The success of ‘Rudy’ the film matched that of the hero

Mark Ciemcioch
Oct 17 · 6 min read

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

Released Oct. 15, 1993
Directed by David Anspaugh

Following Martin Scorsese’s recent comments that the Marvel Studios films “are not cinema,” a small but vocal contingent of social media went to the defense of what is, as of now, the biggest franchise in film history. Meanwhile, the rest of the world went on with their lives, blissfully unaware of this fierce debate that continues to fester and reignite online the moment anyone in the film industry chooses to say something mildly critical of the mighty Marvel.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel movies, but the debate was painful and embarrassing, because when we weren’t tying ourselves up about the definition of cinema, it was easy to see Scorsese had a point. The Marvel movies are theme park rides, a corporate product intricately constructed to engage and thrill the maximum amount of people possible. To be sure, Marvel Studios is very, very good at it, almost shockingly so, but ultimately, these are not challenging movies. That, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is not a bad thing.

But what the “cinema vs. movies” debate dismisses is why people watch movies. Those film critics and super fans (like myself, for the latter) tend to take for granted is that we watch far more movies than the average person. We come to the cinema and multiplexes for the full breadth of the experience, thinking about what were the individual aspects of the movie that made it work or not.

The reality is many people don’t go to the movies for the artistry or the questions about nature and reality it may pose. They just want to go on a ride, one that excites you, makes you laugh or cry, or makes you feel better about yourself. That might be the disconnect between some critical reviews and audience popularity because audiences don’t have to worry about discerning what they just watched for a 500- or 1,000-word review. They just want to know if the movie is good or not.

And on that metric, “Rudy” is a good movie.

Based on a true story, Sean Astin stars as Daniel Ruettiger (known as Rudy), a blue-collar young man from the Midwest who seemed destined for a lifetime factory job. After Rudy’s best friend is killed in a workplace accident, he decides to follow his dream: Attend the University of Notre Dame and play for its Fighting Irish football team. Among the problems in this scenario is that Rudy isn’t a good student, and is barely tall enough to get on a rollercoaster.

Rudy hasn’t thought out his plan; he shows up on campus carrying a sack containing his only belongings with no money, no residence, and no acceptance (or even an application) to enroll at Notre Dame. But he will not be deterred from his dream, and the film follows Rudy as he finds a way to earn all of those goals. Rudy’s boss (Charles S. Dutton) and tutor (a very young Jon Favreau) help him along the way. Eventually, he gains admission to Notre Dame, but now he faces an even bigger task: Getting on the field to play for the football team.

To be clear, “Rudy” is a straightforward picture without a lot of depth. Still, thanks to Astin’s boyish enthusiasm and determination, it’s a remarkably easy film to settle into and enjoy. Director David Anspaugh, formerly of “Hoosiers,” never had a significant career in Hollywood, but “Rudy” looks good and is well-paced. By the end of the film, your heart would have to be stone-cold to not be moved by the final moments, and maybe even a tear or two will be shed. “Rudy” is easy to love, particularly if you’re in the mood for a movie to just take you on the ride.

Much like its title character, “Rudy” had a small opening in mid-October 1993 with a rollout on 117 screens. The film expanded to more than 1,300 screens the following weekend, but only cracked the top 5 box office chart behind other films like “Demolition Man” and “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” It stuck around for a few more weekends before topping out with a domestic gross of $22.7 million. The star of the film, Astin, found more success in landing supporting parts in films, including a career highpoint in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

And yet, “Rudy” endures. It’s not the first movie that found the majority of its audience through rentals and cable TV re-airings. Still, it’s remarkable that its impact on culture matched that of Rudy’s story: A small, inspiring film that kept showing up on people’s radars until it became undeniable.

I’m not sure a film like “Rudy” could find that kind of momentum today. Not only is it harder than ever to gain attention for a non-franchise movie at the theater, but our viewing habits have also shifted to streaming, and its unlikely viewers would stumble upon it accidentally while flipping channels. Besides, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite in the culture for another movie about an underdog white male, at least one who isn’t a would-be member of the Avengers. However, audiences can still be moved to go see inspirational films, but now the protagonists are more diverse. Will Smith won acclaim as a hard-working single father striving to survive in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Michael B. Jordan revived the Rocky franchise as the son of Apollo in “Creed,” and the story of the three black women who helped launch the United States into space became a massive hit with “Hidden Figures.”

While the underdogs and obstacles continue to change, there’s no doubt that their stories continue to inspire us at the movies, even if it is just a ride.

The Weekend: Mid-October may not be an attractive week for box office success, but like “Rudy,” there are several films released that have gone on to earn acclaim and solidify their legacies.

Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” saw a limited release on Oct. 21, 1983, and frankly, the full release months later wasn’t much better. However, the three-hour drama about astronauts vying to reach space picked up several Academy Awards and remains a beloved favorite of the 80s.

Just as “Pulp Fiction” was taking theaters by storm in 1994, another indy film with some buzz opened a week later to launch the career of another authorial voice. Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” was a low budget comedy about the lifestyles of the broke and anonymous, but earned its authenticity to a generation of young adults. Smith would continue to direct films (often with the same characters, as “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” opens this week), but he is better known as a nerd king and podcast personality today. Still, “Clerks” is a great film that has secured its role in independent cinema.

Speaking of “Pulp Fiction,” last week I noted how Quentin Tarantino’s film inspired a wave of similar genre movies. One of the better ones is 1995’s “Get Shorty.” Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel, the film is quick, funny, and has a stellar cast with John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, and a pre-”Sopranos” James Gandolfini.

Another film that most people missed at the theaters became one of 1999’s most acclaimed (and controversial) movies: David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” It took a minute for audiences to figure out what was going on with the satirical drama starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, but once they did, “Fight Club” earned a legion of admirers and fans. While some “Fight Club” fans lean fanatical after missing some of the subtleties of the film’s themes, it still doesn’t diminish the power and energy that’s onscreen.

As the calendar entered the new millennium, three notable auteur directors released distinctive films this weekend during various years. Christopher Nolan was still gaining steam as a mainstream director when he helmed 2006’s “The Prestige,” a crackerjack mystery drama that’s worth your time. Spike Jonez brought the beloved children’s book to melancholy life with 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu struck Academy Award-winning gold with 2014’s “Birdman.”

Next Week: “John Wick”

Originally published at on October 17, 2019.

Mark Ciemcioch

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