Continuing from yesterday’s post . . .
As should be evident by now, 1981 was a formative year for me as a young movie fan. I turned 12 that year, and for various reasons my father and my older brother and I saw a lot of movies in theaters, which I supplemented with fare from Cinemax and HBO because home video had not yet achieved mainstream popularity. Although I’d gone mad for movies previously, catching Star Wars seven times in theaters and seeing The Muppet Movie every day for a week when it played the local second-run house, 1981 was the year when I started to get a sense of the men and women behind the scenes. In fact, the following year literally changed my life, because I decided to become a filmmaker while sitting in a theater and realizing that one individual was responsible for overseeing all the creative choices on Blade Runner. That’s why I’ve got a soft spot for pictures from 1981, even some of the bad ones. And, man, were there bad ones.
Billy Wilder burned his glorious career to a crisp with the flop comedy Buddy, Buddy, which has exactly none of Wilder’s signature spark. Ringo Starr made a pathetic play for above-the-title movie stardom in the would-be laughfest Caveman, costarring Dennis Quaid. Bill Cosby and Elliot Gould teamed up for the lifeless supernatural comedy The Devil and Max Devlin. John Schlesinger, of all people, directed a dud comedy—are you sensing a trend here?—called Honky Tonk Freeway. Another movie paving the path to box-office oblivion with unfunny jokes was The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin. Venerable cinematographer William A. Franker directed the doomed Western adventure The Legend of the Lone Ranger, in which himbo leading man Klinton Spillsbury gives such a vacant performance that all his lines were dubbed by James Keach. Faye Dunaway’s histrionic acting as child-abusing screen queen Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest helped the catchphrase “No more wire hangers!” enter the camp lexicon.
Burt Reynolds plays a dude who hires a surrogate mother in Paternity, the sexual politics of which were already antiquated by the time the film was released. Similarly, Ryan O’Neal’s turn as a cad of a fashion designer who sparks a craze for assless jeans in So Fine did not win him any fans with the Ms. Magazine crowd. Yet perhaps the movie that did the least for feminism in 1981 was Tarzan, the Ape Man, in which Bo Derek’s mostly nude performance as Tarzan’s gal Jane overshadows everything else, up to and including Richard Harris’ blustery turn as her father. Chevy Chase’s run as box-office star hit a major speedbump with Under the Rainbow, an offensive farce about the little people who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Also tripping various cultural-sensitivity alarms was George Hamilton’s star turn as Zorro, the Gay Blade.
Special note should be made of an obscure movie called Roar, which was fleetingly released in 1981 but gained larger notoriety during a 2015 re-release. Starring Tippi Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith, the picture grew out of Hedren’s and then-husband Noel Marshall’s affinity for hanging out with fully grown jungle cats, so members of the cast and crew suffered dozens of horrible injuries during filming. Also deserving of mention is Peter Bogdanovich’s labored romantic comedy They All Laughed, which tanked during its original release but subsequently gained a small following. Beyond containing one of Audrey Hepburn’s last performances, the picture includes the final screen appearance of Bodganovich’s onetime companion Dorothy Stratten, the former Playboy model who was murdered during post-production.
Finally, no period of cinema is without its guilty pleasures, and, in fact, many of the titles previously mentioned are undoubtedly beloved by many people with the special affection one has for objects of secret shame. I must confess my fascination with three movies, two of which are awful and one of which is so derivative that legal action should have ensued. Made in Canada, the bizarre postapocalyptic saga The Last Chase stars Lee Majors as a onetime competitive driver who pulls his racecar out of storage in order to zoom across America—even though the world’s gasoline supply has been exhausted, resulting in cars being outlawed. Burgess Meredith plays an old coot whom the government sends to pursue Majors in an antique fighter jet, and My Bodyguard’s Chris Makepeace plays the mischievous hacker/pyromaniac who accompanies Majors. The movie’s even more insipid than it sounds, but every few years, I watch a few scenes hoping the movie will again trigger the joy it gave me as a 12-year-old, when I devoured the picture in repeated HBO/Cinemax viewings. The experiment doesn’t work. It never will.
Another guilty pleasure, albeit one that I’ve happily outgrown, is Nighthawks, a violent cop movie starring Sylvester Stallone at his most laughably intense and Billy Dee Williams at his most enjoyably suave. The picture is elevated by Rutger Hauer’s seductive turn as an international terrorist wreaking havoc in New York City, and Nighthawks climaxes with a shot of Stallone wearing—well, it’s better if you discover that for yourself. Prepare to guffaw.
Written and directed by Peter Hyams, the sci-fi thriller Outland was another HBO/Cinemax fave back in the day. Starring Sean Connery at his beardy, prickly best, it’s High Noon in space. Literally. Hyams transposes the plot of the 1952 Gary Cooper classic into an outer-space milieu, employing production design shamelessly influenced by Alien (1979). Yet even with a sturdy plot, logic takes a backseat to flashy imagery. For instance, why do the movie’s thugs use shotguns in space? Because it looks cool, that’s why! Yes, the image-is-everything ’80s had well and truly begun—even though Hyams’ casting of Frances Sternhagen as the compadre/conscience of Connery’s character represents a throwback to the beautiful ’70s ideal of casting unglamorous actors simply because of their prodigious talent. Plus, Peter Boyle, as the bad guy, plays space-age golf. Maybe the anything-goes ’70s weren’t really over, after all.