Not my favorite decade. Films are looking more high-gloss, packaged, high-concept (looks great on paper), and imitating anything that is successful (sequel-itis). The 1980s was the decade of greed in Hollywood, if something worked, no matter how unoriginal or farfetched, everyone was trying to cash in. Cocaine flooded Los Angeles. Why not, it was cheap and not addictive, and film budgets often were padded to pay for it.
The Wonder Boys of the 1970s: Bogdanovich, Friedkin and Coppola were running on fumes and badly damaged by bad choices, under-performing films and changing public preferences. The decade saw the rise of a new breed of filmmakers: Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Barry Levinson, Ivan Reitman, Lawrence Kasdan, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven and Ron Howard. Films were flashier, more hard-hitting and raunchier. Action was in, and ready for their close-ups were: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone (post-Rocky) and Bruce Willis. Not everything was new. Directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack and John Landis successfully made the jump to new decade. In addition, a bunch of actors had the clout to step behind the camera; Robert Redford and Warren Beatty even scored Best Director Oscars.
SNL/National Lampoon command of the comedy genre: Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd. Robin Williams finally found his perfect film vehicle (Goodnight, Vietnam).
The 1980s belonged to Harrison Ford as he owned the box office. Others had huge great success: Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and the man for all seasons, Jack “The Joker” Nicholson.
The 1980s also gave rise to a boom in cable television and the introduction of home video. Films found new life after their initial runs and provided new revenue streams. Studios took advantage of new tax shelters to raise cash and independent production houses sprang up overnight as an alternative to the traditional film studio financing. Foreign money, like cheap cocaine, invaded Hollywood and it was just as addictive. Agents gained even more power brokers as several of them became studio heads and their firms became major packagers of talent. Independents like Cannon (Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus), Carolco (Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna), Largo (producer Larry Gordon), New World Pictures (Roger Corman), Castlerock Entertainment (Rob Reiner), Miramax (Weinstein brothers), and many more small production companies sprang up, flush with cash, and signed talent to big deals (Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone). Everyone had a production deal.
The huge hits of the decade were:
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), $435 million
Return of the Jedi (1983) / The Empire Strikes Back (1980), $290 million
Batman (1989), $251 million
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), $245 million
Ghostbusters (1984), $238 million
Beverly Hills Cop (1984), $234 million
Back to the Future (1985), $210 million
So, here is my list of the most influential films of the 1980s, in not particular order:
Friday the 13th If you hate horror films, blame this one. A sleepy little genre, this film led to Nightmare on Elm Street and all the series that kids today can’t seem to get enough of. Were there horror films before this one, yes, and John Carpenter with Halloween, The Fog and The Thing was very successful. Friday the 13th produced many successful sequels and tapped into a growing youth market.
Mad Max / Blade Runner. These are different films but they have familiar themes of a grim future. Mad Max made Mel Gibson an action star and bankable for his next films. Bladerunner came from the Phillip K. Dick story and was a big success for director Ridley Scott. While not a big financial success, and hated by star Harrison Ford, it became a cult favorite and pushed the limited of special effects for that time.
Die Hard. This film made Bruce Willis a big star and became the model for thrillers. Put people in danger in some confined space and send in a reluctant hero. Danger in a high rise building became danger on an airplane, danger on a boat, danger underwater, danger in space. There were tons of copies. Yippee-ki-yay, motherf***er!
Wall Street. Was it Michael Douglas or the Koch Brothers who said, “Greed is good?” The 1980s was about making money and this film showed how many did it. Ethics were optional and usually got in the way. Oliver Stone hit a homerun with this film. It might seem dated now but the messaged in the film ring true. Just think of the recent recession and how close these banks drove our country to collapse. Michael Douglas’s signature role, and before Charlie Sheen became a warlock.
Platoon / Full Metal Jacket. Probably the two best films about the Vietnam War. These films pulled no punches and were made by filmmakers at the top of their game. Oliver Stone continued to ascend as a filmmaker while I believe Kubrick peaked with this film. Stone developed Platoon from his own experiences. Full Metal Jacket was based on a novel but it was a pure Kubrick creation. Who could forget R. Lee Ermey as the drill instructor. These films captured the horrific experience of many who served in Vietnam.
The Big Chill. The first movie about yuppie angst. The idea of a reunion of college friends had been done before but this film was stylish, featured big stars and had a killer soundtrack. Just as American Graffiti had, the Big Chill tapped the late 1960s/early 1970s in spirit through the soundtrack of rock hits. Watching the film today it feels very preachy and contrived. Fun facts. Kevin Costner played the character whose death brought all of his friends together. He appears as a corpse but all of his acting scenes were cut. Poor guy, I wonder what happened to him. The film was produced by Carson Productions, Johnny Carson’s company. I heard he has some success on TV.
Top Gun. Personally, I hate this film and see no reason for it. As an action film with a big soundtrack it was hugely popular. Great photography and editing. It’s style was widely copied and was the first big hit for Tony Scott.
Lethal Weapon / 48 Hours. Buddy cop films. Strip away the glitz and these films are the same. Blamed these two for every team of mismatched cops on TV and in film. Part comedy, part violent melodrama, these films entertained both men and women. Mel Gibson and Eddie Murphy rocketed to the top of the A List with these films.
Airplane! There were many biting satirical films in the 1980s but this is the best. The jokes and gags are hurled so fast the audience didn’t get it the first time, so you had to see it again and again to take it all in. Thankfully, the Beaver’s Mother was there to translate, in case you don’t speak fluent jive.
Field of Dreams / Bull Durham. That Kevin Costner guy did have a little screen success after playing a corpse. Are these his best films? I think so. Field of Dreams is labeled as a fantasy film. That’s as good as any but doesn’t do justice to the ground it covers. Nearly 30 years after first seeing it, I still get choked up at the end. The film is nicely layered as characters are introduced and Ray begins his journey of discovery. As a writer, the story construction of this film is masterfully done. Bull Durham might be the best sports film. Director Ron Shelton wrote about his minor league experience, mixing in some crazy but instantly memorable characters. Women don’t get wooly, they get weary.
Back to the Future. Filmmaking does not get better than this. Bob Gale, who wrote the script, is a genius. Robert Zemeckis directed this dazzling array of zany characters and story interwoven between the past and the present. And it all made sense. Everyone knows what a flux capacitor is. Interesting, initially, an actor other than Michael J. Fox was cast, and filmed as Marty McFly. Sensing they weren’t on the right track, production was shut down and the role react with Fox in the role. The film script bounced around Hollywood for a number of years, all the major studios turned it down.
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg, Lucas, Ford. A mega hit. Inspired by serials from the Golden Age of Film, it mixed Nazis with exotic locations, literally a thrill a minute pacing, a great musical score and a crackling script.
Batman. Not the first successful comic book hero on the film but was the most successful one at the time. The Superman movie franchise had petered out so there was not great demand for more comic book heroes. The script went through multiple editions with a shifting focus and characters coming and going. The success of the film made Jack Nicholson wealthy, who had a cut of the gross profit, elevated Tim Burton to the director A List and justified the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. The franchise obviously went on to great success, survived the casting of George Clooney as Batman, and made comic books cool as film.