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Uncouth, Cranky and Rude: Movies in 1988 Were a Far Cry From Today

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The regular box office is back. Ordinarily, that sentence would arrive with exclamation points. But after six months of pandemic-induced nothing, the numbers are still off. Theaters are showing films but at a reduced capacity, and mine in New York City are still closed, which helps explain how, in the last weekend of August, the Top 10 movies made just $12.5 million. I would love to see “Kajillionaire,” but “in a schlep to New Jersey and maybe get sick” sort of way? As it is, I raced over there for “Tenet” a few weeks ago and left sad.

The conditions were optimal. New Jersey caps theater attendance at 25 percent, and my boss rented out the entire house as a precaution. So a few of my colleagues and I sat rows apart and agreed to remain masked the entire time. It was lonely. That’s, in part, because I was enduring another soulless Christopher Nolan afternoon. “Tenet” is a save-the-world heist puzzle with yachts and spies. Nolan cares about time and space as mechanical matters that are meant to double as existential. What a skilled delusionist he is: His movies always seem heavier than they actually are.

Things were also lonely because after Michael Caine tells John David Washington, near the start, that he needs better suiting, I couldn’t lean over and ask a friend, 30 minutes later, whether the clothes he wears to steal some art or steer a speedboat were actually better.

Domestic Box Office, September 9–11, 1988


Rank

Title

Gross

1

Moon Over Parador

$3,268,975

2

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

$3,201,442

3

A Fish Called Wanda

$2,806,910

4

Die Hard

$2,608,219

5

Betrayed

$2,511,437

6

Cocktail

$2,221,849

7

Young Guns

$2,172,952

8

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

$1,883,805

9

Married to the Mob

$1,613,572

10

Big

$1,326,258


Note: New releases in yellow.·Box Office Mojo.

This is all to say that, as delighted as I was to smell popcorn again, I could’ve waited for a true movie emergency. For now, it feels safer to keep rummaging through the past, perhaps to the comparably slow weekend of Sept. 9, 1988, when the Top 10 movies grossed less than the first weekend of “Coming to America,” which had opened in late June and slipped to 11th place.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 movie was a bomb. That would be “Moon Over Parador,” a comedy with Richard Dreyfuss impersonating the dictator of a fake South American country. Not his choice! The suddenly dead dictator’s chief of staff (Raul Julia) makes him do it. Dreyfuss’s character begs to get out of the gig, even complaining about having to brown his skin. But he puts the makeup on, anyway — and the military uniform, graying wig and lousy accent.

ImageRaul Julia, left, and Richard Dreyfuss in “Moon Over Parador,” about an actor who impersonates a South American dictator.
Credit…Universal Pictures

Paul Mazursky co-wrote and directed this thing, a lark released between “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story,” two Mazursky comedies that went over better. This one’s still got teeth, though. The target is power — of performance and seduction. It’s got the puckered tang of something pulled together in a week and brims with farcical life. (“Vote for who you want,” says one Paradoran guard to another. “It’s a free dictatorship.”) Everybody’s in the mood to give more than they need to — Dreyfuss, Sônia Braga as the dictator’s canny mistress, Dana Delany as a ripening actress, Sammy Davis Jr. as himself. Julia is explosively good. I love a star whose charisma is as twisty, flavorful and primed for exasperation as Dreyfuss’s is.

The story is set up as a flashed-back love story between an actor and his brilliance that Dreyfuss lays on two colleagues waiting for an audition in a theater lobby. (“I was a Nubian space slave last week with an aluminum foil jock strap,” says one.) But once a coup, guerrillas and the C.I.A. intrude, that cynical effervescence turns glib.

Still, it’s remarkable to go from something as mopey as “Tenet” to “Moon Over Parador” — to go back to all of 1988, really — and notice how loud and unpleasant and unapologetically cranky everybody was, even the cartoon characters. The world has become a nonstop vulgarity, and our movies can’t keep up. There are lots of people in “Tenet” and I didn’t care about any of them. They’re seat fillers. Washington seems, once again, like a nice guy. But is that what I want in a leading man? A chum? Robert Pattinson is certainly up to something, as Washington’s soused-seeming sidekick, darting about in le Carré loungewear. He’s suaver and more interesting. He’s Going for Something, but what’s he going for? In a movie this convoluted and stuck on itself, you don’t want to be figuring out the actors, too.

