1984 Retrospective: Arnie, Amadeus, and When Saturday Night Live Ruled the Box Office
With a new season of Cobra Kai on its way and the new Ghostbusters hitting cinemas and movie theatres world-wide, it looks like the ‘80s love-in that started in the mid ‘90s with Scream and The Wedding Singer will be with us for a good while yet.
Given that this wave of ‘80s nostalgia has lasted far longer than the decade itself, we have a whole generation growing up with the pop culture fads, images and icons of a time before they were even born.
This second-hand nostalgia is perhaps no surprise. As an ‘80s child, I couldn’t wait to show my kids Indiana Jones, Gremlins, The Goonies, and all those great movies I grew up with. No doubt they’ll end up sharing those movies with their kids, too. The first fully rewindable decade is now stuck on endless repeat.
The ‘80s has become almost a genre of its own, from Ready Player One to Stranger Things. Even the usually dark-hearted Black Mirror got a little sentimental about it with its beautiful retro episode San Junipero. Revealingly, a 2017 survey found that the largest audience demographic for Stranger Things, a show made up almost entirely from ‘80s references, was the 18-29 group.
A big part of the feel-good factor that accompanies ‘80s nostalgia is the sheer output of quality mainstream movies in the middle part of the decade, and 1984 was a key year in this respect. Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were all huge, becoming part of our shared cultural experience.
Let’s start with...
The Top Movies of the Year
1984 was a massive year for Saturday Night Live alumni. Beverly Hills Cop was the top of the box office domestically, with Eddie Murphy becoming a superstar for his performance as the wily, fast-talking detective Axel Foley.
His fellow SNL stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd made up half the titular Ghostbusters, the year’s second highest grossing film. The supernatural comedy became a genuine pop culture phenomenon, launching a million lunchboxes and Halloween party costumes, and also producing an Academy Award nominated #1 hit song for Ray Parker Jr.
Steven Spielberg had another big hit with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a much darker adventure for his intrepid archaeologist. His fingerprints were also visible on Gremlins, where he acted as Executive Producer. The violence and intensity of both films prompted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to create a new rating, PG-13.
The rest of the box office Top 10 reads like a list of what Netflix likes to categorise “familiar favourites.” Karate Kid was a likeable underdog story from John G. Avildsen, who perfected the template in the mid-’70s with Rocky. It gave kids a new fight move to practice in the playground and earned an Oscar nomination for Pat Morita’s performance as Mr. Miyagi.
The lowbrow comedy Police Academy was a big hit, making almost $150 million against a modest $4.5 million budget. The critics mostly hated it - the film earned a dreaded zero stars from Roger Ebert.
Footloose featured a breakthrough starring role for Kevin Bacon and launched another hit song, “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins. Director Robert Zemeckis had the first success of his career with Romancing the Stone, the romantic comedy Indy-lite starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito.
The Top Ten was rounded out by Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, something of a disappointment after every non-Trekkie’s favourite Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan; and Splash, with enchanting Daryl Hannah as a mermaid and a breakthrough role for Tom Hanks. 1984 was a big year for the popular actor, who also had another modest hit with Bachelor Party.
1984 was full of breakout performances from stars who would become major faces of the ‘80s and beyond. An Austrian bodybuilder who emerged on the scene with Pumping Iron and Conan the Barbarian took a huge step towards becoming a household name, playing a monosyllabic killer android in James Cameron’s The Terminator. The film spawned Arnie’s catchphrase, “I’ll be back,” which he would shoehorn into just about every situation for the next four decades. He also had a sword-and-sorcery sequel with Conan the Destroyer.
Val Kilmer made his screen debut in Top Secret!, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof of Elvis musicals and spy movies, while ‘80s icon Corey Feldman had breakout roles in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Gremlins. Patrick Swayze became a familiar face after Red Dawn, John Milius’s right-wing invasion thriller, while Steve Gutenberg became almost ubiquitous for a few years after Police Academy.
The SNL connection continued with regular host Steve Martin appearing in two comedies; alongside the brilliant Lily Tomlin in Carl Reiner’s breezy All of Me, and the strange misfire of The Lonely Guy. Another SNL host, Robin Williams, was still waiting for his early career defining roles in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989). 1984 saw him play a Russian saxophonist defecting to America in the now-forgotten Moscow on the Hudson.
Sylvester Stallone failed to build on the success of Rocky III and First Blood, starring in the critically slaughtered Rhinestone. It was a bizarre twist on Pygmalion, with Dolly Parton as a country singer who takes a bet that she can transform an obnoxious New York cabbie into a country star.
Elsewhere, Robert Redford starred alongside Robert Duvall, Glenn Close and a young Kim Basinger in The Natural, Barry Levinson’s rose-tinted baseball fable.
