Posted by Susan Doll on November 5, 2012
I have been an ardent film-goer my entire life, but I think I reached a peak during the 1980s. At the time, I was finishing my doctorate at Northwestern while working as a book editor, and I looked forward to weekends when my friend Maryann and I went to the movies both Friday and Saturday nights. To say we were avid movie-goers doesn’t adequately describe it: We saw anything and everything.
Now that I teach film history, I have noticed that the decade of the 1980s does not always get a fair assessment in text books. Coming after the legendary Film School Generation, in which directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Malick, Lumet, Ashby, Friedkin, DePalma, and others explored and experimented with film form and content, the 1980s saw a return to more conventional filmmaking. The decade’s focus on genre movies, return to larger-than-life movie stars, flirtation with franchises, and dependence on blockbusters are generally painted as a precursor to the aesthetically bankrupt Hollywood of the millennium. Though the current industry systems and practices that have robbed Hollywood of its imagination and craftsmanship did begin in the 1980s, I find the decade to be richer and more diverse than generally acknowledged.
From Ghost to Ghostbusters, the hits and blockbusters of the 1980s are beloved by those who grew up on them, but my favorites tend to be forgotten flicks and small-scale genre works that will likely never get the “30th anniversary Blu-Ray release” treatment or fanfare. Yet, they represent a diversity and freshness missing from today’s Hollywood movies. Below is a list of those 1980s favorites that tend to linger in my memory . . . and I am thinking of writing my own text book.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981). This anti-musical starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters represents the stellar opposite of the optimism and faith in relationships found in traditional Hollywood musicals. Set in the Depression, the sordid storyline features Martin as sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker, who is a failure in his business and his marriage. He has a brief fling with Peters, who becomes pregnant. Instead of straightening out his life, Arthur fantasizes that everything will be alright, just like in a Hollywood musical. Pennies from Heaven is a critique of the escapist nature of Hollywood movies, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but I like its experimentation with genre. It’s worth viewing to watch Christopher Walken perform a mean song-and-dance to “Let’s Misbehave.”
EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (1983). A television reporter, played by a young Ellen Barkin, investigates the mysterious death of rocker Eddie Wilson, who tore up the club and college circuit in the mid-1960s with his band the Cruisers. Eddie disappeared along with the tapes of his innovative album, and the reporter interviews those left behind who wax nostalgic about the old days on the road. Tom Berenger costars as a less-than-convincing keyboard player, but it is still fun to see him in an early role. The film is a good example of the burgeoning power of the home-viewing market in mid-1980s. Eddie and the Cruisers was a critical and box office flop when it was released in the theaters, but the soundtrack album by the Springsteen-inspired Beaver Brown Band climbed the charts. When the film hit cable television and home video, it recouped money, prompting the studio to re-release the album. I had a major crush on star Michael Paré, who epitomizes the 1980s to me, because he appeared in several of the decade’s quirkier genre flicks. While visiting L.A.’s Burbank Studios back in the day, I watched the actor shoot an episode of Houston Knights; he was the most attractive man I have ever seen.
RUMBLEFISH (1983). In the early 1980s, Francis Coppola directed two films based on the novels of S.E. (Susie) Hinton. Hinton wrote about the impact of class differences on teenagers, though Coppola’s stylized interpretations of her books romanticized the teenagers and their milieu. Rumblefish centers on the relationship between Motorcycle Boy, played by Mickey Rourke, and his younger brother, Rusty, played by Matt Dillon. Motorcycle Boy tries to live down his past as a gang leader, while Rusty tries to emulate that persona. Coppola and Hinton wrote the screenplay for the film while the director was shooting his version of Hinton’s The Outsiders. The films were shot back to back in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and feature several of the same cast members, including Dillon and Diane Lane. Shot in black and white with a splash of color, Rumblefish is an avant-garde teen movie that alludes to the French New Wave and boasts a unique musical score by Stewart Copeland of The Police. No studio would finance such a film now, and the industry is lesser for it.
VALLEY GIRL (1983). In the early 1980s, Hollywood films and songs began to reference the female-dominated mall lifestyle of the San Fernando Valley. Residents of the Valley, the so-called Valley Girls, spoke Valspeak, a kind of slang that popularized such phrases as “like,” “whatever,” “as if,” and “totally” as qualifiers for expression and emphasis. While adopting a Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot structure, the film served as a gentle spoof of teenagers’ penchant for identifying themselves as part of a tribe or group. Deborah Foreman stars as the title character who falls for a punk rocker with spiked orange hair, played by a young Nicolas Cage. Because she is a Valley Girl and he is a punk, the romance is supposedly doomed, at least according to their friends. Even Foreman’s parents belong to an identifiable group—they are aging hippies who don’t understand their daughter’s lifestyle.
