Take off with us, as we look at the films that people paid good money for, 35 years ago. It’s all part of our ongoing series, GLORY OF THE EIGHTIES. And this week, we’ve got some big ones for you, including one classic and a bunch of other films that, well… aren’t.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.
We’ll take a look at Bob Fosse’s semiautobiographical ALL THAT JAZZ. Then there’s William Friedkin’s controversial CRUISING, a bomb when released but a cult favorite today. Speaking of bombs, Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett try to fend off a psycho and his killer robot in SATURN 3. A pre-werewolf David Naughton tries to win a prize in MIDNIGHT MADNESS. A pre-whacko Gary Busey courts Annette O’Toole in FOOLIN’ AROUND. And finally, Brad Dourif wrestles with some inner demons in John Huston’s WISE BLOOD. All these films were released to theaters on the weekend of Feb. 18, 1980. Let’s take a look!
ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) is Bob Fosse’s penultimate and semiautobiographical film. The manner in which he presents main character Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is so thinly veiled that the veil is practically nonexistent.
Gideon is a celebrated director of stage and screen. When we first see him, he is having a playful, flirtatious conversation with a mysterious, ethereally lit woman (Jessica Lange). This is intercut with a look at the current state of his life. He is taking too long to edit a movie about a controversial and morbid comedian (obviously a reference to Fosse’s LENNY). Likewise, he is going over budget on his latest Broadway production and is making daring choices that will alienate the family crowd (referencing the Broadway debut of CHICAGO).
Gideon smokes too much, drinks too much and sleeps with every starry-eyed dancer and actress that crosses his path. Though he is divorced, his ex-wife and daughter still care for him and are continually frustrated by how horribly he treats himself and those around him. Gideon continues to move at a dizzying pace engaging in brilliant flourishes and self-destructive behavior. But throughout the film, you sense that the clock may be running out.
The first time I saw ALL THAT JAZZ, it was with a good friend from college, a guy who knew everything about Fosse and musical theatre. He assured me that despite my rejection of many stagebound Hollywood musicals, I would love this. He was right. In fact, while that was the first time I had seen the film, I tend to revisit ALL THAT JAZZ every few years. Primarily a drama, the film does erupt into musical numbers, each having its own rhythm and containing several signature Fosse touches. This is a brilliant movie and definitely not your safe and saccharine musical.
Fosse’s direction and editing is wild and inventive. Scenes are fragmented and yet they come together so perfectly. The film is so brilliantly structured that if it were handled any differently, it would all fall apart.
The performances are all first-rate. I’m not sure Scheider has ever been better. ALL THAT JAZZ is a masterpiece. It’s a dazzling, emotional, surreal and erotic journey into the soul of an entertainer who is all too aware that life is not a musical number. The Best.
CRUISING – As dismembered body parts begin to appear in the Hudson River, there is a fear that New York City is dealing with another serial killer, one who seems to be targeting homosexuals. Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is a New York City police officer who is assigned to go deep undercover into the city’s leather bar scene. At times confused and repelled by what he sees, he nonetheless grows to have a meaningful friendship with a gay neighbor. As he begins looking wildly for the serial killer however, there are hints that Burns may be losing himself.
This synopsis won’t perfectly match other synopses out there, precisely because of CRUISING’s ambiguous structure, one that sometimes becomes more frustrating than thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the film was hacked to pieces in the editing room, partially due to studio and MPAA pressures and partially due to the whims of director William Friedkin. Much of the footage cut is said to have involved explicit activities taking place in the club scenes (James Franco would later try to recreate some of this footage in his interesting documentary, INTERIOR: LEATHER BAR). But also sacrificed is some choice character development of both Burns and his suspicious fiancée, Nancy (Karen Allen). The cuts have made Allen’s character undeveloped and Pacino’s a blank slate. One moment, he is just beginning his undercover assignment and the next he is pleading with his superiors that he doesn’t know if he can take much more. Obviously, there is quite a bit missing and the entire film is weighed down by the feeling that we are at best seeing half the film we were meant to see.
This all makes CRUISING play much longer than it should. Scenes do not have the same impact and I find myself pondering what went wrong with the production rather than the questions raised by the narrative itself. Friedkin’s style is present, but it lacks focus, almost as if he’s making it up as he goes along.
CRUISING was immediately controversial, being protested by gay rights organizations. It may be hard to fathom but even the struggles members of the LGBT community face in the United States today are nothing compared to the hatred, violence and disregard for civil liberties they experienced just a few short decades ago. CRUISING is actually not an anti-gay film, though certain sections of the film can be interpreted to be exploitive of the gay community. There are signs that the film leans in that direction, only to go the other way moments later. Really the film is far too uncertain of its own identity to condemn the identity of any other person or persons. Unfortunately, you don’t have to go far to find truly abhorrent anti-gay sentiment in film, particularly in the 1980s. A film covered in an earlier installment of this column, WINDOWS, actually comes off much worse.
