There is more to the ‘80s than time travel, fantastical adventures, and teenage angst with a happy ending, but it wouldn’t seem like that with the narrow tack nostalgia has taken. The era has been whittled down to a list of mainstream musts and little else. Sometimes other films get remembered for a fleeting instant, especially if an anniversary is nigh, but generally it’s a momentary vacation before the return to the typical rushes about forgotten scenes, wacky trivia, or new pricey figurines.
After years of near-obsolescence, The Legend of Billie Jean finally returned to shelves with a Blu-ray release this week, reminding us that there are other great ‘80s films out there we can be talking about. Some are probably better off forgotten, like Prayer of the Rollerboys, which I was ashamed to revisit when my age got into the double digits. But there are others worth the revisitation.
The Legend of Billie Jean
The film that set off the eternal confusion about Helen Slater and Christian Slater – no, they aren’t related – is also a fun journey of defiance. What’s great about The Legend of Billie Jean is that it’s not a “damn the man, save the Empire” sort of battle, or ne’er-do-wells trying to break the rules and find some freedom. When an entitled jerk harasses her, steals her brother’s bike, and destroys it (and the kid’s face), Billie Jean wants monetary compensation to fix it. Only, her attempts to get money from the bully’s dad lead to an attempted rape and accidental gunshot that forces her to go on the run.
But Billie Jean doesn’t lawlessly run, losing her morals in a fight against the supposedly moral adults/villains. “Fair is fair” is her fight, so she takes inspiration from the story of Joan of Arc, manufactures a new image for herself that will grab people’s attention, and simply demands that her brother’s bike be paid for before she turns herself in. It’s a film steeped in the garish glare of the ‘80s and goofy montages, but there is no shortage of interesting elements to enjoy and chew on, especially when she faces – and sets fire to – the idea that she, Billie Jean, is an image to market and make money on.
No sinister revenge has stayed with me like the setup for Ladyhawke. The dashing Captain Navarre, after stealing the love of Lady Isabeau from the Bishop, is cursed to spend his nights as a wolf while she spends her days as a hawk, only having a brief, fleeting glimpse of their human forms before morphing again. Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfieffer, mixed with the comedic goofiness of Matthew Broderick, are a great match, and the film is certainly fun and exciting enough to be explored alongside the usual suspects.
It was one of the fantasy films of the ‘80s, and even earned sound and effects Oscar nominations for its work, yet it never finds its way into the conversation. In a way, perhaps it is a blessing – to remember the film fondly without the aggravation of countless news stories and praise that pushes it to a pedestal it can never safely rest on.
Fire with Fire
In some ways, Fire with Fire is like all the other teen films of its time. There are battles of good and bad, wealth and poverty. Where the film thrives, however, is in the mix of morality and teen dreaming. It embraces the emotionally absurd moments of adolescence (running away together and giving up everything when times get bad), and anchors it to the earnestness of smart kids who get desperate when authority fails them. It dealt with the same matters of the moral bad boy and the good girl pulled into badness, but it does so without the usual obvious caste system and bullying.
That it stars Virginia Madsen and Craig Sheffer is just a bonus that doubly acts as this differentiator that there were other high school kids having problems outside of the Hughes kids, the Brat Pack, and Kevin Bacon.
People like to talk about Meg Ryan’s romances with Nora Ephron, but what about her romance with Dennis Quaid’s Lt. Tuck Pendleton, who was shrunk into a syringe, stolen from the lab, and injected into the arse of one manic hypochondriac, Martin Short’s Jack Putter?
Innerspace is, of course, utterly ludicrous, but what it does with action and adventure, slapstick comedy, and ‘80s-style romance is downright magical. On paper it almost reads like director Joe Dante just wanted to hit all the buttons randomly, from the sexy stud to the goofy clown, the weird science to the sappy romance. But each piece gels. Short makes it perfectly believable that Quaid is inside him, and the pair have such a killer rapport (without being face-to-face) that it almost upstages Ryan’s inclusion.
The ‘80s had a lot of romances – so many that one could easily erase the top ten and replace it with an equally valuable or entertaining list of films. One of these, believe it or not, actually came from nipple suit dynamo Joel Schumacher. In 1989 he remade the French film Cousin, Cousine, where Isabella Rossellini and Ted Danson play new cousins by marriage who fall in love with each other over a mix of weddings and funerals (before Hugh Grant made that plot line so popular).
It’s the sort of film that’s even sweeter today – a mix of actors no one would ever dream of mixing today, yet boast the chemistry needed to make the tale work and enough unique charm to make it stick out. One of the cast would also gain some fame as a werewolf some years later: Katharine Isabelle plays Rossellini’s child.
Pennies from Heaven
It’s the 1930s. Steve Martin wants to sell his music sheets, and no one wants to buy them. But he meets Benadette Peters at a music store and falls in love. Today it’d probably be an edge-free comedy, but in 1981, it was a tragedy of desperation and death. It was a film poorly timed after Martin’s breakout as The Jerk, and failed at the box office despite praise from names like Pauline Kael.
But of course, it’s also one of the last gasps of Christopher Walken’s killer dancing and musical flare before films like The Dead Zone and A View to a Kill immortalized him as a slow-talking badass. It would take a couple decades, and a “Weapon of Choice” to remind the masses much too late. Now Pennies from Heaven is just that film named during Walken dance appreciation nods, but sadly, little else.
Oh, the all-too-brief rise of Eric Roberts in the early ‘80s. These days, The Pope of Greenwich Village gets the most love – as Roberts whines about his hand in desperation. But it was one of a quick and too-brief pummeling of talent. Before his Oscar and Golden Globe nods for Runaway Train and his unforgettable turn in Pope, he earned a Globe nomination for his portrayal of Paul Snider in Star 80.
Quick film adaptations of real tragedies can be problematic, but this was inevitable – the murder of a famed filmmaker’s (Peter Bogdanovich) new love by her old boyfriend. Star 80 managed to show the darkness of Dorothy Stratten’s murder at the hands of Snider without sensationalizing it into pulp. When Roger Ebert reviewed it, he noted: “this is an important movie. Devastating, violent, hopeless, and important, because it holds a mirror up to a part of the world we live in, and helps us see it more clearly.”
See also: Nobody’s Fool – It’s quite absurd for a romance, but gave Roberts an entirely role in that same burst of critical popularity.