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


Okay see this is what I’m talking about, this is exactly what I’m talking about when I say the Best Pictures and Box Office Champs are getting father apart. One is about a starfighter pilot taking lessons from a Muppet on how to be a space wizard, and the other is literally called Ordinary People. I couldn’t make up a better case study of polar opposites if you gave me a month.

And The Oscar Goes To…

The Jarrett family is having a rough go. First born son Buck died in a boating accident, and younger son Conrad (Leverage’s Timothy Hutton in his first film) is fresh out of the hospital after trying to kill himself in the aftermath of his brother’s death. Father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) tries to reach out and provide warmth and support to Conrad, while mother Beth (an ice-cold Mary Tyler Moore) doubles down on a passive-aggressive need for neatness and normalcy, her every emotion buried deep in the way New England WASPs excel at. With Calvin’s support and Beth’s scorn, Conrad sees a therapist (Judd Hirsch) to dig to the depths of the pain he’s been working hard not to acknowledge. Can the family learn to process their grief, or will what’s unspoken tear them apart?

Directed by Robert Redford? Huh. Go figure.

So I’m watching this movie and I’m realizing it’s giving me everything I felt was missing from Manchester by the Sea, if anyone else remembers that was a thing. “These characters were shattered by tragedy,” yeah, got it, now tell me a story. Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore build a great unspoken tension, with his attempted warmth and her unflinching coldness leading to an explosion in the third act. Hutton does very well oscillating between Conrad trying to keep everything calm and controlled and the moments where the pain manifests in bursts of rage. Hirsch is basically perfect as Dr. Berger, the take-no-shit therapist who must, must have inspired Robin Williams’ version from Good Will Hunting a little. The scenes between Conrad and Dr. Berger are all excellent, and the one where Conrad’s repressed survivor’s guilt finally can’t be contained any longer is incredibly moving.

You will spend an act or two waiting for one of the leads to stop hiding from their torment and acknowledge that they can’t just pretend everything’s fine, but that could be modern perspective. We have made some leaps and bounds in dealing with emotions. Accepting you have them is no longer considered a weakness in increasing amounts of society. But when everything erupts, it’s pretty powerful.

And exactly the sort of movie that gets drowned out by the blockbuster hit machine. Why see Manchester by the Sea when you can re-watch Captain America fighting Iron Man?

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #62, a couple of ranks above Grand Hotel. Which… yeah, I get it. Well acted but not exactly earth-shattering. I take umbrage with it being under How Green Was My Valley, though.

The Box Office Champ

The Empire Strikes Back changed the way sequels worked. Rocky II? Rematch with Apollo Creed. Jaws 2? Another shark. French Connection 2? Popeye Doyle and Alain Charnier have another go at each other. Any James Bond movie? You get the idea.

The Empire Strikes Back? No beating the Death Star, no medal ceremonies, just Darth Vader chasing the Rebellion to the edges of the galaxy, and the best most of our heroes can hope for is to stay alive and out of Imperial hands long enough to reach safety. And not all of them manage it. They told the next chapter in a larger story, and it wasn’t a safe and happy one, and that was a radical shift. The only ones doing something similar were maybe, maybe Planet of the Apes, and arguably The Godfather. Although you could also argue that Godfather Part II just repeated the “In order to save his family from a mob war, Michael must sacrifice part of his soul” arc, I mean you could, that’s all I’m saying.

Now if you want to just churn out simple sequels until people get tired of your IP, you can go the Jaws route, just retreading the same basic story. Just bear in mind that if you’re not James Bond (which did reinvent itself about once per decade, give or take), you run the risk of rapidly diminishing returns, like Men in Black, Austin Powers, or the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies. If you want to make a proper Trilogy? People are always going to ask if the second film is your Empire, and it often will be. Empire Strikes Back is shorthand for a sequel in which the heroes take a hit, and we probably end on a cliffhanger.

And that’s because despite being a downer in comparison to its predecessor, it’s also a vast improvement. Yes if we so chose, we could ask how long Luke actually trains with Yoda, given that Han, Leia, and company’s arc seems to take a couple of days at most. And yes, one could complain about how it splits up the cast, especially the franchise’s best double-act, R2-D2 and C-3PO. There’s something to that… Luke, Leia, and Han get split up a lot in this franchise. It’s like if in book two, Harry Potter had been transferred to a different magic school and for the rest of the franchise only saw Hermione and Ron on holidays.

