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.
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With his all-American good looks and boy-next-door approachability, Chris O’Donnell was a breakout star with a string of successful movies in the '90s. He hit the ground running, starring alongside Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange in his first film (1990’s Men Don’t Leave). Two years later, he appeared in the Oscar-winning Scent of a Woman opposite Al Pacino. From period dramas to superhero movies, he was showing up in every genre the '90s had to offer. He even played Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, a string of poor career decisions (he famously turned down Will Smith’s role in Men in Black) and an ever-growing family pulled him out of the spotlight. These days, he’s one of the few actors to transition from movie stardom into prime-time TV, playing the role of Special Agent G. Callen in NCIS: Los Angeles.
One of the films he made in the '90s that is unfairly dismissed is Disney’s The Three Musketeers, a loose adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel. O’Donnell stars as the naïve hothead D'Artagnan, who travels to Paris to join the King’s Musketeers. They are played by Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Oliver Platt doing larger-than-life versions of themselves. It’s an upbeat, action-packed take on a familiar story, but critics didn’t love it. One argued that it resembled a beach party more than the classic novel, but he also noted that of all the actors, O’Donnell was the standout. Three Musketeers came early in the star’s career, just after the release of Scent of a Woman, and it was his first opportunity to show his charm and action hero potential. Despite its poor reputation, the movie offers a potent dose of '90s nostalgia thanks to its youthful star-studded cast, and it puts the 2011 version to shame.