There were few great roles for female actors, with many of the year’s Oscar nominees starring in largely forgotten workmanlike dramas. Sally Field won Best Actress for her strong work in the Depression Era melodrama Places in the Heart. Judy Davis was nominated for her role in the old-fashioned epic A Passage to India; Jessica Lange in Country; Vanessa Redgrave in period drama The Bostonians; and Sissy Spacek as another determined, struggling wife (a theme for these roles) in The River.
One up-and-comer who became a teen icon was Molly Ringwald, who made a big splash in Sixteen Candles, the directorial debut of John Hughes. Karen Allen, perhaps best known for her feisty role as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, put in an excellent performance as the grieving widow who encounters an alien posing as her dead hubby in John Carpenter’s Starman. Despite basically being a two-hander, only Jeff Bridges got the Oscar nom for his turn as the alien.
When it came to non-human stars, the cuddly Gizmo and his malicious offspring completely stole the show in Gremlins, while Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog (spoiler alert) finally got married at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Milos Forman, the Czech director who left his country just before Soviet-led forces crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, finally returned home to film Amadeus. The lavish Mozart biopic won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. It was Forman’s second Best Picture and Best Director win, after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. F. Murray Abraham also won Best Actor for his performance as the fatally jealous court composer Salieri, while Tom Hulce, playing the vulgar, childlike maestro, was also nominated.
Director Roland Joffe made his debut with The Killing Fields, a Best Picture nominee which he never bettered. It was a moving tale of friendship and survival after the fall of Cambodia to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, notable for the Oscar-winning turn from Haing S. Ngor. The former surgeon and gynaecologist had suffered first hand in the regime’s camps, where his wife tragically died during childbirth. Despite having no prior acting experience, he won Best Supporting actor, plus a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for his performance.
Criminally snubbed by the Oscars was Sergio Leone’s final film, the elegiac gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Also from the old school was David Lean, the legendary director of Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia, who bowed out with the Best Picture nominated A Passage to India.
John Huston, who had made his directorial debut over 40 years earlier with The Maltese Falcon, chipped in with Under the Volcano, which earned a Best Actor nomination for Albert Finney. Less successful was Stanley Donen. Best known for his string of classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, he went out with a whimper, directing the sleazy sex comedy Blame it on Rio! with Michael Caine.
Meanwhile, David Lynch followed his wonderfully moving The Elephant Man with his baffling adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune - neither critics or audiences were impressed. Woody Allen picked up a Best Director nomination for his likeable comedy Broadway Danny Rose, about a nebbish theatrical agent who has an affair with a gangster’s moll.
On the arthouse circuit, Jim Jarmusch made his breakthrough with the charmingly deadbeat Stranger than Paradise, while German auteur Wim Wenders won the big prize at Cannes for his wistful road movie Paris, Texas, starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski.
To think, there once was a time when people didn’t have the phrase “turned up to 11” to describe something ridiculously loud or intense. Rob Reiner fixed that with the release of This is Spinal Tap, his brilliant mockumentary following the misfortunes of a fading rock band, which probably has the world record for most quotable lines per minute.
Alex Cox made his directorial debut with his punk sci-fi comedy Repo Man, starring Emilio Estevez as an angry teen mentored by Harry Dean Stanton’s rumpled old pro in the art of repossessing vehicles.
Walter Hill continued with some of the themes of his 1979 hit The Warriors in Streets of Fire, his wild and very loud “Rock & Roll fable.” With a gritty retro ‘50s style, Diane Lane belting out the tunes, and a young Willem Dafoe as the bad guy apparently wearing nothing but a set of leather waders, it bombed at the box office but has since developed a solid cult following.
Another film that was probably too niche to succeed in theatres was W.D. Richter’s oddball sci-fi The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, starring Peter Weller as a physicist, neurosurgeon, polymath, test pilot and rock star on a mission to save the world from evil aliens.
Significantly darker in tone than the family fare coming out of Hollywood around the same time was The Neverending Story, a German production directed by Wolfgang Peterson. It generated a hit title song for Limahl (still played on a daily basis on the radio here in the Czech Republic) and scarred a generation for life with the scene where a horse loses the will to live and drowns in a swamp.
Elsewhere, Night of the Comet was a likeable vehicle for scream queen Kelli Maroney; Troma released their flagship title and best film to date, The Toxic Avenger; Neil Jordan directed his strange, spooky fantasy horror The Company of Wolves.
Lastly, one of the most influential films to come out of 1984 was Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Made on a tiny budget, the horror introduced the world to razor-fingered bogeyman Freddy Krueger.
From a child killer haunting his victims’ dreams to a far more jokey figure haunting the airwaves by rapping with The Fat Boys, he became one of the big three horror icons of the ‘80s, along with Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. It was this slasher boom that Craven was partially responsible for that inspired his postmodern Scream, and kicked off the whole ‘80s revival. Which brings us full circle…
What are your favourite movies from 1984? Let us know!