10 Movies From 20th Century Fox That Still Matter
The studio now belongs to Disney. But for decades, it took big risks that paid off for cinema, making films such as Cleopatra, Alien, and Avatar.
The film studio 20th Century Fox has existed practically as long as Hollywood. The venerable institution started after two rivals—20th Century Pictures and Fox Film—merged in 1935 to create a production powerhouse. The studio changed hands multiple times after that, eventually ending up with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, but it remained an industry giant for almost 85 years before being acquired by Disney last month. Now one of the Big Six studios has been subsumed by a long-standing competitor, and the future of its deep movie archive is murky.
Some of Fox’s biggest hits are universally known—films such as The Sound of Music, Star Wars, Die Hard, and Independence Day, all of which helped reshape the industry in some way. But the studio made plenty of other classics that people might not associate as closely with it, calculated risks that stick out for their idiosyncrasies decades after their release. Whether Fox will continue to exist as an independent studio is unclear, but its past is worth celebrating—here are 10 Fox films from over the years that still cast an influential shadow over the world of cinema.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
F. W. Murnau’s silent classic, a Fox Film production, won the first and only Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Picture at the first-ever Academy Awards (the category was then merged with Best Picture). The film was also the first to use the Fox Movietone sound system, properly syncing its musical score and sound effects to the picture, a revolutionary concept that helped set many technological standards in the industry. Likewise, Sunrise is a touchstone piece of storytelling in motion-picture history, a grown-up fable about a husband who is tempted by an affair and life in the big city but is symbolically redeemed. Sunrise was the first of four movies that Murnau, a German director best known for Nosferatu, made in the U.S. before his death.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Fox advertised this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel (which had been published the year before) as a hard-hitting piece of adult realism: “The thousands who have read the book will know why WE WILL NOT SELL ANY CHILDREN TICKETS to see this picture!” read the tagline. John Ford’s rendering of the Joad family’s trek across the country during the Great Depression actually excised some of the book’s harshest material and sanded away some of Steinbeck’s political perspective. But The Grapes of Wrath remains a shocking work that stood apart in a more cheerful cinematic era; the film ends with a cry for social justice after a decade that ruined the lives of millions of Americans.
All About Eve (1950)
A saga about a grand acting rivalry between the Broadway legend Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) and her devoted fan and eventual understudy, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), All About Eve is the best movie ever made about fame. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sophisticated script is acidly funny, shockingly blunt about the inner workings of the industry, and loaded with memorable zingers; the movie won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and nabbed a record 14 nominations overall. It also featured Marilyn Monroe in a small supporting role; she went on to become Fox’s biggest star, staying with the studio for most of her tragically short career.
There will likely never be a production as ridiculously opulent as Cleopatra again. The grand-scale biopic, also directed by Mankiewicz, represents all the historic excesses of Hollywood’s studio system as it began to collapse in the early 1960s. The golden age that had begun with silent epics in the 1920s began to crater as studios poured more funds into creaky cavalcades designed as must-see experiences. Cleopatra’s $44 million budget, which adjusted for inflation would equal about $365 million today, was not eclipsed for some 30 years, and the $1 million salary awarded to its star, Elizabeth Taylor, was another record-holder. The film’s sets and costumes are spectacular to behold, though its mealymouthed script is a slog; the film runs four hours and eight minutes, but Mankiewicz’s original cut was supposedly six hours long.
In the 1960s, the old-fashioned Hollywood system, which bound stars to their studio with restrictive contracts and kept storytelling within family-friendly bounds, fell apart. In its place arrived the New Hollywood movement, an American new wave pioneered by films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Fox’s own Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But Robert Altman’s MASH was a revolution unto itself. A director who had toiled in television for a decade before finally vaulting to features, Altman took an improv-happy approach to this Korean War–set black comedy that baffled actors and producers alike. The film’s stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to get the director fired, then backtracked when they saw the final product: a transgressive comic masterpiece that was somehow also one of the biggest hits of the year.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
There’s a reason why the 1970s in American film are still lionized. It was a decade when major studios were impressively willing to take risks on unproven directors, and Alan Ladd Jr.— who was head of creative affairs at Fox from 1973 to 1976, then head of the film division until 1979—was perhaps most emblematic of that ambitiousness. He green-lit Altman’s avant-garde drama 3 Women after simply hearing the director describe a dream he had (Ladd also famously took a chance on a throwback sci-fi adventure from George Lucas called Star Wars). But Fox’s financial failures also deserve to be remembered, and one of the best is Brian De Palma’s arch, tragic, and demented rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise—a funhouse-mirror version of Phantom of the Opera with songs by Paul Williams that has become a cult classic.
One of Ladd’s last big swings before moving on from Fox was a sci-fi horror film originally budgeted for a modest $4.2 million. The relatively unproven Ridley Scott came aboard, built elaborate sets with great attention to detail, and persuaded the studio to let him film an entirely new final act, going beyond what the script called for and more than doubling the budget on a project that revolved around one of the most shocking moments of violence in Hollywood history: an alien creature bursting out of a man’s chest. The movie was an astounding success, spawning a franchise, beginning a trendsetting career for Scott, and helping foster the notion that R-rated genre films could be taken seriously as art rather than being dismissed as cheap shlock.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas—a mournful Palme d’Or–winning road movie made for $1.8 million and featuring long sections without any dialogue at all—was made by a major studio. It’s a perfect example of how much things have changed in the moviemaking business over the past 35 years. Wenders’s dark travelogue, about a mute man (Harry Dean Stanton) returning to his family home after a long and mysterious absence, would only be able to exist as an indie film today. In the 1980s, the American indie scene was minuscule, and major studios still wrote checks to make 147-minute art movies.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Fox took a risk again, on a much bigger scale, for this World War II drama that marked the return of legendary auteur Terrence Malick to moviemaking after a 20-year absence. Malick’s name alone guaranteed a big cast filled with stars who were eager to work with the man behind the ’70s classics Badlands and Days of Heaven. But Fox’s commitment of a $52 million budget to a nearly three-hour piece of poetic, nonlinear storytelling about the Guadalcanal Campaign was a huge risk. Another studio, Sony, had already pulled the plug on the film because its chairman didn’t think Malick could complete the movie without going over budget; Fox only signed on after insisting the director bring several major actors aboard. The result was both profitable and critically adored, netting seven Oscar nominations and creatively revitalizing Malick after years in the Hollywood wilderness.
Whenever a new film sets a record for being the highest-grossing movie of all time (unadjusted for inflation), Fox is often the studio behind it. The 1965 blockbuster The Sound of Music held the record for years, as did Star Wars, and then James Cameron’s Titanic (a co-production with Paramount that Fox distributed internationally). Cameron’s follow-up to that movie was long anticipated, extremely pricey, and loudly predicted to be a huge flop. When Avatar came out in 2009, it defied expectations to make $2.7 billion worldwide, an achievement that will be hard to beat (no film has come within shouting distance since). Though it was an entirely original property, Avatar set the tone for the next decade of Hollywood, which would focus on massive-scale action epics that could appeal to foreign audiences, as well as expensive innovations, such as 3-D, that could boost ticket prices. Though Fox’s independent status is now gone, Avatar survives, with four sequels currently in production—the brand will be another tentpole for Disney to dominate theaters with as the era of studio consolidation rumbles on.