The '90s were a wild time in American history. Between Budweiser frogs and impeached presidents, it was a decade in which technological advancement and “third wave feminism” shifted the culture. Y2K scared the bejesus out of anyone with superstitious inklings, while the rest of us cried to “My Heart Will Go On” or danced “The Macarena” an obscene amount of times. It wasn’t pretty. Luckily, while the rest of society was altering its fanny-packed blueprint, Hollywood stuck to the same formula: attractive, charismatic people starring in glossy productions. Regardless of how artsy or outright abrasive music and media became, the studio's stayed steadfast in their standards, and the results were iconic to say the least.
Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Leonardo DiCaprio are just a few of the names that became bona-fide superstars in the '90s, a status they effortlessly maintained going into the new millennium. But while these remaining A-listers comprise the top 1%, the sad truth is that most of the era’s all-stars couldn’t hack it past the (first?) Clinton presidency. We all remember a few — Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Fraser, Jean Claude Van Damme, etc. — performers who carried big weight back in the day. Unfortunately, they reside as little more than nostalgia trips and honorable mentions on this list. Now, it's time to take out the butterfly clips, put the Furbies down, and dig into the actors who actually did make the cut.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Movie Stars Who Peaked in the '90s.
Steven Seagal’s refusal (or inability) to change has kept him in the same cinematic space for thirty years. A pony-tailed judo master who graduated head of his class in cracking skulls, the former stunt consultant has pushed this schtick into everything from reality TV (Steven Seagal: Lawman) to terribly forgettable films (Maximum Conviction, A Good Man). Cornering the same direct-to-DVD market that punching peers Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme eventually exploited, Seagal has only succeeded in reminding us why his stuff is way past it's expiration date.
That being said, there was a time Seagal could sleepwalk through a fight scene and the studio would have a hit. Jumping off with Hard to Kill in 1990 and snapping across Out for Justice (1991), Under Siege (1992), On Deadly Ground (1994), and The Glimmer Man (1996), subpar actor Seagal became an international phenomenon. Filling the void of a less enlightened Bruce Lee, his films were gloriously cheesy with silly storylines at best. It was kitschy in execution, but the actor's charismatic cutlery, while short lived, was too fun to pass up. Key word: was.
Typically cast as the meek ingenue or the woeful housewife in the '80s, it took a villainous turn in Total Recall (1990) to solidify Sharon Stone as a flirtatious force of nature. The film’s director, Paul Verhoeven, took note and expanded upon this image with Basic Instinct (1992), casting Stone as a manipulative murder suspect that made her the hottest thing in Hollywood. Forever remembered as the bisexual flirt who bewitched Michael Douglas, the actress’ unflinching portrayal became the stuff of leg-crossing legend. Award-worthy acclaim soon followed through Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), showcasing dramatic chops that only added to leading roles in The Quick & The Dead (1995) and The Mighty (1998).
Unfortunately, being a sex symbol has a shelf life, and diminishing offers coupled with ill-fated choices like Cold Creek Manor (2003) and Catwoman (2004) made matters even worse. By the time Stone copped a Golden Raspberry nom for Basic Instinct 2 (2006), the fall from grace was all but complete. A definite shame, but given how unsexy Instinct 2 turned out, fans would be far better off sticking to the glory days.
As a theatre teacher at Montana State University, Bill Pullman was convinced by his students to attempt a film career, and the resulting success that followed was a Cinderfella story of inspired proportions. He pulled off a Midwestern wholesomeness like few others, and this effortless charm served films like A League of Their Own (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Independence Day (1996) with supporting excellence. In between these big budget escapades, the actor also found time to score leading roles in While You Were Sleeping (1995), Lost Highway (1997), and the cult classic Zero Effect (1998). Pullman may not have been the biggest star of the decade, but he was undoubtedly one of the busiest.
