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


Jesus God this decade is a roller coaster. Going from Ordinary People to The Empire Strikes Back to Chariots of Fire to Raiders and on and on, the tonal whiplash between Oscar winners is a lot, it’s just a lot, it could give a guy a seizure if he didn’t switch to rewatching YouTube video essays while writing these reviews…

Well this isn’t the year it improves, no, this year the tonal whiplash is even more extra, but fine, let’s get to it.

Okay, who didn’t think Ordinary People was maudlin enough?

And The Oscar Goes To…

This is what they call a “classic tearjerker.” Written, directed, and produced by future Simpsons producer James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment follows the relationship of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine, back again) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). After two scenes of Emma as a baby and child to demonstrate Aurora’s clingy, over-protective nature, we follow Emma over… many years. Many, many years. Fifteen? Twenty? Honestly not sure. Emma marries a man her mother doesn’t think is good enough (Jeff Daniels), and not only because his name is “Flap Horton,” though that is a red flag, that’s a bad name, Flap. The years start coming and they don’t stop coming, and before the halfway point Emma and Flip have three kids and mounting marital problems. There’s infidelity on both sides (Flop sleeps with minimum one grad student and Emma, suspecting this, has a fling with a sad-eyed bank manager played by John Lithgow), hurt feelings and accusations, and eventually cancer, of course there’s cancer, and it doesn’t have the decency to pick Flep.

Meanwhile Aurora has a growing flirtation with Garrett Breedlove, the hard-partying astronaut next door (Jack Nicholson, slightly more contained than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), despite having multiple suitors orbiting her (including Danny DeVito)… but not fast growing. Here’s an issue I want to flag… Aurora’s story feels like it could or frankly should happen in six months, but instead it takes, I think they said 15 years from Garrett moving in to them actually hooking up, because Aurora is shackled to the frequent time-jumps throughout Emma’s story. It’s the same problem with The Empire Strikes Back, where it feels Jedi training needs more time than the long weekend the Millennium Falcon spends getting from Hoth to Bespin.

The relationships are largely well-done; MacLaine and Winger play great off each other, and MacLaine and Nicholson are a fun pairing. Jeff Daniels does his best as Florp, but frankly I was rooting for Lithgow, he seemed like he needed a win and Floop was obviously gaslighting his pregnant wife that he’s not cheating. She just “always gets paranoid” in the second trimester, which Jesus, this is a pattern? How many grad students have there been, Flup?

But having that many time jumps makes it hard to lock into what the story is. It’s like that Futurama episode with the Harlem Globetrotters, where… don’t know why I’m explaining, we all know the one… where time breaks and keeps skipping forward, leaving the characters trying to catch up with what happened between jump cuts. Except it’s just us, the audience, trying to parse when exactly things between Emma and Flerp turned bad. Is he just incapable of being intimate with Emma while she’s pregnant, so every time it happens he sticks his Flaplette into the first girl looking for a better grade? I don’t know, we don’t get confirmation of any affairs of his until Emma’s been seeing Lithgow for… weeks? Months? Years? Who can tell with this movie. Maybe he’s right and she does just get paranoid, but I doubt it.

They want to bring us the entire relationship of Aurora and Emma, but also really want to get to the cancer part (which was significantly more drawn out than Love Story, I’d say it’s around a quarter of the movie?), so they just skim over Emma and Flolp’s entire marriage to get to the sad end of Emma’s life. And how sad is it? Eh… it didn’t really hit me until the very end, when Aurora reacts to her daughter finally passing, and then it was… 40-60% as sad as the end of E.T.? In that ballpark.

So I guess I’m saying that it’s a kind of dizzying narrative that sacrifices logic or connective tissue so they can speed to a tragic endpoint that… kind of landed, but “experiences many hardships then dies young” just isn’t my favourite character arc.

Terms of Endearment won five Oscars (three for Brooks, one for MacLaine, one for Nicholson), and was also a big box office hit, falling short of first place at the year’s box office by a mere… 144 million dollars. So… managed nearly 43% as much money as our champion. If that’s what you’re into, I guess they did it well enough.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Waaaaaay down at #83, in “this one’s regrettable” territory. It’s two spots below Gentleman’s Agreement but that’s way too close, Gentleman’s Agreement should be much higher.

