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


This year we hit some serious time capsules… in one corner a look at a historical figure’s life, because the Oscars are into that now, and in the other corner a cast that couldn’t have beaten some enduring classic movies at the box office at any other point in history.

And The Oscar Goes To…

I tried watching this one as a kid. Didn’t make it very far. Remembered three whole scenes, including someone judging the size and smell of a kid’s poop to make dietary recommendations. That sort of moment sticks with you.

This was the first western movie to be made with the Chinese government’s cooperation since the 40s, meaning they were allowed to film in the Forbidden City. Handy, as that’s a key location for half the movie, but also surprising, because this thing is not flattering to any 20th century Chinese government. First they’re making a toddler emperor, then they’re a republic which collapses under corruption leading to a few decades of interchangeable warlords, before the Red Army of Chairman Mao arrives to… lock people in a prison camp for “re-education,” and the man in charge could end up under arrest himself for reasons never explained.

Based on the subject’s autobiography, The Last Emperor is the story of Puyi, who as the title suggests was the last Emperor of China before the country gave up on monarchs and began the road to Chairman Mao. Intercut with Puyi’s ten years in a Red Army prison camp, being “re-educated” for life as a civilian, the film takes us through Puyi’s life to that point.

At age two, Puyi is uprooted from home and brought to the Forbidden City to be crowned emperor (which is a messed up thing to do to any child for a number of reasons). At age 10, he finds out that he’s been replaced by a president, for China is now a republic, and no longer rules anything but the Forbidden City itself. But on the plus side, he gets a kindly Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole) who tries to bring some sanity to Puyi’s existence. Puyi is ultimately ousted by the Beijing Coup, but allies with the Japanese in the hope of building a new empire in his old home territory of Manchuria. Turns out Emperor Hirohito was not a great friend to have, Manchuria was never going to be an independent nation like Puyi thought, and this particular friendship is how he ended up spending ten years in prison.

Director and co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci shot the hell out of it, especially the gradual decline of the Forbidden City, from the turn-of-the-century Imperial splendour to being near-deserted after Puyi fires most of the staff for embezzling (and starting a fire to cover their embezzlement), to a sterile tourist attraction in 1987, twenty years after Puyi’s passing. Equally effective is the desolate wasteland of his attempted empire in Manchuria. Even without knowing the history, one look at Puyi’s new capital shows that things are not going the way he hoped.

Puyi spending his childhood being told he was the most important person in the country, only to have that taken away but still be unable to leave the Forbidden City even to attend his own mother’s funeral, explains a lot about why he was desperate enough to regain real power that he’d ally with the Japanese to get even a shadow of it, while also spending his teen years dreaming of escape to the West.

It’s also the least white Oscar movie to date, with only one named white character. Although it still has a blackface scene, god damn it, it’s just a jazz band at a party, they were just musicians in the background how was that necessary.

It is a touch long and just unrelentingly sad, which does seem appropriate, his life was messed up from the word “go,” and his only peaceful years were the seven or so at the very end, but as a tweet I appreciated said recently…

I have yet to hear an explanation.

I guess my review boils down to this… I have been struggling, in the day since watching this movie, to have… some sort of emotional reaction, and I’m stuck on “Man, his life was a mess, he never even had a chance,” and that was clear by the time he’s crowned emperor at age three. Or before that when he ends up in a camp for war criminals and tries to slit his wrists to get out of it. After that, it’s just two hours of “Oh dang it got worse somehow.”

I’m not saying James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News should have won instead, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it, but I also can’t rule it out.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It comes in 60th, in “I guess it was okay for its time” territory, which is where many 80s Best Pictures live in RT’s rankings. I neither concur with it being one spot over Platoon nor three spots under How Green Was My Valley.

The Box Office Champ

That’s right, readers. It might seem like a fantasy to the young, or a half-remembered dream to the reasonably aged, but not only was there a time when Tom Selleck earned top billing over Ted Danson, but when Steve Guttenberg was a major box office draw. We’ve only mentioned Police Academy and Cocoon in passing, and skipped Short Circuit entirely, but yeah, in the mid-to-late 80s Steve Guttenberg was a big deal.

Didn’t take. But sure let’s talk about this one and not The Princess Bride why not, thanks 1987.

We open with a montage of three guys living various degrees of the bachelor life while sharing a Manhattan penthouse: architect Peter (Selleck), who’s in an open relationship he’d like to be a little more closed; cartoonist Michael (Guttenberg), whose luck with ladies seems isolated to the montage; and actor Jack (Danson), a womaniser about to get them in trouble. Their lives are thrown into chaos when an old fling of Jack’s drops a baby named Mary off at their doorstep. Well, Peter and Michael’s lives are, Jack’s in Turkey for the next 40 minutes of the movie. Also he agreed to hold on to a “package” for a director friend of his, which arrives shortly after, so that causes some sitcom-style misunderstandings and hijinks.

Now let’s see if you can spot what I find a little weird about this movie, which was directed by… Leonard Nimoy!? Huh. Anyway. Let me break down the four major acts, and you look for something odd.

  1. Michael and Peter find and struggle to take care of baby Mary, having no idea what they’re doing.
  2. Jack returns, so Peter and Michael make him take of care of Mary, only to learn how attached to her they’ve become.
  3. Peter, Michael, and Jack elude the NYPD detectives surveilling them in order to get in a tense, high-stakes confrontation with mobsters looking for their missing heroin.
  4. Jack, Michael, and Peter love Mary and have settled into a new routine caring for her, but might lose her when her mother, Sylvia, comes back.