Sadly, the actor’s phone stopped ringing come the 2000s, and the quality of options dwindled down to schlock like Scary Movie 4 (2006) and Rio Sex Comedy (2010). Independence Day: Resurgence offers a little respite for the actor this summer, who dons his stripes as former commander-in-chief Thomas J. Whitmore. And while it might not be a critical oasis, it definitely can’t be worse than Nobel Son (2007) or The Killer Inside Me (2010).
Madeleine Stowe has barely registered a blip on the radar of modern moviegoers. Literally. Her last big screen role was 2003’s so-so thriller Octane, and the L.A. native has strictly stuck to Emmy nominated TV like Revenge (2011-15) ever since. As a result, Stowe is one of the few entries on the list to minimize output on her own afflicted terms; living off a Texas ranch and raising a family in lieu of luscious parts. Even if she hadn’t cut down her work schedule, however, Stowe’s '90s output would’ve been a tough act to follow.
Starting out as the femme fatale in films like Revenge (1990) and The Two Jakes (1990), the actress quickly developed an onscreen image of refinement, going on to to radiate through Unlawful Entry (1992), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and China Moon (1994). Independent without being overbearing, Stowe could talk audiences into even the strangest of plotlines, be it sci-fi (Blink) or downright dystopian (12 Monkeys) in origin. Come to think of it, maybe she retired simply because she had done it all by the new millennium.
Granted, Michael Madsen has been terrific in 2000s Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill (2003-04) and The Hateful Eight (2015), but that’s nothing compared to the wave of supporting parts he netted back in the day. Breaking through with the trio of Thelma & Louise (1991), The Doors (1991), and Reservoir Dogs (1992), the wincing goliath with a sandpaper voice became Hollywood’s favorite enforcer, adding innumerable intensity to every frame that bore his image. Frightening and affable in equal measures, Madsen was everywhere in the '90s, ranging from family fare (Free Willy) and thrillers (The Getaway) to gangsters (Donnie Brasco) and film noir (Mulholland Falls). Was there anything this guy couldn’t do?
The answer, it turns out, was sustain a long-running career. The gruff Madsen continues to make movies like they're going out of style, but excluding the aforementioned exceptions, the results are more laughable than they are affable. Floating hunks of awfulness like Croc (2007) and The Bleeding (2009) have become status quo in the decade of double 0’s, funneling Madsen’s presence into projects too weak to support it. Guess he’s got to do something until the next Tarantino movie comes around.
Neve Campbell has been making the guest rounds on TV as of late, with appearances in Mad Men and House of Cards getting pretty warm reception. Much of this fondness, however, dates back to a time when the plucky young star was one of the most notable twenty-somethings in Hollywood. Earning attention on TV’s Party of Five, the cute brunette broke through with surprise hit The Craft (1996) before embarking on what would become her signature role: teen heroine Sidney Prescott. As the long suffering lead of the Scream films, Campbell both embodied and defied slasher movie clichés, with an earthy sensitivity to sell an otherwise outlandish narrative.
Audiences lapped up this innocent act even when it was anything but in projects like Wild Things (1998) and 54 (1999), revealing her performance potential. Then, the running theme of this list dropped the hammer. Campbell went from in-demand to second-hand in a heartbeat, save for the obligatory Scream sequel that kept her semi-relevant. TV stuff notwithstanding, Campbell goes down as the Kristen Stewart of the '90s — albeit, with a bit more likability.
Wesley Snipes has had a tough stretch in recent years. Tax evasion, jail time, and a lawsuit have left him a tabloid fixture, while direct-to-DVD flicks like The Contractor (2007) and Game of Death (2010) haven’t exactly made fans forget the drama — a far cry from the days where he was pulling in multiple hits a year. Long before he became the posterboy for tax fraud, the slick Snipes was actually one of the most consistently working dudes in the business.
Benefiting from past exposure, Snipes hit the big time in the 90s, as leading roles in New Jack City (1991), Jungle Fever (1991), and White Men Can’t Jump (1992) made him a household name. With conviction you could bench-press and a range that encompassed comedy, drama, and action, the Florida native churned out one commercial serving after another, including but not limited to Passenger 57 (1992), Murder at 1600 (1997), and Blade (1998). Snipes’ resume is too large to cover in a single post, so we’ll just call him the unfettered King of Quantity. That’s a lot of tax paperwork. Just saying.
