As MostlyFilm’s 1986 week draws to a close, five more of our contributors share their favourite filmic memories of the year that also brought the world Robert Pattinson, Lindsay Lohan, the Olsen twins and Megan Fox. No, we didn’t think all those people were the same age either.
Little Shop of Horrors
Kate Le Vann
Fans of musicals have a part in mind that they could end up playing. It’ll happen like this: we’re in the theatre seeing the show and the actor with that part (our part) falls ill, chokes, whatever. The director shuffles out to say, ‘I’m afraid tonight’s performance is cancelled… unless… oh this is crazy. I don’t suppose anyone in the audience knows the whole part?” and we stand up and shout YES! Your best friend’s is Eponine. Your dad’s is Tevye the Milkman or, if your dad fancies himself, Henry Higgins. Mine is Seymour Krelborn. When Skid Row starts up, people will feel things they haven’t felt before — with all humility, my passion is off the scale. In Suddenly, Seymour, with its soaring Alan Menken melody, the faux-clumsy, heart-breaking Howard Ashman lyric, the audience is going to go nuts.
Don’t be sad, those of you who won’t see my Seymour: the movie is great too. It’s about a plant that eats people. It stars Rick Moranis, my favourite film star as a teenager (please don’t tell Judd Nelson!) from Little Shop through Spaceballs, Parenthood, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, right up to, well, there’s a grey period, but let’s say we both found it hard to get past Splitting Heirs.
There’s also: an ad-libbed cameo by Bill Murray, when that was what he did best; Levi Stubbs (perfect); the original off-Broadway Audrey, Ellen Greene; a fizzy girl-group Greek chorus (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, Tisha Campbell Martin, who, frustratingly, didn’t form their own real-life fizzy girl-group); Steve Martin, in the carefree part of his life when the thing that happens at the start of this review basically happened to his whole career and made him, briefly, happy (but not like so that he was enjoying himself). Last and best, the sprinkle of guaranteed magic — the teaming of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop with the Muppets’ other dad, Frank Oz.
The end of the movie is controversial. Test audiences hated the 23-minute finale that mirrored the stage show and a sappy ending was hastily papered over the dark original. You can see it the way it was supposed to be if you buy the DVD/Blu-Ray. BUT NOT IN MY HOUSE YOU CAN’T. I stand with the losers who demanded the change, who forced Frank Oz to bin his thrilling, big-budget metropolitan climax. The thing is, when you go with the shorter theatrical cut, the nice version, my character gets to live.
Pretty In Pink
On the face of it Pretty In Pink is about Andie (Molly Ringwald), a teenage girl facing adulthood and dealing with her first love and high school politics. But it’s a John Hughes movie; his finest in fact, which means it is about so very, very, much more. Social inequality, broken families, unemployment, romantic love of the wanted and unwanted variety, friendship and, yes, growing up.
In Ringwald, Hughes found his perfect leading lady. Molly had alabaster skin, pouty lips, auburn hair and a voice only the most masochistic would wish to hire as a narrator – she was utterly believable as the offbeat girl the popular boys would fall for over the model-like blond beauties who populated the upper echelons of high school society. As an actress she was finding her feet in Sixteen Candles and arguably miscast as the princess in The Breakfast Club, but as Andie, Ringwald finds her perfect role.
It would be so easy for an actress to portray the motherless girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who juggles high school, work and caring for her Dad, as someone saintly and irritating. Instead she presents us with a young woman who faces life with dignity and intelligence. A girl who is mature beyond her years but in facing prom, social rejection, the unwanted romantic attentions of both her best friend Duckie and James Spader’s Steff and the disappointment of realising that her first love Blane (Andrew McCarthy) is dreamy but weak, grows into a woman.
There are three things about Pretty In Pink that should appeal to everyone who watches it: the Psychedelic Furs theme tune (really, is there a better film theme?); a female character with depth and believability (something Hughes was great at delivering); and James Spader. This wasn’t Spader’s first film, but it was certainly the moment where he became impossible to ignore. Steff is a high school yuppie, flaunting his wealth, pastel sweaters and loafer collection. His cat grin never reaches his eyes, eyes that assess everyone and apply dollar values. His voice purrs poison. His sneer is just short of panto villain, but drips with menace. He is the most believable high school sociopath the genre has ever spawned and his slight frame fills every shot he’s in.
I didn’t watch Pretty in Pink in 1986, I was ten and my parents would never have let me. I saw it when I was thirteen, madly in love with Andrew McCarthy and facing growing up myself. It was the perfect age to watch it for the first time. For all its American alienness and glamour, it chimed across the divides and offered hope – hope of love, of independence, of amazing friends and of the ability for a girl to take on the in-crowd with steely dignity and win. Watch it as an adult and what strikes you is how much more adult this film is than you expect it to be. It is a classic of the genre, John Hughes at his finest and I’d argue a classic film that every young woman should watch at just the right age and feel empowered by.
What was the most exciting thing you could possibly imagine when you were twelve? For me it was New York City, as depicted in Ghostbusters, Coming To America and Crocodile Dundee, all of which came out in the mid-to-late eighties and all of which I saw at around the same time: not at the cinema; not even rented from the video shop but taped off the telly and watched over and over, obsessively, until me and my siblings could – and did – quote minutes-long sections of each film.
New York City! Where men wore makeup and women wore suits, where it was dark even in daylight, where there was a fast-talking, sharp-dressing criminal on every corner and the city’s underground was both hidden and omnipresent, the steam blasting out from vents in the street a constant reminder that there was always more going on below the surface. New York City, where Paul Hogan’s Mick “Crocodile” Dundee blows in and takes the city by storm, winning hearts and minds along the way (and finally finding true love in a subway station, that underground metaphor stretched for all it was worth).
