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


So I said it was hard to picture a wider gulf between the Oscars and the general audience than Ordinary People and The Empire Strikes Back, but damned if 1982 didn’t give it the old college try. A massive smash sci-fi hit from Spielberg versus our first true example of what might be called “Oscar bait.” Because a casual glace at past decades, with their Apartments and Martys and Annie Halls and whatnot did not seem to have the specific tastes they grew to have that made them easy to bait. But maybe here’s where that started to change. Because it’s hard to think of a baitier Oscar bait biopic than the only they rolled out this year.

First impression: I guess the Academy felt Chariots of Fire was too nice to the British, ’cause god damn

And The Oscar Goes To…

That’s right, mothereffers, time for a Great Man Biopic! Opening with a caption saying, essentially, “Look there’s no way to cover everything, we’re trying our best to give an accurate portrait is all,” in more poetic terms but also less funny terms than Vice’s opening caption on the challenges of documenting one of the most secretive men in US government. Gandhi tracks the struggles against inequality and imperialism of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the Slumdog Skillionaire, first name Messiah.

I must once again question the wisdom of starting a biopic with the subject’s death so that people at the funeral can give a thesis statement for the movie. Much as Lawrence of Arabia opened with people at the funeral saying “Man, that Lawrence, he was a complicated dude,” so does Gandhi open with the title character’s assassination (which honestly was unintentionally funny) and newscasters talking about how great he was, and come on, your movie is over three hours, you should be able to get us there without spelling it out in the first two scenes.

And we are very much into Great Man Biopic territory here. The Great Ziegfeld admitted that while its title character was great at manufacturing hits, he was terrible with money and frequently broke. Patton was as interested in its subject’s failings as his successes. Cleopatra in the 30s was a bit of a slut-shame and so too, I assume, was Zack Snyder’s Cleopatra in the 60s. Gandhi is only concerned with the man’s noble deeds, from standing up to mistreatment of Indians in South Africa, to being the leading voice for Indian independence, to starving himself in protest of Hindu/Muslim violence during the partition of Pakistan.

I admit I didn’t know Gandhi got his start in South Africa. Given the Dutch names of major cities and Holland-meets-New Zealand accent, I’d forgotten the British were ever in charge down there. Which is dumb, obviously the British ruled at some point, English is an official language of South Africa. One of 11, but none of the other ten are Dutch.

The film isn’t interested in examining Gandhi as a person, his strengths or flaws or controversies, the way Patton did. It merely introduces to Gandhi as an attorney being thrown off a South African train for being in first class while not white, then follows his journey into being the poster child for effective non-violent resistance, never depicting him as anything but this saintly figure. Even “Florenz Ziegfeld was habitually bad with money” was more nuance. Nor did the film care to mention the less nonviolent contributions of groups like the Indian National Army. This is what history tends to forget… for every Martin Luther King Jr., there are typically Black Panthers also operating, and when governments decide maybe they need to compromise, they prefer to work with the pacifist.

Look let’s be frank… Ben Kingsley was good, and yes, he is half Indian, but they still browned him up for this role, and that’s not okay. Especially now, when we know that even black women can be accused of blackface if they darken their skin for a role. That said he does well, as we must have known he would, but actors such as Dev Patel and Rahul Kohli (Gold and Bronze Medallist, Best Male Supporting Character on this here blog) prove that you can just get a talented Indian actor, they very much exist.

Some co-stars I didn’t expect, including Mass Effect 2’s Martin Sheen as a reporter who covers Gandhi’s exploits in South Africa and India, Boston Legal’s Candice Bergen as a photographer who interviews WWII-Gandhi, and Chariots of Fire’s Scottish One as a priest who allies himself with younger Gandhi. This is the second movie I’ve seen this decade with Sir John Gielgud (after Chariots) and I have to say he hasn’t made a strong impression. Just one more snooty British guy in either film.