This century, the casual edges all over American movies have been razored off. Almost everybody in that 1988 Top 10 is uncouth, obscene, horny, neurotic or just in a foul mood; the cutie-pie girlfriends and animated babies smoked as much as Bruce Willis, who stops the thieves in “Die Hard” with no shoes and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was still raking it in and remains remarkable for the amount of abrasiveness and scuzz its live-action-cartoon hybrid retained.

Back then, we were still drawn to worlds that reflected — but mostly exceeded — the edginess of the one we lived in. In “Betrayed,” doing all right at No. 5, Debra Winger is an F.B.I. agent who infiltrates a Midwestern white supremacy ring (agrarian Aryans) and falls in love with the most strapping of ’em (Tom Berenger, at peak creamy beauty and emotional haze). I’m not bringing it up because it’s merely one of the movies in this batch in which workplace sex or casual harassment is as elemental as coffee. I’m not even bringing it up because, thanks to a script by Joe Eszterhas and despite direction by Costa-Gavras, it’s absorbingly abominable. I’m bringing up “Betrayed” because it’s got John Heard.

Credit…MGM

Heard wasn’t quite a character actor. He wasn’t ever a star. And he was a notch above those “that guy” types whose face you know but whose name remains elusive. He’s just John Heard: handsome but harsh. He’s in “Betrayed” and “Big” (which was still a smash in 10th place in its 15th week); and in both he’s a colleague upset because a woman might prefer another man to him. And rather than, say, honor Ralph Bellamy, who’d roll with the punches, Heard punches back.

The F.B.I. needs Winger to go back in and sleep with Berenger again. She’s already told them how dirty she feels, but not so dirty that she can’t resist drawing a crucial procedural distinction. “I didn’t sleep with him,” Winger says, with that mix of husky resolve and teenage chagrin. “I made love to him,” which, in a 1988 erotic thriller, was a point worth making. Needless to say, Heard is livid at her demurral: “You don’t want them to think you’re an easy lay!” Who knows what he even means. But Heard says it in a way that hurt my feelings.

This bygone edge isn’t about villainy or even morality, really. In the ’80s, one upside of Hollywood’s romance with corporate culture was that the personal entanglements of professional relationships inspired a lot of movies to work ethics into the plots. You need grains of life for an ethical dilemma, you need an understanding of work and people, whether in 90 minutes of trash or something more highborn. And the ethics of the ’80s could be exciting. The supremacists are the bad guys in “Betrayed.” Heard is just another disgruntled employee putting a co-worker in an ethical bind. In “Tenet,” the sole source of testiness or human friction comes from an all-purpose Russian baddie who wants to destroy the world and his cagey wife. Kenneth Branagh plays him as though the credit limit on his acting card got raised to “shady silent-movie C.E.O.” He seems meant to come through not as human but as evil. Stopping him is a moral concern. The awfulness Heard was often asked to summon was mostly never evil, just terribly, unethically human.

By 1988, Hollywood had settled into a vulgar groove that even the horror movie understood. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” was No. 2 that week. It’s typically gross: somebody, having read his Kafka, turns a bodybuilder into a bug. Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger is as crispy and Fred Astaire as ever. He does some of his taunting in nurse drag. When a guy dies by water bed, Freddy quips, “How’s this for a wet dream?” The movie’s air of blithe testiness was so pervasive that you could recast this with Dreyfuss in the lead and Heard lashing out as one of the overstressed parents and lose nothing.

The victims in “Dream Master” are a multiracial bunch (well, there are two Black people) that satisfy movie-adolescent archetypes. You get the sense that a casting director wanted to relocate the Breakfast Club to Elm Street. Maybe word was out that the actual so-called Brat Pack were armed and dangerous now. The boys, for instance, were in “Young Guns,” which held at No. 7 and was a hit that reimagined Wild West legends as suitable for the inside of middle-school lockers. It’s awful. The snarling and spitting and posturing; the plotlessness; Kiefer Sutherland’s attempts to bully a Chinese concubine (Alice Carter) into leaving Jack Palance. Everybody takes turns insulting Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays the crew’s aggrieved Mexican-Apache compadre. No one seems to be enjoying this. Well, Emilio Estevez does. He’s having a blast. I’m guessing that’s because he chose to play Billy the Kid as though the kid were 9.

