The Year in Movies 1983

Pandering was the name of the game, as hunks of the month proved that sex sells films, especially if the audience has just hit puberty

Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky star in the racy thriller 'Breathless', 1983 Credit: Keystone/Getty

Aren't they embarrassed?

Hollywood, 1983, went the way of Saturday-morning television. If a film had the same demographic appeal of The Flintstones, it had big box office written all over it. We're not talking bad films; they've always been with us. No, we're talking bad films aimed at horny 12-year-olds, a captive audience weaned on the complexities of sitcom plots. It is the era of the hyperventilated B movie created for a generation that doesn't even know which letter comes before or after that one.

Consider some of the year's big success stories. Flashdance raked in about $90 million. That's right, $90 million worth of paying customers for a 96-minute moronic fable about a girl seeking her balletomaniac dream by boogying her way through a Pittsburgh steel mill. Much as in real life. The only reason the producers inserted an alleged story line between the tits-and-ass dance numbers was that it would give guys time to run to … well, let's say to buy popcorn. Flashdance was the cinematic equivalent of a junior-high-schooler's sneaking a first peek at Playboy.

Sex appeal and stupidity have long been the happiest marriage in Hollywood. Show enough flesh, whistle, and people would always plunk down their money. The problem is that today it's all done so artlessly. The teen fantasies of Fifties beach movies may have been stilted and artificial, but at least they left something to the imagination. A generation earlier, when Marlene Dietrich or Clark Gable were up to no good, you could always imagine just exactly what no good was. I don't mean to be prudish, but did America really need two (count 'em, two) chances in 1983 to see Richard Gere's private parts? Not only were prepubescent girls across the nation able to shoot a look at Richard's gear, they had the opportunity to watch two fine works of art — Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul — desecrated in the process. That kind of twofer doesn't come along too often in a lifetime.

While Gere was diddling his thing, a whole generation of younger hunks got to expose their vulnerabilities, too. Tom Cruise made a big splash in Risky Business (again as in real life, the heartwarming story of a lad turned pimp while Mom and Dad are out of town), but his fame as a heartthrob wasn't established until All the Right Moves moved into the nabes. There he was, a student football player in a steel town (seems to be a pattern here), who, in the course of discovering it really is a kind and forgiving world, managed to flex his biceps and drop his drawers to the twittering delight of the zit-cream set. Matt Dillon was back in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola's tributes to his own diminished talents, and without looking too closely, everyone managed to get a glimpse of Matt's Jockey shorts. Incidentally, I don't quite remember whether we got to see more of Matthew Broderick than we needed to in WarGames, but that's probably because his youth-oriented vehicle had the surprising virtue of being good. Someone must have made a mistake.

There is more than a little irony in all this. It wasn't very long ago that Hollywood's idea of sexploitation was to place a couple of nubile women in a college dorm together, have them flash a bit as we watched them get ready for a shower, and then have an ax murderer pop up and slash them into mu-shu pork. The new emphasis on beefcake is not a far cry from formulaic attempts to make a few bucks by showing a few breasts. One might conclude that the switch is merely a reaction to the outcries of feminists who argue that moviemakers spend millions of dollars degrading women and their bodies. Of course, if you believe that, you probably also assume that producers sincerely believe they're producing art. Instead, the rationale for the hunks of the month seems to be a belief that young teen girls will spend their allowances ogling moving pictures of groovy guys. And, as if for insurance, it is no coincidence that the bulk of the new boys on the block have a decidedly androgynous look. When it comes to making a dollar, Hollywood can go both ways.

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The cynicism is pervasive. And perverse. What Hollywood calls "downers" — movies that, heaven help us, have unhappy endings or circumstances — are either soft-pedaled or buried alive. Audiences are the roadblock, the moguls say. If folks would pay five bucks to get themselves upset, by God, we'd be turning out a Frances every month. But the truth is, moviegoers don't have much of a choice. Because of the timidity of studios and theater owners, a piece of unmitigated garbage like Staying Alive does just that with the abetment of a $10 million marketing budget. Meanwhile, a gentle, stirring comedy about disillusionment, such as Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, is lucky if it can get booked in half the cities Travolta and Stallone are dancing in.

Part of the problem, of course, is Hollywood's recent obsession with the blockbuster. A modest, intelligent film that may turn a million-dollar profit is virtually an exercise in small change — disposable, discountable, something to have or have not and not worth a trip to the bank. Hollywood wants big films, megabuck monsters like Return of the Jedi (over which Fox fretted whether it would gross more than $200 million), Superman III and Octopussy. Now, all three of those films are fine entertainments, the sort of stuff Hollywood seemed invented to create (okay, so they weren't made in Hollywood, but that's another story). Yet the vast financial expectations they create poison the screen for simpler fare.

The theory seems to be this: For big-budget pablum, the studio will create the market by pouring millions of dollars into publicizing and promoting a movie's release. For more modest films, i.e. those with modest profit potential, the public must create the market: If enough people come to see Tender Mercies in New York or Los Angeles, maybe the studio will cough up enough funds to distribute the flick to the hinterlands.Another specific example of this theory in action is the handling of Heart Like a Wheel. Twentieth Century Fox originally showed all the vigor of an amputated centipede in backing Jonathan Kaplan's film about a champion woman drag racer. Even when Heart got some fine reviews after screenings last spring, Fox withheld the film. Only after the picture made a big splash at the New York Film Festival in September was it given a limited theatrical release. Once again, the public was forced to create the market. If there is anyone in a movie company with the slightest bit of faith in the intelligence of the public beyond America's major metropolitan centers, he's probably looking for work today — or producing Flashdance II.

