No Concessions: The Greatest Movie Summer Ever
All things considered, this is a promising summer movie season. Will it be a great, or even good, summer movie season? Only time will tell. You have to let these things sit awhile. After six years I’m ready to declare 2006 the worst summer season ever, with a weekly supply of groaners like The Da Vinci Code, the third X-Men movie, and the forgotten remakes of The Poseidon Adventure (Poseidon) and The Omen–mostly because I don’t want to relive the horror of those summers that are vaguer in my moviegoing memory. (But, come to think of it, 2010, which brought us Sex and the City 2, Knight and Day, Prince of Persia, and Jonah Hex, gives 2006 a run for its money.)
One thing’s for sure, though–it won’t be as great as 1982. I was there to witness the miracle. And this I will recall.
Let’s accept that the notion of a “summer movie season” was well and truly born 35 years ago, with the record-shattering release of Star Wars on May 25, 1977. (The prime was pumped by the record-shattering success of Jaws two years earlier.) It took some time for the concept to jell. But by 1980, when the empire struck back, summer was entrenched as the season for school’s out “popcorn movies.” Summer 1981 was heavy on the salt and butter, with the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Stripes, Escape from New York, and Arthur (the accept-no-substitutes Arthur) all in release.
Then, thirty years ago, summer really came together. 1982 was an exceptional year for movies, bookended by Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon, Robert Towne’s Personal Best, Missing, Victor/Victoria, Diner, and, at art houses, Diva, Das Boot, Mephisto and Three Brothers before Memorial Day, and Eating Raoul, My Favorite Year, Sophie’s Choice, Tootsie, Coup de Torchon, and The Verdict after Labor Day. (And all of them more distinctive than Gandhi, that year’s respectable, King’s Speech choice for Best Picture.) It was an extraordinary year for sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films, which continue to be the bread-and-butter attractions of summer, and as we’ll see there were several classics in release that join a roll call that includes low- and high-end favorites like Venom, The Beast Within, the Cat People remake, Conan the Barbarian, The Road Warrior, The Dark Crystal, Creepshow, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which I will not hear a bad word about. And I haven’t even mentioned off-season action films like 48 HRS. and First Blood, and disreputable but undeniably entertaining outliers like Vice Squad, The Boogens, and The Sword and the Sorcerer, all last gasps of grindhouse and drive-in cinema. (Even flops like Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, Wim Wenders’ Hammett, and The Border, with Jack Nicholson, were compelling in their own right.)
Returning to summer–what made it great was not an abundance of any one kind of movie, but a breadth of cinema, the sort of a la carte choices that you don’t find since the menu was set over time. In an era where the summer weekends without established tentpoles (and their sequels) tend to be filled with wannabe tentpoles, who doesn’t miss diversity?
Oh, and 1982 was the summer I received my driver’s license. There is a personal dimension to all this. I could drive myself to the movies, which was a huge deal for this New Jersey suburbanite. Me–and a succession of smokin’ hot girlfriends. (OK, just me. Or my sister. And my mom. Nothing really changed, except that I was in the driver’s seat.)
Now–on with the shows, week by week, the magnificent movie summer that was 1982.
May 25 (Memorial Day Weekend)
New in Release: Yes, kids, there was a time when Memorial Day Weekend was the official start of the summer movie season. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t summery movies already in release: Conan, Annie, the Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaboration Dead Men Don’t Wear Don’t Plaid (which I was too green, noir-wise, to fully appreciate at that time), and, on a few screens, The Road Warrior, were all in theaters. It wasn’t until Deep Impact (1998) and The Mummy (1999) hit it big in the slot that “summer creep” gave way to the first weekend of May being established as the summer beachhead. (The success of Fast Five last year no doubt has the studios eyeing the last weekend in April as the new date to break out the sandals and suntan lotion, though the failure of The Five-Year Engagment this year postponed that plan.)
Then and now, the other studios tended to give the One Big Memorial Day Weekend Movie a wide berth. The somwhat upscale, Canadian-made slasher Visiting Hours, with William Shatner, Lee Grant, and a nasty Michael Ironside, did decent business. Before tabloid infamy hit Griffin O’Neal had a promising career as a child star, but The Escape Artist never escaped from arthouses. And the road race picture Safari 3000, with David Carradine and Stockard Channing, was simply junked on a few screens by its distributor, United Artists.
