Will Hollywood ever top its Cinema Class of 1982?
If I heard that someone was assembling a screening series of fondly remembered films that included the likes of “Road Warrior,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Blade Runner,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the original “Tron,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” all I would have to ask is: Where do I sign up?
What’s amazing about this list is that all of the above movies came out during the summer of 1982. I wish I’d remembered that myself, but the credit goes to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, the Austin-based specialty theater chain that is known for its innovative programming as well as its in-your-face anti-texting public service announcements. The chain has said they're looking to establish a beachhead in L.A., which would be a much welcomed development.
For now, Alamo is doing a series of screenings at their theaters starting next month devoted to “Summer of 1982” film classics. The line-up puts most recent summer movie slates to shame. But it also prompted me to look back at the entire year of 1982. It’s popular among cineastes to proclaim life-long fealty to the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s as examples of the golden age of modern American movies. But it turns out that 1982, largely written off as a backwater of Reagan-era cinema, was a wondrous year for movies.
In addition to the summer films I listed above, 1982 was crammed with delights. If you loved comedy, it was a banner year, including such gems as “Tootsie,” “Diner,” “My Favorite Year,” the astonishing “Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip” and the granddaddy of all raunchy comedies, “Porky’s.”
There were also great dramas, notably “The Verdict,” “Missing,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Gandhi.” Indie cinema was in full swing, thanks to films like “Eating Raoul,” “Smithereens,” “Hammett” and “Burden of Dreams.” 1982 also supplied us with the incredibly influential “48 HRS.,” which launched a generation of action-oriented buddy pictures.
It was also a year when foreign filmmakers were still making movies that were easily seen in America, a list led by Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” Daniel Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre,” Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” the Taviana brothers’ “Night of the Shooting Stars” and Werner Fassbinder’s “Veronika Voss,” to name but a few.
OK. So there were lots of great movies. But why? As you read this list, one thing practically leaps off the page: Where are the sequels and remakes? In 1982, Hollywood was still years away from transforming itself into a franchise factory. “The Thing” was a remake and there were a couple of sequels, including the “Star Trek” entry and the moth-eaten “Trail of the Pink Panther.” But originality still reigned supreme, even in the commercial end of the showbiz spectrum.
With the exception of “Conan,” which is clearly a prototype for Marvel movies yet to come, no one was raiding their comic book collection for superhero movies either. The prestige films aimed at Oscar voters were either biopics like “Gandhi” (which won best picture) or stories taken from novels, like “The World According to Garp,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Blade Runner.”
Just as important, 1982 was a terrific year for movies because of the filmmakers themselves. Unlike today, where careerism reigns supreme and wide-scale funding for personal projects has almost entirely dried up, filmmakers were allowed to explore quirky subjects and stretch storytelling conventions. There was also a provocative mix of wily old veterans (John Huston, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Costa-Gavras and Richard Attenborough) mixing it up with younger talent.
In fact, it’s hard to pick a year in which there was a better group of 40-and-younger talent, with directors like Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, Peter Weir, Werner Herzog, Taylor Hackford, John Carpenter, Walter Hill and John Milius all hitting films out of the park or coming into their own as major big-screen players. Not to mention the fact that two of the year’s best envelope-pushing youth oriented films, “Smithereens” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” were directed by women, Susan Seidelman and Amy Heckerling respectively. The fact that neither woman ever topped those ’82 heights tells you a lot about the rigors of having a career as a female filmmaker in male-dominated Hollywood.
The other lesson to be learned from this vast quantity of good filmmaking is that if you want to make a movie that lasts, make a genre film. If I were cooking up my own list of 1982 films to watch, the ones that got the most play during awards season — notably “Gandhi” and “Sophie’s Choice” — wouldn’t make the Top 10. If you want to watch movies that still crackle today, start with a thriller like Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” or a chiller like Carpenter's “The Thing,” which feel as modern as any of today’s special-effects laden movies.
And when it comes to comedy, nothing can top the performance Peter O’Toole gives in “My Favorite Year,” the teen angst of “Fast Times” (with a tremendous acting turn from the young Sean Penn) and the wonderful character-driven humor of “Diner,” which is crammed with great acting from its entire cast, starting with Mickey Rourke, back when he looked like a wide-eyed choirboy.
It’s been 30 years since these movies hit the multiplexes, but it’s amazing how many of them don’t have a wrinkle on 'em.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Harrison Ford in a scene from Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures