic Sena, the 1993 movie Kalifornia follows a couple (David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes) who are writing a book on serial killers. They decide to go on a road trip across the country, stopping at locations of famous murders along the way. To save on expenses, they pick up another couple, Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), who seem a bit rough around the edges. Soon, the trip takes a brutal turn. Pitt is almost unrecognizable behind a scruffy beard, sunglasses, and Confederate flag hat. His hulking presence and nervous twitches give him the energy of a ticking bomb ready to explode. Responding to criticism over the film’s brutality, the screenwriter argued that it was meant to interrogate the “national obsession” with true crime. It’s revealing that this fictional portrayal of violence was so unsanitized and horrific that legions of true crime fans couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to see it. Despite its gruesome elements, the movie is worth watching for Pitt’s and Lewis’s performances. They turn what could have been an exploitative B-movie into something haunting and powerful.