But let’s back up. He’s a rube in New York, but we first meet Mick in his own environment, the Australian bush, under pursuit by Linda Kozlowski’s journalist Sue. At first she’s unimpressed by his blokey demeanour and terrible jokes, but gradually he wins her over by repeatedly demonstrating his one-ness with the outback: hypnotising a water-buffalo, rescuing her from a snake and then a crocodile (after she makes the mistake of telling him she can survive without him – dream on, Sheila), rescuing kangaroos from being shot at by local drunks and, finally, taking part in an Aboriginal dance ritual at which Sue is not welcome but which she secretly observes anyway, because she is a journalist and a New Yorker and a phony and doesn’t appreciate the honest ways of the outback.
So Sue begins to realise that there is more to life than being rich and sophisticated and invites Mick back to New York City with her, ostensibly so she can write a feature about his visit but really because she has begun to appreciate the honest ways of the outback. Obviously the path of true love does not run smooth, Sue already having been spoken for by Richard, the epitome of slimy eighties rich dudes, who announces their engagement before asking Sue, and who is scared of wild animals, the big wuss. But don’t worry, it all works out, and the flimsiness of the plot and occasional dubiousness of the jokes is more than made up for by the scenery, the atmosphere – both the bush and the city seem to crunch underfoot – and the film’s likeability, which to us was greatly enhanced by the fact that Hogan and Kozlowski got married shortly after filming it, and stayed that way for the next twenty-something years.
If the New York City that features in those films and countless others ever really existed it definitely doesn’t now; that scuzziness and danger and spice cleaned up and cleared out by Rudy Giuliani and his successors. So that New York, the one that Mick Dundee and Prince Akeem and Winston Zeddemore look at in wide-eyed amazement; that city is as much of a fantasy to me now as it was then. Maybe it’s for the best.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Some films are indelibly burned into your cinema-going memory. I was fifteen when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out and I clearly remember seeing it with my best friend, during a trip to visit his older sister at Bristol University. It was pretty much the first time either of us had been away for an adult-free weekend and the sense of freedom and excitement we were feeling was entirely reflected by the events of the movie.
Rewatching the film thirty years later, what strikes me most is how finely balanced Broderick’s performance is. Ferris is, to all intents and purposes, a smart-arse and by rights, the character should be insufferable, yet Broderick makes him entirely likeable, even before you realise that the whole Day Off has actually been planned to shake best friend Cameron (a never-better Alan Ruck) out of his inescapable blue funk (we never see Cameron’s father, but you can bet he’s a grade-A bastard). The other thing that strikes me is how sweetly simple Ferris’ planned Day Off activities are: they eat at a fancy restaurant, check out an art gallery and go to a baseball game, all things that could conceivably be described as ordinary, attainable weekend activities. Okay, so there’s the whole leading-thousands-of-people-in-song-at-the-parade thing, but still, Ferris’ message about stopping to enjoy life once in a while hits home precisely because the depicted pleasures are so ordinary.
Clockwise is about headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) travelling from the Midlands to Norwich to make a speech at a headmasters’ conference. And running late. Eighty-nine minutes and fourteen seconds elapse between the first shot of the film (Stimpson looking imperiously out of his office window) and the last (Stimpson being driven away from the conference in a police car). In this time we see him get on the wrong train, lose the text of his speech, hitch a lift with one of his pupils, ruin a Morris 1100, have a bath in a monastery, and steal another man’s clothes. He travels 166 miles through an England of red telephone boxes that eat fat ten pence pieces, canny farmers who roam around beautiful green fields, and dull policeman clutching unilluminated pocket-books.
In the 30 years, four months and six days since Clockwise was released in UK cinemas, that England has disappeared. The past is another country, where Nadia Sawalha plays a cool, punkish, New Romantic schoolkid. In 1986 we didn’t have mobile phones, sat-nav, or the M1-A1 link road. It’s hard to imagine how some hapless, pompous, disaster-prone school official could be frustrated making Stimpson’s journey today. Toby Young would probably take an Uber the whole way.
Michael Frayn’s screenplay is as finely-wrought as a clock that has kept time for the last thirty years; Cleese’s performance is as tightly-wound as one that might fall apart tomorrow. When I watched Clockwise in 1986 those were the things that appealed to me: the perfectly timed near misses; the misunderstandings; Stimpson’s mounting frustration and spasms of rage. I was a kid, so I liked to see grown-ups make mistakes, and I don’t think I could quite separate Brian Stimpson from Basil Fawlty. But I remember thinking that the film went wrong at the end: I got bored about the time of the stopover in the monastery.
But when I watched it in 2016, I appreciated this melancholy, pastoral interlude. And Stimpson was a more sympathetic character. He seems to be respected, even liked, by his pupils. He’s the first head from a comprehensive school to address this headmasters’ conference, so you can’t help but be on his side against them, especially as Frayn is so good at exposing how, beneath the genteel manners and offers of tea, the public schoolmasters are status-obsessed, money-grubbing frauds. These are the men in front of whom Stimpson has to speak, in a stolen suit that is falling apart. As he talks, half-remembered phrases from his speech mix with memories of the mistakes he has made on the way. And he’s constantly interrupted by a clattering door as policemen, angry parents, confused old women and, finally, his wife, all come into the hall.
It should be a moment of triumph; instead his failings are exposed before people who want him to fail, and people he’s hurt. Everyone gets everyone else wrong. Maybe that’s what I’ve learned since 1986. Clockwise does not go wrong in the end but life, inevitably, does.