Movie Postmortems: DYING YOUNG

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out what the hell happened.


THE CASE HISTORY: 1990 is the Year of Julia Roberts. In addition to a  Golden Globes nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1989’s Steel Magnolias, Roberts co-stars with Richard Gere in a romantic comedy titled Pretty Woman. Chronicling the unexpected romance between a Hollywood Boulevard prostitute and the business tycoon who hires her for a week, Pretty Woman becomes a massive hit – and the most successul romantic comedy up until that point in time ($178 million, domestic; $463 million, global). Summer sees the release of the supernatural sci-fi thriller Flatliners, wherein Roberts holds her own against a male-dominated cast led by Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. Her profile is further elevated by Flatliners’ modest success ($61 million, domestic).

1991 is to be the true test of Roberts’ star power. Sleeping With The Enemy is the first film with her as the true lead. Released in February with a solid opening of $13.7 million, the film’s strong debut proves she can now open a film on her own without an established male co-star. Although reviews of the film are very mixed, Roberts is praised for her sensitive portrayal of an abused wife who tries to escape her crazed husband. Sleeping With The Enemy grows long legs and reaches $101 million in North America ($174 million, global). Many quarters attribute the success of what they consider a pedestrian film to Roberts’ unique ability to make you care about her character’s plight – a rare gift and further proof of her bankability.

That gift will be further tested later that year in June. In its round-up of Summer Movies for 1991, Premiere Magazine boldly predicts that Roberts’ next film, Dying Young, will be the most successful movie of Summer ’91, calling it “Love Story for a new generation.” Chronicling the relationship that develops between a wealthy San Francisco blue blood (Campbell Scott) dying of cancer and the working-class woman (Roberts) whom he hires to care for him, Dying Young seems to echo the central relationship of the couple in Pretty Woman – and appears to have success written all over it. Joel Schumacher, who previously directed Roberts in the well-received Flatliners, is in the driver’s seat. Needless to say, expectations are sky-high.

June 1991. Dying Young opens to approximately $9.7 million in its first weekend – markedly lower than Sleeping With The Enemy’s debut but still a solid opening. Unlike Pretty Woman, though, reviews are mixed to negative – closer to Sleeping With The Enemy. Unlike Sleeping With The Enemy, however, Dying Young doesn’t overcome these reviews to go the distance. It stumbles at the box-office instead and peters out at about $33 million, domestically. It’s global take is $82 million – just a fraction of Pretty Woman’s total haul of $463 million which would be almost a billion dollars today. Needless to say, Premiere Magazine’s ambitious prediction for Dying Young falls very short: it doesn’t even crack the Top 10 for Summer 1991 let alone reach number one.

So… what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Like Pretty Woman, Dying Young explores a business relationship between a wealthy man and a working class woman – and the emotional complications that ensue. Unlike Pretty Woman, though, that relationship is not clearly defined or satisfyingly rendered and ultimately begins to shade into some distasteful territory. In Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) and Vivian Ward (Roberts) both enter into their deal with a clear understanding of the conditions and no hidden agendas. In Dying Young, Victor Geddes (Campbell Scott) is clearly not interested in a proper nurse to take care of him but an attractive companion to ogle instead. The fact that he is truly in need of a proper nurse and is willing to ignore that for the sake of some eye candy works against our natural sympathy for his condition.

Moreover, Hilary O’Neill’s (Roberts) ultimate willingness to go along with this questionable arrangement also starts to paint her in an unfavorable light. Victor is truly sick and any decent person would do the right thing by turning him down and telling him to hire a medical professional instead. Hilary is never painted as particularly desperate so the argument thats she does it for the money doesn’t hold water – and if she is in it for the money, she looks even worse. Roberts and Scott are naturally likable and actually have a nice chemistry. However, they are saddled with some problematic characters who are difficult to truly care or root for.

In contrast to the central relationship in Pretty Woman which deepened from “all business” and professional to a genuine emotional connection, the one in Dying Young goes from blurry to murky to creepy. The way Victor (an employer) manipulates Hilary (an employee) through money and misinformation feels plain wrong – especially when you take into consideration all the news out of Hollywood and other industries recently. Pretty Woman worked because the power dynamics between Edward and Vivian were equal, and he treated her with genuine respect and courtesy. Dying Young fails because Victor thinks his money and his condition allow him to treat Hilary like a pawn – and she willingly goes along with it. Not even Roberts’ talent and charisma can sell this relationship or save this movie.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: It’s amazing that Premiere Magazine and Hollywood in general actually thought Dying Young would clean up at the box office and replicate Pretty Woman’s runaway success – despite the vast difference in tone and subject betwen them. it surely was a testament to their belief in Julia Robert’s considerable star power. Unfortunately, a problematic premise and tone-deaf execution that is awkwardly shoe-horned into a glossy romance template ended up fooling neither critics nor audiences. The result was the first misfire from America’s Sweetheart.

NEXT CASUALTY: Basic Instinct 2 – “Everything Interesting Begins In The Mind…”

In 1992, a controversial erotic thriller about an enigmatic murder suspect (Sharon Stone) and the homicide detective (Michael Douglas) who falls under her spell became an unexpected global success. Basic Instinct not only catapulted Stone onto the A-List but also gave us an iconic villainess/anti-heroine in the form of cool, calculating, complex Catherine Trammell – a hot potato role Stone ran with and made her own. In theory, any follow-up with Stone as Catherine should’ve been another mega-hit. When it finally came out in 2006, though, the sequel was a mega-flop instead. Every postmortem has a trail of clues and this one is particularly… interesting.


John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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