Today, David Fincher’s Fight Club is considered a true cult classic, one of the director’s best movies and one of the most enduring titles of the banner year that was 1999. But 20 years ago, when the movie was first coming out, that level of adoration and appreciation was much more difficult to find. The film was a box office flop and was critically lambasted in some corners, for being irresponsible and deplorable. It was even booed.
Fight Club premiered in September of 1999 at the Venice Film Festival and in an excerpt from Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever. on The Ringer, Brad Pitt recalls the reaction to that early screening:
It gets to one of Helena’s scandalous lines—‘I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school!’—and literally the guy running the festival got up and left. Edward and I were still the only ones laughing. You could hear two idiots up in the balcony cackling through the whole thing.
What an amusing image that is, a crowd of aghast and offended festivalgoers watching Fight Club for the first time while Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are cracking up like teenagers, enjoying every second of the film and finding it hilarious.
The audience at Fight Club’s premiere clearly did not see the satire in Fight Club or find any humor in it, especially when it comes to Helena Bonham Carter’s most notorious line as Marla Singer. The line was so offensive that the person running the festival decided he had seen enough and decided to leave.
What’s particularly ironic about that is that her scandalous line was actually the result of the original line being considered too offensive and alienating by one of the film’s producers, Laura Ziskin. The original line in the script is the same as in Chuck Palahniuk’s book; after sex Marla turns to Tyler and says ‘I want to have your abortion.’ As retold by The Wrap, Ziskin begged David Fincher to take the abortion line out and the grade school line is what replaced it.
That line may or may not be more offensive, but either way, it didn’t play well, nor did the film overall, as Edward Norton recalled:
It got booed. It wasn’t playing well at all. Brad turns and looks at me says, ‘That’s the best movie I’m ever gonna be in.’ He was so happy.
You occasionally hear stories about films getting booed at festivals, and it ascribes a scarlet letter of sorts to the movie, branding it as something terrible, indecent or both. That a more prudish audience might boo Fight Club is one thing, but a festival attended by adherents of the art from is something wild to consider. Still, no amount of boos were going to rain on Brad Pitt’s parade.
As Edward Norton recalled, Brad Pitt was positively cheery, thrilled with the film itself, regardless of how it was received. Whether it wound up really being the best movie he’s ever been in is up for debate, but it is definitely a career highlight.
For Edward Norton, the hostile response Fight Club received at those early screenings from critics and audiences was something of a defensive response to the messages in the film itself. He said:
I think the establishment, the critical culture, felt a little bit indicted by it. So they responded to it with a little bit more seriousness, and I think they missed the satirical edge of it.
The subversive, anti-establishment message espoused by Tyler Durden in Fight Club was viewed as a dangerous and irresponsible thing to be in a Hollywood film. And rather than take a nuanced look at the satirical nature of the story, the response was to condemn it. It should also be noted that Fight Club came out the same year as the Columbine Shooting happened, so like The Matrix, it also arrived at an inopportune time and was an easy scapegoat and example of the things that caused society’s ills.
The people involved knew that Fight Club was going to have an uphill battle in the public eye, so two days before its opening, Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman at the time Bill Mechanic let David Fincher know what to expect. He said:
I said there would be two judgments in the movie. One would be on Friday—which I wasn’t so sure about. But there was also the judgment of history. And I thought this would be one of the great films of the decade. So I was fine to take the pummeling.
Bill Mechanic proved prescient in his thoughts. Fight Club was judged a failure when it opened, managing just $11 million in its opening weekend. Yet as predicted, history judged David Fincher’s film far kinder. Fight Club is now a classic and indeed one of the great films of the decade. Sometimes faith in a film is rewarded, but those rewards don’t always come when you expect them. From booed and walked out on to cult classic; Jack’s smirking revenge indeed.
Check out our 2019 Release Schedule for all the films coming to theaters this year.