It was supposed to be a patriotic tribute to the brave men who pioneered the US space program. But The Right Stuff turned out to be one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, costing its studio millions of dollars and almost ending the career of its director.
The 1983 film, based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book, chronicled the early years of the race to space and the test pilots and astronauts who risked their lives to get there. It boasted a star-studded cast including Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, Ed Harris as John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut.
The film was critically acclaimed and received eight Oscar nominations, winning four, including for Bill Conti’s soaring score. But it failed to attract audiences, earning only $21 million out of its $27 million budget. The studio behind it, The Ladd Company, shut down shortly after.
So what went wrong? According to director Philip Kaufman, who wrote and directed the film, it was a combination of bad timing, poor marketing, and changing tastes.
Kaufman told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to make a film about “an enduring American spirit that we really needed to get back to” after the Iran hostage crisis and the Vietnam War. He said he was inspired by Yeager’s coolness and sense of humor, as well as the camaraderie and competitiveness of the test pilots and astronauts.
But he faced resistance from his original screenwriter William Goldman, who wanted to make a film about patriotism and thought that including Yeager and the test pilots was negative. Kaufman disagreed and rewrote the script himself, adding more humor and irony.
He also clashed with his producers over the length of the film, which ran for nearly three hours. He said they wanted him to cut it down to two hours or less, but he refused. He said he wanted to show “the whole panorama” of the story.
The film also suffered from a lack of promotion. Kaufman said that Warner Bros., which distributed the film, did not know how to market it. He said they tried to sell it as a Star Wars-like adventure or a Top Gun-like action flick, but it was neither. He said they also did not target women or young people, who were more interested in other films at the time.
The film also faced competition from other space-themed movies that year, such as Return of the Jedi and Octopussy. Kaufman said that audiences were more drawn to fantasy and escapism than realism and history.
But despite its commercial failure, The Right Stuff has gained in stature over the years. It has been praised for its authenticity, its cinematography, its performances, and its music. It has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Kaufman said he is proud of his film and hopes that it will inspire future generations to explore space. He said he still gets letters from people who say they became astronauts or pilots because of The Right Stuff.
He said: “I think it’s a film that will endure because it’s about something that’s very important in our history and our culture.”