- Thanks to The Proposal and The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock has been named the top box office draw of 2009 in the domestic market, thus becoming only the sixth actress in the no. 1 slot since 1940.
- But how reliable are these annual exhibitors’ polls?
Exhibitors’ poll names Sandra Bullock the top domestic box office draw of the year
“[This is] far and away the biggest-grossing movie with a female as its sole main player, which is certainly a challenge to conventional Hollywood assumptions (men can star alone, while women need a co-star of either sex).”
The sentence above refers to Sandra Bullock in John Lee Hancock’s 2009 sleeper hit The Blind Side, right?
Nearly three decades ago, film commentator Stuart Byron was referring to Goldie Hawn in Howard Zieff’s 1980 sleeper hit Private Benjamin, which earned $69.8 million (around $173 million in 2009) at the domestic box office.
For the record: Also in 1980, Hawn co-starred with Chevy Chase in the comedy Seems Like Old Times, which took in $43.9 million (approximately $109 million today).
Having raked in more than $200 million and counting, The Blind Side has performed even better than either Goldie Hawn star vehicle. Add to that the $163 million earned by Anne Fletcher’s romantic comedy The Proposal (while ignoring All About Steve’s measly $34 million) and Sandra Bullock’s position as the top box office star on the Quigley poll of U.S. exhibitors is fully justifiable.
Only 6 actresses at the top since 1940
Of note, Sandra Bullock is only the sixth actress to top the exhibitors’ list in the last 70 years, following Betty Grable (1943), Doris Day (1960, 1962, 1963, 1964), Elizabeth Taylor (1961), Julie Andrews (1966, 1967), and Julia Roberts (1999).
Yet, despite Bullock’s, Grable’s, Day’s, Taylor’s, Andrews’, and Roberts’ undeniable box office appeal, those Quigley polls – held in various forms since 1915 – shouldn’t be taken all that seriously.
For instance, in 1980, the year Goldie Hawn was the star of “the biggest-grossing movie with a female as its sole main player,” she wasn’t included on the Quigley list of Top Ten domestic box office stars. But Barbra Streisand, who didn’t have a 1980 release (or even a late 1979 release), was.
Here’s another example: Gone with the Wind, the blockbuster of all blockbusters, opened in late December 1939. Boom Town became one of the biggest hits of 1940. Clark Gable was top-billed in both movies – in addition to the 1940 releases Comrade X and Strange Cargo. Quigley’s biggest box office star of 1940? Mickey Rooney.
Quigley exhibitors’ poll: Some odd rankings
Sure, Mickey Rooney’s star vehicles were box office, but for the most part they weren’t Clark Gable-caliber box office. Even so, stuff like Strike Up the Band and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante did well in small towns, where owners of little movie houses were happy to book flicks showing Mickey dating Judy (Garland), or Gene Autry hanging out with his horse.
Autry starred in six 1940 releases: Shooting High, Carolina Moon, Gaucho Serenade, Rancho Grande, Melody Ranch, and Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride. If none of these titles sound like major – or even minor – blockbusters, it’s, well, because they weren’t.
On the other hand, these B Westerns kept 100-seat movie houses all filled up on Saturday afternoons. And that’s why Gene Autry was no. 4 on the 1940 Quigley list, ahead of Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro and Johnny Apollo), Bette Davis (The Letter and All This and Heaven Too, two of her biggest hits), and even Judy Garland (Rooney’s costar in Strike Up the Band, “guest”romantic interest in Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, and the star of her own Little Nellie Kelly).
Of course, regardless of what the Quigley exhibitors had to say in those days, the studios’ accounting ledgers showed that their movies earned the most cash at big-city palaces charging top admission prices (which is one reason why “average” annual ticket prices are a less-than-perfect way to calculate inflation-adjusted box office figures, especially for decades-old movies).
Top domestic box office draws of 2009 (?)
Anyhow, below is the list of the Top Ten moneymaking stars of 2009. In addition to Sandra Bullock, the only other woman on the roster is Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated).
The same goes for George Clooney. It’s just unclear whether he has been included for the box office duds The Men Who Stare at Goats and Fantastic Mr. Fox, or for Up in the Air, a mid-level performer that will be earning most of its cash in 2010.
Nowhere on the Top Ten list: 2009 franchise stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the year’s biggest blockbuster worldwide), and Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (the bigger-than-expected blockbuster The Twilight Saga: New Moon).
Top Ten stars
- Sandra Bullock
- Johnny Depp
- Matt Damon
- George Clooney
- Robert Downey Jr.
- Tom Hanks
- Meryl Streep
- Brad Pitt
- Shia LaBeouf
- Denzel Washington
“Sandra Bullock Box Office: Few Women” notes
Women on top
 When it comes to the exhibitors’ polls, women fared far better between 1920 and 1940, with eight actresses in the no. 1 slot: Mary Pickford (1921, 1922), Norma Talmadge (1924), Colleen Moore (1926), Clara Bow (1928, 1929), Joan Crawford (1930), Janet Gaynor (1931), Marie Dressler (1932, 1933), and Shirley Temple (1935, 1936, 1937, 1938).
“Sandra Bullock Box Office” endnotes
The lists of top box office stars from 1915 to 1939 can be found in the Sept. 28, 1940, issue of the Motion Picture Herald. Multiple sources feature the post-1932 lists.
Inflation-adjusted box office figures are based on the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual average ticket prices, which can be found at boxofficemojo.com.
Stuart Byron quote via Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards.
Sandra Bullock The Blind Side movie image: Warner Bros.
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney Strike Up the Band movie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Sandra Bullock Box Office: Few Women at No. 1” last updated in June 2022.