The insidiousness extends to those occasions when studios do invest their time and money in worthwhile projects. Orion released Under Fire in October; it was a daring act insofar as the film dealt directly with the insanity of the United States' Central American policy. So how did the studio play it? With a swashbuckling movie poster right out of the Errol Flynn era, filled with cameras and guns. You could've mistaken Nick Nolte for a leftover from Death Wish. No way the studio was going to tell potential moviegoers that its flick had anything to do — Shh! Quiet now! — politics.

Blue Thunder was another flick for which the filmmakers went one way and the studio another. The ads played it like a high-tech chop-'em-up, with super helicopters wreaking devastation on the West Coast. What they didn't want you to know was that the movie also dealt with questions about illegal police surveillance. Then again, that's not so surprising: the original script was similarly altered during shooting to go for bangs, not brains, and thus the bucks. Producer Ray Stark wanted The Whirlybirds, and that's what he got. Considering the film didn't make nearly as much money as Columbia expected it to earn, no one will ever know whether his cop-out made sense.

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If there was one major trend in 1983, it was this: Make 'em loud, make 'em mindless, make 'em laugh. In going after the youth market, the alternate approach to showing the pectorals on beefcake was to create comedies with little resemblance to the comic genre. Witless, crude, inelegant, hulking — these were the elements of 1983's smash laugh-ins. Any devices not instantly comprehensible to the Happy Days crowd were verboten. Also, any joke not accompanied by the sound of an earsplitting kaboom was considered too subtle. It was gag-me-with-a-gag time.

The three major 1983 comic releases — Trading Places, National Lampoon's Vacation and Mr. Mom — shared a common spirit: slick silliness devoid of punch or satire. The one-liner replaced plot; these films were like two-hour Bob Hope stand-up routines. Sure was funny watching Eddie Murphy in a business suit talking jive, wasn't it? Or Chevy Chase ramming his car through a motel? Or (I can't stand it anymore, cut it out) Teri Garr and Michael Keaton guffawing through the amazing twist — Get this! — a wife who works while her husband takes care of the kids. What won't they think of next?

Even The Right Stuff, one of the year's more ambitious and intelligent films, descended more than once into the mouse-brain trap. Concerned that the tales of astronauts aren't attention-grabbing enough? Let's stick in some scatological jokes, have a couple of guys parading through a hospital with barium-enema bags and watch 'em howl.

In a sense, though, all of this was the good news. The sequels to comedy hits of the past were in a class by themselves. I think it appropriate here to have a moment of silent tribute to those hallmarks in American cinema that so gracefully enhanced our lives and consciousness in 1983. So let's hear it for Porky's II, The Sting II and Smokey and the Bandit — Part 3. If you actually went to see any of these, simply hang your head. Shame. We won't tell anyone you went to see Neil Simon's Max Dugan Returns. But what the hell, it was probably your neighbor who got bamboozled into Jaws 3-D and Psycho II, right?

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No matter how tacky the year's films were, it must be said that the performances were of an unusually high caliber. Nineteen eighty-three seemed to initiate or establish the careers of many fledgling stars, some of whom, despite their intelligence and talent, may actually work again. There was Sean Penn in Bad Boys, the walking embodiment of the toughened street kid. Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, a new hot two for you. Sad-eyed Rosanna Arquette breaking hearts in Baby It's You. Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts, doomed in Star 80. The manic Sandra Bernhard and the neurotic Jerry Lewis doing brilliant shtick in The King of Comedy. In Betrayal, Jeremy Irons picking up where Brideshead Revisited left off. Tess Harper holding her own with Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Kevin Kline displaying his phenomenal talents in The Big Chill. Sam Shepard making like the great white hope in The Right Stuff, while in the same film, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Scott Glenn show everyone they're ready for major leading-man status. Yaphet Kotto almost single-handedly redeeming The Star Chamber. And in the otherwise ill-fated Daniel, Amanda Plummer pulling off an impersonation of someone hauntingly mad.

While some actors and actresses elevated their vehicles, others plunged into the drink. Chief among the waterlogged damsels was Nastassja Kinski, who, with two big bombs in The Moon in the Gutter and Exposed, may have to resort to selling snake oil for a living. As for the men, Dan Aykroyd proved in the notorious Doctor Detroit that he couldn't cut it without Eddie Murphy, while Dudley Moore — everyone's first choice as charming comic lead for a while there — couldn't get himself arrested for any of his 1983 projects. Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, once guaranteed gold, were likewise dross, as was David Bowie in his cinematic incarnations in The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In fact, no rock star survived the transfer from vinyl to celluloid in 1983: the Rolling Stones concert film Let's Spend the Night Together enticed few moviegoers to do just that, while Sting simply stunk in Brimstone & Treacle. It seems the average rock fan can't stand to watch a performance that's longer than a clip on MTV.

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It would be grossly unfair to dump on the latest crop of films without special mention of some that at least attempted to escape the Hollywood heap. With the studios' usual predilection for hoarding their best products until the big Christmas box-office season, not all of the end-of-the-year fare had been sampled at this writing. But among those already seen, Terms of Endearment, with Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson, stands out as a rare adventure in honest, intelligent and emotional filmmaking. In doing so, it joins Woody Allen's viciously sardonic Zelig, Carroll Ballard's breathtaking Never Cry Wolf and Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies as one of the finest American-made films of the year.

Who knows, though, what surprises await. Of all the December pictures, there's more talk about — a three-hour epic about a Miami drug entrepreneur starring Al Pacino — than any other. One hears, of course, little one way or the other about the film's merits. Instead, attention seems focused on the financially critical matter of whether Scarface's director, Brian De Palma, can convince the movie-ratings board to give his picture an R rather than the highly restrictive X imprimatur. It makes one think that the whole issue is really beside the point: The MPAA board should come up with a brand-new rating to categorize most of Hollywood's recent productions: N — for nauseating.