Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)

1989

And the alliance is over. Art and Commerce go their separate ways once more, and by a typical 80s-style wide margin.

And Art was not making a good case for itself. Great Man Biopics aren’t the only sub-category of Oscar Movie that ages like ripe bananas. Meanwhile commerce… well, commerce starts to get complicated.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Look how white that poster is. It’s an omen.

Driving Miss Daisy, in which an aging Jewish woman Daisy (Jessica Tandy) in segregation-era Georgia has a black chauffeur named Hoke (Morgan Freeman) forced on her by her concerned son (Dan Aykroyd), but despite her initial irritation at the notion, they eventually become friends. Meanwhile Spike Lee was doing actual work on America’s race relation problems with Do the Right Thing but apparently that was too out there for the Academy.

Driving Miss Daisy, like its descendant Green Book, is often accused by film historians as papering over American racism with this saccharine little story of an old woman learning how to have a black friend. It’s a way for white people to feel better about race relations without ever actually making a larger statement than “Racism, boy, I don’t know.” And this was the first time the Academy made it clear they were absolutely, woefully, into that.

But… is that actually fair? I would argue this is not the beginning of the embarrassingly white “Yay we solved racism” genre. An influence, sure, but from what I can tell, Driving Miss Daisy isn’t entirely concerned with solving racism.

They admit it exists, yes. On a road trip, Hoke gets menaced by two cops for being a black man next to a nice car in Alabama (they also clearly have negative thoughts about his Jewish employer), and Daisy’s synagogue is torched. To which Hoke takes the approach of “Well what did you expect.” When Daisy asks who would do such a thing as burn her temple, he says “Same people as always.” His tone implies that being Jewish in the south, she should know exactly who would do this, and then talks about the time his friend’s father was lynched. And when Daisy gets tickets to a dinner for Martin Luther King Jr., her son Boolie declines to attend, worrying that Georgia businessmen will turn on him and do business with some “New York Jew” (which he implies are seen as smarter than “Georgia Jews”) instead.

Does having a black friend cure Daisy’s racism? Maybe. A little. In the beginning, yes, while she keeps insisting she’s not a bigot, she does buy into some very negative stereotypes. She doesn’t actively hate black people, but does seem prone to believe they’re likely to be of lower moral character and probable thieves. It’s the insidious racism that “nice people” have while saying they’d have voted for Obama a third time if they could have. That said, she only objects to Hoke’s presence due to hurt pride over being told she can no longer drive herself around, although she does try to have him fired over helping himself to a can of salmon from her pantry (which he immediately replaced, before she even had the chance to call him out on it). After that her issues with race are basically gone, and the movie shifts gears to “Look, the Klan hates them both.

It honestly does the notion of “racism is solved because this white woman has a black friend” no favours, because it takes years for Daisy to warm up to Hoke and call him her best friend. Long enough that they won another Oscar for the makeup effects aging Tandy, Freeman, Aykroyd up a couple decades and change. (Young Me thought there must have been a better use for that Oscar than transforming Jessica Tandy from Really Old to Super Old.) Twenty three years and a bout of dementia to win over one woman who was just kinda racist. Society isn’t changed, or it is a bit because it’s the 70s now but Hoke didn’t cause it. Last we checked, Daisy’s son was still worried being pro-Civil Rights will hurt his standing in the community, and nothing bad happens to those Nazi* cops in Alabama. So racism as a concept isn’t even dinged.

*They’re openly racist anti-Semites who threw slurs around and were considering violence, they’s Nazis.

Honestly I wish they’d dug further into Daisy’s need to seem Working Class despite obviously being a woman of means, which was a big factor in not wanting a chaffeur (that and being a Scrooge McDuck “I didn’t get where I am by wasting money” type of rich person). Was there a slight concern about being wealthy and Jewish in public? Given when this movie takes place (late 40s-early 70s), she was nowhere near Europe during the Holocaust (she’s minimum one generation separated from Europe in general) but it’s not like late 19th/early 20th century America was super cool to the Jewish people either. Also she acts surprised the Klan might firebomb her temple so it feels like she’s a little blind to how bad anti-Semitism got back then. Maybe she shoulda watched Gentlemen’s Agreement.

So Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t solve racism, even in the empty, pandering way The Help pretended to. It has three moments that admit “The South was definitely racist in the 50s” (the cops, the synagogue burning, Hoke sympathizing with said burning by talking about the time a friend’s dad was lynched) and that’s about it. But if it isn’t about solving racism through the magic of friendship… what is it? Is it… nothing?

Were you just not the weak-sauce anti-racism parable everyone accuses you of being, or were you simply bad at being the weak-sauce anti-racism parable everyone accuses you of being? And what else is there to you if you couldn’t be that? A mean, miserly old lady spends twenty years (give or take) with a black driver and before she goes full-senile and decides he’s her best friend. Cool story, bro. Why do you have four Oscars, and why were none of them for Morgan Freeman?

Why should this have won Best Picture instead of… [looks at the other nominees]… oh dear. Ohhhh dear. Now I’m really mad about Do The Right Thing getting largely ignored.

I can kind of see the appeal as a movie, as Tandy and Freeman bounce well off each other, but I absolutely see why people cite it when they talk about how the Academy is historically terrible at tackling race issues, but keeps patting themselves on the back as if they aren’t.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s way down at #75, over Tom Jones and under Chariots of Fire, which feels meaner than anything I’ve said.

The Box Office Champ

Okay so this is when discussing the Box Office Champ gets a little complicated. Because as budgets got bigger and blockbusters got more numerous, Hollywood learned to start caring about the international markets. So at this point, my research into box office starts to see the split between the domestic champion, which is to say the highest grossing movie in the US and Canada, and the international champion. Sometimes the most popular movie in the US didn’t play overseas, or overseas markets ate up something the US was only moderately happy with. And down the road, Hollywood would start tailoring its big tentpole movies so they’d play well in China.

So for our first Domestic/International split, there was certainly a big pile of summer tentpole movies to choose from. Enough that I managed to wallpaper half a wall with 1989 movie posters that spring… including some major sequels. Back to the Future Part II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Star Trek V– actually no scratch that last one.

And all of them trailed a battle between a billionaire crime fighter and a Nazi-punching archaeologist. One was first, the other second by a little over or under $60 million, it just varied which was which.

Domestic

On the domestic side, we have Batman. A radical shift in tone and style from the Salkinds’ Superman series, even beyond what you’d expect from a movie about Batman as compared to a movie about Superman. It was a massive smash, crushing every other contender at the US box office, and started a surge in superhero movies that was spectacularly ill-advised, but we’ll talk about that in the 90s.

Batman wasn’t overly concerned with being a comic accurate story. After all, nerds were not big money yet, and superhero films were a rarity, not the dominant genre in three different media. Sure there are far less faithful adaptations… Catwoman has so little to do with the character it’s “based” on that I don’t think it even counts as a comic adaptation… but Tim Burton was far less concerned with feeling accurate to the source material than, say, Kevin Feige. No, what Batman tried to do was take Batman, his nemesis, and some of his iconic supporting cast (and also Vicki Vale), and build an 80s style action movie out of them.

And this is what causes most, if not all, of my main issues with the movie.

1) I think Joker works better when we don’t know who he was before the acid; 2) I definitely think Joker works better when he’s not already an unhinged career criminal*; 3) Joker being the one who killed Batman’s parents is a little absurd and unnecessary, there’s a reason nobody else used that. But this is an 80s action movie. The hero and villain need a connection. So Joker is written into Bruce’s backstory, and… 4) Joker and Bruce become rivals over Vicki Vale. In that Joker stalks her while Bruce tries to date her and she has barely any agency. But this is an 80s action movie so the hero needs a love interest (or child) and the villain needs to put her in jeopardy.

I was going to do a post fixing the DC movies but it was long and I abandoned it. My fix for this one hurts me, but is simple. Much as I love Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, cut him and give everything he did to Vicki Vale. That way she’s doing something other than being an object of lust for three very different dudes. I mean the next time we see Knox as a character is Crisis On Infinite Earths, you wouldn’t miss him.

And finally… 5) Batman sure does kill a bunch of people. Critics are fast to jump on Zack Snyder for his “Grow up, Batman kills” approach, and for good reason, but we must admit that cinematic Batman has almost always killed. The only exceptions are Lego Batman and George Clooney. Yes that includes Adam West. In his defense, he and Robin punch plenty of people, they’d never disintegrated on impact before, that one’s a little on Penguin and his faulty dehydration technology.

In the comics superheroes aren’t supposed to kill, for reasons both moral and commercial. There’s a reason Batman has at least a dozen classic nemeses and the Punisher has at best one. But this is an action movie, and the villain is supposed to die, preferably by falling a long distance, which Joker does (for full 80s villain death, he should have landed on something pointy).

Still… Jack Nicholson is magnetic as Joker, taking everything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and cranking it to 11. Michael Keaton is, sorry Batfleck fans, still the best live-action Batman, doing the best at selling Bruce Wayne the man and Batman the legend. Burton gives Gotham a lot of gothic atmosphere, making it look way more like comics Gotham than, say, just filming it in Chicago like Nolan. And Danny Elfman’s score absolutely slaps, as does Prince’s soundtrack. It has some flaws, as the film industry was still figuring out what comic book movies should be, but it holds up pretty well. (Sure the fight scenes are better under Synder or even Nolan but I can forgive that.)

