The Number One Movie in America: Private Parts
By Sean Collier
September 7, 2019
It’s not surprising that Private Parts, the fictionalized autobiography of shock-jock titan Howard Stern, went to the top spot at the box office.
As the script is solely dedicated to pointing out, Stern had been very, very popular for more than a decade prior to the movie’s release. He was calling himself the King of All Media long before Private Parts went to number one (and its companion soundtrack topped the Billboard charts) in early 1997. Couple a dedicated, nationwide following with a release date in the early-year doldrums, and sure, you’ve probably got a number-one movie in the making.
So, it’s not surprising. Until you look at the week-by-week chart.
The weekly winners, beginning Feb. 2, 1997: Star Wars; Star Wars; Star Wars; The Empire Strikes Back; The Empire Strikes Back; Private Parts; Return of the Jedi.
Howard Stern successfully interrupted Star Wars.
Now I’m surprised.
The modified versions of the original trilogy, albatrosses though they have become in the ensuing years, were a topic of considerable buzz and even greater marketing in late 1996 and early ’97. Star Wars was everywhere, with a huge push to attract a new generation of fans (which seems to have been quite successful) and the hopes of recapturing the attention of Boomer and Gen-X devotees who could now take their children to the theater to meet Leia and company.
It was a marketing bombardment that worked. The re-released trilogy made more than $250 million at the box office that year; A New Hope was the eighth-highest grossing film of 1997, 20 years after its original debut. Star Wars blanketed the multiplex and held a stranglehold on the top of the charts.
A stranglehold that only Howard Stern could break.
Private Parts doesn’t exactly hold up in 2019. The film traces the ascendance of the notorious DJ from his early years through his mid-’80s dominance of the New York market, with a special focus on Stern’s attempts to keep his marriage to then-wife Alison afloat. (Much of the film is about how their love endured Stern’s controversial reputation; it would only continue to do so for another two years, as the couple separated in 1999.) Director Betty Thomas does manage to tease some lovely moments out of the relationship; unfortunately, the story is not framed as an unlikely romance, but instead is presented as Stern bemoaning his lack of public respect.
At the time, he was worth hundreds of millions and was easily the most powerful man in radio. I’d argue that even in 1997, Howard Stern was sufficiently understood.
I’m sure that Private Parts, which did receive mostly positive reviews, landed better in its day. At this point, however, its attempts at shock feel tired — try keeping up with Deadpool, ’90s Howard — and much of what was then simply crass reads as purely discriminatory through a modern lens. I’m sure fans will enjoy going back to Private Parts, and there are some genuinely funny moments, but it’s nothing for casual viewers to bother with.
Apparently, that much was true back in ’97. Stern’s fans showed up in droves in the first few frames, but the film dipped down the charts in a hurry; the film’s domestic gross only totaled about $41 million, and Private Parts is not among the 50 highest earners of the year. While Stern himself is going strong, the film is more of a footnote than a triumph.
Still, though, that footnote includes tossing Luke Skywalker off his throne. Pretty impressive.
Private Parts is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!
For a few minutes, anyway.