Remembering 1991’s Box Office Bomb BILLY BATHGATE Starring Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman & Bruce Willis

Director Robert Benton‘s adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel Billy Bathgate was seen as one of the movies to beat in 1991. It appeared to be poised to clean-up at the box office – and on the awards circuit. However, appearances can me deceptive. 

Billy Bathgate had an hefty budget (for the time) of $48 million and an impressive cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman (then up and coming), Steven Hill, Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis in a minor supporting role.

Billy Bathgate was set to be a career making role for Loren Dean, who was cast in the title role as the young man who gets caught up with New York gangster Dutch Schultz (Hoffman) and his moll (Kidman). 

Adapted from Doctorow’s novel by Tom Stoppard, Billy Bathgate  saw production troubles as Hoffman and Benton failed to get along – even though the duo worked together on 1979’s critically acclaimed and hugely successful Kramer Vs Kramer. Stoppard’s screenplay also altered much of the novel’s plot and structure. 

Billy Bathgate opened to poor reviews and terrible box office in November 1991, ultimately grossing just $15.5 million in the US. 

It wasn’t just Loren Dean’s acting career who took a hit with Billy Bathgate. Bruce Willis was coming off Hudson Hawk from the previous summer and Bonfire Of The Vanities the year before. While The Last Boy Scout was a modest hit in 1991 and Robert Altman’s The Player would give him good notices in 1992, he wouldn’t really bounce back until Pulp Fiction in 1994.