*Except Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, I will hear no arguments that film isn’t perfect.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Critics seem unsold, giving it 71%. Audiences are more forgiving with 84%.

What Links Them? The title character’s best and truest friend is technically also their employee. Also the whiter a person is, the more trouble they’re going to be. I mean before DA Harvey Dent could turn bad, they had to recast Billy Dee Williams with Tommy Lee Jones, boom, QED.

What’s The Mashup? There is no way to mash up Driving Miss Daisy and Batman, there just isn’t, I have tried. If you swamp Hoke for Alfred, the only thing that happens in Driving Miss Daisy no longer happens.

International

The Last Crusade brought Indiana Jones back to form. There was something just… off about Temple of Doom. Maybe the fact that we were seeing younger, less responsible Indy. Maybe the focus on kids, with Short Round and the sinister Maharajah and all the child slaves needing saving. Maybe the screwball romance with Kate Capshaw. Maybe just the fact that instead of globetrotting like the first, after one scene in China he’s just in the Temple of Doom. Whatever the reason, Last Crusade fixed it.

Almost the full Raiders gang is back. No Marion, because… and this might be why Temple of Doom was a prequel… they just didn’t want to deal with Indy having a girlfriend or dig into why he didn’t, but John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott are both back as Sallah and Marcus Brody, each with an expanded role, each delightful. River Phoenix makes Teenaged Indy so much fun they made a Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show (nobody liked 10-year-old Indy). And, of course, Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr. The big sell for this one was the father/son hijinks between the Joneses.

(Which makes it all the sadder they couldn’t lure Connery out of retirement for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Not the saddest thing about that movie but it’s on the list.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark came early in the careers of Lucas, Spielberg, and Harrison Ford. Last Crusade finds them all more accomplished, all more polished, and it shows. The action setpieces are all thrilling, the characters are fun, the humour beats all hold up magnificently, the score is even better, and the “if Indy had done nothing it would have worked out” factor is reduced by the fact that it’s as much about Indy connecting with his dad as it is finding some divinely-imbued trinket. And also by The Mummy Returns teaching us that no self-destruct booby trap can withstand a mechanized excavation.

Two notes.

One, trying to walk the line between Elsa being a Nazi collaborator and redeemable hasn’t aged great. It played better when we thought we were done with Nazis. At least she dies by falling a long way, maybe onto something pointy. (As does the main Nazi.)

Two… I feel like the opening sequence with Young Indy must be held accountable for what’s become of prequels. Before Last Crusade, the only prequels I can name are Temple of Doom, that Butch and Sundance thing that couldn’t even get Redford and Newman back, and a third of The Godfather Part II, and they all break down to “Here’s something the characters did earlier on.” (Don’t come at me with Battle For the Planet of the Apes, all the time travel in earlier films muddles that one.) Last Crusade, in one chase sequence, showed us how Indy got his fear of snakes, his fondness for a whips (you know what I mean, get out of the gutter), his chin scar, and his hat. Now every prequel thinks it needs to answer questions nobody was asking. Look at Solo. How Han Solo met Chewbacca or Lando, fine, I’m okay with that, but how he got that exact blaster, why he calls Chewbacca “Chewie,” why his last name is Solo, nobody cares, and we cover all of that before we even had a plot.

I still think it’s the best Indiana Jones, though. That feels true to me. And proof that even though I know they will, they shouldn’t recast and reboot the series after Ford’s finally done with it. Indiana Jones without this precise combination of talent is just some generic adventure movie with a Brand slapped on it. Just make any adventure movie instead.

(Although Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proves that getting the band back together isn’t foolproof either.)

(Julian Glover, playing American Nazi collaborator Walter Donovan, has at this point tried to kill Indiana Jones, James Bond, Luke Skywalker and the entire Rebellion, and Tom Jones. What an asshole.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Higher than Batman on both counts, with 88% from critics and 94% from audiences. Which also puts it above Driving Miss Daisy’s 82 and 81, just saying.

What Links Them? Well they do both include driving, and the real villains are time and racists.