Which left the field wide open for…
Pick Hit: Rocky III, which I didn’t see in theaters. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen the whole movie. I recall bits and pieces, the same bits and pieces you recall: Survivor’s Oscar-nominated “Eye of the Tiger,” and of course Mr. T’s intimidating Clubber Lang, without whom the movie wouldn’t exist. (Stallone has always been an ADD filmmaker, keeping everything short and choppy.) Truth is I’ve never been much of a Rocky fan, preferring (sort of) Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s Mr. Hyde to his palooka Dr. Jekyll, who would bow that fall. But cheering audiences made Rocky III the fourth biggest hit of 1982, just above the, uhh, “seminal” Porky’s, which dominated the spring (and was the Canadian-produced movie, ubiquitous at that time, that most successfully hit us Americans in our, uhh, sweet spot).
New in Release: Things heat up quickly. Two out of three three movies released this weekend are classics–not so hot was Hanky Panky, the first of three attempts by Gene Wilder to turn him and future wife Gilda Radner into a comedy duo. None took (with the partial exception of 1984′s The Woman in Red, memorable not for them but for the woman, model Kelly LeBrock, and Stevie Wonder’s Oscar-winning earwig “I Just Called to Say I Loved You”).
Pick Hits: How can anyone choose between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Poltergeist? I love them both. I did see Poltergeist first, though. In fact I dragged my family to the theater extra-early, given favorable buzz, which elicited some grumbling. But–phew!–the Steven Spielberg-produced (and directed?) ghost story delivered the expected summer shocks, and more. It’s still at the head of the class where suburban-set thrillers are concerned, and a rumored curse, and the fact of two lousy sequels (and an announced remake) haven’t dimmed it. Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding, Oscar-nominated score still gives me goosebumps.
My dad and I saw Khan. Who could blame my mother and sister for sitting it out? Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was a stately bore (his recut version, prepared in 2001, plays better) and the more frugal sequel was met with low expectations. Nicholas Meyer surprised everyone by shaking up the entire “Enterprise” and giving it the warp speed momentum that had been missing. A model sequel (two great movie villains in Ricardo Montalban and Mr. T and we’re only two weeks in) and one that brought a tear to my eye again just a week or so ago when I caught the ending on HBO.
New in Release: “Everyone (at Paramount, which produced both) thought Grease 2, sequel to the most successful movie musical ever, would demolish Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, at the boxoffice.”–Robert Hofler, Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr.
Pick Hit: “E.T. creamed us.”–Grease 2 star Maxwell Caulfield, quoted by Hofler in his book about the flamboyant producer. (He and co-star Michelle Pfeiffer would go on, Caulfield mostly onstage.) E.T.–The Extra-Terrestrial, the masterpiece of the Summer of Spielberg, creamed everything. But after I insisted we get to Poltergeist early my family got to a packed first night showing of E.T. late (unthinkable) and I missed the first five or so minutes, which I wouldn’t see until a campus screening a year or two later. The rest was pretty outstanding, though. I was a little sad when Titanic displaced this most heartfelt and intimate of blockbusters (another inexpensively produced smash) at the top of the boxoffice heap 15 years later.
New in Release: With E.T. beginning its ascent and three big hits in release the boxoffice took a breather. We do, however, see a blend of movies forming. And a trend–that sequels, and concepts, can trump big name actors, something we see every summer now. Cases in point this weekend: Author! Author!, an ill-fated attempt to turn Al Pacino into a family comedy star, and the underwhelming Firefox, Clint Eastwood’s concession to the Cold War and Star Wars-era “hardware pictures,” and proof that he was making draggy movies a decade before his Oscar-ed respectability.
Pick Hit: Everyone saw E.T. again. Including, I suspect, Al, who made only five movies in the 80s.
New in Release: A weekend of highs and lows. Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl appealed to its fan base. Appealing to no one was the summer’s biggest dud, the expensive Megaforce, where director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run) left Burt Reynolds idling in the garage, with disastrous results. (Well, not “no one”: It allegedly inspired Team America: World Police.)
Pick Hits: Not one but two slow-burning masterpieces, unappreciated that summer, and acclaimed today. I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing with my parents, who were revolted by its staggering makeup effects. (Perhaps primed by them, they were more appreciative of The Fly, four years later.) I was floored by the movie, not just its effects, but its icy, no-exit vision. So anti-E.T. So un-summer.
