On Halloween, the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times was full of the news that Ron Howard’s latest, Inferno, had just gone down in flames. Weekend stats showed it well behind the earnings of Boo! A Madea Halloween. Ron Howard has long been one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, someone whose 23 films have brought in more that $3.6 billion (with a b) worldwide. At the start of Halloween weekend he was releasing an action-packed Tom Hanks-starring thriller, based on the third volume of a convoluted Dan Brown series that started with the mega-selling The Da Vinci Code. And yet Inferno performed anemically, well down in second place to a Tyler Perry farce that had opened the week before.
There was a time when any movie directed by Ron Howard was treated in the media with condescension. After all, the public knew him first as the cute little kid on The Andy Griffith Show and then as perennially innocent Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Even one of the very best films from Howard the director, 1995’s Apollo 13, caused the L.A. Times reviewer Kenneth Turan to smirk that Howard’s uplifting handling of this real-life material showed him to be “the master of Opie-vision.” Despite the film’s huge technical challenges, broad social canvas, and powerfully realistic capturing of a landmark event in the history of the U.S. space program, many film experts chose to see Apollo 13 as the work of a plucky young man venturing into someone else’s sandbox.
When he made Apollo 13, Howard was graduating from amiable comedies like Splash, Cocoon, and Parenthood. He tried for high drama with a story of Chicago firefighters, Backdraft, and ventured an epic romance with Far and Away , but the results of both left something to be desired. Apollo 13, though, was an artistic and box office triumph. Howard was honored by the Directors Guild for this film. When Oscar nominations were announced in early 1996, Apollo 13 was one of 5 candidates for Best Picture. But, in a serious snub, Howard’s name didn’t show up on the list of Best Director candidates. (The big winners that year were Mel Gibson and Braveheart.)
It was 2001’s A Beautiful Mind that served as Ron Howard’s breakout film. This moving and inventive story of mental illness won Howard Oscars as both director and producer. And from this point forward, he was finally taken seriously as a mainstream Hollywood director. The acclaim has helped him to do what he has always craved: avoid typecasting by taking on a wide range of styles and subjects. Since A Beautiful Mind, he has made a western (The Missing), a documentary (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week), a thrilling auto racing film (Rush), a costume epic (In the Heart of the Sea), and of course the three films based on Dan Brown’s well-stuffed novels. His Frost/Nixon, an up-close look at the interaction of a disgraced U.S. President and a media star, was also a Best Picture and Best Director nominee. Curiously, Howard’s one return foray into comedy, The Dilemma, is doubtless the weakest film on this entire list. As someone who has always enjoyed Howard’s light touch with comic romance (I adore the mostly overlooked EdTV), I hope he swoops in on that genre again soon. But apparently his next work will be a biopic about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife, Zelda. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, it should be something to see.
As for Dan Brown, let’s hope he is done with saving the world from mystical conspiracies. I want Ron Howard back making better, richer films.
A recent L.A. Times story ranks Ron Howard’s 23 films in order of quality. I mostly agree with this rundown.