It’s just a lot of movie to ultimately say so little. We see friends love him, the public worship him, foreigners respect him, and the British fear and resent him, and we could have done that in two hours and without an intermission why, why an intermission, roadshow releases ended five years ago but at three hours I expect some complexity to the story. This is our first true example of the contemporary Great Man Biopic: full of pomp and self-importance, but shockingly little to say. It has evolved into just the worst genre of Oscar Movie.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Gandhi is at number 69 (nice.) (Sorry, couldn’t help it), right between The Life of Emile Zola and Ben-Hur. Maybe a notch too low.

So as we move on… I guess the rule should have been “The box office champs stopped being nominated for Best Picture unless directed by Steven Spielberg,” as he had three nominations in five years. We just did number one on the last page, and here’s number two, which again would be the Joint Champion if this were about the Golden Globes.

The Box Office Champ

Five years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind came in third to Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit, Steven Spielberg gave first contact stories another go, this time a touch more successfully. As in an extra $243 million more successfully. As in take the already impressive-for-the-70s gross of Close Encounters and add more money than any one movie had ever made, ever, and you have E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

In the late 70s/early 80s, did people get weary of the box office records being shattered? First Jaws, then Star Wars, and now E.T. is the first to break $300 million, setting a box office record that wouldn’t be challenged for over a decade.


(And The Sound of Music, as it turns out)

And it did this with no stars. The Santa Clarita Diet’s Drew Barrymore became famous after this… likely thanks to the acting legacy connected to that last name… and it took an underage drug habit, some questionable choices, a Playboy shoot, and a comeback before she could write her own ticket with the Charlie’s Angels movies. Likewise the main character, Henry Thomas, managed a couple of decent gigs in adult life before eventually landing The Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor and, as we all know, the voice of Dr. Mid-Nite on Stargirl, but at the time? Not even an early-stage Richard Dreyfuss like Close Encounters. Oh and C. Thomas Howell but this series is about Oscar winners and box office champions so it’s not overly concerned with C. Thomas Howell.

No, Spielberg broke records with a funny, thrilling, sometimes heartbreaking adventure suitable for the whole family, that people saw over and over. Sometimes because they were “too young” to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with their big brother and Dad so Mom took them to see E.T. a second time instead and they tried so hard to prove they were a big boy by not crying when it looks like E.T. dies but they just couldn’t and

Spielberg does such an amazing job at making the government men a faceless menace that for most of the movie they’re creepier than the actual Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whether they’re silhouettes with flashlights, or shot from the torso down, or in the dark/backlit by a setting sun, or bursting into the house in full NASA space suits, Spielberg makes them literally faceless, and thus makes a dozen or so government bureaucrats as sinister and menacing as the man-eating shark from Jaws. The spaceman home invasion was legit creepy. (And then the head NASA guy isn’t so bad but still.)

E.T. himself has some excellent puppet work. Even the version that has to walk around is capable of some solid facial movements. It really helps you feel for this weird little potato creature.

The scene where Elliott’s brother’s DND group suits up to help get E.T. to his spaceship is weirdly awesome, and you instantly understand how Stranger Things happened.

Some people think that E.T. dying and then rising again is a Jesus allegory, especially since he heals injuries with his touch. I say that E.T. watched the Mom reading Peter Pan to Gertie, specifically “clap your hands if you believe in fairies,” which seems like clear foreshadowing to me now. So it’s not a Jesus moment, it’s a Tinkerbell reference. That moment didn’t get to me like it did when I was a kid, but when Elliott and E.T. have to say goodbye? OOF.

You could say, E.T.’s species turns up as a Star Wars Easter egg, he can move objects with his mind, he can psychically influence the weak-minded, he can heal injuries like Rey… is E.T. a Jedi? No. Don’t be silly. Being a Jedi isn’t just about using the Force, which E.T. can clearly do, it’s about a philosophy, a moral code, a way of living based on rigid emotionally restrictive

Anyway it’s still pretty great.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A 98% from critics and a… 72% from audiences? Okay that makes little enough sense that I had to skim the audience reviews and at least one seems to be QAnon trash so if you’re leaving one or two-star reviews on RT for E.T. you can go to Hell you go to Hell and you die

Management is very sorry for the frequent interruptions.