Okay. Very grounded, simple human story with all-too-common human tragedies. Relatable enough that it made number two at the year’s box office, fine, great bring me the space wizards

The Box Office Champ

And the roller coaster hits another loop-de-loop.

Three years. Three years we spent wondering what was going to happen to Han Solo. Had any movie ended on that extreme a cliffhanger before, then made us wait that long for a sequel? Has any movie since? Not even other Star Wars movies, really. (The other big cliffhanger ending was Force Awakens and we only needed to wait two years.) These days if you’re gonna pull that kind of cliffhanger, you film that movie and the next one back to back.

Return of the Jedi was, for the longest time, the Big Finish for Star Wars outside of novels and comic books, and they didn’t hold back. Okay the second act drags a little, but that’s also where all the heavy lifting is being done character-wise. And then in the third act, the action splits into three sections, and gives everyone something equally important to do: Han, Leia, and Chewie bringing down the shield generator on the forest moon; Lando leading the assault on Death Star 2; and of course Luke, Vader and Palpatine. Not every trilogy manages to spread the action so equally. The Matrix didn’t. Spider-Man didn’t. Hell, even other Star Wars trilogies didn’t. Rise of Skywalker made a modicum of effort but it’s generally agreed Finn got shafted by that entire movie. For a franchise with a clear Chosen One, it’s extra impressive.

Yes the Empire’s “best troops” get brought down by teddy bears but, in the words of Patrick Willems, this is a movie about space wizards intended for children. And it’s about a small band of Rebels overthrowing the evil Empire despite being heavily outgunned, so come on, the Ewoks are fine. They’re fine. No notes. And while John Williams writes a few new leitmotifs for the score, I think his best addition this time was the music while Luke finally goes after Vader in the climax, to protect Leia. Williams’ score turns Luke’s victory over Vader into a tragic moment, when after the last movie you’d be expecting triumph.

Okay here’s some things for the joyless pedants. Some nitpick the plan to spring Han from Jabba’s palace, when it’s clear to me that Luke and Leia came up with multiple contingencies: Plan A, buy Han’s freedom, then Lando grabs the droids and makes a run for it; Plan B, Leia infiltrates the palace as a bounty hunter, springs Han, Lando grabs Chewie and the droids, and they all leg it under cover of night; Plan C, Luke says “Seriously, don’t be a dick, let me pay you off and we’ll call this a day;” Plan D, murder our way out. Given how our central trio’s luck tends to go, it ended up being Plan D.

Also this one gets flack for Leia being able to describe her mother in vague detail when the prequels make that improbable. Consider, for one moment, that until this conversation Leia didn’t know she was adopted. Given Bail Organa was trying to keep her secret from the second most powerful man in the galaxy maybe he didn’t choose to share that information.

As to why Chewbacca knows how to impersonate Tarzan? …Shut up.

As for the Special Edition changes… mostly okay? Correcting the part where a fault in Palpatine’s makeup was clearly fixed with a sharpie, good. Adding a bunch of banthas to Tatooine, neat. Giving the sarlacc a beak… harmless. Replacing Anakin’s original force ghost with Hayden Christensen? Look an argument can be made for it. I can even understand wanting the end of the movie to be a big, huge, galaxy-wide celebration and feeling that “Yub Jub” did not get you there musically. But the fact that Lucas looked at the Max Rebo band in Jabba’s Palace and said “This needs to be MUCH sexier” is… uncomfortable.

It’s a very solid conclusion to an epic trilogy. It completes Luke’s journey in a satisfying way without neglecting the rest of the cast, and I swear I am not trying to side-eye Rise of Skywalker when I say that but I do kinda hear it. I teared up more at Vader/Anakin’s death than Emma in Terms of Endearment. Although… god damn it am I about to say something nice about the prequels… knowing Anakin before his fall gives his redemption a lot more weight. Maybe the Machete Order (IV, V, II, III, VI) is the way to go.

It’s a satisfying enough conclusion that no one was really saying “What happens next?” What we were saying… what we were saying was “If the first movie was ‘Episode Four,’ what happened in Episodes One to Three? Are they gonna make those?”

And the monkey’s paw curled a finger. Or Max Lord said “Wish granted,” pick your favourite.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: The critics docked it some points, knocking it to 82%, but with a 94% audience score the crowds are still with it.

What Links Them? Neither Aurora nor Vader entirely approve of who their kids spend their time with. And both have minimum one character who’s been to space.

What’s The Mashup? In The Endearment of the Jedi, Luke and Darth Vader work out their complicated relationship long-distance. Vader doesn’t approve of Luke’s friends, but Luke just thinks Vader needs to drop his inhibitions and sleep with Jack Nicholson’s Grand Moff Breedlove. Leia also springs Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt with the help of Jabba’s sad-eyed accountant, along the way killing skeevy advisor Flurp Horton.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: The James Bond movie with the least repeatable title, Octopussy. Look I saw this one once as a kid but remember basically nothing about it. I have it on DVD, I could fix that any time I wanted…
  • In addition, Kevin McClory’s court case is resolved: he can make his own Bond movie with a rival studio… provided said movie is Thunderball. So said studio drove a dump truck of money up to Sean Connery’s house to lure him back for Never Say Never Again… which is Thunderball, it’s just Thunderball again. Max von Sydow plays Blofeld, and Kim Basinger and Rowan Atkinson turn up in supporting roles. Plus they beat the main Bond franchise to a black Felix Leiter (Bond’s pal at the CIA) by 23 years. McClory tried to make Thunderball a third time in the 90s, this time with another ex-Bond, Timothy Dalton, but it didn’t happen. He kept trying to make Bond movies until the courts shut him down in 2001, and he died five years later. So ends the tale of the Renegade Bond Producer. (Also Octopussy beat Never Say Never Again at the box office, McClory could not win.)
  • This Year in Martin Scorsese: Robert De Niro stalks Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, man I should watch more Scorseses.
  • I should also maybe rewatch Doctor Detroit, that feels like a weird blank in my Dan Aykroyd fandom. Or maybe I forgot literally all but one moment for a reason.
  • The Oscars and Golden Globes didn’t agree, but the BAFTAs thought Jamie Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliott deserved awards for the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places. Good for Denholm Elliott. Dude took a lot of crap gigs because he was afraid he’d never work again.
  • Monty Python’s Flying Circus gets back together for one last movie, Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life. It’s far less concerned with a “central narrative” than the last two.
  • Brian de Palma directs Al Pacino and Michelle Pfieffer in the gangster classic Scarface. Yes it’s a remake what of it.
  • Nicole Kidman makes her film debut in BMX Bandits. Look not everyone gets to have their first movie be Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Tom Cruise begins his ascendancy with both All The Right Moves and Risky Business. And Losin’ It? That one feels less important but the point is Tom Cruise was suddenly err’where.
  • Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders unites a cast of young future stars, including Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, Cobra Kai’s Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell again, and… Tom Cruise? Again? Goddamn. Maybe Scientology is right, maybe he does have superpowers.
  • Flashdance, WarGames, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and The Big Chill came out this year and feel significant but I have nothing to say about them.
  • Krull is a B-movie classic, if you disagree, let’s debate it… but you’d better speak sign language ’cause you only catching hands.
  • Steven Spielberg’s breakout hit may hit its nadir with Jaws 3-D. Ooooohhhh you were better once, Jaws.
  • Psycho II, you say. Huh. Bold move. Bold, bold move.
  • And a sequel to The Sting, but with all new characters? Jesus, at least Psycho II got Anthony Perkins back.
  • As long as we’re talking bad sequels… the guy who replaced Richard Donner on Superman II gets his own shot at the franchise with Superman III, trying to combine superhero action with Richard Pryor schtick. The reviews said that Lex Luthor couldn’t kill Superman, but Richard Pryor just might.
  • Plus Porky’s 2, Staying Alive, and Smokey and the Bandit 3, sadly not the version subtitled Smokey IS the Bandit, which was just cowardice… oof. Not a proud year for sequels overall.
  • Twilight Zone: The Movie comes out, with segments directed by a murderer’s row of 80s talent: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller. It’s sadly better known for the actors who died while making it.
  • George Lucas’ first animated film, Twice Upon a Time, about beings who run our dreams, comes out, and I recall it being an absolute delight. And that’s from rewatching in in university, not just watching it over and over as a kid.

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