STREETS OF FIRE (1984). My favorite director of the decade, Walter Hill was a maker of myths. He offered morality plays wrapped up as genre-bending flicks. Streets of Fire is his rock ‘n’ roll fable in which Michael Paré infiltrates the territory of a gang of urban toughs and rescues a former girlfriend, played by Diane Lane. The film is a hybrid of the western, the action flick, and the rock ‘n’ roll musical—a fantasy filled with archetypal characters and familiar tropes. “Every film I’ve done has been a Western,” Hill has noted. “The Western is ultimately a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories.” Other films by Hill that are favorites include the contemporary western Extreme Prejudice, an interpretation of the Robert Johnson titled Crossroads (1986), and the gothic allegory Southern Comfort (1981). I would definitely trade Peter Jackson, Joss Whedon, and Zack Snyder for a comeback by Walter Hill any day of the week.
REAL GENUIS (1985). Martha Coolidge was another 1980s filmmaker whose work made an impression on me. Coolidge directed this unique teen comedy in addition to Valley Girl. While many 1980s movie-lovers embrace John Hughes’s teen-oriented films with his high-profile stable of actors, I preferred Coolidge’s quirky comedies with the likes of Deborah Foreman, Michelle Meyrink, Nicolas Cage, and Val Kilmer. Kilmer stars as the ringleader who defies authority and creates havoc at a school for teen geniuses. Adept at verbal humor and physical schtick, Kilmer proved he was quite good in comedies. Also see Top Secret.
THE MEAN SEASON (1985). Kurt Russell, the most underrated actor of his generation, stars as a reporter who gets too caught up in chasing his story. A serial killer stalks Miami, and Russell is the lead reporter assigned to the story until the killer contacts him, and then he becomes the story. Once the tables are turned, Russell realizes what it is like to be on the other side of the notepad or microphone. I liked the use of the Florida locations in this film, and the way weather is a metaphor for the pall cast over the characters during the killer’s reign of terror. One of several movies during the 1980s to criticize journalism, The Mean Season offers great performances, especially by Russell, Richard Jordan as the killer, and Joe Pantoliano as a staff photographer. A terrific character actor, Pantoliano has appeared in over 100 films, including Eddie and the Cruisers.
ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987). Criticized at the time of release for playing on people’s fears of the inner city, this comedy stars Elizabeth Shue as a responsible babysitter who is forced to drive to downtown Chicago from the cushy North Shore suburbs. With her young charges in tow, she experiences a number of encounters with a variety of urban archetypes—from mobsters to gang members to bluesmen. I liked Shue’s character, who is a resourceful , quick-thinking teenage girl and not an over-sexualized adolescent fantasy. Directed by Chris Columbus, a John Hughes protégé, the film serves as a snapshot of an authentic Chicago. Best scene: Shue belting out “The Babysitting Blues” at a club on the South Side.
JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989). One of my favorite actors, Mickey Rourke was leading-man material during the 1980s, and he did not always play it safe—or wise—when choosing film projects (9 ½ Weeks; Wild Orchid). Johnny Handsome, directed by Walter Hill, takes on an eerie connotation considering Rourke’s subsequent career path. The main character is a disfigured petty criminal who is set up by his accomplices during a crime. In prison, he allows himself to be the subject of an experiment in plastic surgery, which gives him a handsome new face. Upon release, he seeks revenge on those who wronged him. In retrospect, the film seems to be the reverse of Rourke’s real life, in which he destroyed his unusual but handsome face through a series of cosmetic surgeries aggravated by blows to his face during a misguided attempt at a boxing career.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989). A musical based on the life and times of rockabilly legend Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls of Fire is actually a celebration of the culture of rock ‘n’ roll. Director Jim McBride intended it as a fable about the richness of roots music and the ability of rock ‘n’ roll to unite a generation. At the heart is a romanticism of Lewis, the epitome of the individualist who won’t back down. Dennis Quaid offered an intentionally artificial performance as Lewis, which serviced the fairy-tale story. Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office and with the critics, who didn’t quite understand the purpose behind the film’s artificiality. I recall Roger Ebert criticizing Great Balls of Fire for not accurately portraying Lewis’s life, as though it were a standard biopic. You would think that Ebert might have caught on after the scene in which a group of high-school kids break into a choreographed dance as Jerry Lee drives up to the school. While the film is not for everyone’s taste, I admired its production design, music, and intent.
While I could easily add ten more films to the list, I would rather hear about your favorite quirky 1980s movies, preferably those that don’t get the love they should
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