What the Hell Happened to Matt Dillon?
Matt Dillon was “discovered” while cutting class as a teen. Not surprisingly, he made a career in the 80’s playing the kind of kids who got into trouble. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Dillon successfully transitioned to adult roles with some critically acclaimed performances in smaller, independent films. He also appeared in several popular, mainstream Hollywood movies. In spite of all of this success, Dillon never established himself as an A-list box office draw.
What the hell happened?
Dillon was discovered while cutting class at the age of 14. He was cast as a juvenile delinquent in the violent 1979 cult movie, Over the Edge.
Dillon played a teen living in a seemingly idyllic suburb. But the teens are restless and are not receiving the proper oversight. Eventually, an incident leads the parents to hold a town meeting at the school to discuss what is to be done. While the meeting is taking place, the kids lock their parents in the school and go crazy destroying everything in their path.
Talent Scout, Jane Bernstein, was tasked with finding teens who could play the film’s out-of-control youth. At first, they asked school administrators for their suggestions. But they quickly realized that the kids they wanted weren’t spending time at school. Bernstein described discovering Dillon:
“On our last day in Westchester, we were walking through the crowded halls of this one school, and the bell rang and everyone ran back to class. But there was this one kid—and he really was a kid, like 12 or 13—who was soft and young but who had a toughness about him. He was skipping class, just wandering the hallways. He had this chipped tooth, and he was presenting himself as a tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Which was ridiculous. As we later learned, he was from a lovely family in a beautiful section of the suburbs of New York. He was as middle-class as they came.”
Director, Jonathan Kaplan, recounted directing the film’s young actors:
“You had to be creative with how you directed these kids. It was great in a way, because there was no baggage. But I had to invent ways of directing that weren’t by-the-book. In Matt Dillon’s case, he would often look in the wrong direction. I would tell him that on the screen he would be looking in the right direction, even though it felt wrong when he was shooting it. Trying to explain this to a 14-year-old kid who was already suspicious about the whole thing wasn’t easy. So I’d put a $20 bill on my forehead, and I’d say, ‘Matt, if you look at this $20 bill, it’s yours when the shot is finished.’Over the course of the movie he made about $200.”
Around the time the film was set to be released, a few other violent movies made headlines for incidents of gang violence. Most notably, the film The Warriors was linked to a couple of violent headlines. Orion, the studio who owned Over the Edge, didn’t want to run the risk of bad press. So they barely released the film in theaters. According to producer, George Litto:
“The real problem with the film was that it dealt with suburban white kids who cause a bit of violence—never against people, mind you, but against objects. If these kids had been urban and black, I think it would have scared Orion less.”
Over the Edge showed in only a handful of theaters before Orion pulled it. But two years later, it started showing to great reviews in New York. Once again, the film didn’t make waves at the box office. But the good reviews lead to it being shown frequently on HBO in the 80s. Gradually, the film achieved cult status. In the 90’s, singer Kurt Cobain claimed, “Over the Edge pretty much defined my whole personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy.” It served as an inspiration for the Smells Like Teen Spirit music video:
In 1980, Dillon appeared opposite Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol in the teen sex comedy, Little Darlings.
The film’s plot is familiar to fans of the genre. Two teens at camp make a bet over who can lose their virginity the fastest. (Note to self: Don’t ever send kids to camp.) What separates Little Darlings from other teen sex comedies is that the protagonists are girls. McNichol’s character views sex as no big deal and sets her sites on Dillon’s character as a way to win the bet. However, as the trailer makes clear, everyone grows up a little by the end of the movie:
Reviews were mixed. O’Neal and McNichol who were rising stars at the time, were both singled out for criticism for giving wooden performances. Although Roger Ebert commented that Little Darlings “somehow does succeed in treating the awesome and scary subject of sexual initiation with some of the dignity it deserves.”
Later that year, Dillon appeared in the teen drama, My Bodyguard.
Dillon played a school bully who terrorizes that kid from Meatballs (Chris Makepeace). Without Bill Murray’s camp counselor around to look out for him, Makepeace’s character resorts to hiring a bodyguard played by a young Adam Baldwin (who would later go on to play the gruff renegade, Jayne, on Firefly.)
Reviews were mostly positive and My Bodyguard was a modest hit at the box office.
Next: Tex and The Outsiders
Posted on August 18, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged beautiful girls, cameron diaz, crash, drugstore cowboy, entertainment, herbie, in & out, matt dillon, movies, my bodyguard, old dogs, pulp fiction, the outsiders, there's something about mary, to die for, wild things. Bookmark the permalink. 115 Comments.