But the character work is much deeper than Star Wars… ugh, fine, than in A New Hope… the stakes are higher, the action scenes better (especially the obligatory lightsaber fight), and the Vader reveal was a real jaw-dropper back in the day. Speaking of Vader, without a Moff Tarkin holding him in check, Vader really cuts loose as an iconic villain. Plus John Williams, having written an all-time great film score last time, said “I’m-a outdo it,” and wrote the Han and Leia theme and the incredible Imperial March.

And yes Boba Fett’s armour and ship looked cool but the first time he canonically did anything actually impressive was the second season of The Mandalorian and deep down you know that.

I had planned to talk about how it was clear that Lucas was making things up film by film, but on rewatching… I dunno, I think maybe he knew where he was going with Leia. I think it’s set up in a couple of ways. In which case I have some notes. Some notes about kissing.

As far as George Lucas’ need to tinker for the Special Editions, Empire fares the best. No CG R&B bands, no deleted scenes that are utterly redundant, no controversies over who shot first. Ian McDiarmid plays the Emperor, which he didn’t in the theatrical cut, and the matte boxes are cleaned off all the ships. The original version was just lousy with matte boxes.

Anyway Empire rocks. It ensured that Star Wars would be a beloved franchise, and not something that had one good movie in the 70s and a bunch of increasingly bad sequels like so many things we covered last time.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 94% from critics, 97% from audiences, thanks to all that stuff I said.

What Links Them? Strained parent-child relationships. At least Darth Vader is willing to show his child some affection, Beth.

What’s The Mashup? In Ordinary People Strike Back, last surviving Jedi Master Yoda helps Luke Skywalker process his survivor’s guilt over the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Biggs Darklighter. Darth Vader wants to reach out, but Emperor Palpatine just wants to use the fleet to murder all of Luke’s friends.

Other Events in Film

Gonna start running out of stuff that isn’t obvious before long.

  • This Year in Martin Scorsese: Marty and Bobby team up again for Raging Bull, the darker, angrier, true story-er Rocky, considered one of Martin Scorsese’s best, if not the best, and thus one of film history’s all-time greats. Man alive this list misses some classics.
  • Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson get a little nutty (and nearly drive poor Shelley Duvall out of acting) in The Shining.
  • Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker satire the disaster genre by adding jokes to a 1957 movie called Zero Hour, resulting in the comedy classic Airplane! Their insistence on casting dramatic actors instead of comedians pays off, and accidentally transforms Leslie Nielson into a comedy icon.
  • But he didn’t fully transition to comedy this year, because Nielson was in Prom Night with early scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.
  • Michelle Pfieffer’s film career kicks off in The Hollywood Knights. Her first starring role would be two years later but like hell I’m going to acknowledge Grease 2 in this oh god damn it
  • The single best adaptation of a Saturday Night Live sketch into a movie: songs, car chases, and bizarre gags with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as The Blues Brothers.
  • Any Which Way You Can (reuniting Clint Eastwood and the orangutan) and Smokey and the Bandit II do okay but not as well as their predecessors.
  • Heaven’s Gate bombs so hard it bankrupts United Artists and, as I said, retroactively turns some critics against The Deer Hunter. When we talk about the big names of New Hollywood, Michael Cimino is not on the list, and this here’s why.
  • Caddyshack is what happens when a cast and director are super into improv but also really good at it: the script gets thrown out, but you get all-time great moments of comedy. Just don’t let unfair and inaccurate preconceived notions about Rodney Dangerfield or failure to pay attention to anything but the gopher convince you the rich snobs are the protagonists. If you root for the snobs in a Caddyshack movie you’re gonna have a bad time. Not that I… I mean I wouldn’t… I’m just saying that’s what I’ve heard. In places.
  • Another horror icon gets his start in Friday the 13th… although his mother has to do the heavy lifting this time out.
  • Robert Altman gets experimental with Popeye, starring Robin Williams. It… does not go well. To the point where there has never been another Popeye movie, even in the 90s when they were primed to consider one.
  • Animators Rankin/Bass release The Return of the King, which is sometimes mistaken for but was not a follow-up to Ralph Bakshi’s unfinished Lord of the Rings adaptation.
  • Mad Max makes it from Australia to America.

Next Page: Running for gold and running from boulders

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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