A degree or two warmer was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner…which I didn’t see, so fast did it exit theaters. It wasn’t until I viewed it on a properly letterboxed Criterion laserdisc in the late 80s that I realized what I had missed. Now that it exists on multiple cuts on Blu-ray we can clearly see its achievement, which has influenced so much in science fiction and neo-noir. The Thing has had similar far-reaching impact, which its remake could not hope to duplicate.
And yet, in 1982, they languished a rung or two up from Megaforce. Their adherents blamed “the E.T. effect,” which held that all science fiction must henceforth be sunny and optimistic. (If there was ever any credence to that, then Spielberg definitively gave up on it with 2001′s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, whose very title seems to rebut E.T.) More likely having two movies in release that brooded over the essence of humanity set off too strong a chill in theaters.
New in Release: July 4 fell on a Sunday, which seemed to crimp summer’s forward drive. July 2′s only release was Don Bluth’s animated The Secret of NIMH, not the usual family fare and another offbeat summer entry whose less-than-stellar performance was also laid at E.T.’s floppy feet.
Pick Hit: More future shock as a floundering (but often, in retrospect, interesting) Disney shook up its usual run of family fare on July 9 with Tron, which lingered in the cinematic consciousness long enough to generate a sequel in 2010. The techniques it anticipated, and its notion of gaming culture, will always be with us.
With that, sci-fi and fantasy vanished from the summer schedule, and so did any excuses for “E.T. effect” crash-and-burn. We’d sure had our fill, with bold, congenial, and competing visions. Things are about to get…dirty.
New in Release: Well, OK, Six Pack, with Kenny Rogers, was a family comedy with a performer with actual family appeal, and a decent hit among the C&W demographic. But sitcom king Garry Marshall made his film debut with the risque (and sometimes funny) Young Doctors in Love, an Airplane!-style soap opera spoof with Sean Young, fresh from Blade Runner, and General Hospital starlet Demi Moore. And let’s not forget the menage movie Summer Lovers, with Peter Gallagher romping with another Blade Runner alum, Daryl Hannah, and Conan co-star Valerie Quennessen in the Greek isles. Like director Randal Kleiser’s more notorious The Blue Lagoon (1980) the movie promised more than it could deliver in the cultural climate, but to an impressionable teen, titillation is all, and I spent way more time with it than was absolutely necessary when it hit cable in 1983.
(Oh, and if the international trailer I posted isn’t work-safe for you, then you need to find another place to work.)
Pick Hit: Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, a return to color and good cheer following 1980′s gloomy, black-and-white Stardust Memories, was a film of two significant firsts. For Allen, it was the first of 13 films that he would make with Mia Farrow; if they’d stopped at 12, or continued onto 14, maybe they would have been luckier. And it was the first movie I can remember driving myself to see, which was the most memorable thing about it. (I’d return to The Road Warrior, which went into wide release around this date, three times.)
Pre-summer Willie Aames starred with Phoebe Cates in the Blue Lagoon knockoff Paradise. Pre-Charles and Charge he and Scott Baio starred in Zapped!, the story of a telekinetic teen who can make cheerleaders’ outfits fall off. Willie, let me ask you, what’s more fun: making jiggly movies in the early 80s, or being a born-again Christian today? Be honest.
But Zapped!, which did brisk business with my peer group, and John Frankenheimer’s The Challenge, a decent cross-cultural decapitating ninjas flick with Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune that’s really fallen down the DVD-era rabbit hole (believe me, I’ve looked; I’m a sucker for decapitating ninja flicks) aren’t the story here.
Remember when musicals were a staple of the moviegoing diet? Well, they weren’t really in 1982, either. Grease 2 tanked and the sun did not come out for Annie, though the musical-ish Victor/Victoria was an Oscar-winning hit. This day saw the release of the 80s’ most successful musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas–in part due to lack of competition (though we have two more coming up), but mostly due to the boxoffice appeal of stars Dolly Parton (singing a bit of her own “I Will Always Love You,” a decade before Whitney Houston made it her own in The Bodyguard) and a 46-year-old Burt Reynolds, in what proved to be the last leg of his lengthy good ol’ boy run (this was his final big score as a marquee attraction). Between this and Porky’s whorehouses were the place to be in 1982, though the title (from the Broadway show on which it’s loosely based) caused a ruckus in more conservative states. For the movie’s best scene Charles Durning, as an opportunistic politician, “sidestepped” his way to an Oscar nomination.
