1990s Hollywood Power List

1990s Hollywood Power List


The now defunct annual Premiere Power List used to rank those in LA who were capable of getting a movie made, by just saying they’d do it. It was the ultimate ranking of what was hot and what was not in Hollywood.

Here, Niall Murphy provides his own 1990s Hollywood Power List, looking back at the top 20 actors of 20 years ago.


20. Jack Nickolson

The list starts with a man on the way down. Having suffered the indignity of being outsmarted by Tom Cruise in a court room in A Few Good Men, Nicholson seemed on the verge of being entirely eclipsed by a new generation. He had just made a film about Jimmy Hoffa, a film which disappeared as completely as Hoffa did himself.

What hope for a man who wasn’t good looking, was getting old and was so difficult to cast? Nicholson was no Daniel Day Lewis, he couldn’t become any character. He was always pretty much himself, a guy who could sink a film if it wasn’t big and sturdy enough to hold him.

Because Hoffa wasn’t the only film he buried in the 1990s. Wolf, The Evening Star, Mars Attacks. He was on a downhill roll. But then Hollywood snapped out of it, realised what time we had with Nicholson was precious, and gave him some of the best parts of his career. In particular As Good As It Gets and The Departed.

This, the 2010s we live in now, is the first decade since the 60s that Nicholson won’t be providing at least one iconic, award winning performance. He has now retired from public life, saying his mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Sadly, all work and all play seems to have finally gotten the better of him.


19. Bruce Willis

Another man who was down, but bouncing back. And it was Quentin Tarantino what saved him.

Pulp Fiction is usually cited as the film that made Samuel L Jackson and resurrected John Travolta. But far and away the biggest Hollywood name in it was Willis. It was initially considered a big success for him, a man who people now often forget was in it. Because if not for the gimp, it was a pretty forgettable part of the movie, which nowadays seems needlessly homophobic, in a Deliverance sort of way.  The section seemed to exist just so Christopher Walken could tell a story about having a watch up his ass. Though maybe that’s as good a reason as any.

Willis losing streak up to Pulp Fiction was really quite special. The decade started with Bonfire of the Vanities, and didn’t get much better. Hudson Hawk. The Last Boy Scout. And they’re just the disasters you might have heard of.

So with Pulp Fiction, Willis finally had a hit, and got some street cred to boot. But also, he changed movies in a way he rarely gets much credit for. Before him the idea of an A-list star appearing in an independent movie would have been considered crazy. An admission of defeat, that your career was over.

By taking the risk he was instrumental in freeing independent movies from this previous taboo. After this, big names could appear in small movies. As long as they didn’t charge top dollar it no longer mattered how much an actor’s movies made.

Though, granted, this was pretty much the last time Willis did it. No one has ever confused him with Steve Buscemi.


18. Keanu Reeves [new entry]

“Is the castle far?”

Imagine this line being said in the most stoned, American attempt at an English accent ever conceived. Is the castle faaa? Imagine it being said with aching earnestness by the most embarrassingly good looking man ever to appear on camera, or the other way round. Imagine it, and you will still be nowhere close to conceiving how cringe inducing an actor Keanu Reeves was.

That line was from Francis Coppola’s version of Dracula, a film in which Reeves is so completely, peerlessly, bad, that some people even think it would have been a  good film without him. In fairness to him, it wouldn’t. But he had form, he’d turned up in Dangerous Liaisons too, and almost ruined that. This appearance in pre-revolutionary France could easily have been a time travelling scene from Bill and Ted, except the other shorter guy wasn’t in it.

But all has been forgiven and forgotten now, now that he is the one. This was the time of Speed and bombs on buses. The wannabe thespian had found his calling as an action star, and began his journey. He hasn’t appeared in classy costume dramas since.

The end of this career journey, the Matrix series, was a bigger betrayal than when Brutus killed Caesar, and more historically significant too for those who lived through it. But despite this he is still well liked, is still the one. Walking evidence of the Malcolm Gladwell theory of sticking with it, no matter how talentless you are, making you at least passable at your craft.


17. Jodie Foster. 

Not very active, but usually good value when she is. Her acting career has always been hamstrung by her directing ambitions, which take up more time with a lot less to show for it.