Did you spot it? That’s right, it’s weird Danson is absent so long off the top.

But seriously folks… Even watching this for the first time as a kid, I found it very weird that the heroin subplot, which had been going since the top of the movie, wrapped up completely, then there were still 20 minutes left. I recall, one scene later, seeing the Three Men and their Baby playing frisbee in the park to some 80s tune and thinking “Wait, what? We’re just back to this?” So needing high stakes for the ending, despite writing out the highest stakes, it leads to a second climax where the Three Men chase the Baby’s mother through the airport to keep her from taking Mary home to England. Man, remember when people could just do that? Sprint through an airport without a boarding pass? This movie is such a time capsule.

That said it’s still pretty funny. I wasn’t cracking up the whole time or anything but I definitely laughed more often than Annie Hall, and way more than The Last Emperor. And the end montage of the Three Men and their Baby, right before Sylvia shows up, is a little heartwarming.

It has its charms, I’m not angry at it. I’m not in a rush to also rewatch Three Men and a Little Lady, but I’m not mad to have rewatched this one. There were better movies this year, to be sure, but when has that mattered. Ask the early 30s and most of the 50s if being at the top of the box office made you the best popcorn movie.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: The critics give it an okay 76%. Audiences have absolutely turned on it and dragged it down to 47%. Well, chunks of it haven’t aged overly well. By now we must have dismantled the patriarchy and gender roles to the point that the idea of men caring for an infant is no longer seen as inherently comedic, so that part is antiquated enough that no one would consider a rema– [finger to ear] what’s that? Really. Really. Next year? Really. Zac Efron? Okay well that part makes sense…

How Far Apart? Babies are thrust into situations utterly unsuited for raising babies, be it a hedonistic bachelor pad or the Forbidden City. Also the addition of opiates to the family does nobody any favours.

What’s the Mashup? Knowing that her son is about to be dragged from home to the Forbidden City, Puyi’s mother leaves him with an American actor she’d been fond of. Jack, Peter, and Michael try to bring up the son they never knew they always wanted while having sitcom shenanigans and ducking both imperial agents and republic assassins in Three Men and a Little Emperor. Dang, I’d watch that one.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: It’s the 25th anniversary of Dr. No, and they celebrated it by debuting Timothy Dalton as Bond in The Living Daylights. It’s a good ‘un and the theme song by a-ha absolutely slaps.
  • A speed round of 1987 films that are revered as classics more than Three Men and a Baby. Ahem. Good Morning Vietnam. Lethal goddamn Weapon. RoboCop. The Lost Boys. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Dirty Dancing. Fatal Attraction. The Untouchables. The Princess freaking Bride. The Running Man. Wall Street. Full Metal Jacket. The Secret of My Success. Adventures in Babysitting. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. Hellraiser. Evil Dead II.

    But not Mannequin.
  • Doomed studio Cannon uses a 19th century adventure novel to make an obvious Indiana Jones knock-off in Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold. Doesn’t work. Nor does their He-Man adaptation Masters of the Universe. Most things Cannon tried didn’t work by this point. There’s a documentary about it, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
  • Elsewhere in Cannon films lore, Superman IV: A Quest For Peace brings Christopher Reeve’s Superman to a sad, undignified end, despite getting Gene Hackman back as Lex Luthor. And that was it for superhero movies for… two years.
  • Could be worse, could have been Jaws IV: The Revenge. Whoof, that franchise went so far downhill.
  • Predator combines the 80s Tough Guy Action Movie and the splatter horror genre, making a splatter movie where the sexy co-eds are replaced by manly man solider types. Which means yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Final Girl.
  • Dan Aykroyd and a post-Splash pre-Big Tom Hanks turn the TV show Dragnet into an effective buddy cop comedy. Or at least I remember it being so. Aykroyd is original main character Joe Friday’s impossibly straight-laced nephew, Tom Hanks is his new partner, and Harry Morgan reprises his role from the TV show, now captain to the new Joe Friday. That’s more information than you wanted about Dragnet but I think it’s neat.
  • Mel Brooks takes on Star Wars with Spaceballs. It’s good but they pause for the laugh too often, it messes with the pacing.
  • In addition to bringing buddy cop action movies to a new level with Lethal Weapon, Shane Black gifted us the Goonies vs. Dracula kid adventure horror movie Monster Squad, and it didn’t make much money but it’s great, it absolutely holds up, and a Shane Black-rewritten revival is what the Dark Universe monster movies should have been building towards, not whatever that group Tom Cruise’s The Mummy introduced that sounded like they gave up naming it halfway through, Spectorium or Prodigium or the Flabanaba Agency or whatever it was.
  • Amazon Women on the Moon is the 80s version of Kentucky Fried Movie and again, I remember it being pretty funny, with a surprisingly solid cast.
  • Beach party movie icons Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello reunite for a beach party movie nostalgia pic, Back to the Beach. Nobody cares. I think it’s most notable for having Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver pretty obviously playing Gilligan, now a bartender frustrated that nobody wants to hear stories about that time he was stranded on a island.
  • Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman team up for a comedy about songwriters in over their heads in Morocco, it probably seemed like a sure thing, but it’s Ishtar and it is a legendary failure.
  • Whole bunch of film debuts this year, including George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, and Richard E. Grant. If Richard E. Grant doesn’t mean anything to you, educate yourself.

Next Page: A Temporary Truce

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