As the latest round of would-be blockbusters packs ’em in at a theater near you, Popdose looks back at the box office totals of yesteryear. This week we revisit the top ten films of July 2, 1989! (No, that date isn’t missing an extra digit. But once you get to number one on the list below, you’ll understand my justification for blowing a deadline by three whole weeks.)
“As the Nineties draw near, high-technology films continue to entice the computer-age audience into theaters,” wrote Susan Sackett in the closing pages of The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits. “The number of films appearing with Roman numerals attached to their titles is growing, of course. But there is also a trend toward ‘people’ pictures, basic dramas and comedies with the types of stories audiences loved back in the Thirties and Forties. Video stores do a brisk rental business in cassettes of the earlier films; nostalgia seems to be at an all-time high … But whatever the Nineties and the years beyond bring, the real winners will be us — the movie audience.”
That’s funny, because when my eyes, ears, and brain are beaten to a pulp by movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Avengers, I don’t feel like a winner.
But that’s because I’m old now. I don’t fundamentally believe movies are any worse in 2012 than they were in 1989, but I was 13 then, and if Steven Spielberg wanted me to believe that Indiana Jones’s fedora never flew off his head when he was riding a horse, or Tim Burton wanted me to believe that Batman’s ears never got stuck in the sunroof of the Batmobile, I could dig it. Suspension of disbelief wasn’t a problem.
That’s no longer the case. Now when I see a movie like The Avengers, I can’t stop thinking, “Why do the good guys keep shooting at Thor’s evil brother when it’s been obvious for the past two-plus hours that bullets can’t hurt him? But if that’s true, how come an ass whupping from the Hulk can hurt him?” When you reach a certain age summer movies can feel like those poisoned cosmetics the Joker unleashes on an unsuspecting Gotham City in Burton’s Batman: they may fry your brain, but as long as you leave the theater with a smile on your face, Hollywood feels it’s gotten the job done.
And just like superhero movies that feature characters with inexplicable powers, no lengthy origin story will sufficiently explain why I CAN HEAR EVERYTHING EVERYBODY SITTING WITHIN A TEN-FOOT RADIUS OF ME IS SAYING in a movie theater. As Alexander Huls wrote in a “Riff” piece for The New York Times Magazine in May, “These are challenging times for cinephiles. The sanctity of our natural habitat — the movie theater — is disappearing amid the dynamite blasts of lighted phones while people text and tweet in the dark; the chain-saw buzz of disruptive conversation; and the slow erosion of common courtesy in communal spaces. As a committed moviegoer who once treasured the cathedral-like atmosphere of the movie house, I now find myself entering the auditorium anticipating a bad experience — sitting and nervously profiling every person who walks into the theater for their yet-to-be-committed misdemeanors.”
Any complaint of mine about a breach of the social contract sounds incredibly small, of course, in the wake of the July 20 shootings that left 12 dead and 58 wounded at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The alleged perpetrator, James Holmes, as the New York Times noted, turned a traditional destination for escape into a death trap. In a statement to the press Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan said, “The movie theater is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”
I will leave the editorials to other, better writers. My intention with this edition of Box Office Flashback, as before, is merely to inform and entertain. And on that note I now return you to our regularly scheduled program, already in progress …
I’m joined once again by Kurt Collins, who never fails to respond to my desperate pleas for Siskel-and-Ebert-ish banter in these posts, then waits around several months to see if I’ll actually combine his half of the banter with my own or come up with another lame excuse along the lines of “How can you expect me to write when Adam Sandler is bombing with That’s My Boy? Have you no shame?”
Kurt would now like to do his impression of a heavily script-doctored summer action movie by offering up some first-act exposition. “In the summer of ’89 I had just completed my freshman year at Providence College, but the sum of my pop-culture experience during my college years can basically be labeled as forgettable,” he says. “I mean, aren’t today’s college kids our touchstones for what’s hip and relevant? By the way, does writing hip make me hopelessly unhip? Anyway, for some reason I was out of touch with movies, TV, and a little bit of sports — and if my readers know me by now, they know I’m quite a reluctant sports enthusiast. There was just too much going on at the time; I think I drank at least five nights a week. As a graduate of an all-boys high school, it didn’t take long for me to weigh the options of (A) meeting some girls at a bar, or (B) catching the series finale of Family Ties. Well, let’s just say I chose A, which would be the first one I ever saw in college. Hiyooo!”
To sum up, Kurt is apologizing for having a life. And as I started to do research for this Box Office Flashback by going into my closet and pulling out magazines from the summer of ’89 that I still own, along with scrapbooks I made about movies that interested me during my teenage years, I was reminded that I didn’t have a life — and I sure as hell don’t have one now if I’m spending this much time thumbing through old issues of Premiere to locate Ralph Macchio’s thoughts on The Karate Kid Part III. For the record I skipped the last episode of Family Ties too, but only because the last episode of Moonlighting was on at the same time.
The summer of ’89 was dubbed “the summer of the sequels” by various critics and reporters. Indiana Jones, the Karate Kid, the Ghostbusters, and the Star Trek crew were all back (see below), having first met at summer camp in 1984, but there was plenty of room left over on theater marquees for Lethal Weapon 2 and Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton’s second (and final) outing as James Bond, plus the horror-genre retreads Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, not to mention The Return of the Musketeers and the so-unmentionable-it’s-mentionable Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! Disney also rereleased its 1953 animated film Peter Pan, an apt metaphor for Hollywood’s perennial refusal to grow up.
“Last year saw record grosses both for theatrical films and for videocassettes,” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote in May of ’89. “But movie budgets have increased as well, and even a gambling man turns cautious with $40 million on the table. Hence the moguls have relied on brand names and roman [sic] numerals.” They still do — Peter Bart reported in Variety two years ago that sequels and remakes constituted 40 percent of some studios’ release schedules — but $40 million is small change compared to the reported $250 million budget for The Dark Knight Rises. Other summer movies topping $200 million in costs include The Avengers, Men in Black 3, Battleship, and The Amazing Spider-Man.
“All these movies cost a little too much,” a studio executive told TheWrap.com’s Lucas Shaw and Brent Lang. “A $200 million budget has become the new $100 million. In some cases, $300 million is the new $200 million. But the movies are performing like they did in past summers, which was great when they actually cost $100 million but is not so hot anymore.” In May Los Angeles Times reporter Ben Fritz noted that the major studios sometimes spend as much as $100 million on a film’s special effects in order to have them completed by opening day, and that they occasionally outsource the work to foreign countries.
Remember when alien invasions were made exclusively in the USA? Breaks my heart.
“You now have to look at movies as a worldwide business,” Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Time‘s John Greenwald in 1990. “Where you get your revenues from has changed radically over the past several years.” Because of foreign TV deals and substantial box office growth in European and Japanese theaters, plus video rentals and sales in the U.S., worldwide revenues reached $11.6 billion in 1989, double what it was just five years earlier, according to Newsweek‘s Joshua Hammer and Andrew Murr. Today Hollywood movies make an estimated 70 percent of their income outside of North America, with China and Russia providing lucrative new markets that didn’t exist at the dawn of the ’90s.
Back then the average cost of production for a studio film was $23.5 million, Greenwald reported, “up 40% from 1985,” while “marketing expenses can equal the cost of producing a picture”: in ’84 it cost $6 million to “open” a movie, but by ’90 that figure had doubled. Global marketing expenses for The Dark Knight Rises are estimated to be ten times that amount, bringing its total cost to at least $400 million, or roughly the size of Tonga’s entire gross domestic product. The South Pacific island nation would probably rather see that figure rise than any shadowy figure with a cape.
Fox chairman Barry Diller warned Newsweek in 1990 of “an enormous loss of control over spending,” a problem that’s been exacerbated in recent years by the slow death of the home video market: studios and their corporate backers now have to earn the majority of their revenue in theaters both here and abroad, which is why 3-D and IMAX movies — and the higher-than-average ticket prices that come with them — remain the ideal. “In the current business climate you want to be as cost-efficient as possible,” Sony Pictures cochairman Amy Pascal told Ben Fritz, “but there’s no avoiding the fact that to produce a summer tent-pole on the scale necessary to succeed globally, you’ve got to spend to be competitive.”
“And in this sort of race,” as Indiana Jones’s dad would say, “there’s no silver medal for finishing second.” Studio executives who do finish second, however, will still receive a golden parachute.
10. Field of Dreams (distributor: Universal; release date: 4/21/89; final domestic gross: $64.4 million)
When asked in 2007 which of his three baseball-themed movies he likes the most, actor Kevin Costner bunted, telling the Tampa Bay Times that his favorite character to play was aging pitcher Billy Chapel in Sam Raimi’s For Love of the Game (1999). “But I think, generally speaking, most people rally around Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. There are kind of two different camps. Interestingly enough, no one argues with the other. It’s not like, ‘I hate that other movie!’ It’s a less-filling-tastes-great type of thing.”
Field of Dreams arrived in theaters less than a year after Bull Durham, and both are thought of as modern classics from writer-directors who obviously love the game and those who play it. Ron Shelton takes a comical but realistic approach with Bull Durham, which is based in part on his days as a minor league player in the late ’60s. (Three years ago Costner became part owner of the Lake County Fielders, a minor league team in Zion, Illinois.) Phil Alden Robinson, on the other hand, goes for magical realism in Field of Dreams, his adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe.
I haven’t seen the movie in at least 20 years, so for a closer look we turn to reluctant sports enthusiast Kurt, who says, “I’m a self-proclaimed baseball romantic, so when Hollywood targets my demographic, well, let’s just say I’m all in. I can recite the lines from this movie verbatim. When Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) tells Ray Kinsella (Costner) that fond memories of baseball will bring people to his cornfield, I still look off into the distance with a stare so deep and knowing that you wouldn’t understand even if I tried to explain it to you. (Note: I’m not telling you how to do your ‘job,’ Robert, but you could link to the ‘People will come, Ray’ speech here.)
“Baseball purists complain that even though ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson was a lefty in real life, Ray Liotta plays him as a righty. The correct response from nonpurists is usually ‘Does the fact that Shoeless Joe literally disappears into a cornfield after a day at the ballpark bother you nearly as much?’ But us seamheads don’t care about that. The lines are great, and I give Phil Alden Robinson credit for making such an unbelievable story come across so well on the screen. No, it’s not as timeless or emotional as his previous hit, Rhinestone, starring a charming Sly and a lovable Dolly, but damn it’s good.”