Has always had proper movie star mystique, eschewing Hollywood to live in exile in Paris, which we can just imagine is suitably rain soaked and romantic. Her desire for privacy is understandable. John Hinckley, the guy who shot Ronald Reagan, did so to get her attention. She knows the price of fame.

But still, her desire for privacy also meant the 90’s lost its chance to have the first openly gay A-lister, which was probably a chance squandered. She wasn’t at the height of her success just yet, she was really still dining out on the success of Silence of the Lambs. But soon she would be appearing in Contact and Panic Room, becoming perhaps the only actress able to carry non romance movies herself, without the assumed need for a male co-star.

Having said that, this was the year of Nell. After which she, and everyone else involved, should have just been handed over to Hannibal Lecter, with a promise of no questions asked.


16. Brad Pitt [new entry]. 

Was very impressed with himself at this point, as was everyone else.  Had just been lusted after by Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire, and had also just made Legends of the Fall, a film which abandons story and just stares a camera at him and his hair. Quality story telling.

He has never really stopped loving himself. His movies seem to get longer and longer. With more and more lingering shots of him being Brad Pitt staring off into the distance. No one knows if there is an ending to films like Meet Joe Black and that Benjamin Button film, because no one has ever managed to watch them until the end.

So in honour of brevity, let’s leave it at that.


15. Sean Connery.

The only guy on the list no longer making movies out of choice. Says retirement is too much fun, movies are too much like hard work. And all through the 90’s he was phoning it in, and maybe wasn’t even reading the scripts.

The Rock, The Avengers, First Knight. In his sixties at this point, his name should have been a stamp of quality on a movie. Instead he was ‘Gravitas for hire’ to the highest bidder. Think the Anthony Hopkins of the 90s.  Though it’s a job Liam Neeson now seems to desperately want too.

As a tax exile patriot, he is probably secretly happy Scottish independence is still long off. All those bad movies would truly be for nothing if he had to go home and hand the cash over to Alex Salmond.

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14. Robert Reford

His name is synonymous with class and glamour. He was Brad Pitt before Brad Pitt’s parents were born (probably). An Oscar winning director years before it was fashionable for actors to do that. A leading man opposite even Barbara Streisand, back when she was young, and people knew who she was. Whether or not he was better looking than Paul Newman tore friendships apart, but he definitely outlasted him in the end. Also established an indie movie empire, which stands as one of the most significant contributions to American cinema.

All this, and yet no one really remembers any great Robert Redford films. Apart from one or two, from forty years ago.

No longer being good looking, no longer being young, has revealed that yes, like most good looking people, he is quite dull. As are his movies. But if you had a choice in life to be Robert Redford and boring, or not be Robert Redford, you’d choose being Robert Redford. That’s what his name means in 90s American english.

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13. Sly Stallone

In fairness to Stallone, he did try to break from his Rocky and Rambo franchises in the 1990s, to explore something new. First step was to stop making Rocky and Rambo movies, and things started getting a bit wobbly at that point.

He was one of the first actors described as “Big Overseas”. The non-America revenues were keeping his career afloat.  Foreigners hadn’t realised that Stallone was no longer really famous. In much the way bars in Eastern Europe play 80s classics like new cutting edge releases, Sly was still being discovered in some parts of the world.

It wouldn’t last. He had just made The Specialist with Sharon Stone, with its famously derided sex scene. It’s odd to think that when a critic quipped you can’t have a sex scene in which the man has bigger breasts than the girl, everyone hooted in merry agreement. Odd, because it’s a very 90s observation. Nowadays it’s quite normal for men’s pecs to be bigger, expected even.

So perhaps it wasn’t that Stallone was beginning to look ridiculous that his star was fading, but because he was no longer particularly special looking at all, in the rising age of protein shakes and smith presses. Not that he’s given up. He was recently arrested in Australia for possession of steroids. Yes, steroids. At his age. He still got it.

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12. Julia Roberts

Everyone’s favourite girl next door hasn’t lived next door to you for decades.  She’s been top of the pile in Beverly Hills since Pretty Woman. She has been written off many times actually, for just that reason, that she was losing her air of normal.

This was quite a low ranking for her, as the flops started clocking up. Mary Reilly, I Love Trouble, Hook. And she disastrously turned down While You Were Sleeping, which opened the door to Sandra Bullock, the girl next door who with a bit more grit. And a smaller price tag.