Pick Hit: Picking up Oscar nominations of their own were Glenn Close (her first of six to date, in a movie debut that set the severe tone of her career) and John Lithgow, flanking a serious Robin Williams in the film version of John Irving’s phenomenally successful The World According to Garp, the must-read novel of its time. It was a tall order for the movie to equal the book but George Roy Hill’s conscientious adaptation was up to the task; 30 years later, I imagine that both it and the book are puzzling cultural artifacts, filed under “beige comedy.” (Not altogether black, yet far from the norm.) I should see it again. (Hill blamed the summer slotting, a nervy move, for not enough audiences seeing it then.)
Still, talk about diversity–Garp, Whorehouse, ninja decapitators, and Zapped! all on the same Friday. Something for all tastes (I only saw Garp in theaters).
New in Release: Going head-to-head this Friday: the sputtering Cheech and Chong in Things Are Tough All Over (it was; their fourth feature was their final high) and an ascending Chuck Norris in Forced Vengeance. (Chuck’s appearance in the Expendables 2 trailer got a round of applause at The Avengers.)
Pick Hits: Also on Friday a summer sleeper (and another movie about hookers). Night Shift catapulted a motormouthed Michael Keaton to what stardom he had (such an odd career), and a Cheers-bound Shelley Long and up-and-coming director Ron Howard (his first big studio gig) didn’t do badly by it, either. (Not getting much traction from the straight man part, though he should have, was Howard’s Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler, the forever Fonzie.) My sister and I laughed all the way through it that Saturday. Next time it’s on I’ll look for Kevin Costner in his bit part.
The calendar is getting crowded now, with releases on Wednesdays–including the year’s biggest surprise hit. 1982′s top two attractions were E.T. and Tootsie; No. 3 was a drama that opened on July 28 and was still playing on Oscar night, where it won two trophies (it was nominated for six). In our “ancillary”-driven marketplace movies like An Officer and a Gentleman rarely get a chance to build, but driven by a gallery of fine performances (Richard Gere finally making good on his promise of stardom, a nominated Debra Winger at the start of her odd career, and an irascible Robert Loggia stealing the first part of the show as Gere’s dad) and a military-set romance that appealed to both halves of the date night equation it played and played. Having the Oscar-, Golden Globe-, and Grammy-winning “Up Where We Belong” in heavy rotation didn’t hurt, either. (The song was nearly cut from the movie.)
Stealing most of rest of the movie was drill sergeant Louis Gossett, Jr. Four years later the Oscar winner (sorry, John and Charles) would join a descending Chuck Norris in Firewalker, as Gere’s and Winger’s careers also waned. (A reinvigorated Loggia, though, was on a roll.) What goes “Up,” etc.
New in Release: Along with Roman Polanski’s little-seen Pirates (1986), the Penzance-ish “rock” musical The Pirate Movie, with Blue Lagoon star Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol, deep-sixed the genre until Johnny Depp got out his cutlass a generation later.
Pick Hits: Surely I’m not alone in loving The Last American Virgin, which came out when I could have played the title role? I didn’t see it then (it opened Aug. 4) but it’s another movie I watched a billion times on cable. Based on a smash Israeli comedy produced by the co-founders of the beloved ragtag outfit Cannon Films, and an early hit for the studio, Virgin really put out, with copious nudity and raunch, a tremulously beautiful Diane Franklin as a geek’s true desire, a killer soundtrack–and an unforgettably bleak ending (for a 16-year-old) that made you quite content to wait. A classic movie of its kind was just around the corner, yet it’s still my favorite. (And it was a surprise to learn that studly lady-killer Steve Antin would later date David Geffen and direct Cher in Burlesque. Folks, that’s acting.)
Unforgettable for other reasons was Alan Parker’s second distinguished film of 1982, Pink Floyd The Wall, the no-holds-barred adaptation of the 1979 album. The phantasmagoria that Parker made of it was shocking then, and could make the flesh crawl today. No doubt there’s a whole new audience for it, and a good 3D conversion would kill. (Surely Bob Geldof, enacting the agonies of Pink, did not forsee a Nobel Prize nomination in his near future.) It’s an extremely visceral experience that cries out for Blu-ray at least; that it hasn’t made the jump suggests some sort of rights limbo. Also in limbo: Parker, a key figure of the 70s and 80s, who hasn’t made a film since 2003.
New in Release: 1980′s El Nido (The Nest), a Spanish drama with Ana Torrent, star of the great Spirit of the Beehive (1973), received a foreign language film Oscar nomination in 1981, got a belated release a year later on Aug. 9 (a Monday?), and disappeared. I thought it might be a horror film before I looked it up.