Kurt continues, “The one thing that sticks in my craw has to do with that speech Mann gives: Why would a black man point at baseball players from the white-only leagues of the 1920s and tell Kinsella that baseball ‘reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again’? Did he have a problem with the Negro leagues?” Premiere‘s immortal humor columnist, Libby Gelman-Waxner, asked the same thing in the magazine’s August ’89 issue. She also wondered how the voice Ray heard saying, “If you build it he will come,” led him to build a baseball diamond. “Why not a mall?” Libby asked. “Maybe if he built a casino, Donald Trump would come. Believe me, if he built a clean ladies’ room, everyone would show up.” Rumor has it that James Earl Jones did object to certain portions of Mann’s speech, but as soon as Phil Alden Robinson threatened him with a screening of Rhinestone, he quickly backed down.
Kidding, of course, and the fact of the matter is Robinson didn’t direct the much-maligned Stallone-Parton comedy. That would be Porky’s and A Christmas Story helmer Bob Clark. However, Robinson reportedly tried to have his name removed from the film after Stallone, a writer-director in his own right, did a complete overhaul of his script. Stallone had already performed this kind of major surgery on Beverly Hills Cop, rewriting it as a full-blown action movie before deciding to make Rhinestone instead. Win some, lose some …
Kurt would also like to point out that the made-up but also very much real field of dreams “still stands in Iowa, and many people continue to make pilgrimages there in search of inner peace and to remember loved ones. In fact a widower once went there, sat in center field, and met a man who was there to pay tribute to his late father. They talked, fell in love, and got married, and if that doesn’t prove the existence of Hollywood magic, I don’t know what I believe in anymore.”
Robinson has only directed two feature films since Field of Dreams, 1992’s Sneakers and 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, but he also directed the first episode of HBO’s acclaimed 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers as well as five documentaries for ABC’s Nightline about living conditions in Bosnia and Somalia. Costner, meanwhile, reteamed with Field of Dreams producers Lawrence and Charles Gordon for 1995’s Waterworld, a movie that may as well have been titled “Sea of Headaches”: it was blasted by the press for its bloated budget before anyone had actually seen the thing, making it the most unlikely $175 million underdog in film history. But with 16 Emmy nominations for their History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, which broke basic-cable ratings records in May, Costner and Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds have temporarily gotten the last laugh.
9. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Paramount; 6/9/89; $52.2 million)
Star Trek was a low-rated series on NBC in the late ’60s when its top-billed stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, had their lawyers draft contracts giving them “separate but equal” status. This meant that if Shatner got a salary bump, Nimoy got a salary bump. If Nimoy got script approval, Shatner got script approval. And if the TV series was resurrected a decade later as a successful movie franchise and Nimoy got to direct a couple sequels, guess what? (Newspaper ads for Star Trek V encouraged fans to call 1-900-990-TREK and, for just $2.50, “COMMAND THE STAR SHIP ENTERPRISE & RECEIVE A FREE GIFT.” As far as I know, the gift in question wasn’t an offer to direct Star Trek VI.)
After Nimoy’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) earned $76 million he was asked by Paramount to direct the next installment, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). It took in $109 million, a record for the series that remained unbroken until 2009, when J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars-influenced reboot more than doubled that take. Shatner’s sequel was the series’ first real dud at the box office, but I’ll give him credit for coming up with a story line in which religious fanatics hijack a large vessel in a convoluted attempt to meet God. Yeah, you heard me: T.J. Hooker predicted 9/11. Or you can look at the head fanatic, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), as an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, a fount of supposed wisdom (“I say the danger is an illusion”) who helps the crew of the USS Enterprise get in touch with their New Agey feelings.
“My only memory of any of the Star Trek movies I saw on HBO for five minutes and then turned the channel had Ricardo Montalban as some ruthless intergalactic menace talking to two helmeted prisoners,” says Kurt, live via satellite from Fuzzy Memory Lane. “He then had his henchmen put some insect into their helmets and torture them. It was kind of cool, but then I flipped back to Just One of the Guys on Showtime because it was funny, heartwarming, and had great, unexpected nudity at 4:15 in the afternoon. Sorry, Khan, you lose.” Not even Spock could argue with that logic.
Watching movies on TV used to be something of a paradox, like trying to squeeze a rectangle into a square, but in the New York Times Magazine article I mentioned up top, Alexander Huls wrote, “Given the round-the-clock accessibility of movies, the advent of oversize HDTV screens and the quality of high-end home-theater sound systems, it’s more and more tempting just to hunker down and erect a cinematic temple in your own home.” Sounds good to this curmudgeon’s ears, but in 1989 HDTV still sounded like something out of Star Trek.
“Will HDTV, with its ability to match the local Cineplex, keep the movie audience glued to the home viewing room to the exclusion of filmgoing?” wrote Steven Levy in Rolling Stone‘s June 15 issue. “Most experts don’t think so, citing previous Chicken Littles in Hollywood who hit the panic button when television arrived and then wrongly tolled doom when cable hit the scene. The social experience of going out to a communal screen has always prevailed. But while HDTV will not destroy the movie theaters, it will affect the movies. ‘It may well change the kinds of films made,’ says John Dykstra, who supervised the creation of special effects for Star Wars. ‘We’ll see an incredible increase in special effects, and films will more easily be able to portray fantasy.'”
Dykstra was right on the money, but what about the information age that was just around the corner? “The prognosticators envision that our mindless entertainment will be mixed with enriching data, covering our walls and our consciousness,” Levy wrote, indicating that flat-screen TVs, when not in use as such, would be able to project “a vivid facsimile of your favorite painting,” just as the middle-aged Marty McFly of 2015 demonstrated in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II.
“The line between computers and television will be as indeterminable as one of those 1000 scan lines on the screen itself. The latest movie and the monthly phone bill will arrive at your house via the same fiber-optic cable. It will be a future where kids no longer do homework while the TV drones, because the homework will be on the TV; where the local news rushes into our home with hi-def immediacy, infusing the usual fire-victim interviews with the impact of The Sorrow and the Pity; where we order our sports events like takeout Chinese food; where wall-size commercials and rock videos hold our senses hostage hour after hour, until we devote a corner of the screen to balancing our checkbook.”
Something huge is missing in all those predictions. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but my iPhone can’t connect to the Internet right now, so googling the answer won’t help. (Imagine reading that last sentence in 1989.)
Star Trek‘s original cast made one more sequel, 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, before handing over the series to the cast of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the new crew’s first adventure, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, Shatner’s Captain Kirk is killed by Malcolm McDowell’s villain. Is that only because Nimoy negotiated his own death scene for Spock at the end of Kurt’s favorite installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)? And since Spock was resurrected in Star Trek III, does that mean Kirk will be revived through the magic of space-time wormholes and contractual loopholes in J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek Babies” sequel next summer? Something tells me we still haven’t reached the final frontier.
8. Do the Right Thing (Universal; 6/30/89; $27.5 million)
“The impetus for me writing Do the Right Thing was two things: the Howard Beach incident and the fact that I wanted the heat of summer to be a character in the film,” Spike Lee told Greg Tate in Premiere‘s August ’89 issue, referring to the December 1986 assault of three African-American men by a dozen Italian-American teenagers in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. One of the men, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was killed by a car after being chased onto the Belt Parkway.
Lee added, “You know, a lot of people said that if the Howard Beach thing had happened in the summer, there would have definitely been riots,” and claimed that Paramount passed on Do the Right Thing because it was afraid the film’s emotionally charged climax would incite violence. Black teenager Yusef Hawkins was shot and killed by a mob of Italian-American teens in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood almost two months after Do the Right Thing premiered, but it wasn’t until three years later that riots broke out — in the spring and on the other side of the country, after three L.A. police officers were acquitted on charges of using excessive force against black motorist Rodney King following a high-speed chase.
“There are no heroes or villains in the film, but I have no love for cops,” Lee said. “I don’t jump up and down when they’re killed, but when you look at a case like Michael Stewart or Eleanor Bumpurs, you’re stupefied at how little worth there is to a black life when people can do something like that and just get slapped on the wrist, like nothing happened.” The fate of a major character in Do the Right Thing evokes Stewart’s death while in police custody in ’83.
Hawkins, Griffith, Bumpurs, and Stewart all died while Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, and Lee admitted to Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers that he hoped his third film, following the critically acclaimed She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988), would influence voters and help oust the three-term incumbent in the city’s mayoral race that November. But if you haven’t seen Do the Right Thing, please don’t assume from the preceding paragraphs that it’s one long political statement. Lee’s movies can be love-it-or-hate-it affairs, but with Do the Right Thing his burgeoning confidence as a filmmaker is unshakable: not only did he write, produce, and direct the movie, he also gives a commendable performance as Mookie, a young father with a dead-end pizza delivery job whose poker face conceals a deep-seated anger — toward whites, toward blacks, toward himself — that finally bursts free on the hottest day of the year. Do the Right Thing is unnerving but also furiously funny, sometimes all at once, as when characters of various races face the camera and cut loose with a string of epithets.
If you ask Kurt, time hasn’t been kind to high-top sneakers and fades. “I saw it again a couple of years ago and couldn’t believe how cheesy the late ’80s look even when you have a good story, good acting, and good directing. I almost expected Screech and Slater to walk in and buy a slice at Sal’s Famous,” he says. “But I’ll always give Do the Right Thing a nod because — and correct me if I’m wrong, as you always do — it gave a tremendous boost to independent filmmakers. You might even say it forced big Hollywood to invest in the little guy and thus do the right thing. Or you might not say it and keep your dignity intact.”
Will do! But Kurt is right. Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival and “recalls one of the seminal films of the indie movement,” according to the New York Times. That’s because Red Hook Summer, which opens in limited release in New York next month, has Lee reprising his role as Mookie. This summer Steven Soderbergh has struck gold with Magic Mike, a $7 million comedy that’s already earned its budget back 14 times over, but in 1989 he had just directed his first film, the independently financed Sex, Lies, and Videotape, winner of the Audience Award at that year’s Sundance festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film’s eventual box office success — $36.7 million worldwide on a $1.2 million budget — helped establish its distributor, Miramax Films, as a major player in the independent-film scene of the ’90s, a reputation it maintained long after it was bought by Disney in 1993.
