Forever tilting at windmills
A cartoonist turned Monty Python member turned film director, Terry Gilliam has established himself as one of the film world's most distinctive and imaginative auteurs through his 11 features. But his wild visual style hasn't always translated into success -- at the box office or with critics -- and the director has experienced almost as many failures as critical or commercial triumphs. Gilliam has also weathered huge production catastrophes that often are as surreal as his films, from infamous battles with studio executives to actual floods.
Heath Ledger's death in 2008 during the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Gilliam's most recent (and perhaps most personal) tragedy, leaving the director one star short of completing his film, until he found not one but three actors to take over Ledger’s role. It’s the kind of creative gambit that has fueled some of his most imaginative projects, but how it will affect his latest opus at the box office is the big question. Of course, Gilliam's films might be better judged in retrospect; whether the reception is good or bad initially, the expat’s films almost always become cult hits over time. Not bad for a man who ran away to Britain to join the flying circus.
While critics have appreciated some of the director's movies, Gilliam's Metascores over the past 35 years have generally been declining, as indicated below:
Metascores of Movies Directed by Terry Gilliam
Let's examine each of these movies in more detail. The pie charts indicate the percentage of critics giving positive (green), mixed (yellow) and negative (red) reviews.
|Monty Python and the Holy Grail||1975||90||9.5|
|Est. Production Budget: n/a
|"An incredibly silly film of great humor, brilliant design and epic insanity."
--Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
After becoming a member of Monty Python, where he was best known for his surreal, interstitial cartoons that appeared on Flying Circus, Gilliam graduated from animator to director when he shot this comedy classic with co-director -- and fellow Pythoner -- Terry Jones. Backed with funds from rock bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, this parody of the Arthurian legend hit legendary status of its own and was named by Premiere as one of the 50 best comedies of all time. Its success eventually extended to the stage when it was adapted as the long-running Broadway musical Spamalot.
While that Metascore listed above is based on more recent reviews (rather than reviews at the time of its release), that 90 is probably an accurate representation of the film's place in the comedy canon. The same can be said -- on both counts -- for the next film.
|Est. Production Budget: n/a
||Worldwide Gross: n/a|
|"Jabberwocky is not a Python film, a fact most obvious in its marked lack of humor."
--Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, LA Weekly
Gilliam's follow-up to Holy Grail marked his first time as a solo director and, though it featured many Python players, it was made independent of the Monty Python brand. In fact, the director took legal action against overseas promoters that called the film "Monty Python's Jabberwocky,” which might have helped the film’s draw. It was a flop at the box office, but later became a cult classic after audiences warmed up to Gilliam's cinematic style.
|Est. Production Budget: $5.0M
($11.9M adjusted for inflation)
|Domestic Gross: $42.4M
($107.3M adjusted for inflation)
|"The movie was somehow all on the same breathless, nonstop emotional level, like an overlong Keystone Kops chase."
--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Co-written with fellow Python alumnus Michael Palin, the fantasy Time Bandits was Gilliam's first commercial hit in the States. The PG-rated Time Bandits follows the fantastical adventures of an 11-year-old boy who, along with a group of dwarves, travels through time and space, visiting such figures as Robin Hood and Napoleon and battling an evil force known as Evil. John Cleese and Sean Connery are among the stars.
The movie firmly established Gilliam's distinctive visual aesthetic and singular, warped (and somewhat dark) vision. Although many of his films express a childlike sense of fantasy and wonder, Time Bandits is one of just a few of his films that can safely be considered a kids movie. His next film was geared toward an older audience, however.
|Est. Production Budget: $15M ($30M)
||Domestic Gross: $9.9M ($19.7M)|
|"A remarkable accomplishment for Mr. Gilliam, whose satirical and cautionary impulses work beautifully together."
--Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Widely considered Gilliam's best movie, Brazil has a back story that is almost as compelling as the film itself. The dystopian future depicted in this satirical 1985 masterpiece was considered too bleak by the studio, and the film was re-edited to appeal to a wider audience -- with the resulting cut deviating (much to its detriment) from the director's original vision. So Gilliam staged a coup by showing his version of Brazil to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who quickly named it the year's best film. The studio had no choice but to let Gilliam supervise a re-cut.
While Brazil was a box office flop upon its original release, it remains a cult classic and critic favorite, appearing on a variety of all-time great movie lists. It would not be the only time, however, that the director ran into problems getting his vision of a film into theaters.
|The Adventures of Baron Munchausen||1989||69||8.0|
|Est. Production Budget: $46.7M ($81.5M)
||Domestic Gross: $8.1M ($15.0M)|
|"It seemed entirely possible that I might die of the fidgets or old age while waiting for Baron Munchausen to kill the Turks. And yet I found myself wanting to see the end of the movie before I expired."
--Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
Gilliam's imaginative, Fellini-inspired adventure about a Baron with a penchant for telling tall tales bounced from one over-the-top locale to the another, putting a strain not only on the budget, but on the actors as well. Even fellow ex-Pythoner Eric Idle called working on the production “madness." Loved by some and despised by others, the film remains a visual treat and the actors look amazing, including Uma Thurman as one mighty Aphrodite.
Plagued by production problems, Munchausen is one of the more notorious box office disasters in movie history, grossing just $8 million ($15 million today) against a budget that doubled in size as the shoot wore on and ultimately exceeded $46 million (over $80 million in today's dollars). While Gilliam's filmmaking difficulties would return later in his career, his next production was relatively problem-free, and marked a departure in terms of scope and subject matter.
|The Fisher King||1991||61||7.5|
|Est. Production Budget: $24M ($38M)
||Domestic Gross: $41.9M ($73.1M)|
|"So what if it's not perfect? It's magic."