Nonetheless, she was about to bounce back with My Best Friends Wedding and Notting Hill. There’s probably a limit to the amount of Julia Roberts people can stomach in any given decade, and she seems to have copped on to that herself. She started making less movies, and using her distinctively indistinct persona more sparingly. And with Erin Brokovich proved she can actually act, when she’s not playing Julia Roberts.


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11. Robin Williams

You’d think the fact he didn’t get the role of the Riddler in Batman and Robin would be a great blessing for Williams. But the fact it went to Jim Carrey was symptomatic of a bigger crisis for his career. White funny men had already lost ground to black funny men, and anyway there was always limited space for them at the top.

At this point Chevy Chase had already completely disappeared. Steve Martin too. One minute they were at the top and the next they were gone. Replaced by Williams, who looked destined now to be replaced by Carrey.

Williams decline would take a little longer than the other two. But in a few short years, by the end of the 90s, he too was yesterday’s man. Though, it’s not a cyclical thing, it wasn’t inevitable. It was simply that none of Chase, Martin or Williams made the remotest attempt to be funny in the 90s. Though, certainly, Mrs Doubtfire was quite joke.


10. Clint Eastwood

Not only was Eastwood 65, he looked it, and that was considered mighty old for a gunslinger. The industry was holding the door open for him, sort of nodding at him, politely gesturing for him to leave. He was coming off the success of Unforgiven, which was rightly, and still is, considered the height of his career. It was reasonably assumed it was his final encore before retirement, rather than the start of a new phase. He was given his retirement dues, lifetime achievement awards at Cannes and the Oscars. And maybe someone bought him a book about gardening. But then, he just didn’t go anywhere. And is still there.

His success in directing Unforgiven lead to a complete reappraisal of his previous work. Up until ’92 he wasn’t many rungs of the ladder above Burt Reynolds, and they shared a similar fan base. But after ’92 he was suddenly an auteur. The thinking man’s action star and the manly man’s artist of choice.

Some of his best years were still ahead of him, certainly as a director. Critical acclaim (Iwo Jima), more awards (Million dollar Baby) and box office success (Gran Torino) were to come his way. It is worth noting that Eastwood’s style of direction is famous for its efficiency. Studios like working with him because he brings in his movies under budget and under schedule, even sometimes shooting them in less than a month. This perhaps explains how a man his age can still be so productive. But also explains some notable misses. When you see Invictus and you think to yourself they must not have done more than a single take for any scene, or spent much time thinking about apartheid or rugby, you’re probably right. He famously doesn’t invest the same time as other directors.

But hey, he’s a man in a hurry. There’s still time for a third directing Oscar before he’s 90.


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9. Demi Moore

Kids today hear tale of a time when Ashton Kutcher’s wife was famous, and this is that time. The question is if she was a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, or set them all back? On one hand, she had just become the highest paid actress ever for Striptease. On the other, well, the title is a bit of a giveaway. She wasn’t being paid for her acting ability.

In this pre-internet time there was definitely a niche for women to exploit their sex appeal. But as Sharon Stone had proven a couple of years before, you have to leave something to the imagination, leave the boys wanting more. Otherwise your fame is fleeting. The climax of your career is brief.

Moore’s fall was particularly sudden and emphatic because of a perceived cynicism in trying to cash in. No one would fall out of this list faster, and no one was less missed. But still, any straight man in his 30s, in any part of the world, remembers her with teenage fondness. One of the last screen sirens before the internet removed the need for them.

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8. Michael Douglas

People will ponder in the future how a middle aged paunchy man was so successful appearing in erotic thrillers. Basic Instinct and Disclosure in the 90s, to add to the one night stand with the bunny boiler in the 80s. As disturbing as it might sound now, his name then was synonymous with sex.

You can’t help but think in the future people will conflate Douglas in their heads with Bill Clinton. The decade was really about the sex lives of those two saggy men with white hair. Indeed, this year Douglas played a watered down version of Bill Clinton in The American President. Watered down because they made the President a widow, therefore free to chase skirt from the White House.

Both are still going, Bill and Michael. But both have spent a lot of time in their wives’ shadows since those halcyon 90s years.