I revisit CRUISING every five to ten years and each time, I keep hoping I’ll be able to see that something that has eluded me, the thing that will get me to truly enjoy this film. It has not happened yet and the intrusive color corrections Friedkin has inserted since the dawn of the 21st century only make the film look even shoddier than it already did. Awful.
ADDITIONAL VIEWING: If you would like to see a similar theme tackled far more effectively, I’d like to direct you to John Huckert’s 1998 film, HARD. Done on a fraction of CRUISING’s budget, it also deals with a police detective and a serial killer targeting homosexuals. But the protagonist in this film is very aware of his own homosexuality, a secret he hides from his bigoted peers on the force. Coming face to face with the killer early on, HARD explores psychological and societal issues only hinted at in Friedkin’s film. And though the ending is a bit questionable, it manages to be a solid thriller to boot.
FOOLIN’ AROUND – Wes (Gary Busey) is an affable good ‘ol boy who is just starting college. Wes might be a little gullible, but the film quickly establishes that he isn’t the type of person you can push around. While taking part in a medical experiment, he meets and immediately falls in love with Susan (Annette O’Toole), a high society girl shackled by her status obsessed mother (Cloris Leachman). Throughout the film he tries to win Susan’s heart, even as she seems destined to wind up with your typical opportunistic movie creep (John Calvin). Fortunately, Susan’s grandfather (Eddie Albert) takes to Wes’ decent heart and solid work ethic and tries to help him, even as the mother looks to sabotage Wes and Susan’s union.
For the last couple decades, Gary Busey has become more known for his erratic behavior than his acting career. A motorcycle accident in the 1980s nearly killed him and the general consensus is that he’s never been quite the same. But it’s important to note that despite his widely accepted persona, Busey is actually a highly capable actor. In FOOLIN’ AROUND, Busey comes off as a charming, likable, believable romantic lead that you can’t help but root for.
O’Toole is also enjoyable in one of her earliest roles. As written, she could easily play the part as a prize to be won. But instead, she shows us just what Wes sees in her. This is a couple with great chemistry. Oddly enough however, the filmmakers chose to place one of their best comedic actors, Cloris Leachman, in what is practically a straight role.
FOOLIN’ AROUND was filmed at and around the University of Minnesota, which might explain why it opened in the Twin Cities metro area before other areas of the country. It’s a film full of every cliché in the book. But darn if it isn’t entertaining in spite of all that. Scenes of Busey trying to learn to play tennis by going through a ROCKY-like montage where he simply whacks everything around him with a racket are some of the stranger bits of humor that brought a smile to my face. The film has its share of problems, but all in all, comes out much better than you would expect. Recommended.
MIDNIGHT MADNESS – Five teams of college students, each seemingly representing a crude stereotype or clique, are drafted to take part in an all-night scavenger hunt. They are sent to different locations, at which point they are given a riddle to uncover the next clue that will of course lead them to the next location and so on. The yellow team are the heroes of the film, led by Adam (David Naughton) a nice but arrogant and pigheaded guy who continues to neglect his kid brother (Michael J. Fox, making his screen debut). The blue team is a wealthy but evil crew, lacking in the smarts necessary to win honestly. They are led by the obese Harold (Stephen Furst, cast against type as a villain). Then there’s the sorority, the fraternity and the nerds (led by Eddie Deezen), all of whom behave either with cruelty or stupidity.
MIDNIGHT MADNESS was the second PG-rated film to be released by Walt Disney Pictures, after 1979’s THE BLACK HOLE. Though unlike that megabudget film, Disney downplayed their involvement in MIDNIGHT MADNESS to such an extent that you have to squint to catch the Buena Vista company name in the credits. A common perception is that MIDNIGHT MADNESS was still a little too suggestive for the House of Mouse, but I like to think Disney hid their involvement out of shame. And they should feel shame. The people who made the film should feel shame, just as I felt shame for sitting through the entire thing.
MIDNIGHT MADNESS can be compared to IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. It recalls that comedy caper, beat by beat, even flipping the giant “W” to a giant “M.” The clues are ridiculously easy to figure out and it becomes frustrating to see the five groups knocking their heads together, trying figure out what should be painfully obvious. This is what happens when you have a film that relies on brain power as part of its plot, even though it is written by people who did not apply that same brain power to their script.
Everyone in MIDNIGHT MADNESS is obnoxious to the nth degree. The film is filled with so many annoying characters, it seems like a test to determine how much the average human can withstand. The film could be used to torture suspected terrorists at CIA blacksites. The worst person in this entire mess is the lunkheaded Melio, a character so dumb and thuggish, he makes your average zoo animal seem like a Rhodes Scholar. Melio is played by Andy Tennant, a man who would go on to direct terribly generic films such as SWEET HOME ALABAMA and THE BOUNTY HUNTER. It’s stunning to behold Tennant’s ability to drag down productions from both sides of the camera.
I don’t have anything nice to say about MIDNIGHT MADNESS and so I’d rather not say anything else. Were I to try, I would have to invent new words to describe my hatred for this unfunny and mean-spirited piece of cinematic sewage. The Worst.