Do the Right Thing, however, wasn’t independently financed. “I have the best of both worlds, because I’m an independent filmmaker but I don’t have to scrape around for money. I go directly to Hollywood for my financing,” Lee told Premiere. “It doesn’t really mess with my creativity, because I have the final cut and the control over the film that I would have had if I’d raised the money all by myself … The studios want to make as much money off you as possible, basically just pimp you. Yet it is possible to keep your agenda and make films, too.”
But the old gray studio system ain’t what it used to be. When interviewed by the New York Times in January, Lee explained that he didn’t try to set up Red Hook Summer at a studio because he wanted “complete freedom to make the movie I wanted to make,” while acknowledging that “the difficulty in the film business today dictated that I finance this film myself. The reality is that in this environment very few directors get to make movies that aren’t sequels, or 3-D or have Transformers flying through the air.”
Proving his point, Variety‘s Tatiana Siegel reported in 2010 that many veteran directors, with the exception of “tentpole” specialists like Transformers sadist Michael Bay, were being passed over by studios in favor of discount-price rookies, a scenario that calls to mind a period in the late ’60s and early ’70s when the industry’s faltering economy led to corporate takeovers (MCA bought Universal, Gulf + Western gobbled up Paramount, etc.) and allowed unproven talents like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to get their foot in the door. “It’s refreshing that studios are willing to take a chance on an unproven entity instead of hiring a journeyman,” one literary manager told Siegel, “but it ultimately is having the effect of eroding everyone’s quote.”
7. Great Balls of Fire! (Orion; 6/30/89; $13.7 million)
William Shatner, in his book Star Trek Movie Memories (cowritten by Chris Kreski), says televangelists were the original inspiration for the character of Sybok in Star Trek V. In the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! a young Alec Baldwin plays a young Jimmy Swaggart, one of the biggest televangelists of the ’80s, but no one in the film is as young as Myra Gale Brown, who married Lewis in 1958: at age 13 she became the 22-year-old singer’s third wife.
They also happened to be first cousins, once removed. Lewis’s grandfather had married his first cousin when she was 13, so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, but unlike “the Killer,” whose nickname was allegedly derived from a term of endearment he used with friends, dear ol’ granddad “used to murder people for sport,” according to Murray Silver Jr., coauthor, with Myra Lewis, of Great Balls of Fire! The True Story of Jerry Lee Lewis, upon which the 1989 film is based. “The law couldn’t touch him: he was a very powerful man in Louisiana, a doctor and a landowner,” he explained to writer Tom McDonough in Premiere. And as long as we’re on cousins — ’cause Jerry Lee and his granddaddy were certainly on theirs — Dennis Quaid’s third cousin is Gene Autry. I don’t think they ever got hitched, but maybe their Wikipedia pages just haven’t been updated yet.
Quaid plays the mythical piano slayer in Great Balls of Fire!, whose producer, Adam Fields, recounted in Premiere that when he first tried to pitch the story to a studio he was told no one would want to see a movie about a guy who weds his 13-year-old cousin. Fields brought up Coal Miner’s Daughter, the 1980 biopic about country singer Loretta Lynn, who got married at 13, although it was reported earlier this year that she was actually 15 at the time of her nuptials. “Everybody knows women are victims,” he was told.
Prior to Field of Dreams Phil Alden Robinson made his directorial debut with 1987’s In the Mood. Based on a true story that made headlines in 1944, it stars Patrick Dempsey as Sonny Wisecarver, a young man who marries the girl next door. The problem is, Sonny’s only 15, and the girl next door is a 21-year-old mother of two who’s already in a common-law marriage. After Sonny is sentenced to juvenile detention for his actions, he escapes and runs off with a 25-year-old woman.
“American culture has always had a double standard when it comes to sexual relations between adults and younger teenagers,” wrote Brian Koller in his review of In the Mood at FilmsGraded.com. “If the pairing involves a man and an underage girl, then the man is a child molester who deserves to spend a decade in prison. But if the couple is a woman and a minor teen male, then he becomes some kind of hero. Public interest in the woman involved is focused on how attractive she is.”
I don’t know if anyone would call William Flynn, the 15-year-old lover of New Hampshire schoolteacher Pamela Smart, a hero, since he did agree to kill her husband for her in 1990, but the resulting murder trial did inspire a terrific black comedy, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), and the sordid tale of Washington state middle school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her affair with a 13-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, in 1996 provides the basic setup of Adam Sandler’s latest broad comedy, That’s My Boy. Letourneau was convicted of second-degree rape and sentenced to seven years in prison, but after her release she married Fualaau; the couple have two children together and have hosted “Hot for Teacher” theme nights at a Seattle nightclub. I guess it’s a good thing they can joke about it now, but Koller has a point: if the roles were reversed and Letourneau was the former student, it’s hard to imagine a nightclub wanting anything to do with such an event.
That may be why the trailer for Great Balls of Fire! (see below), despite showcasing some of the film’s comedic elements, leaves out any mention of Myra’s age or her relation to Jerry Lee. Winona Ryder, who plays the junior high bride, is seen but not heard, making the trailer an all-time classic for cinephiles who hate children, but she looks considerably older than 13. Then again, isn’t that the sort of thing men say when they’re accused of statutory rape? “Officer, I swear, she told me she was in college …”
Ryder was 17 when she filmed Great Balls of Fire! “Right now she’s sitting behind [director] Jim McBride, her hands on his shoulders, watching dailies,” Phoebe Hoban reported in Premiere after visiting the set. “Dennis Quaid slips into the chair behind her, easing her onto his lap … Whether she can’t keep her hands off the guys or they can’t keep theirs off her, she and her director and costar remain in pretty constant physical contact whenever they’re in the same room.” Method acting on Quaid and Ryder’s part? Abuse of power on Quaid and McBride’s part? None of my damn business either way?
Probably, but Quaid’s behavior and his performance in Great Balls of Fire! may have been influenced by something else. McBride, who had previously directed the actor in The Big Easy (1987), told the Los Angeles Times that Quaid was a “giant pain in the ass” in rehearsals and on the set, showing up late and not knowing his lines. In Quaid’s defense he was playing Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the biggest, scariest egos in rock ‘n’ roll — after being shown a few minutes of raw footage from the film, “the Killer’s reaction ranged from incredible enthusiasm to threatening my life,” McBride told Rolling Stone — so maybe he was just immersing himself too much in his real-life character’s larger-than-life persona. Or maybe Quaid was indulging in the decade’s drug of choice.
“By the time I was doing The Big Easy, in the late 1980s, I was a mess,” he confessed to Newsweek last year. “I was getting an hour of sleep a night … I’d wake up, snort a line, and swear I wasn’t going to do it again that day … The lack of sleep made it so my focus wasn’t really there, which affected my acting … I had a band then, called the Eclectics. One night we played a show at the China Club in L.A., and the band broke up, just like in the movie The Commitments, because it all got too crazy. I had one of those white-light experiences that night where I kind of realized I was going to be dead in five years if I didn’t change my ways. The next day I was in rehab.”
According to Premiere‘s Jan Hoffman, Quaid lobbied to record his own vocals for the film, but lost the fight when “we got to the studio, and Jerry Lee bettered his own original ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ I look on it as coming to my senses,” he said. “Besides, these rock ‘n’ roll songs are all he’s got.” I’ll presume that was the coke talking, and Quaid had to have been humbled when Great Balls of Fire!, which received tons of prerelease hype — three stories in Premiere alone, including a Quaid cover story — went down in flames at the box office. He wouldn’t have a genuine solo hit of his own until The Rookie 13 years later.
McBride, meanwhile, focused on the small screen in the ’90s. He directed an episode of the Showtime anthology series Fallen Angels that starred Do the Right Thing‘s Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito, and in 2000 he returned to the rock ‘n’ roll biopic genre for VH1’s Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back. As for Ryder, an arrest for shoplifting in 2001 derailed her career for a spell, but in 2009 she had a fancy-meeting-you-here cameo in that Star Trek reboot, and in the past couple years she’s received strong notices for her performances in Black Swan and The Dilemma.
Hey, you know who else was in The Dilemma? Jennifer Connelly, who was in the first Hulk movie with Sam Elliott. Kurt has nothing to say about Great Balls of Fire!, but he does have something to say about Elliott in the Patrick Swayze fistfights-‘n’-philosophy romp Road House, which hovered outside the top ten the week of July 2, 1989. Make my awkward segue proud, Kurt!
“Has there ever been a movie less likely to enjoy such lasting basic-cable success?” he asks. “Other TV perennials are typically family-slash-holiday films, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, or The Wizard of Oz. This one’s slightly different, of course. Honestly, I just like listening to Sam Elliott talk. I grew fond of him at the same time Rocky Dennis did, and I always felt Cher didn’t treat him as well as he deserved—”
Snap out of it, Kurt!
Unfazed, ’cause that’s how Swayze would be, he adds, “I wrote that to annoy my younger readers, who probably haven’t seen Mask. And yes, I’m aware that’s not the first time I’ve used the phrase ‘my readers.’ It’s technically correct, and it gives me a great sense of pride, making my Sierra Nevada taste better.”
Goodness gracious …
6. Dead Poets Society (Touchstone; 6/2/89; $95.8 million)
“The goddam movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding,” says Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old protagonist and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Winona Ryder carried around two copies of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel while filming Great Balls of Fire!, Phoebe Hoban noted in Premiere, and there’s no denying that Hollywood can easily manipulate moviegoers with visions of heightened reality that ultimately can’t be duplicated in real life. When you’re watching Ben Stiller’s manhood get stuck in his zipper in There’s Something About Mary, that lack of duplication is reassuring, but when he walks off at the end of the movie with a radiant Cameron Diaz, well, you’re bound to be ruined.
Dead Poets Society will ruin you too, but in the best way possible. Director Peter Weir shot the film in sequence, which meant that “feelings on the set were running high by the time the moving denouement was played out,” wrote Nancy Griffin in Premiere‘s July ’89 issue. “You kind of get a clue that something is working when you see Teamsters crying,” said the film’s star, Robin Williams. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society, don’t watch the clip below. But if you have, and you’re like me, (1) I’m sorry, and (2) get ready to tell your coworkers that your eyes always sweat in the summer.