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7. Arnold Schwarzeneggar

Arnie had reached his zenith in 1991 with Terminator 2, and it was inevitably downhill from there. After T2 maybe True Lies (’94) is his only movies from the 90s anyone today remembers. Well, we remember him as Mr Freeze in Batman and Robin, but True Lies is his only film we don’t want to forget.

As we approach the top of the list we enter cultural icon territory, and Arnie is undoubtedly that. An inspiration to gym rats everywhere.  A role model for all immigrants with a dubious grasp of English. And despite a famously arrogant and abrasive demeanour, hands down Austria’s nicest international personality of the 20th century.

It is difficult to believe any film, except perhaps the original Terminator, benefited in any way from his involvement. So he was no loss to cinema when he became the Gubernator of California, nor indeed is he a loss to politics now, now that he is back making movies. He did always warn us he’d be back. In fact, that sentence is all he is now remembered for. His career is a victory of self promotion, overcoming a talent deficit. And though that is an ugly fact, there is a charm to it.


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6. Kevin Costner

Nowadays the music from his films are more famous than he is. In truth, Whitney Houston singing that shrill Bodyguard song, and Bryan Adams singing that moany Robin Hood song, did all the heavy lifting for two of his most financially successful movies. But Costner walked away with the spoils, rumoured to have pocketed $80m for his profit share of the Bodyguard alone.

The money turned out to be both handy and prophetic. In ’95 he’d just shelled out $80m in a divorce settlement, one of the highest in history. Still is. He was also about to release the most expensive film in history, Waterworld. It was a disaster, but not enough to sink his career immediately. Instead it had actually given him a taste for big budget disasters like Wyatt Earp and The Postman. He was taking on water himself though, being compared to Col Kurtz in his megalomania. And it had been a long time since being compared to Marlon Brando was considered a good thing.

Such was the excess of the man, the arrogance of his movie making, it is easy to forget he was also once a very big deal. Indeed his name up until then had been as much a guarantee of quality as financial success. In a short space of time he had conquered the world with The Untouchables, JFK, Field of Dreams, and of course, that really long movie about loneliness.

Yes, Dances With Wolves. Hailed as a masterpiece, an utter triumph. Spectacular film making, that even involved putting together an artificial herd of buffalo, to recreate a world where they hadn’t yet been hunted to near extinction. It is best remembered now as the film that won Costner the best director Oscar and so denied it Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas.

That wasn’t a controversial a decision at the time. But as the years have passed by it is seen as a bigger and bigger scandal. The reason being, though we all remember Dances With Wolves fondly as being a great movie, maybe it has not stood the test of time. We could find out for sure. We could watch it again. Anyone can watch it again. But no one will.

Because it’s a Kevin Costner film. And, quite simply, nobody watches those anymore.

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5. Harrison Ford

Kevin Costner may have wanted to be the western star for the 90’s, but in a way it was a persona already owned by Ford. If Star Wars is at heart a western, Ford is the wisecracking gunslinger. He is even introduced in a bar, shooting a bad guy under the table. If Indiana Jones is essentially a western he showed he looks good in a cowboy hat, and is comfortable killing natives, wherever he may be.

But these franchises were long over in 1995, and should have remained so. Outside these movies his persona evolved into the quintessential western character: a grumpy John Wayne. A man who does the right thing, but moans as he does it. And so he grunts through The Fugitive and scowls through the Jack Ryan movies, always looking like he didn’t really want to be there. A true cowboy, spiritually at least.

His star would continue to shine until the end of the decade, and his eventual disappearance off the radar is considered a Hollywood mystery. He prided himself on never hiring a publicist, which succeeded in keeping him out of the news, which is what he wanted. But perhaps he succeeded too well.

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4. Mel Gibson

Ah, yes the halcyon years. When he could do no wrong. He could do it all, in fact. Western comedies (Maverick), action comedies (Lethal Weapon), animated sing-songs (Pocohantes) and thrillers (Ransom). He even appeared as Hamlet. All that and he could direct too, this was the year of Braveheart, his Oscar sweeping epic.

Everyone was so fulsome in their praise of Gibson in ‘95. He was a pleasure to work with. A Golden Age star in a modern world. A consummate professional.