SATURN 3 – Adam and Alex (Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett, respectively) live a seemingly idyllic existence at a research facility on one of Saturn’s moons. Despite their age difference, the two not only work together but share an intimate relationship. A third person, Benson (Harvey Keitel) arrives on Saturn 3 and disrupts Adam and Alex’s harmony with his inappropriate questions and aggressive behavior. Indeed, Benson is not your ordinary guest; he is a psychopath who has already murdered his colleague in order to secure a position at the station. Moreover, he has brought along the robot Hector, with whom he shares a mental bond. But if Benson is a little crazy, that means Hector is positively bonkers.
Of course, the two lovers should have seen this coming. After all, one would think that if they were to receive a new addition to their staff, they would be given plenty of information about that person. They would know who he is, what his areas of expertise are and more importantly, what he looks like. But they didn’t know this, and hence are completely blindsided by the menace presented by Benson and Hector. This will not be the last time the film tries to support itself despite its complete lack of logic. One funny bit involves a trap being set for Hector which not only relies on cartoonish simplicity but would likely spell doom for hero and villain alike, had anyone been paying attention.
SATURN 3 was a notorious bomb, one which along with RAISE THE TITANIC, all but destroyed ITC’s ability to distribute feature films. It was a troubled production from the start, originally to be directed by special effects whiz John Barry (not to be confused with the composer of the same name). But Barry found himself out of his depth and directing duties were taken over by Stanley Donen. The film went through numerous rewrites, until all we are left with is a film where Douglas runs around a space station while Fawcett cowers at his side.
Everyone in the film is miscast. Despite being a great actor, Douglas is too old to be playing the athletic superman/love machine. Keitel is also a fine actor, but obviously Donen didn’t think he was up to snuff since he had his voice dubbed by Roy Dotrice in a single morning session. As for Fawcett, she frankly could not act at this point to begin with. Though she would improve in productions such as THE BURNING BED and EXTREMITIES, here she’s just bland eye candy.
SATURN 3 is a big budget bomb which looks like a low budget B-movie and plays like a student film. It’s an absolute mess and only recommended to those who take a perverse delight in bad movies. Awful.
WISE BLOOD (1979) – In this adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) is a simple-minded, poverty-stricken man returning home from World War II. Peering in at his house, he realizes that his family is dead and gone, not that he spends much time mourning them. He strikes out for the city, aiming to do things he has never done before.
Everywhere Hazel turns, he sees artifacts of the Pentecostal upbringing he has so angrily rejected. He becomes a street preacher, a representative of his own church, the Church of Truth Without Christ. He tells everyone that will listen that there is no need to feel shame for sin, because any shame is an invention of a fictitious God as is the naïve belief in redemption. Though Hazel does not ask for monetary donations, he finds liars, frauds and thieves everywhere he turns. This only exacerbates his feelings of disgust with the world. And yet, through Hazel’s struggles, one senses that he possesses and has repressed strong spiritual beliefs.
Imagine John Steinbeck crossed with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and you’ll get some idea of the allegory O’Connor was making. There are a lot of interesting things in John Huston’s fairly literal film of WISE BLOOD. Yet, in adapting the nuts and bolts of O’Connor’s story, he misses out on a lot of the nuances that make the story so special. It’s one of those films you absorb and think about for a while afterwards. But while the themes sink in, you get the feeling that they still haven’t been explored to a satisfactory degree.
What WISE BLOOD does contain is a stellar cast. Dourif is a fantastic actor who got pushed more towards character roles by the mid-1980’s and 1990’s. He does fine work no matter what role he’s in, but WISE BLOOD gives you the opportunity to see him shine in a leading role. Harry Dean Stanton is as usual fantastic in a supporting part, while Mary Nell Santacroce shows some late in the game character development which leads to one of the film’s most impressive performances.
As intriguing as WISE BLOOD is, you don’t want to spend any more time with these characters than absolutely necessary. WISE BLOOD is a mixed bag. Worth a look, but if you want to really dig into the material, you should probably stick with the book. Barely Recommended.
ADDITIONAL VIEWING: In his many roles, Brad Dourif has played a number of characters who have wrestled with their faith. Here’s one of the more curious ones: playing the title character in Toto’s incredible music video, “Stranger in Town.” The song and the movie were based on the film WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, a melodrama about the redemption of an accused killer who is mistaken for Jesus by a group of wide-eyed children. The video was directed by Steve Barron, who went on to helm ELECTRIC DREAMS and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.
That’s it for this week, but I still need your help! If you have any newspaper ads, clippings or information about 1980’s release dates in some area of the country, please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to incorporate them in the series. Remember, we only have data on a couple of areas of the United States but are always looking to get as clear a picture as possible. You can help!
COMING IN TWO WEEKS!
- There’s something in the fog!
- Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie grow up too fast!
- Chuck Norris tracks down a cop killer!
- Alan Arkin beats E.T. to the punch!
- A family takes in the spawn of Satan!
ALL OF THIS AND MORE, NEXT TIME IN GLORY OF THE 80’S!