I didn’t cry when I was 13 and saw Dead Poets for the first time, but once I was 17 and the same age as the film’s boarding-school protagonists — and Holden Caulfield, for that matter — I was ruined. Still am, in fact, but happily so — it’s a perfect final scene, and Ethan Hawke deserves some kind of award for being the most heartbreakingly vulnerable actor of his generation. The final scene of Field of Dreams does it for some guys (admit it, Kurt), but for me it’s Dead Poets Society, Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), and the pilot episode of The Wonder Years (1988). How about you? Let it all out in the comments section below and Kurt will buy you a Sierra Nevada.
Referencing Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams’s previous hit, in Premiere‘s “Ultimate Summer Movie Preview,” Scott Immergut and Kim Masters wrote that “audiences expecting Good Morning, Students can forget it; this one ain’t funny. And in the summer, ain’t funny is not what people like.” They predicted that Dead Poets Society would finish the summer with a “modest showing at the box office, just squeaking into the season’s top twenty,” and Harrison Ford, the star of Weir’s Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986), joked to Nancy Griffin that the film would be tougher to market in the summer only if it were called “Dead Poets Society in Winter.” Instead, Dead Poets finished in seventh place, far outgrossing formulaic summer fare like Star Trek V, The Karate Kid Part III, Licence to Kill, and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Pink Cadillac, which several critics described as an Every Which Way But Loose sequel with Bernadette Peters in place of Clyde the orangutan (ouch).
But in order to meet the deadline for Premiere‘s June issue, Immergut and Masters had to make their prediction without actually having seen Dead Poets, a movie that does have its share of funny moments amid the vast expanses of sensitive drama, even if a montage of Williams’s kindhearted English teacher, John Keating, doing a John Wayne impression and making fun of highfalutin Shakespearean actors felt like a concession to nervous Disney executives. Still, it’s hard not to watch that montage and think, “Why couldn’t Mr. Keating have been my 12th-grade English teacher?” It turns out Dead Poets Society can still ruin you in a bad way.
Weir referred to his leading man’s character as “Robin Keating” during the shoot, Nancy Griffin explained, “to define what he wanted: the scripted character, shaded with an additional 15 percent of Williams’s own off-the-cuff dialogue.” Nine years later Weir directed Jim Carrey, another hyperactive comic looking for respect as a dramatic actor, in The Truman Show, which met with similar critical and commercial success.
Dead Poets Society, like Field of Dreams, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1989 Academy Awards, but both films lost to Driving Miss Daisy, an indication that Academy voters, the majority of whom are old white dudes, weren’t on the same wavelength as Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated in the top category. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but Lee lost to Tom Schulman for Dead Poets. (Schulman also beat out Woody Allen, nominated for Crimes and Misdemeanors; Nora Ephron, for When Harry Met Sally …; and Steven Soderbergh, for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. That’s some serious competition.) Weir and Williams were also nominated for their work on Dead Poets, but lost to Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July) and Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), respectively.
“By the way, this is a pretty strong top ten,” says Kurt. “Do you think our readers appreciate how lucky they are to be reading our opinions on these movies?”
No. No, I do not. But please continue.
“Great flick. I give Robin Williams credit. I find him so terribly unfunny doing stand-up, but as a serious actor — this, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting — let’s just say I like the cut of his jib. And yes, when the students stand up on their desks and proclaim, ‘O Captain! my Captain!’ well, by all means, Private Cass, permission granted to cry. First off, the great thing about period movies is that they’re guaranteed to stand up well over time. Seriously, who doesn’t love a cute girl in a turtleneck sweater drinking a milkshake? Dead Poets Society was supposed to launch the career of Robert Sean Leonard, who this guy partied with in high school, but instead it gave us Ethan Hawke.”
You take that back about Ethan Hawke or I’ll become as vulnerable as Ethan Hawke and start to well up as effectively as Ethan Hawke does at the end of Dead Poets Society! But more importantly, seeing as how I’m a star fucker, you partied with House‘s Robert Sean Leonard? Do tell!
“Well, when I say ‘partied with,’ I mean I was at a party in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and some girl — okay, a guy — pointed him out to me and told me, ‘He has a movie coming out with Robin Williams.'”
Oh. That’s disappointing. I thought you were going to say you did some of Dennis Quaid’s blow with the guy. And speaking of “a guy,” why’d you say he was “some girl”? Look, we all went to our fair share of sausage parties in college. But thanks to smartphones, Twitter, and Facebook, today’s average college male simply has to text, tweet, or post to find out how many girls are at a party before he bothers getting up from the couch. Isn’t that great news, Kurt?
“I also once played Pictionary with the blonde girl from Kate & Allie. Again, not telling you how to do your ‘job,’ but you should insert a photo link here.”
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount; 5/24/89; $197.1 million)
Just like Family Ties and Moonlighting, and Dynasty and Miami Vice, Kate & Allie ended a multiseason run on TV in May of ’89. That same month Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade appeared to wrap up a trio of adventure films that had begun eight years earlier with Raiders of the Lost Ark, but none of its key participants were quite willing to pull the plug. “I don’t think any of us have any intention of doing any more Indiana Jones films,” executive producer George Lucas told the New York Times‘s Richard B. Woodward. “Of course, if I should stumble on a really brilliant idea, I’m sure I could talk to Steven and Harrison. But three is a nice number.”
Some fans would argue that Lucas did stumble, just not on a brilliant idea, when he reunited with director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford for 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But those fans probably bitch that Santa’s belly doesn’t shake like a bowl full of jelly the way it once did. Personally, I don’t remember any signs posted at the theater with Lucas’s face on them guaranteeing, “Your childhood re-created in two hours or your money back!”
In May of ’77, just after Lucas’s Star Wars was released, Spielberg told his friend and fellow filmmaker that he’d always dreamed of making a James Bond movie. “But only with Sean Connery,” Lucas recalled in the New York Times. “He wouldn’t do it with anyone else. And I said I had a great idea for a James Bond film. ‘It’s not James Bond. It’s set in the 30’s and it’s about an archeologist [sic]. It’s a modern James Bond film. You’ll love it.'”
Tom Selleck was cast as the archaeologist, but he had just signed a contract with Universal for a new CBS series called Magnum, P.I., which was to begin production around the same time as Raiders. More importantly, a clause in the contract forbid Selleck from pursuing movie roles, so when a Hollywood actors’ strike in the summer of 1980 delayed the start of production on Magnum by several months, Selleck still couldn’t suit up as Indiana Jones in Raiders, whose shoot was unaffected by the strike because production was based out of Elstree Studios in London. The role of Jones was then offered to Harrison Ford, best known to audiences at that point as Han Solo in the Star Wars movies.
After Raiders opened in June of ’81 and quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time — not a total surprise, seeing as how its director and executive producer were the brains behind Jaws and Star Wars, respectively, the two films that created the basic template for the studios’ blockbuster mentality of the ’80s and beyond — a sequel was inevitable, but 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom angered parents who felt that its scenes of child slavery and anesthesia-free open-heart surgery were too intense to be covered by a mere PG rating. Thus, PG-13 was born — the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984) were also named as culprits — and plans for a third Indy adventure were temporarily put on hold.
“There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom,” he told Premiere‘s Nancy Griffin. (Lucas blamed the influence of a bitter divorce from Star Wars coeditor Marcia Lucas on his darker-than-expected story line.) A third film would have to be good enough to act as an apology for its predecessor, Spielberg believed; “I wanted to make a movie I could stand naked on top of.” Wasn’t he already rich enough to stand naked on top of anything he wanted, including his mountain of movie money, without fear of police interference? Last Crusade is definitely a sunnier picture than Temple of Doom, but it’s also a retreat to the core elements of Raiders: the Nazis are the bad guys once again, Indy is searching for a biblical artifact once again (the Holy Grail this time around) as he hops from continent to continent once again (Temple of Doom was landlocked in Asia), and he’s joined once again by his colleagues Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).
Six years ago I saw Raiders, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade on the big screen at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, which was celebrating the first film’s 25th anniversary. It was the first time I’d seen the sequels in a long time, and though I remembered liking Last Crusade more than Temple of Doom as a child, my opinion flip-flopped somewhat after the Music Box screenings. Temple of Doom could do without Kate Capshaw as the shrill love interest and Ke Huy Quan as Indy’s Muppet-y sidekick, Short Round, but its nightmarish tone and unrelenting, punishing action, especially in the final half hour, are impressive, as if Spielberg was working out some bitterness of his own behind the camera. Temple of Doom is like having your parents promise to take you to Disneyland, then driving the car off a cliff instead, and as you plunge toward the ocean your dad looks in the rearview mirror and says, “You’ll appreciate the humor when you’re older.”
Last Crusade is still a fun ride, but I remember the sets being weirdly overlit and sitcom fake at times, as if Spielberg hoped he could banish Temple of Doom‘s hellish underground mines and lava pits from moviegoers’ memories by eliminating all shadows. And after a slam-bang opening sequence featuring River Phoenix as a teenage Indy — he does a mischievous impression of Harrison Ford, having played his son three years earlier in Peter Weir’s underrated The Mosquito Coast — the movie glides by almost solely on Ford’s charm for a full half hour until Sean Connery shows up. (The Scottish actor reportedly turned down the role of Sybok in Star Trek V because he was already committed to Paramount’s other big summer movie.) That’s when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ceases to be a Raiders rerun and turns into a nifty character comedy surrounded by stunts and special effects.
Connery plays Indy’s father, Professor Henry Jones, a stuffed-shirt scholar who still condescends to his son — “I loved the idea of this character back-seat driving throughout the film,” Spielberg told the New York Times — but nevertheless gets a kick out of his archaeological escapades. With Last Crusade Spielberg finally got his chance to direct James Bond, sort of, albeit with Connery playing against type to winning effect. Last year a similar method was used for the casting of Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens, a Spielberg coproduction: Harrison Ford played the elder-statesman authority figure to Daniel Craig’s amnesiac outlaw. In other words, Indiana Jones and James Bond (the 21st-century model, anyway) were together again. The effect, unfortunately, was not as winning.
“Steven Spielberg and the Apology for the Last One is very entertaining,” says Kurt. “Might be better than the first one.” Blasphemy! “Connery is simply adorable as the father whose random knowledge — he quotes Charlemagne after using an umbrella to down a Nazi plane — saves them time and again. And kudos to Spielberg for bringing those irascible Nazis back for a reprisal as Indy’s enemies! You will not find a more despised group of people in the history of mankind! How great is that!”