I remember The Soldier, with future Wiseguy Ken Wahl, as being kind of horrible. Director James Glickenhaus made better DIY action movies, like The Executioner (1980) and Shakedown (1988). This one’s been MIA since early cable and VHS.
But the three other movies released on Friday the 13th have lingered–including the third Friday the 13th, in 3D, a process that had made a comeback earlier in the year. It was great fun at the movies, not just the comin’-at-ya gore effects but ambient imagery like laundry billowing on clotheslines. (The stereoscopic DVD, which comes with two sets of glasses, gives you a taste of that impressive experience.) Due to a series of flops and worse movies (like Jaws 3-D, Gossett, Jr.’s post-Oscar paycheck gig), 3D would be as dead as pirate films by the fall of 1983, yet it, too, would return.
Paul Mazursky had one of the exceptional, underrated careers of the late 60s and 70s,including Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Harry and Tonto, and An Unmarried Woman. The sprawling, Shakespeare-suggested Tempest isn’t up to that standard, but a fine cast–John Cassavetes as a dissatisfied New York architect who retreats to the Greek islands and a life of celibacy (Summer Lovers this ain’t), Gena Rowlands (offscreen and here, onscreen, his wife), Raul Julia, and Susan Sarandon–all have choice moments amid the clutter. Mazursky would find his footing again with the 1986 hit Down and Out in Beverly Hills and the excellent Enemies, a Love Story (1989). And we can thank him for introducing us to Molly Ringwald, who debuted as Cassavetes and Rowlands’ daughter and would grace Sixteen Candles two years later.
Pick Hit: The last great movie of this torrid summer was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie that should be mandatory viewing for teenagers. (It’s in the National Film Registry, so it’s good for you.) It’s kind of the nice twin to the scabby Last American Virgin–it has the R-rated sexual content, but it’s non-exploitative and clear-headed about adolescent angst (Cameron Crowe adapted his own book), and a case where having a female director (Amy Heckerling, at the helm of her first and best film, though 1995′s Clueless understandably has partisans) made all the difference in tone. (That both movies tackled the subject of abortion is a big difference between 1982 and a skittish 2012.) The casting gods clearly smiled on the production–Robert Romanus and Brian Backer were the only two who didn’t go on to bigger (if not necessarily better) things (co-star Lana Clarkson, alas, would run afoul of Phil Spector). Making a spectacular impression in his second film was Sean Penn, whose stoner Spicoli was the most imitated movie character in my senior year.
Late August-Labor Day Weekend (September 3)
New in Release: Things change: today, studios will use the dog days of summer to eke out an occasional hit. And things stay the same: then and now, the movies released in these waning weeks, up through Labor Day, tend to reek. So we had not one but two more Canadian-made attempts to ruin American morals, The Incubus (with a fresh-from-Greece John Cassavetes hunting a well-endowed, rape-happy demon who as I recall turned out to be himself–we’ve all been there) and Class of 1984, with HBO’s future go-to director, Emmy-winner Timothy Van Patten (The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, etc.), as a depraved teen punk who has teachers and classmates (including a pre-Family Ties Michael J. Fox) under his thumb as we all worried about that scary Orwellian year. Speaking of school we had Joan Collins, amidst her Dynasty comeback, offering private Homework to a virginal student, a popular theme in those looser, jail-baiting times. (See also 1981′s Private Lessons, a really steamy opus, for one scene anyway, and 1983′s upmarket Class, with Jacqueline Bisset cougaring Andrew McCarthy.) Fridays TV star Mark Blankfield (remember?) came and went from the big screen in the druggy dud Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again. No one remembers former Bond girl Jill St. John as a prison warden in The Concrete Jungle. (And no one seems to recall when these last two were actually released; sources differ, but they sure fit this time of the year.)
Pick Hit: Most remember The Beastmaster, from do-it-yourself fantasy specialist Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), from its constant airings on HBO (“Hey, Beastmaster’s On”) and TBS (“The Beastmaster Station”). It’s a not-bad little sword-and-sorcery flick (junior division) and I met co-star John Amos at a video store signing a few months later. I bet everyone involved loved those cable residuals.
Everyone else saw E.T. again.
Or one of the other great movies released thirty years ago. Does any summer even come close to yielding that much quality? 1982: My favorite year, indeed.