What Links Them? The title characters are beloved by those close to them, are feared by and suffer abuse from white authority figures, but still practice non-violence. Even though one of them could very clearly mess you up with his brain.

What’s The Mashup? Three years in and I regret this bit. Okay. What have we got… India is inspired to rise up against their British occupiers by a unique being that performs miracles such as healing plants and turning guns into walkie-talkies in A.I.E.T.: the Anti-Imperialist Extra-Terrestrial. He also helps cure racism because Aaaagh, aliens are real and they have magic powers and what if he calls them and reports that we’re all dicks

Other Events in Film

  • At number two, a smash hit with ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Man I wish the Oscars liked comedy a bit more, this one would’ve been fun.
  • Watchmen’s Louis Gossett Jr. wins Best Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman, the first black man to win that category. That’s three acting categories down, one to go. And most, if not all, of the other categories. Pretty sure we’re still waiting on Director. Previously convicted sex criminals have won more Best Director Oscars than black people have.
  • The most iconic 80s sex comedy, Porky’s, opens. Are aspects of it problematic? Sure. Has it aged better than Revenge of the Nerds? Absolutely. However the best teen sex comedy of the 80s may well be Fast Times at Ridgemont High, also this year, featuring the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film debut of Nicholas Cage.
  • Admiral Jim Kirk faces off against an old enemy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, seen by many as the film franchise’s apex. It helps that Khan is an established character who has history with Kirk and company and isn’t some guy they just met.
  • Joel Silver makes his producing debut by popularizing the buddy cop action flick with 48 Hours, starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.
  • Rocky Balboa finds he’s been taking easy fights for too long and is thus utterly unprepared for the challenge of Mr. T’s Clubber Lang in Rocky III, again I don’t know if this is meant to reflect on Stallone’s career but maybe?
  • Stallone debuts his other iconic character the same year in First Blood, which we discussed in the 70s. Not the last year where both Rocky and Rambo turned up.
  • Disney makes a massive breakthrough in digital special effects with Tron. It is disqualified from the visual effects Oscar because the Academy thinks using computers is cheating.
  • Airplane II: The Sequel goes into space and fittingly adds William Shatner.
  • An early version of Blade Runner makes it to theatres. It is Blade Runner’s curse as an IP to be visionary and ground-breaking and gorgeous but make very little money in theatres.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger has a breakout role as Conan the Barbarian.
  • In addition to helming E.T., Spielberg helps write Poltergeist. He had his fingerprints on a lot of 80s hits.
  • Elsewhere in horror John Carpenter makes a true Hollywood rarity, a remake that outshines its predecessor, with The Thing.
  • Wes Craven gives comic book movies a go with the little mentioned Swamp Thing. Now that Swampy’s had a TV show maybe it’s due for another look. I haven’t seen it recently, don’t hold me to that.
  • Jet Li makes his debut in Shaolin Temple.
  • You might not know the animated movie Flight of Dragons, in which a (then) modern-day writer finds himself dragged back in time and stuck in the body of a dragon to help with a quest in the dying days of magic… but you should. That movie holds up.
  • On a similar note, a whole bunch of young girls had their hearts broken in The Last Unicorn.
  • The Halloween franchise tries to move past Michael Myers with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Doesn’t… doesn’t go great.
  • Paradise is a movie for anyone who thought The Blue Lagoon was too tame. Let’s… speak no more of it.
  • Blake Edwards cobbles a bunch of deleted scenes of the late Peter Sellers together for Trail of the Pink Panther, oof, bad taste, that’s bad taste right there.

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