Juliette Lewis always posed a confusing case. Unique looking to say the least, with an acting method to match, she arrived on the scene with Cape Fear in 1991 and became an A-lister overnight. When she wasn’t the subject of media fodder for dating Brad Pitt, the Academy Award nominee was scoring consecutive hits Kalifornia (1993), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), and Natural Born Killers (1994) like it was nothing. Lewis was unstoppable as an eccentric alternative for the classic beauty, something that was awarded by fans and critics alike in most every appearance she made.
Even smaller roles in Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and From Dusk till Dawn (1996) carry this inexplicable draw — which in turn went south when Y2K turned out to be a joke. Now, the former star can typically be spotted in comedies like Old School (2003) and Due Date (2011), putting her wacky persona to relegated use whenever possible. She still has that certain something that's always been confusing to watch, but a case for figuring it out will best be spotted in her '90s filmography.
Joe Pesci retired from acting in 1999! The little guy defied unconventional looks and a smarmy attitude to become one of the biggest attractions of the decade, and then decided to call it a day. The only other film Pesci has graced with his presence has been a brief cameo in The Good Shepherd (2006), directed by close pal Robert De Niro. Other than that, it's been nothing but rumors and Joey Russo’s fun take on the actor in 2014’s Jersey Boys. To get the full Pesci experience, the '90s are the only way to go.
It was a ten year run of innumerable triumphs, ranging from comedy (Home Alone series) and action (Lethal Weapon series) to stand alone success (The Public Eye, My Cousin Vinny) in the blink of an eye. Commercially, he hit pay-dirt as a slick salesman with an underlying emotional depth. Such talents were most impressively used by Martin Scorsese, who handed Pesci two of his most acclaimed roles in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Word is that Scorsese might resurrect him for the crime epic The Irishman - let’s hope that turns out to be true.
Geena Davis would’ve made a great Wonder Woman back in her day. Few actresses of any era held such a high wire balance between imposing presence and delicate beauty, but this was where the six foot actress resided full time in her prime. A prime, unsurprisingly, that tackled genres and directions that most women simply wouldn’t be able to pull off on their own. Whether a criminal in Thelma & Louise (1991), a baseball player in A League of Their Own (1992), or a kick-ass action star in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Davis sold any challenge thrown her way with the utmost physical and emotional gusto.
Lesser roles like Hero (1992) and Speechless (1994) also thrived off of this approachable glamour, but Davis’ career took a nosedive following the box office bomb that was Cutthroat Island (1995). In the wake of such a blow, the former model was relegated to the Stuart Little series, save for a forgettable film (Accidents Happens) every once in awhile. She should’ve pushed for a damn Wonder Woman movie instead.
Another actor falling victim to a mammoth flop, Kevin Costner’s career also came to a screeching halt in 1995. The film was Waterworld, and Costner pulled double duty as actor/director with the biggest budget of all time (up to that point). As a result, the onslaught of domestic loss and critical pillaging that the film fell victim to almost single-handedly ruined the star’s bulletproof reputation. Now, Costner can be spotted in a jumble of different projects (Draft Day, Black or White), each as underwhelming as the next.
The thing that makes this descent even more impressive is considering where Costner was prior to ‘95. He had jump-started the decade through Dances with Wolves (1990), raking in financial success, universal acclaim, and a Best Picture Oscar to boot. Soon after, the actor set forth with a flurry of high profile hits, ascending in the order of JFK (1991), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), A Perfect World (1993), and most iconically: The Bodyguard (1992). Paired opposite Whitney Houston, Costner arguably became the biggest actor on the planet. And then boom, Waterworld. Sadly, Mad Max on water was as dumb as it sounded.
Maybe he'll turn it all around this weekend with Criminal, though early reviews aren't promising. Like Davis before him, he would have been better off strapping on a pair of superhero tights while he was in his prime.
