Tuesday, January 9, 2018

1980 Week: A Glimpse at 1981—Part Four of Four



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 movies 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.

8 comments:

Eric Colin Reidelberger said...

I was 11 in '81 and my movie obsession was already taking hold in a major way, and like you, my family and I also put in a lot of movie theater time.

My parents were rather permissive with me when it came to films, so I got to see all sorts of "not recommended for children" features that I was unable to fully process until later in life.
We also had early versions of cable (ON-TV, Showtime) which afforded me many journeys into uncharted territory.

By the way, I had the misfortune of seeing both Caveman and Under the Rainbow in the theaters. Even then, I somehow felt that these were sub-par.

William Blake Hall said...

Mmm, are we sure Rollover couldn't rate a one-line mention if only to swipe at it? However, I now feel much more puzzled not to see Body Heat.

By Peter Hanson said...

Certainly thought about Body Heat (as well as the remake of Postman Always Rings Twice) inasmuch as they continue the neo-noir boom of the '70s, but I wanted to keep the scope of this thing under control, hence the idiosyncratic parameters of titles that closely connected to the '70s.

Were this an even broader look at 1981, it would feature some or all of the following (in addition to Rollover and those mentioned above): Absence of Malice; Bustin' Loose; Continental Divide; Fort Apache, the Bronx; The Fox and the Hound; The French Lieutenant's Woman; Gallipoli; Ghost Story; The Great Muppet Caper; The Hand; Hardly Working; Heartbeeps; The Incredible Shrinking Woman; Knightriders; Lion of the Desert; Modern Romance; Ms. 45; Nice Dreams; Only When I Laugh; Pennies from Heaven; Prince of the City; Ragtime; Rich and Famous; Saturday the 14th; Shock Treatment; Sphinx; Student Bodies; True Confessions; Whose Life Is It Anyway?; and Zoot Suit. (Plus many more, because, hey, who can forget Gary Coleman in On the Right Track? Wait, everyone can forget that? Oh, never mind...)

As with all subjective lists, everything's open to debate. The idea was just to paint a picture and to offer my own opinions of the movies with the strongest tethers to the preceding decade. Absolutely could have done a longer list while still adhering to that concept.

Rick Heg said...

Outland was always one of my favorite "space cowboy" films. As for the question of the use of shotguns, it makes sense as the weapon of choice when used inside of a sealed environment. A shotgun is fairly devastating at close range, but its ammunition will be less likely to puncture through several sections of hull like rifle ammunition. Unless of course you're a dumb hit man in the movie who shoots directly at a glass barrier!

William Blake Hall said...

Peter: fair enough, everyone (old enough) has their own 1981. Most of the titles you cite I don't miss so so much, although growing up with a lot of contact with something called the Society for Creative Anachronism helped to impress Knightriders upon me. I think of Body Heat a little differently -- between Romancing the Stone, Body Heat, and her Who Framed Roger Rabbit voicework, I recall a happy although altogether too quick time when Kathleen Turner was quite a phenomenon.

By Peter Hanson said...

William, among my vivid moviegoing memories is catching the first Conan picture at a plex in Schenectady, NY, on opening night in 1982. Several SCA members attended in full regalia. Predictably, snickers began the moment Arnold first spoke in the movie (the whole "lamentation of the women" speech), and one could sense the SCA folks getting antsy that the film wasn't being taken seriously. Yet by the end of the screening, by which point the camp grandeur of the movie was apparent to all, much of the audience joined in laughter when a smartass heckled the screen -- after Conan (Arnold) beheads the villain (James Earl Jones) and sends villain's head tumbling down a flight of stairs, the head rolls off to the side of the stairwell, so the heckler yelled, "Gutter ball!" Fun evening.

Frank Hackett said...

So Fine has its quirks and offbeat touches. It's similar in that way to Andrew Bergman's script for The In-Laws which, granted, is a much better film.

Based on the reader comments and your fondness for the year, hopefully we'll see "Every 1981 Movie" in the near future.

Hal Horn said...

I like SO FINE a lot; it also has more quotably profane Jack Warden than any other film besides USED CARS. One of my sleeper picks for the year.

Another 1981 sleeper I have quite a bit of fondness for is ...ALL THE MARBLES, with Peter Falk. Robert Aldrich's final film, and predictably, one more quintessential "guy" movie.