How Chris O’Donnell Stole My Heart (and My Wallet) in 1995

In the Spring of 1995, a few important things happened. Michael Jordan came out of basketball retirement and rejoined the Chicago Bulls. The longest sausage ever made (over 28 miles) was created in Ontario, Canada! And Chris O’Donnell began storming the movie screens in a barrage of films from March through July that consumed my weekend matinee movie money. 

O’Donnell was a fairly known young actor before he dominated the mid-90s with bigger starring roles. He first caught the public’s eye in the intense prep school drama School Ties in 1992. He would get the best reviews of his then-short career, plus a Golden Globe nomination, for his next film, Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino. He even played the “cute” one in Disney’s Three Musketeers adaptation in 1993.

 But 1995…1995 was a banner year for Chris O’Donnell. 

In March, Circle of Friends released: a tale of friendship and romance adapted from Maeve Binchy’s bestselling novel of the same name. The movie co-starred a new actress named Minnie Driver and included a mostly British and Irish cast. To play the role of cad-ish Jack, O’Donnell adopted an Irish brogue and used his schoolboy (and former model) looks to woo the female characters in the film. The movie is about growing up and is fairly melancholy and very Irish but was pushed to teenage girls like myself because of O’Donnell’s charm and the studio’s belief that he could fill seats. The movie was promoted heavily in teen magazines of the era; pictorials with O’Donnell’s face peppered the inside of Seventeen and YM. I can’t quite recall exactly how I found out about the movie – I just knew that I desperately wanted to see it. 

I remember marking the premiere date of the movie on my wall calendar  (which is what young girls who have no social life use wall calendars for, to remind themselves of what movies and tv shows to see. Big events!) I convinced my group of best friends we had to see it and opening weekend,  there we were, babysitting money in hand. I wasn’t prepared for how sad the film would make me feel and I have vivid memories of leaving the theater on that grey Spring afternoon with tear-stained cheeks and a dull ache of emotion in the pit of my stomach. 

A mere month and a half later, O’Donnell was back in theaters; this time starring with 90s bad girl Drew Barrymore in the tortured grunge drama Mad Love. Again, this film felt marketed to teen girls just like myself with magazine covers and MTV advertisements. I yearned for the aesthetics of Drew Barrymore’s character Casey: a new girl to town who drove a beat-up yellow Bug and wore slouchy babydoll dresses with knee-high stockings and rocked the perfect shade of brown lipstick. Her love affair with O’Donnell’s clean-cut jock Matt is marred by her personal mental health struggles. The film may not handle that topic as sensitively as a better director would; and by today’s standards, it’s a bit problematic.  But the first half of the movie is a Seattle-set love fest to the time period. They sit on the pier staring at the stars, decked out in flannel. They thrash and headbang with abandon to 7 Year Bitch’s “The Scratch” in a sweaty nightclub. They take long drives outside the city to visit beautiful waterfalls, perfect for clinging to each other under. The movie swept me off my feet; a Pacific Northwest girl myself who yearned for an older sister to teach me to be cool. At the movie’s end, after the couple runs away on an emotionally grueling road trip, I was left with a similarly sad pit in my stomach; wanting the star-crossed lovers to make it but recognizing for maybe the first time that personal journeys are often better done alone. Unfortunately without Chris O’Donnell. 

By July of 1995, O’Donnell was a bona fide heartthrob for the teen set. This would cumulate with one of the biggest releases of the year: Joel Schumacher’s take on the caped crusader, Batman Forever. It was a splashy, neon, action-packed, advertised-to-death spectacle. And O’Donnell was right in the middle of it as one of the most famous sidekicks in comic history, Robin. Sporting a tight buzzcut and a lot more muscles, he was almost unrecognizable from his baby-faced good looks in Circle of Friends. He was now an action star. The movie was a success, although mocked in the press as a cheesy take on a dark and twisted film franchise. In recent years, the film has gone on to gain a cult following; grown-up tweens that saw it multiple times in the theater, now waxing nostalgic over the bombastic sets and over-the-top dialogue. Interestingly, O’Donnell’s Mad Love co-star Barrymore also had a small role in Batman Forever, re-uniting them briefly. 

Batman Forever was the film that my friends and I saw over and over again that summer. Someone’s mom would be the designated “drop off” parent and we would all congregate at our small mall theater; our tiny purses stuffed to the brim with $10 for movie and snacks, lip gloss, and Cinnaburst gum. There were other movies that permeated our teen culture that summer: Clueless, The Net, Waterworld. But somehow, Batman Forever seemed to be in theaters truly forever, and we came back to it over and over, knowing we were getting a complete popcorn movie. Something noncommittal to sit in the back row with, giggling and gossiping about the actors, our hand sticky with butter. 

I still can’t quite pinpoint how 1995 became *the* summer of O’Donnell. Why my newly teen self insisted on every single movie he released being an opening weekend experience. Looking back with fresh adult eyes, O’Donnell seems…a little vanilla. Suburban and cute and safe. And perhaps it’s as simple as that. As puberty hit full speed and the threat of high school loomed ahead, having a crush on a J. Crew model lookalike with a nice smile who seemed fairly harmless was just enough. But those movie memories will live with me always. Circling dates on my wall calendar and pining over my issues of Teen magazine; my summer with Chris O’Donnell. 

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