What’s the Mash-up? Driving Professor Jones is the explanation of what happened to Short Round I’ve been saying we needed since they decided to make a fourth one.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: In License to Kill, Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter is attacked by a South American drug kingpin on his wedding night. Felix is mauled by a shark, his wife is killed, and Bond goes rogue from MI6 to get some payback. Bond purists judge this one poorly, feeling “rogue agent on a revenge mission” is more Taken than Bond, even if Q and Moneypenny pop by to help. One could counter that after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, killing a guy’s bride on their wedding night is a bit of a rage trigger for 007. Anyway it’s both Dalton’s second and last, and further legal challenges with McClury over the character mean the franchise now enters its longest hiatus to that point. A record that’s only been challenged thanks to COVID.
  • Back to the Future Part II uses the same technique that Superman tried to use, and every filmmaker/studio making a movie that they know will end on a cliffhanger has used since: film the next one at the same time, release them at most a year apart. Except, you know, the occasional Star War.
  • Disney follows Oliver and Company with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It’s a big hit that starts a chain of critical and box office successes and a multi-year stretch of Disney always having at least one Best Song Oscar nomination if not win. The Disney Renaissance has begun.
  • Parenthood, with an all-star cast including Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, and newcomer Keanu Reeves tracks multiple branches of a family in varying stages of being parents. It’s adapted for television twice, and the second is excellent, but the first show I’ve ever stopped watching not because it isn’t very good, but because the high-stakes drama is just too draining. Same reason I bailed on This is Us two and a half episodes in. If the protagonists of my TV are going to face that level of crisis every week, they’d better have a mask or a cape or a bow and arrows.
  • Robin Williams chases that Oscar with Dead Poets Society. Not sure how great this one aged.
  • Joe Johnston makes his directorial debut with Honey I Shrunk the Kids. You might not know him but he does good work.
  • War Requiem is the final film of Sir Laurence Olivier, who passed away this year.
  • Stepping up to fill the Olivier void, Kenneth Branagh makes his bones with Henry V.
  • The January Man is the first film I can remember to call itself “the funniest movie of the year” after being released in mid-January.
  • Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves use time travel to pass history class so they can save humanity in the much-beloved Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
  • Uma Thurman makes her screen debut in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in a role only the British would think was okay for a seventeen-year-old. See in Britain the age of–stop talking? Next bullet point? Yeah, you bet.
  • Knowing James Cameron is working on The Abyss, some other studios try to be first-to-market with underwater horror movies Deepstar Six and Leviathan. Then The Abyss comes out and everyone forgets about the first two.
  • Christian Slater and Winona Ryder get up to some dark high school hijinks in the cult classic Heathers. There was a TV adaptation of it not too long ago. Avoid it.
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme breaks into the middle with Cyborg and Kickboxer. Oh, the old days, before Hollywood figured out that it’s easier to teach an actor how to fight than a fighter how to act.
  • Teen Witch sets the concept of “white people rapping” back about 6,000 years. Arguably the only thing that’s more damaging to rap as a genre is whoever told White Americans that “My name is [blank] and I’m here to say” is how raps start.
  • I’m not sure what full-page ad from the movie theatre’s 1989 summer preview magazine I regret having on my wall more: Hulk Hogan’s first star vehicle No Holds Barred, or Dennis Quaid’s Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire. Obviously the second thing is the better movie but man alive I’m over musician biopics.
  • Musical parody pioneer Weird Al Yankovic gives movies a try (other than Naked Gun cameos) with UHF. The movie’s funny but I guess he didn’t love it.
  • I definitely saw Second Sight with John Larroquette using psychic Bronson Pinchot to run a detective agency because I liked both of their TV shows, but I remember almost none of it.
  • Wes Craven and Robert Englund each try to take a break from A Nightmare on Elm Street with Shocker and a non-musical horror version of Phantom of the Opera respectively. Neither could be considered career highlights.
  • Nintendo straight up makes a feature-length infomercial for their product line disguised as a movie by remaking Rain Man with kids and making the Raymond a Nintendo savant in The Wizard. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. I hope that’s what happened. If it’s not, the whole thing becomes so much weirder.
  • Michael Moore’s anti-corporate documentary career begins with Roger & Me.
  • Mismatched buddy-cop action movies get as ridiculous as they can without sliding into full-scale self-parody with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango & Cash. And I say that knowing there were two mismatched buddy cop action movies in 1989 where one of the two cops was a dog. Two. (Turner and Hooch with Tom Hanks was more successful, K-9 with Jim Belushi didn’t kill the dog, take your pick.) But Tango & Cash remains bigger and dumber.
  • Roger Greenaway makes The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and honestly I’m still mad at him.
  • Peter Jackson takes Muppet parodies way too far with Meet the Feebles, don’t watch it, it will ruin your day. His career had… a weird start.
  • Marvel makes another attempt to get into the superhero movie game with Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher. It goes straight to video. Howard the Duck remains the closest thing Marvel has to a cinematic success story as the decade ends.

Next Page: Let’s wrap up

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