Sounds like Kurt was doing “research” for his role in a Dennis Quaid biopic when he wrote that overstimulated capsule review, and besides, Lucas was the one who decided to bring back the Nazis, right? I mean, that’s why he has a “story by” credit on every Indiana Jones movie, right? Because of all those brilliant ideas he comes up with?
“George Lucas gave me nothing,” said Jeffrey Boam, the credited screenwriter of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in the May ’89 issue of Starlog, describing a meeting he had with Lucas in 1987. “I was given a laundry list of elements. We would meet Indy’s father, Sallah and Brody would return, there would be a female character to cross swords with Indy and there would be an adventure. George told me what he wanted in the story and then said, ‘Give me a story.'”
Absolute power must be nice.
Boam told Starlog‘s Marc Shapiro he was the third writer to tackle Last Crusade, following Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies) and Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple), the latter of whom received a story credit alongside Lucas for introducing Indy’s father and the film’s “McGuffin,” the Holy Grail. Boam says Lucas himself came up with the opening sequence, and in 1992 the American Graffiti auteur expanded upon that premise in a one-hour series for ABC, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Shapiro reported that Boam was then working on an adaptation of the comic book Archie, to be directed by Joel Schumacher, who’d previously collaborated with the screenwriter on 1987’s The Lost Boys. Corey Haim, one of the stars of that teen vampire flick, was attached to play the title character. I assume Boam didn’t compare notes with Great Balls of Fire! director Jim McBride, who in 1974 wrote and directed Hot Times, a.k.a. A Hard Day for Archie, a teen comedy about the gang from Riverdale High and their raging hormones, hence the film’s tag line, “American Graffiti … but with sex.” Boam and Schumacher’s Archie movie was never made, but before he died in 2000 from a rare lung disease, Boam wrote another comic book adaptation, The Phantom, which made its way to theaters in the summer of ’96.
Steven Spielberg was at first reluctant to take on Last Crusade, having spent a fair amount of time working on a rewrite of Rain Man with screenwriter Ronald Bass, but the thought of dishonoring a handshake deal with Lucas to direct three Indy movies back in 1977 brought him to his senses. “I couldn’t go to my best friend and say, ‘I know I’m a whore, but I found something I like better — hire [The Road Warrior director] George Miller,'” he told Premiere‘s Nancy Griffin. Barry Levinson inherited Rain Man from Spielberg, and in March of ’89 won the Oscar for Best Director. At that point Spielberg must’ve felt a bit like Indiana Jones, who risks life and limb to retrieve a golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark only to have a rival archaeologist snatch it out of his hands.
As he listened to John Williams’s freshly recorded score for Last Crusade, Spielberg proclaimed to Griffin, “This is my commencement music.” The third Indy movie was to be “his parting shot to his popcorn days,” she wrote. “When he walks out the door of his scoring studio this evening, Spielberg officially resigns as filmdom’s Dr. Feelgood, sorcerer of spellbinding fables for children of all ages.” He told Griffin he didn’t identify with a certain J.M. Barrie creation anymore. “Peter Pan didn’t have courage,” Spielberg said. “I’m trying to grow up.”
He added, “Of course, I have the right to change my mind five years from now.” Two years later Spielberg was hard at work on Hook, a fable about a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams) who flips the bird at Thomas Wolfe by literally and figuratively going home again. Spielberg appeared to be having a crisis of confidence.
“Would I be able to throw myself into something that is not easily recognizable as a Spielberg film?” he said to Griffin. “Could I have made Raging Bull the way [Martin Scorsese] made Raging Bull? Probably not. But would I attempt to make Raging Bull? Two years ago, I would have said no. Today I would say, ‘Yes, I would.’ That’s the difference.” And so, after playing it safe with Hook and 1993’s Jurassic Park, Spielberg directed the black-and-white Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, for which he won his first golden idol for Best Director in ’94.
Kurt would like to ask a question: “When the hell is Spike Lee’s Jackie Robinson biopic coming out?” It’s not. Lee was hoping to direct Denzel Washington as the legendary Brooklyn Dodger as far back as 1994, but at the Television Critics Association press tour in ’08 he said the film’s financing had fallen through years earlier. “Too many meetings, too many false starts, too many stuck projects,” he told the New York Times in January, explaining why he skipped the studio system and financed Red Hook Summer himself. I assume his Robinson biopic was one of those projects, but the story of the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball will finally arrive in movie theaters next April: 42 stars relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who signed the eventual Hall of Famer. If only Spike had heeded the voice that told him, “If you attract the interest of an aging white movie star with international name recognition, the investors will come …”
Last month filming on 42 took place in my hometown, Macon, Georgia, and judging by one article on the local newspaper’s website, Ford’s privacy was thoroughly invaded at area restaurants. Not by his fellow diners, however — the reporter is the one who shook down various waiters for a list of everything Ford ate and drank while he was in town. I’m almost surprised no one followed him into the men’s room to make sure his meals agreed with him. Confirming that the forest wasn’t being seen for the trees, when I passed along the article to a friend from Macon he wrote back and said, “How come it never mentions the name of the movie?”
Exactly. But then, who am I to talk about obsessing over minute details?
4. Ghostbusters II (Columbia; 6/16/89; $112.4 million)
Hey, Kurt, I have a question for you. In Joe Dante’s Innerspace (1987), cowritten by Jeffrey Boam and coproduced by Steven Spielberg, Dennis Quaid plays a test pilot who’s miniaturized and accidentally injected into the bloodstream of Martin Short, who thinks he’s losing his mind when Quaid starts controlling his body. Am I crazy, or is Innerspace an allegory in which Quaid represents cocaine and Short represents Quaid’s reaction to the drug? I await your reply.
Innerspace is an entertaining science-fiction comedy, but it wasn’t a hit. Ghostbusters, on the other hand, was a massively successful science-fiction comedy, grossing $229 million in 1984. It took five years for a sequel to arrive, but just like the version of Innerspace that’s now showing in my head, Ghostbusters II is loaded with subtext, according to director Ivan Reitman. “In the first movie, I thought we were saying some pretty interesting satirical things about modern society, about life in the late 20th century. We really pick up on that much stronger in this one. It’s the theme of the picture: How people act has a physical effect on the environment,” he told Premiere‘s Kim Masters. “People talk about karma and how it comes around. I very much believe in that.”
Sorry, Spike Lee, but it’s clear to me now that Ghostbusters II is the real reason why Ed Koch was defeated by David Dinkins in the 1989 New York City mayoral race. Cinematic depictions of racial tension don’t get the message across the way a river of supernatural pink slime created by racial tension does. And if you’re one of those people who thinks the popularity of The Cosby Show in the ’80s made white America comfortable with the idea of a black president somewhere down the road, you might buy the notion that the first black Ghostbuster influenced voters to choose Dinkins as the Big Apple’s first black mayor.
“I knew from the first Ghostbusters that Ernie Hudson unequivocally ain’t afraid of no ghost, and America loved him for it,” says Kurt. “But when he said no to Ghostbusters II so he could make The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, it was like replacing Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. You just don’t do it. And that’s why Ghostbusters II did so poorly at the box office.” After a lengthy pause spent acknowledging but ultimately ignoring the existence of IMDb, Kurt added, “Okay, maybe Hudson was in the movie. Never saw it.”
Indeed he was, and with more screen time than he had in 1984’s Ghostbusters, but Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore, the fourth and final member to join the team, was always treated like the fifth wheel in this series. That wouldn’t have been the case if Eddie Murphy had played Winston — Dan Aykroyd offered the role to him after they did 1983’s Trading Places, but Murphy had already committed to playing Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop — since the biggest comedy star of the ’80s has never been anyone’s idea of a fifth wheel. Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote Ghostbusters and were kind enough, along with Hudson, to play the straight men to Bill Murray in their scenes together, but it’s hard to see a 22-year-old Murphy doing the same; audiences wouldn’t have wanted to see him neutered that early in his career anyway.
Kurt is right about one thing: Ghostbusters II wasn’t a slam dunk at the box office. Premiere predicted it would be the highest-grossing movie of the summer, but after a record-setting $29.4 million opening weekend it ended up grossing only half of what its predecessor had earned five years earlier. That wasn’t great news for Columbia Pictures since Reitman, Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and costar Sigourney Weaver “gave up their up-front fees for a cut of the gross so huge that their combined profits will exceed the studio’s,” according to Premiere‘s Scott Immergut and Kim Masters.
But Columbia’s most successful film of 1988 was the Tom Hanks-Sally Field dramedy Punchline, which made $8 million less in its entire theatrical run than Ghostbusters II made in its first three days. The studio lost an estimated $20 million on its big summer sequel after all the profit points were paid out, but at the same time it “demonstrated to exhibitors that it can deliver product they will make money on, even if the studio doesn’t,” wrote David Ansen in Newsweek. “Only in image-conscious Hollywood is the bottom line not the bottom line.”
Rumors of a third Ghostbusters movie have circulated since the mid-’90s, when Chris Rock, Chris Farley, and Ben Stiller’s names were floated as possible next-generation ‘busters. Five years ago, after The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up made director Judd Apatow and his informal acting troupe the new kings of big-screen comedy, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill became potential Junior Ghostbusters candidates. “Ghostbusters III” would reportedly involve Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson busting a few more ghosts before handing their proton packs to a younger team, creating an extension of the existing franchise like Paramount did with Star Trek in the ’90s. The major stumbling block is that Murray, the series’ biggest star, won’t sign off on the script, which means Sony, the owner of Columbia Pictures since shortly after the last Ghostbusters movie opened 23 years ago, won’t sign off on the movie.
At the risk of offending any Ghostbusters fanatics out there, didn’t Men in Black steal this franchise’s thunder 15 years ago? Sony owns that sci-fi comedy tentpole as well, and similar to Ghostbusters II, the second Men in Black movie arrived five years after the first one. The difference is that Men in Black II is a rancid sequel, bad enough to make me wonder if I’d misjudged the terrific first film, whereas Ghostbusters II is funny and light on its feet — Peter MacNicol steals all of his scenes as an art restoration expert with an impenetrable accent — but fundamentally feels like more of the same. It certainly deserved a warmer reception from audiences than the second helping of Men in Black, a franchise that went dormant for a decade before returning this summer in 3-D. Columbia says it’s planning a fourth installment, but if it takes the studio as long to deliver on its promise as it’s taking the Ghostbusters to reunite, Tommy Lee Jones will be shooting his scenes from a Beverly Hills retirement home.
Another thing that isn’t helping the GBs’ cause is The Watch, a Ghostbusters/Men in Black mash-up from Twentieth Century Fox that opens Friday. Maybe the Apatow gang got impatient waiting for “Ghostbusters III” to happen, because in this $68 million sci-fi comedy, cowritten by Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Ben Stiller costar with Vince Vaughn as members of a neighborhood watch who are forced to change their movie’s name to something less specific after a shooting in Florida gains national attention and leads to a racially charged murder case— I mean, they’re forced to save the world after they discover aliens in their suburb. (Is The Watch set in Arizona? Boy, Fox News is gonna love promoting this one for its sister company.) The fourth watcher is played by Richard Ayoade, a British actor of Nigerian descent, making him the Ernie Hudson of the group. If The Watch does well, it’s a safe bet that a sequel won’t be far behind.
In the summer of ’84 Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song for Ghostbusters sat — well, more like levitated — at number one on the Billboard Top 40 for three weeks. Huey Lewis & the News sued Parker, claiming he’d ripped off a hit song of theirs from earlier in the year, “I Want a New Drug,” at which point Dennis Quaid showed up out of nowhere, acting totally casual, like he was Huey Lewis’s best friend or something all of a sudden. Ghostbusters II offered an updated version of Parker’s song by rappers Run-D.M.C., but the soundtrack album’s big hit was Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own,” written by Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Daryl Simmons, who together had penned the title track of Brown’s multiplatinum 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel. Showing Parker how it’s done, Babyface and Reid recycled their own melody from “On Our Own” when they wrote and produced After 7’s 1989 single “Heat of the Moment.”
“Some of these hit singles spawned from movies seem pretty easy to write since they’re associated with various ‘themes’ in the movies,” says Kurt, talkin’ the talk. “For instance, Top Gun had ‘Take My Breathe Away’ by Berlin and ‘Danger Zone’ by the king of ’80s soundtrack songs, Kenny Loggins. Or take ‘Don’t You Forget About Me,’ from The Breakfast Club: It holds up pretty well, but what if John Hughes had approached Simple Minds and said, ‘I want you to write me a song called “The Breakfast Club”‘? Wouldn’t that have seemed daunting as a songwriter? ‘We met one morning on a Saturday / We dressed like every high school cliche / Claire had sushi, Andrew had a sub / We called ourselves the Breakfast Club.’ Okay, maybe it wouldn’t have been that daunting after all.”
Kurt, now walkin’ the walk, added, “Anyway, I was always amazed when a song like ‘Weird Science’ or ‘Romancing the Stone’ or ‘Ghostbusters’ became popular. Would Ray Parker Jr. have achieved the same amount of success if Ghostbusters had never been made and he’d released a song with that title? No. But shouldn’t we give him some credit for writing a catchy song that centers on the busting of ghosts? Isn’t that much harder than just writing a song about being scared in New York City?
“I became curious about this topic, so I did a bit of research. (Julie in HR said you’d make it up to me on my next paycheck.) Very disappointing. Most movies that feature a title song are the reverse-engineered kind: ’60s hits matched up with ’80s and ’90s films like Stand by Me, Blue Velvet, Pretty Woman, My Girl, and One Fine Day. I was hoping to find little-known, embarrassing gems like ‘The Great Outdoors’ by Wang Chung or ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Squeeze, but Wikipedia refused to cooperate. And say what you will, but I know Mr. Loggins could’ve made us dance — legally, of course, with Reverend Lithgow’s blessing — had he explored what it means to have a Vision Quest.”
First off, I’m going to have to pay a visit to Popdose’s HR department and talk to Julie, who had no right to promise Kurt more money, seeing as how I made her up. See what happens when we allow imaginary women into the workplace? Second off, did you know Gene Autry was once married to his cousin Dennis Quaid? Thanks for cooperating, Wikipedia!
3. The Karate Kid Part III (Columbia; 6/30/89; $38.9 million)
If a third Ghostbusters movie had come out in, say, 1993, you can bet the sum of Kurt’s Popdose earnings that the cast and Ivan Reitman would’ve sheepishly apologized for Ghostbusters II. It’s almost standard practice when a first sequel fails to live up to the expectations of audiences, critics, and/or corporate shareholders. Even if a first sequel does spectacularly well at the box office but leaves a bad aftertaste, as was the case with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a director may feel the need to apologize to fans and promise to return them to the comfort zone established by the original film’s narrative blueprint.
This A-B-A rhythm can sometimes be intentional in planned trilogies: After The Empire Strikes Back, the downbeat first sequel in the Star Wars series, George Lucas ended on an unambiguously happy high note with Return of the Jedi (Star Wars and Empire producer Gary Kurtz says that wasn’t the original plan). And after slingshotting Marty McFly to 2015, an “alternate” 1985, and back to the 1955 setting of his first adventure in Back to the Future Part II, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had their protagonist stay put in 1885 for the majority of Part III.
But in recent times the unofficial trilogy of Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels inverted the Indiana Jones formula by staying in one place for the first film — Las Vegas — then jetting to various locales in Europe for Ocean’s Twelve before returning to the original scene of the crime in Ocean’s Thirteen. Inverting the formula, however, somehow inverted the grosses for the Steven Soderbergh-directed series: Thirteen earned less than Twelve, which earned less than Eleven.
Next summer The Hangover Part III will complete another unofficial trilogy by reportedly taking Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis to Tijuana, but filming will also take place in Vegas, the setting of the first film. Last year’s Part II changed the setting to Thailand and made even more money worldwide than the original Hangover, but critics weren’t amused, and many fans felt they’d been tricked into seeing a remake instead of a sequel. Part III isn’t expected to repeat the exact same story beats a third time, but I have a feeling that in press-junket interviews next year, director Todd Phillips and his cast will be offering an array of mea culpas for their most recent Hangover. (Coincidentally, Kurt had to do the same thing last Sunday morning, but his wife and daughters were a lot less forgiving than I imagine Entertainment Tonight would be.)
During the summer of ’86 I don’t remember anyone complaining about The Karate Kid Part II taking place in Japan instead of the San Fernando Valley, where the original was set, but I also wasn’t a close, personal friend of series star Ralph Macchio. (For what it’s worth, I’m still not.) In 1989, promoting the third part of the unofficial trilogy, he told Premiere, “I wasn’t personally that happy with the second film, even though it did very well, and that’s why we’re all back. I just felt it lost the heart the first one had, and in this one, we get that back.” Never saw it, so I can’t corroborate Mr. Macchio’s statement as to the whereabouts of said heart, but I can confirm that Part II did very well for Columbia Pictures, grossing $25 million more than the 1984 original, whereas Part III earned less than 35 percent of its predecessor’s box office take. (William Zabka, where were you when the franchise needed you most?)
Maybe audiences would have been more welcoming if the series had been retitled “The Karate Manchild”: although Macchio’s character, Daniel LaRusso, was still just 18 years old in the third film, Macchio himself was 27 during filming. Good thing Back to the Future wasn’t named “The Time Travel Kid”: for the sequels Michael J. Fox was still playing 18-year-old Marty McFly, but he too was 27 when he began filming Part II in ’89, and was 28 by the time Part III wrapped the following year.
John G. Avildsen won the 1976 Oscar for Best Director for Rocky, and he reprised the Best Picture winner’s underdog formula in all three Karate Kid movies, a strategy that was met with diminishing returns at the box office starting with Part III and continuing with 1990’s Rocky V, the 1992 South African boxing drama The Power of One, and 1994’s 8 Seconds, a rodeo picture. Avildsen also directed a movie called The Formula in 1980, but if you’re expecting a montage of star Marlon Brando trying to lose 150 pounds for a heavyweight bout, you’re out of luck: the formula in question is one that can convert coal into oil, making whoever has it a target.
The Karate Kid movies were produced by Jerry Weintraub, who had started his own ministudio, Weintraub Entertainment Group, in 1987 to finance a slate of films (Columbia handled the distribution). The first batch, released between November of ’88 and May of ’89, included Fresh Horses, starring the no-longer-pretty-in-pink Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy; My Stepmother Is an Alien, with Dan Aykroyd and Kim Basinger; Troop Beverly Hills, headlined by a post-Cheers Shelley Long; and She’s Out of Control and Listen to Me, which gave Tony Danza and Kirk Cameron, respectively, time off from their ABC sitcoms. None were successful, so there was no second batch, and after The Karate Kid Part III‘s opening weekend that June, Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi weren’t the only ones having a cruel summer.
Weintraub didn’t bounce back with The Next Karate Kid (1994), starring Hilary Swank before she was two-time Best Actress winner Hilary Swank as the new protegée of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), but if this sequel gave the makers of The Bourne Legacy any ideas, then good for you, Mr. Weintraub. In 2001 he produced Steven Soderbergh’s successful remake of Ocean’s Eleven, which led to the aforementioned sequels, and in 2010, along with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, he produced a reboot of The Karate Kid starring the Smiths’ son, Jaden, and Jackie Chan. Set in Beijing, it contains no karate since that’s a Japanese martial art, but why mess with a proven title? The Karate Kid, retitled The Kung Fu Dream for Chinese audiences, grossed $359 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.
2. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Walt Disney; 6/23/89; $130.7 million)
If you add up the grosses, Rick Moranis was the top star of the summer of ’89 thanks to his roles in Ghostbusters II, Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and the Ron Howard dramedy Parenthood, which opened in August. (In case “his readers” are looking for gift ideas, Kurt loves Parenthood the TV series. The new one with Peter Krause, that is, not the old one with Ed Begley Jr.) A youngish Samuel L. Jackson, then appearing in Do the Right Thing as radio deejay Mister Señor Love Daddy, looked on in awe from the sidelines. “Don’t worry, kid,” Moranis told him. “One day you’ll get there. Just keep taking supporting roles in big-budget franchise films with lots of special effects.” The Toronto native then tossed Jackson his sweat-stained Ghostbusters beach towel, a memory the actor will always cherish.
