Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of Big, the movie that boosted Tom Hanks from being just a funny leading man to an Oscar-worthy movie star. It’s also the comedy that put filmmaker Gary Ross on the map as he too earned an Academy Award nomination for this, his first feature script (co-written by Steven Spielberg’s sister, Anne). Directed by Penny Marshall, it was a word of mouth kind of hit, having opened in second place behind Crocodile Dundee II in its second week then going on to become the fourth highest grossing movie of 1988. For those of us around the same age as Josh Haskins (David Moscow/Hanks) at the time, it was a thought-provoking What If? situation even if most of us found a lot of the scenarios and behavior to be well-below the character’s maturity level.
The tricky thing about Big in terms of highlighting its best moments is that it’s really only good as a whole, the sum of its parts. Yes, there are a lot of memorable scenes, but without the context of the, um, big picture, a lot of them are pretty silly or the comedy just falls flat (maybe this is why it’s so hard to find embeddable clips online). Still, I loved Big then and I love it now, albeit more so today as something to prod and study in terms of the fantasy scenario and how much of the humor seems so unremarkable in today’s regular manboy world. We can’t be sure that this movie won’t be remade anytime soon, but we can be sure it won’t mean as much after the careers of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and others of their ilk — unless we go a period without that stuff, given that we probably had to get over Jerry Lewis before we could appreciate Hanks acting like a 13-year-old.
After the jump join me in looking at six scenes, some of which I find notable for the supporting performance in the film. Others because I see them differently now than I did 25 years ago.
The French Connection Sound Gag
Although a repeat of an audio gag in The Goonies, this one was particularly special to me as someone who grew up outside New York and constantly thought about the thrill and danger of that city. I probably felt a little differently the first time I moved to Manhattan and actually feared some of the noises outside my building, but I just have always found the joke to be funny. It would be a while before I knew the movie in the scene to be The French Connection, which Pauline Kael prominently addressed in her famous essay about New York-made films being set in a “Horror City.” Big, of course, came out at a time when New York in film was all about lampooning its negative image (a year later we’d even see Jason Voorhees take Manhattan with little concern from New Yorkers). It’s one of two scene in the movie that really speak to the dual identity of NYC at the time. Watch the clip here.
Piano Dance at F.A.O. Schwarz
Here’s the corresponding scene I’m talking about. If movies set in NYC in the 1980s weren’t scaring us away they were highlighting landmarks or creating new ones for the (unintentional?) sake of boosting tourism. Part of me hates this scene as much as I hate the Katz Deli orgasm bit in When Harry Met Sally. It’s almost a throwaway moment now best remembered for making us all want a giant piano or at least to visit the giant toy store that housed it. It’s been a while since I visited F.A.O. Schwarz, but I’m pretty sure people are still reenacting this scene there on a daily basis. Unless they’re going there more now thanks to The Smurfs. Anyway, the scene. Why does a crowd form to watch these nobodies? It’s a horrible moment in extras history. But today I love Robert Loggia in the scene. The way he watches Hanks, first gauging that this is a guy with a huge inner child, then opening up to finding his own. I also love how he starts to sing the lyrics to “Heart and Soul” because it kind of ages him suddenly, because how many of us who learned the song on the piano ever thought about it having words?
Maybe it’s a corny bit. I recall years ago thinking that Josh was too old and smart to act the way he does in the limo with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). But you know what? I’m now older than Hanks was when he made Big and I still always want to stick my head out the sun roof when I’m in a limo. I just haven’t had the best opportunity to do so. And the case extends to a lot of things in this movie. For some reason in my preteens I found so much of it unrealistic, yet now in my 30s I find a lot of it even more plausible for someone my age, not just someone my age with the mind of a teenager. Certain responsibilities prohibit us from acting on living like a manchild, but what 32-year-old man with enough money and no concern about getting married and having a family wouldn’t like a trampoline, arcade game and soda machine in a giant loft apartment? Hell, you can probably find a few in Brooklyn who basically are living that way.
“I don’t get it.”
Here’s a very brief clip that I have to include particularly because John Heard‘s performance eventually became my favorite part of Big (as a kid, my favorite person in the movie was Jared Rushton). His character, Paul, is one of the funniest assholes ever, and of course the whole thing is that he’s really more immature than Josh when it comes down to it. Here’s a great display of that immaturity as he mocks Josh’s criticism of his admittedly stupid Empire State Building-based Transformers knockoff.
Who else do I love a lot in Big in spite of her small part? Mercedes Ruehl. In any scene. She’s not in the film a lot, but now when I watch it I think of her in the background through its entirety. There’s a whole other film back there of her dealing with the “kidnapping” of her son. If only she’d realized that Hanks was Josh. Surely he looks like his father, right? Or is that precisely why she’s going to stab him? Ruehl is an amazing actress, this role being right before she peaked with her Oscar-winning performance in The Fisher King. Here you can watch her go a long way with her character with a simple crying moment:
My wife told me I should include this because it’s one of the iconic moments from the film. I was wary because it’s also kind of dumb. Or was, until I thought about it. 25 years ago I thought it really unlikely that Josh would eat a baby corn as if it was a corn on the cob. Surely he’d had Chinese food in his life. Now I’m realizing that even before seeing Big that my brothers and I surely pretended to eat baby corn that way because we thought the idea was funny. I have decided that Josh is perfectly aware of baby corns and just chose to eat it like a corn on the cob because he was bored and wanted to amuse himself. Watch the full clip here.