The odd thing about Rene Russo was that she teetered on stardom for so long without ever fully achieving it. She had a stellar run of releases, was widely recognized as a wonderful performer, yet fell into oblivion once time and age decided it be so. It was great spotting Russo in 2014’s Nightcrawler, though it's clearly done little to spark a “Renesance” of any kind — shame too, given the PR possibilities of that title. Between that and being Thor’s mom, Russo’s talents as an actress are nowhere to be seen, which is unfortunate, given the past projects in her portfolio.
A portfolio, funnily enough, built on the strength of one hell of a '90s. A tough blend of beauty and brawn, the actress announced herself opposite Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), setting in motion a series of parts that included In the Line of Fire (1993), Get Shorty (1995), Tin Cup (1996) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). Russo could go toe-to-toe with the best of them, and such intensity served dazzling thrillers like Outbreak (1995) and Ransom (1996) with an emotional anchor. Fingers crossed that the “Renesance” is still possibility.
The ultimate chic chick, Winona Ryder could do no wrong in the '90s. No joke, everything she touched was either been hailed as a gem out the gate or has ascended to cult status among movie lovers. Except maybe Alien: Resurrection (1997), but we’ll just give her a pass on that one. Elsewhere, Ryder’s resume purs like a new motor, decorated to the hood with hits like Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Reality Bites (1994), and Little Women (1994). Varied as she was successful, the versatile actress even drew acclaim in the face of otherwise mixed releases Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) and Girl, Interrupted (1999). By the end of the decade, Ryder was the biggest woman in Hollywood besides Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan.
Then came the Razzies. Almost as if designed to define this list, Ryder string of 2000s work, beginning with Autumn in New York (2000) and forging ahead with Mr. Deeds (2002), earned her repeat honors from the notorious institute. A few more duds and a shoplifting debacle have caused Ryder to become a disappeared icon of the past. And frankly, a Star Trek (2009) cameo just isn’t cutting it when it comes to the proper Winona quota.
Val Kilmer was designed in a lab to be a movie star. The perfect mixture of matinee idol looks and savage acting ability, he stole the show in Top Gun (1986) and never looked back heading into the '90s. Once there, he blew audiences away with brilliant work in The Doors (1991), Tombstone (1993), True Romance (1993) and Heat (1995), each of which were showered with acclaim and box office success. Come the middle of the decade, Kilmer was one of the country’s biggest names, elevated even further by smash hits like Batman Forever (1995) and The Saint (1997).
2000 brought with it a major failure in the form of Red Planet, a film that foreshadowed the duration of Kilmer’s declining career. Bad decision projects Hard Cash (2002) and Felon (2008) soon followed, paired with stories of the actor’s difficult behavior onset. Come the 21st century, with the exception of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Kilmer all but defines the word “has been” in Hollywood, a true shame given his prodigious talent. He’ll always be our Huckleberry.
About as '90s as a VHS recording of Supermarket Sweep, Meg Ryan was America’s Sweetheart. She was affable, adorable, yet still relatable to the public in a way that couldn't be taught or replicated. The Queen of the rom-com, she put up numbers that have yet to be beat in the genre, led by a killer collection of Prelude to a Kiss (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Addicted to Love (1997), and You’ve Got Mail (1998). There was always an air of timeless screwball to her method, and her modern take on the Irene Dunne formula clearly had a place in the hearts of audiences worldwide. This luxury even extended into serious fare like The Doors (1991), Courage Under Fire (1996), and City of Angels (1998).
The release of Proof of Life in 2000 changed everything. A highly publicized affair with co-star Russell Crowe tainted her national image (she was married to Dennis Quaid at the time), and, fair or not, essentially slammed the brakes on her career. Afterwards, the only gigs Ryan could book were snoozers like In the Land of Women (2007) and The Women (2008). Whatever magic she had could no longer be replicated. Least of all, by her.
Did we miss an of your '90s-peaking favorites? Be sure to let us know in the comments section.