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.
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.