Credit…20th Century Fox, via Getty Images

But “Young Guns” has that keyed-up brazenness I’m talking about. There’s just nothing to leaven it. None of these guys is starry or charismatic enough on his own. (It was smart economics to sell them as a six-pack.) Just about everybody in this movie and in this week’s Top 10 is an — well, the word is unprintable. I can’t even use its synonyms. You know the type. They work with a mix of impunity, entitlement, disregard and bravura.

Some of what keeps “Die Hard” a perfect movie is how it can bury us in peevish, cocky, haughty, drunken, short-tempered, goony, stubborn men yet relax because its star is a miraculously calibrated combination of those qualities, but with a pinch of humility, a workingman ease and a gallon of charm. The movie, a major sleeper in fourth place in its ninth week, will forever be remarkable for Bruce Willis’s hero journey from chauvinist cop to husband of the year.

The biggest box-office stars of the time tapped similar qualities: Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson. Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise. He’s right there at No. 6 in “Cocktail,” as this former Army guy named Brian Flanagan who can’t get a corporate job so he winds up a bartender. Brian’s attempt at office work includes a montage of Cruise trying to talk and grin his way into an executive suite. With that hair, he could have slid right into Poison.

Brian makes friends with Doug (Bryan Brown), an older bar owner, and the two do stunt pours at a crowded mega-club where Brian stands atop the bar and recites poems about what a killer bartender he is as though he were leading the troops at Agincourt. He starts sleeping with a sexy photographer (Gina Gershon) who starts sleeping with Doug, who’s even more of an [unprintable] and yet you don’t despise him because he seems somehow wise in his sleaziness.

Credit…Touchstone Pictures

Hurt, Brian high-tails it to a bar in Jamaica and romances an American tourist named Jordan (Elisabeth Shue). The movie dies once she comes along and dilutes what had been a drama of egos. But eventually, Doug finds Brian at his bar and dares him to pick up a ritzy businesswoman (Lisa Banes). Jordan sees them together and flees. Brian does a little moping then decides to move in with the ritzy lady, nagging her to hook him up with her contacts. Frustrated and insecure, he has what can only be described as Ye Olde Art Opening Breakdown, punching out the artist and ruining his sculpture. Soon he’s trying to weasel his way back into Jordan’s life.

I’ll stop here and dare you to watch the rest for yourself. The final third of this movie takes being an [unprintable] to surprisingly despicable places. You wonder how an ending this bizarre didn’t dent Cruise’s total domination. Brian is such an appalling character that no amount of movie-star charm can blind you to it. But at the end of the year, “Rain Man” would arrive and redeem Cruise’s stints in the depths of egotism and greed. He’s as good as Dustin Hoffman in that movie, but people probably believed that Hoffman, who won a pile of awards, was playing Raymond Babbitt and Cruise was playing himself.

The Academy Awards for the movies of 1988 were awash in bluntness, cruelty and acerbity. The best-picture nominees were “The Accidental Tourist,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Working Girl” and “Rain Man,” which won. The supporting actor Oscar went to Kevin Kline for the acrobatic obscenity he lent to “A Fish Called Wanda,” the year’s other surprise, which was at No. 3 this week, and still taking its sweet time floating to the top slot. The movie’s nastiness gets funnier over time. It’s a caper, a romance, a sex comedy and a low-touch thriller, whose personnel are at their peaks, even John Cleese (who wrote the screenplay) and Michael Palin, who hadn’t been as inspired away from Monty Python.

Credit…MGM

For Jamie Lee Curtis, her part as the movie’s come-from-behind mastermind is an upgrade from her sexpot work in “Trading Places.” She’d never had a better role. This time the sexpot is brighter, more cunning (and named Wanda Gershwitz!). She knows that men are weak, yet in a certain neurotic, erogenous way, so is she. The movie puts Wanda miles ahead of everybody else, and the beauty of Curtis here is that you don’t ever catch her thinking. Even her moaning feels spontaneous.

This is a heist film that moves the way the con artistry in “Tenet” does — sideways. Nolan is going for a similar lightness, just not enough of it. His hands are too heavy and his ideas of people too neat. I don’t know if he could come up with someone as original as Wanda, despite his movie also having a woman pulling a con. He’d have to embrace more than suffering and oppression beyond matrimony. He’d have to give us contradiction, personality and maybe humor. Curtis is as much of an [unprintable] as everybody else in “A Fish Called Wanda,” and in a different world would suffer for it. In this one, though, she’s so confidently victorious that 32 years ago I would have been thrilled to swing through New Jersey and see her win.

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