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Hollywood Flashback: ‘The Bear’ Roared Into Theaters 35 Years Ago



Cocaine Bear, hitting theaters Feb. 24 from Universal, doesn’t mark Hollywood’s first fascination with bears, although it might be the only project about the animal’s rampage after ingesting a massive amount of the titular drug.

Taking a more naturalistic approach was 1988’s The Bear, which told the story of an adult bear befriending an orphaned cub as they flee human hunters. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who won the foreign-language Oscar for 1976’s Black and White in Coloradapted from James Oliver Curwood’s 1916 novel The Grizzly King for the film. Annaud considered 50 bears as the adult grizzly, eventually casting a 1,500-pound Kodiak named Bart the Bear, later seen in White Fang (1991), Legends of the Fall (1994) and The Edge (1997). Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot recalls the challenges of using real animals — the two bears could rarely be filmed together.

“The big one would have killed the small one,” he tells THR. “Bart was wonderfully well trained, but still unpredictable and dangerous at times.”

After a European run in 1988, TriStar released The Bear in North America on Oct. 27, 1989, with THR‘s review praising Bart for the “naked honesty to its emotions.” It connected with audiences, collecting $31 million domestically ($76 million today), and landed an Oscar nomination for best film editing. It also spurred an Oscar campaign for Bart, who eventually made an appearance at the 1998 ceremony with presenter Mike Myers. (Bart died in 2000 at age 23.)

During a Cocaine Bear event moderated by THR, director Elizabeth Banks explained that no bears were present on set; instead, performer Allan Henry played the bruin before being replaced with CGI. She added, “Cokey, as we affectionately called the bear, was conceived of after looking at tons of reference photos of black bears.”

For Rousselot, who earned a BAFTA nom for The Bear and lensed 2022 Idris Elba vehicle Beast with CGI lions, there is a clear difference between working with live animals and not. He says of Bart, “That animal stunk horribly — a very bad mouth hygiene that no one would have tolerated from an actor.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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