Moranis also appeared in the video for Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own,” a number one hit on the Billboard R&B chart that summer. The little guy was unstoppable! And to think that his roles in Ghostbusters and Honey were both originally offered to his SCTV alumnus John Candy. Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman has a cowriting credit on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which in any other season would’ve made him the top scribe on the bean counters’ balance sheets, but in the summer of ’89 that honor belonged to Jeffrey Boam, whose resumé included the $147 million hit Lethal Weapon 2 in addition to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
According to Premiere magazine, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon had to drop out of helming Honey three weeks before the start of principal photography, reportedly because of health problems. He received a story credit on the film, and was still supposed to have a directorial effort in theaters that summer, but Robot Jox, an ancestor of the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, didn’t see the domestic-distribution light of day until November 1990. Gordon was replaced with Joe Johnston, who made his directorial debut with the sci-fi family comedy, having previously won an Oscar for Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s special effects in 1982.
Johnston paid attention while paying his dues on movies like Raiders and the original Star Wars trilogy: Like Lucas and Spielberg, he never lets the special effects in his movies, which include 1991’s The Rocketeer, 2001’s Jurassic Park III (another example of a second sequel in an unofficial trilogy that brings back elements from the first film, though I may be alone in preferring it to Spielberg’s first sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), and 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, overwhelm the story or characters. Computer-generated spectacle is a means to an end for Johnston, not an end in itself.
But if you ask the current corporate owners of the six major studios — Disney, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Columbia, and Warner Bros. — the movies themselves are a means to an end. They’re meant to generate sequels, of course, but also merchandise like toys and video games. Two years ago Variety reported that Disney, the home of Mickey Mouse and his Pixar pals, made $27 billion from sales of licensed products in 2009, the same year it acquired Marvel Entertainment, which leaves no doubt that Disney will increase that already hefty sum in the years ahead with sales of Spider-Man, Avengers, and X-Men merchandise.
(Marvel has been the king of comic book-derived big-screen entertainment since the turn of this century — 26 movies based on its pen-and-ink properties have been released, compared to 8 for its main publishing rival, DC, including Christopher Nolan’s trio of Batman flicks — but in 1989 heroes like Thor and Daredevil were confined to Bill Bixby’s Incredible Hulk “reunion” movies on the small screen, while Captain America and the Fantastic Four were being prepped for exploitation in low-budget features. The best Marvel could offer moviegoers that year was Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher, which New World Pictures planned to release in August before money woes forced it to shelve the film in the U.S. The Punisher didn’t make its debut here until it went straight to video two years later, a distribution fate that also befell 1990’s Captain America, starring J.D. Salinger’s son, Matt, as the titular superhero.)
Complicating matters is the fact that Hollywood makes fewer movies now. “Of the fifty billion dollars that the six major studios grossed in 2007, almost half came from DVD sales and rentals, an extremely lucrative business that boosted the studios’ combined profit margin to 10.5 per cent,” wrote Tad Friend in a recent article for The New Yorker that focused on Ben Stiller and the modern economics of movie stardom. (Unsurprisingly, the in-development “Night at the Museum 3” will attempt “to get back to the simplicity and mystery of the first movie,” says Stiller, the series’s star. The first sequel, 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, with “all the costumes and armies,” was “a mess,” in the opinion of the series’s director, Shawn Levy, who also helmed Real Steel.) “But even then domestic movie attendance was dropping; it has now fallen twenty per cent in the past decade.” When the U.S. economy crashed in ’08, so did the DVD market, with sales and rentals down 43 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal last September. “In 2006, the studios released a hundred and thirty-one films; last year, only a hundred and four,” Friend noted, the result of a profit margin that had shrunk to 8.1 percent.
In order for a film to get a green light these days, “You have to feel a movie is special enough to have a chance to get the teenager off the couch from playing Call of Duty with his friends,” Paramount vice-chairman Rob Moore told Tad Friend. Kevin Goetz, CEO of ScreenEngine, a market research company, agrees, explaining to TheWrap.com that there “has to be a significant reason to leave your house, a reason to give up multitasking activities like texting and working on the computer and commit to a single task.” As we all know, texting and multitasking continue long after the lights go down in the theater, but the electronic word of mouth that teens immediately post on Facebook and Twitter can doom a film’s chances faster than almost anything else these days. “That’s a nightmare for studios that are used to pushing lowest-common-denominator films,” said BoxOffice.com editor Phil Contrino last December in the New York Times.
Sometimes the line of thinking that espouses must-see event movies leads to giant hits like Disney’s The Avengers, and sometimes it leads to giant flops like Disney’s John Carter. But as Variety‘s Josh Getlin and Tatiana Siegel reported in 2010, “Risk-averse studios are increasingly shying away from material that can’t be rendered in 3D or spawn a series of action figures. Even the attachment of big-name talent can’t sway a studio head the way a Hasbro toy line can.” Stacey Snider, the CEO of DreamWorks Studios, makers of the Transformers series and Real Steel, echoed that statement when she told Tad Friend, “A person may come across differently in each market. A robot is a robot around the world.”
Speaking of robots and universal appeal, the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, now owned by Comcast, opened a $100 million Transformers ride in May, two years after Universal Studios Orlando launched a $265 million Harry Potter attraction that increased attendance 30 percent over that of 2009, according to the New York Times‘s Brooks Barnes. Not to be outdone, Disney spent $450 million on a 12-acre expansion of its California Adventure Park that’s inspired by Pixar’s two Cars movies, and it’ll spend roughly $500 million on an Avatar “land” at Disney World that’s set to open in 2015. DreamWorks and Paramount collect licensing revenue from the Transformers ride, Warner Bros. collects it from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Fox will collect it from the Avatar minipark.
“For a media industry challenged by piracy, a fading DVD business and broadcast networks that continue to struggle, parks have emerged as a bright spot,” wrote Barnes in May, adding, “For reasons that economists can’t quite pin down, Americans have not cut back on expensive theme park vacations the same way they have pared retail spending and other discretionary purchases.” I can pin it down: although children may sometimes feel ignored and practically invisible to their parents, a frustration that’s explored to imaginative comic effect in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, they can also be persuasive little buggers.
“Did you know they have a playground at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that mimics this film?” says Kurt. (Formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios, the Orlando theme park opened in May of ’89 and includes the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.) “My daughters squeezed a giant dog’s nose and then slid down a 50-foot garden hose.” Yes, I’m sure they had a good time and you and your wife took lots of cute pictures, Kurt, but if you’d hooked up with Randy Quaid’s peyote dealer, you could’ve had hallucinations that would seem just as real but for hundreds of dollars less.
Last year in Vancouver, Dennis’s big brother, Oscar nominated for his performance in 1973’s The Last Detail, and his wife, Evi, held a work-in-progress screening of their experimental docudrama Star Whackers, which concerns their theory that actors like Heath Ledger and David Carradine were killed for insurance money, and that they too are now targets of these alleged assassins. A press release for the Quaids’ film, which Vancouver Sun film critic Peter Bernie called “drugged-out dreck,” stated, “There is a plague upon the Hollywood star system since 1995: movie stars are worth more dead than alive due to lucrative ad revenue on the internet [sic].” I don’t know about all that, but as Tad Friend’s New Yorker article points out, hardly any star is worth $20 million per movie nowadays.
1. Batman (Warner Bros.; 6/23/89; $251.1 million)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids opened the same weekend Batman earned $42.7 million, shattering the three-day record established just a week earlier by Ghostbusters II. But Honey held its ground just fine at the box office, offering a quality alternative to families who couldn’t get into sold-out screenings of Tim Burton’s 600-pound gorilla.
Two months ago, when Burton’s newest film, Dark Shadows — like Batman, a Warner Bros. release, but one that appeared to embrace rather than resist its source material’s camp potential — debuted with a $29.6 million gross, it was considered a lackluster opening weekend, especially compared to the number one film, Disney’s The Avengers, then in its second lap but still managing to take in more than $100 million. After Paramount’s The Dictator and Universal’s Battleship opened the following weekend to even lower numbers, the three studios lamented that Disney’s behemoth was crowding out their films. But as one executive who wished to remain anonymous told TheWrap.com, “Those movies didn’t do well because they weren’t good movies.” Damn those tweeting teens!
(Two movies that have done well this summer are Snow White and the Huntsman, featuring Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart as the fairy-tale heroine, and Seth MacFarlane’s talking-teddy-bear comedy Ted. But when Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein asked a group of teenagers for feedback on a dozen trailers last spring, one called Snow White costar Charlize Theron “that other woman” in relation to Stewart, and another referred to the unstuffed lead actor in Ted as “Mark whoever he is.” Coming soon, as if you hadn’t already guessed: “Real Steel 2” and “Transformers 4.”)
Burton had a much better summer 23 years ago. Batman was the must-see movie, a full-fledged event supported by an advertising and marketing campaign that was inescapable in the weeks leading up to the June 23 release date. Billboards, posters, and newspaper ads ignored the faces of the movie’s stars, Michael Keaton and the top-billed Jack Nicholson, and instead spotlighted the insignia found on Batman’s chest, otherwise known as the Batsymbol.
Coproducer Jon Peters had asked production designer Anton Furst to come up with a design for the movie’s poster during the shoot. Furst thought the Batsymbol “should look like it was stamped out of the gear Batman wears,” he told Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters in Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, their 1996 book on the producing partners who were hired to run Columbia Pictures in the fall of ’89 after Sony purchased Columbia and Tri-Star Pictures from Coca-Cola. “It became a sort of trompe l’oeil, it became ambiguous, so you had to look twice. But it was very definitely the Batsymbol, so there was no problem in people identifying it.”
The first poster featured nothing but Furst’s Batsymbol design and the opening date. “I wanted to do, like, foreplay, to create the magic and myth of it all,” Peters said. He succeeded.
Peters was also responsible for Batman‘s teaser trailer, which was rushed into theaters at the end of ’88, several months ahead of schedule, to counteract negative buzz stemming from a Wall Street Journal article about angry Batman fans who feared that the director and star of the hit comedy Beetlejuice, released earlier that year, would make a mockery of their favorite hero. One fan went so far as to write a letter to the Los Angeles Times that stated, “By casting a clown, Warner Bros. and Burton have defecated on the history of Batman.” (At one point, according to Griffin and Masters, Ivan Reitman was attached to direct Batman, and in the early ’80s Peters, the executive producer of Caddyshack, envisioned Bill Murray starring as the Caped Crusader, telling Premiere, “I wanted someone who could be funny and a little different, and who had explosive power.”)
Luckily for Peters and the studio, the trailer, a choppy but utterly enticing series of key moments from the movie that doesn’t bother to include music or even the movie’s name, got the buzz moving in the right direction again: theaters reported sightings of Batfans paying full price for whatever movie was showing the trailer, then leaving as soon as the 90-second preview ended.
