Down and Out in Beverly Hills was Disney's first R-rated movie.
Disney is known for many things—the animated magic it creates with Pixar, classic fairytales and family films, and its adventurous theme parks—but one thing that Walt’s legacy is not known for is making R-rated movies. More than any other Hollywood studio, Disney has carefully nipped and tucked its image to be synonymous with pristine, family-friendly entertainment. But that doesn’t mean it’s never made a rated-R movie—in fact, the first R-rated movie by Disney was Down and Out in Beverly Hills, released in 1986.
While Disney finally succumbed to the pressure of releasing entertainment raunchy enough to be considered fit for only mature audiences, the studio took a long time to get there. Walt Disney Studios was founded in October 1923 and managed only to create G-rated content for decades. It wasn’t until the late 70s that the studio even dared to release a PG-rated movie, let alone an R-rated film.
But by the end of the 70s, the cinema was beginning to transition as films became grittier, raunchier, and more adult-themed. And more studios began to test the limits on the content they were creating.
Not wanting to release more mature content under the magical blue castle logo that Disney was known for, the studio created Touchstone Pictures—a sublabel that would hide the fact that Walt Disney’s company produced the soon-to-be-released R-rated films like Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills starred Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, and Nick Nolte
In 1984, the mantle of Disney’s leadership shifted to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. With them at the helm, a new era dawned, one that would see the studio break away from its traditional mold. Finally, Disney could join the ranks of Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal, and other big blockbuster studios, and the release of the first-ever Disney-produced R-rated film drew nearer.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills was directed by Paul Mazursky and adapted from the 1919 French play Boudu sauvé des eaux. The story revolves around a wealthy, dysfunctional Beverly Hills family whose lives unexpectedly turn when they rescue a homeless man from drowning.
This R-rated Disney feature boasted a star-studded cast, including Nick Nolte as the enigmatic Jerry Baskin, Bette Midler as the discontented Barbara Whiteman, and Richard Dreyfuss as the disillusioned Dave Whiteman.
For the first time in its history, Disney was diving into R-rated waters. The film tackled themes and content that were a far cry from the studio’s previous offerings. It delved into issues like sex, drugs, and profanity, which were formerly unthinkable in the Disney lexicon.
Decades later, after the envelope has continued to be pushed for years, Down and Out in Beverly Hills might seem tame by today’s standards. Some may even wonder why this Disney feature was deemed R-rated in the first place.
However, in the context of the times, it was a revolutionary departure—the acknowledgment of taboo subjects like cocaine, explicit sexual content, and a barrage of foul language marked a seismic shift for a studio synonymous with innocence.
The risk Disney took creating the R-rated Down and Out in Beverly Hills paid dividends beyond expectations. The film became a box office sensation, raking in over $62 million domestically. It stood as one of the top-grossing films of the year, firmly establishing that Disney’s cinematic horizons could extend beyond the boundaries it had previously set for itself.
The film also marked a turning point for Disney’s box office prowess. Prior to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Disney had struggled to assert itself as a major player in the box office game. This R-rated film’s success demonstrated that the studio could not only compete but would also thrive in the highly competitive landscape of the film industry.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills paid dividends beyond expectations. The film became a box office sensation, raking in over $62 million domestically.
The success of the film not only propelled Disney into the realm of R-rated cinema but also marked a turning point for the studio’s cinematic ventures. It paved the way for the creation of more Touchstone Pictures films and the label’s subsequent iterations, such as Hollywood Pictures and Miramax, which would produce a slew of adult-oriented films in the years that followed.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills now stands as a cinematic milestone, the catalyst that ignited Disney’s foray into R-rated cinema and transformed its cinematic identity. In a world where boundaries are meant to be pushed, Disney dared to take a leap of faith, and that leap paid off in spades. The film’s narrative audacity, coupled with its unprecedented success, opened the doors for a new era of creativity and innovation at the House of Mouse.