Irish people were never taken in by him though. We forgave him for filming Braveheart here. He may not know the difference between Ireland and Scotland, but neither do we know if his accent is American or Australian. So we’re even. No, it was when he said he was a committed family man and a devout Christian, that we heard alarm bells. America sighed at his homely religious devotion, but when he said he was a Pre-Vatican II catholic, Irish people knew the truth. He was a nut job.

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3. Jim Carrey

Previously unranked, and debuting in third place, makes Jim Carey perhaps the biggest overnight sensation in the history of Hollywood. That year he appeared in Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. That means he had as many hits in one year as Billy Crystal has had in his entire career.

It’s difficult to imagine how completely he came out of nowhere. In a time before the internet, he didn’t have a fan base grown and nourished on Youtube. To see Jim Carrey you would have had to stumble across him in a comedy club.

His facial and physical gymnastics were also perhaps a hard sell. It was a Jerry Lewis style of comedy, which had fallen so completely out of fashion that only the French loved it. An ill omen.

But like any great success he was in the right place at the right time. They needed someone cheap and manic for Ace Ventura and someone cheap and bendy for The Mask, so he was a lucky fit. And so much did he impress he was picked up, while still cheap, by the Farrelly brothers for their break out hit Dumb and Dumber.

Nowadays he could well claim be the most successful screen comic of them all, if not for one small problem. He’s not particularly funny. A clown yes, but not a comedian.

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2. Tom Cruise

To look at Cruise’s career at this point you could be forgiven for thinking its efficiency was not human. That the consistent cranking out of conservative hit after conservative hit had something suspicious about it. As though his success was manufactured, part of a conspiracy, perhaps a broader conspiracy to take over the world. But a rapid escalation of paranoia like that is ridiculous, the type of thing a cult would feed off.

No one really spoke about Tom Cruise the person in the 90’s. For a man who ‘just wants the truth’, he is infamously litigious, so media tended to skip his private life. This was before we knew he was an expert in psychiatry, and in love with Katie Holmes. These details of his inner world only came out a few years later. You see, he stupidly sacked his pretty savvy publicist, in favour of his sister, who it turned out couldn’t keep the wheels on the wagon.

Though all that was ahead of him in the mid 90s. From ’95 he maintained his place at the top for a good time longer, before his recent wobbling popularity. He was just coming off Interview with the Vampire at this point, and hadn’t even made Jerry Maguire or Mission Impossible yet, so he had many good years ahead of him.

The only thing missing from his career now is the Oscar. But he needs to rehabilitate his image before he can go back in search of that, so is presently churning out safe Hollywood fare. It won’t be long until he’s back in a wheelchair or playing gay vampires in search of his, God-given, or alien-given, destiny.

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This was the first year Hanks topped the list. And though it wouldn’t be true to say he came out of nowhere, having been relatively popular in the 80’s, he had been reduced to playing opposite a dog in Turner and Hooch, before he suddenly went white hot from very not. This was the Age of Tom Hanks.

In rapid succession he proved himself the romantic lead of the day (Sleepless in Seattle), the social conscience of Hollywood (Philadelphia) and perhaps the Biggest Box Office Star in the Universe Ever, with Forrest Gump. Yes, Gump. The role that injected Hanks directly into the vein of American cultural life, where he takes his place alongside Coca Cola and McDonalds. Yes, Gump, a slice of American pie too much for some non Americans to stomach.
It is a good film, but is vulnerable to accusations of being cultural propaganda. The book it is based on marvels at how absurd America is, that a simpleton can achieve such success there, while the film celebrates America for the same reason.

With Gump he won his second Oscar in a row, a feat only achieved by Spencer Treacy before him. And it is to the stars of the Golden Age that Hanks is most often compared. His breezy 40s style is his secret weapon in effortlessly achieving cultural domination. Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Green Mile, Road to Perdition. He’s strongest when playing characters from the past, his persona being a more aspirational, non contemporary type. That is, we like seeing him in hats.

And 1995 was also the year of his most famous hat wearing role – Woody the Cowboy in Toy Story. And with the release of that movie they just went ahead and stuck his face on the $1billion note. It was official. Hanks had conquered the world.

This list started off with the morbid observation that movie stars die. And it is sometimes commented that the untimely death of Hanks, were it to happen, would bring America to a standstill. A final thought, a mental image, just added for any Forrest Gump haters still out there. Though it is time to let go. Hanks won. “Mama always said you gotta put the past behind you before you can move on.”