“The story of Batmania is a story about the struggle for the soul of a great American hero,” Bill Barol wrote in Newsweek upon the film’s arrival in theaters. “It is also a story about canny promotion, the tectonic movements of popular taste and the nostalgia of a self-obsessed generation for its own fading youth. All because of a guy in a cape and mask.” A guy who, in Burton’s opinion, “should have been in therapy a long, long time ago,” as he told Premiere‘s Terri Minsky, and who’s “a little bit overwhelmed by his life” and “takes on way more than he can handle,” as Keaton mused to Barol. Wait a second — I’m Batman. And as one of the film’s screenwriters, Sam Hamm (please, no Dr. Seuss jokes), explained to Rolling Stone‘s Elvis Mitchell in the fall of ’88, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego as a costumed vigilante is “a bizarre hobby that totally fucks up his love life.” Oh my God, I’m even more like Batman than I thought!
“I know Star Wars is credited with being the first summer movie to bring us lots of stuff with the movie’s name on it — I believe it’s what showbiz folks refer to as ‘ancillary product’ — but I remember being floored by the Batman craze and all the ‘pub’ — that’s publicity to you, Robert — in ’89,” says Kurt, who’s absolutely precious when he tries to speak the “slanguage” of Variety copy editors. “I purposely didn’t see the movie. It was my little $4 stance against Hollywood. Take that, Burton.”
Somehow Warner Bros. weathered Kurt’s boycott and survived — Batman was the first film to gross $100 million in ten days — but it’s occasionally been coy about reporting its income. In March 1992 Batman executive producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan, who arguably started the whole craze by securing the character’s movie rights from DC Comics and pitching their idea to Peters and Guber in 1979, sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract, alleging they’d been cheated out of full producer credits and any sort of financial reward for their efforts in bringing Batman to the screen.
“Seven years after the release of Batman, with total revenues topping the $2 billion mark, Melniker and Uslan have not seen a penny more than that since their net profit participation has proved worthless,” wrote Griffin and Masters. “According to Warner Bros., Batman is still in the red.” (I don’t know if it counts as a consolation prize stemming from an out-of-court settlement, but Melniker and Uslan have been credited as executive producers on every big-screen Batman film since the original, including Christopher Nolan’s 21st-century trilogy and even the 2004 bomb Catwoman.)
Warner Bros. claimed in ’92 that Batman had lost $20 million, while others said it made a profit of $100 million for the studio. It’s safe to assume it made some sort of profit for the more than 100 licensees that introduced nearly 300 Batman-related products in the summer of ’89 — ubiquitous T-shirts and ball caps but also toys, trading cards, lunchboxes, and underwear — creating a revenue stream worth at least $500 million by the time Batman Returns rolled around three years later. Stuart Taylor, a distributor of movie-related goods based out of Billerica, Massachusetts, told Newsweek‘s Bill Barol in ’89, “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever had in 19 years.” Barol wrote, “‘It’s …’ And here Taylor pauses, groping for precisely the right analogy so that we may fully grasp the enormity of the thing: ‘… bigger than the California Raisins.‘”
In other words, resistance to the official $500 Batman rhinestone jacket was futile. I found that particular item listed in a pamphlet of “collectibles and gifts inspired by the motion picture” — or just plain greed, depending on how you felt about the Batman promotional blitz — in my movie scrapbook from ’89. No word on whether Phil Alden Robinson ordered one, but I’ll check Wikipedia again in a few hours and see if it’s come around.
Now let’s play a round of “It’s a Small Multibillion-Dollar Industry After All”: Before he was Batman, Michael Keaton turned down Dennis Quaid’s part in the Ringo Starr comedy Caveman (1981). Quaid took drama classes at the University of Houston with Batman and Bull Durham actor Robert Wuhl, whose freshman-year roommate was Julian Schnabel. While giving a speech at the Directors Guild of America awards ceremony in 2008, Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) was heckled from the audience by a drunk Sean Young. Kevin Costner’s leading lady in No Way Out was cast as Vicki Vale in Batman but had to drop out of the film after falling off a horse and breaking her arm during rehearsals (the horseback scene was never shot). Batman director Tim Burton wanted to recast the role with Michelle Pfeiffer, but “Keaton had just broken off a romance with Pfeiffer and the actor thought it would be awkward for them to work together,” according to Griffin and Masters. Kim Basinger was hired to replace Young, but before Keaton was cast as the film’s title character, the Hit & Run authors say “Burton considered square-jawed heroic types such as Tom Selleck,” who did a screen test with Young for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980. For the first sequel, Batman Returns, Burton wanted Annette Bening to play Catwoman, but she declined the offer, so Michelle Pfeiffer took over, but not before Sean Young lobbied for the part by storming into a meeting between Burton and Keaton on the Warner Bros. lot dressed as Catwoman. Two years earlier Young was fired from Dick Tracy because director-producer-star Warren Beatty thought she wasn’t “maternal enough” in the role of Tess Trueheart, per Entertainment Weekly, but Young said she was dismissed because she wouldn’t sleep with him. Beatty, a bachelor into his 50s, met Bening in 1991 while filming Bugsy, and a year later they were married; she passed on Batman Returns because she was pregnant with their first child.
Oh, and for those who require closure for this sort of name game, Beatty was in Bulworth with Oliver Platt, who was in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners with Kevin Bacon. Ta-da!
Schumacher took over the Batman franchise from Burton in 1995 with Batman Forever, in which Jim Carrey played the Riddler, a role that was first offered to Robin Williams. In Hit & Run Griffin and Masters say that Burton had wanted Williams to play the Joker in Batman, but in his 2006 book Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb, Peter Bart says Warner Bros. only pretended to offer Williams the part, using his interest as leverage to force Nicholson to stop waffling and sign on the dotted line. (Melniker and Uslan had wanted Smilin’ Jack for the role since at least 1980. Batman creator Bob Kane also favored the actor, coloring in a publicity photo of Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with green hair and white skin and mailing it to Warner Bros.)
Nicholson accepted $6 million up front instead of his then-standard $10 million fee after he was guaranteed a piece of the film’s first-dollar gross and merchandising revenue. That “piece” eventually earned him close to $50 million. His contract also reportedly entitled him to a cut of the merchandise money from any sequels that were produced, regardless of the fact that Nicholson’s Joker never battled Keaton’s Batman — or Val Kilmer’s or George Clooney’s, for that matter — again.
In 2008 Batman’s most memorable adversary returned in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, in a performance that earned Heath Ledger an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor a year after his untimely death. “Was that the best final performance by an actor ever?” Kurt asks. “He was awesome. Not sure how you can research that. Or what about Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond? Or the main guy in Il Postino, a fine Italian film I must have seen six times in an effort to show a girl how sensitive and foreign-filmsy I was. (I had some success with it.)”
Warner Bros. reported an official budget figure of $30 million for Batman, but some sources said the actual figure went as high as $55 million. Because Tim Burton “had never made a big-budget picture or shot action,” Griffin and Masters wrote, “the studio wanted to surround him with an experienced crew.” An identical strategy was reportedly used for The Amazing Spider-Man, Columbia’s summer reboot of its popular superhero franchise; its director, Marc Webb, had only made one previous feature film, the cutesy 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer. Most of the action sequences in Batman were handled by second unit director Peter MacDonald, who’d performed similar duties on The Empire Strikes Back and Rambo: First Blood Part II before moving into the director’s chair for Rambo III. Batman also employed visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings, a veteran of three Superman movies and four James Bond adventures, and cinematographer Roger Pratt, who helped create the dystopian atmosphere of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Burton’s dystopian vision for Batman takes the bad vibes on display in Do the Right Thing and Ghostbusters II and places them in front of a funhouse mirror. For Gotham City, production designer Anton Furst took inspiration from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), telling Richard Corliss in Time magazine that Burton and he “imagined what New York might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay in ugliness. As Tim says, ‘It looks like hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going.'” Furst won the 1989 Oscar for Art Direction (with set decorator Peter Young), Batman‘s only nomination, before taking his own life in 1991.
Burton grew up in Burbank, not far from Hollywood, so he may not have cared as much as Spike Lee about the outcome of the ’89 New York mayoral race, but in Batman Gotham’s ineffectual civic leader is portrayed by Lee Wallace, a dead ringer for Ed Koch. (Wallace was also the bumbling mayor of the Big Apple in the classic 1974 heist film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a full three years before Koch was elected to the actual post.) Billy Dee Williams plays Gotham City’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who transformed into the villain Two-Face in Batman Forever, by which point the character had an entirely new Caucasian face belonging to actor Tommy Lee Jones. Although I’m still convinced Samuel L. Jackson coveted Rick Moranis’s summer of ’89, I wonder if he ever sat down for a Colt 45 with Billy Dee and asked him what it was like to bask in the box office glory of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Batman without having to carry a single one of them.
Billy Dee never got to play Two-Face, and Tommy Lee didn’t really play Harvey Dent, but Aaron Eckhart got to be both in The Dark Knight four years ago. Dent’s transformation into a villain, his moral schism literally written all over his face, deftly symbolized the philosophical split between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger), opposite sides of the same coin. To bring criminals to justice Batman believes in fighting fire with fire, but the Joker’s worldview is best summed up by Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Caine): “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
When Rush Limbaugh accused Christopher Nolan of taking a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his former company, Bain Capital, by choosing the character of Bane to be Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises, he was showing his usual flair for attention-grabbing ignorance. But when Dark Knight costar Morgan Freeman told reporters at the film’s July 18 premiere in London that “Chris wrote a fictional story that didn’t have any political thoughts in mind, so it’s like art or something, you know, it’s all in the mind of the beholder,” he was ignoring, purposely or otherwise, the compelling subtext of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which explores the moral and political landscape of post-9/11 America within the context of comic-book heroism and audience wish-fulfillment fantasies. One could make the argument that Nolan’s Batman movies are no less insightful or incendiary than Do the Right Thing was in its day.
“Batman taps into the deep currents,” wrote Bill Barol in Newsweek 23 years ago, “and the possibilities he offers are the most enticing ones imaginable: justice in a world that is unjust, autonomy in a world that people feel powerless to control and, finally, failing all else, escape.” But in the aftermath of yet another deadly mass shooting, that’s all we’re left with: imagined possibilities.
The goddamn movies — they can ruin you. That fictional character wasn’t kidding.