--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
The first movie that Gilliam did not have a hand in writing, The Fisher King is also more low-key than previous efforts. Mixing fantasy and drama, the whimsical film stars Robin Williams as a homeless man taken in by a radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) in Manhattan. The project attracted the director not only because he could reunite with Williams on a set (the comedian had also appeared in Munchausen), but because its smaller scope would allow him a much-needed respite from big-budget special effects films. Yet, despite his lack of initial input regarding the plot, the film still explores a theme of Gilliam's earlier work: the hunt for the Holy Grail.
The FIsher King earned five Academy Award nominations, and was a modest box office success -- especially compared to Gilliam's previous offerings. His next film would find the director working with even bigger stars, but returning to darker material.
|Est. Production Budget: $29.5M ($40.7M)
||Domestic Gross: $57.1M ($95.0M)|
|"Mystifying, intriguing, even infuriating, it shows what happens when an unconventional talent meets straightforward material."
--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
After being turned down for a role in The Fisher King, Bruce Willis finally got to work with Gilliam in this 1996 science-fiction mind-bender about time travel and yet another dystopian future. Based on Chris Marker's groundbreaking French short La Jetée, the film nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brad Pitt in the role of a mental patient who's a little overzealous about animal rights and anti-consumerism -- foreshadowing Fight Club's Tyler Durden.
Gilliam's only straight science fiction movie is also his highest-grossing film to date, with over $168 million in worldwide receipts. Critically and commercially, however, the director's career since 12 Monkeys has been trending downward.
|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas||1998||41||7.6|
|Est. Production Budget: $18.5M ($24.6M)
||Domestic Gross: $10.7M ($16.7M)|
|"The movie is a true folly, yet there's no denying that Gilliam has gotten some of the hallucinogenic madness of Thompson's novel on screen. "
--Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Gilliam amped up the visual depravity in his hallucinatory big-screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel, once thought (and possibly still considered) unfilmable. Despite the presence of Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, Fear and Loathing bombed with audiences and fared only slightly better with critics. However, Thompson himself approved of the movie, and it has gained a cult following in recent years -- much like the Gilliam films that preceded it.
Thanks to a false start (more on that in a minute) and a delayed release date, a full seven years would pass until the arrival of his next film, his costliest to date.
|The Brothers Grimm||2005||51||5.4|
|Est. Production Budget: $88M ($97M)
||Domestic Gross: $37.9M ($43.5M)|
|"The Brothers Grimm reeks of compromise, of a brilliant fantasist losing his footing and nerve and getting hopelessly gummed up in the cruel machinery of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking."
--Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club
Gilliam's comedic fantasy about two con-artist brothers pushing cures for fake fairytale curses garnered a grim reception from critics, although it went on to gross a decent total of $105 million worldwide. But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the production is that it introduced Gilliam to a young actor who impressed him so much, he made plans to work with him again: Heath Ledger.
|Est. Production Budget: $12M
||Domestic Gross: Under $0.1M|
|"When they’re used to tell a story as dreary, unfocused, and exhausting as Tideland, the director’s trademark dreamscapes and disorienting camera angles feel like so much artless window dressing. "
--Josh Rosenblatt, Austin Chronicle
Reuniting with Jeff Bridges, Gilliam went on possibly his darkest jaunt yet as a director in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel about a little girl watching her dead father decompose. Widely panned in the States, where it grossed a miniscule $66,453, the film found much love overseas, winning the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize for best film at Spain's San Sebastian Festival and achieving critical and box office success in Japan.
|The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus||2009||67||6.0|
|Est. Production Budget: $30M
||Domestic Gross (through 1/3): $0.3M|
|"Gilliam and McKeown's willful refusal of coherent narrative and determination to pack every idea about art they ever had into one scenario, make this fiendishly gorgeous movie more exhausting than exhilarating to watch. "
--Ella Taylor, Village Voice
With his latest project, Gilliam made good on his intention to work with Heath Ledger again, and though it was an interrupted experience, it gave the late actor one last chance to shine. Ledger's performance was so good that studio execs accepted the Buñuelian solution of using three other actors in fantasy incarnations of his role.
While not a complete critical success -- even those reviewers who liked the film found it a bit of a mess -- Imaginarium is Gilliam's best-received film in over a dozen years. Whether it finds an audience is still an open question, with the movie being rolled out slowly by Sony.
|Lost in La Mancha||2003||74||7.5|
|Est. Production Budget: n/a
||Domestic Gross: $0.7M|
|"It is an honest, dumbstruck, not particularly deep demonstration of how insanely difficult it is to make a movie, any movie, no matter how blithe the end result may appear on screen."
--Ty Burr, Boston Globe
In the fall of 2000, Gilliam began production on his follow-up to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But if you've never heard of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote -- Gilliam's reimagining of the Cervantes novel -- it's because the film was never completed. A well-reviewed documentary (Gilliam's notoriety for production problems has meant no shortage of "making of" documentaries over the years) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, Lost in La Mancha chronicles the ill-fated shoot, which was plagued by scheduling, budget and location problems from the beginning and was aborted altogether when the film's star, Jean Rochefort, was injured.
Gilliam isn't giving up without a fight, however. Last fall -- nine years after photography was halted -- he re-started pre-production on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with the 79-year-old Robert Duvall now set to star.