Ah, the ’80s. The decade where this film geek truly came of age (I may not be young), my teenage film geek self delightedly overwhelmed with the coming of home video rental, pay cable and some seriously lax mall cinema security, all leading to a decade of truly gluttonous movie bingeing on that decade’s cinematic buffet. (And literal bingeing on oversized theater snacks.)
An eye-opening era where, for good or ill, much of my movie mania was born, much of my movie taste determined.
Luckily, time has provided a little perspective. (For example, I sadly now no longer think that John Cusack is the greatest actor who ever lived.) With such hindsight in mind, I now present to you Dennis’ ’80s Awards:
Best Gratuitous Nude Scene In a Teen Comedy: “Sixteen Candles” (1984) – Back before the PG-13 rating arrived to put parents on their guard, a PG was usually seen as safe kid stuff that mom and dad could let the kids go see unsupervised. Suckers!
Nostalgic (and absent-minded) parents today who decide to share this childhood favorite with their children are no doubt abashed when Molly Ringwald’s Samantha starts off by spying enviously on her more popular (and decidedly more womanly) romantic rival (Haviland Morris) in the showers. Nearly full-frontal nudity, accompanied by a comical “boing!” sound effect in a 1984 PG movie? John Hughes, a generation of teenage boys salute you. Honorable mention: “Airplane!”
Most Egregious ’80s Cinematic Hate Crime: “Hardly Working” (1980) – This was a tough one, as the ’80s were a period of enthusiastic onscreen insensitivity. Every character actor with a passable Russian accent and every Asian extra who could pass for Vietnamese got shot, pummeled or blown up multiple times by your Stallones, Norrises or Schwarzenneggers looking for simplistic geopolitical problem-solving.
Runner-up goes to poor Gedde Watanabe for his portrayal of cartoonish exercise in racial self-hatred as Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles,” but at least Watanabe was actually Asian. Nope, the statue (which I envision as a bronze likeness of Judge Reinhold for some reason) goes to venerable schtick-master Jerry Lewis who broke out, in 1980(?!), a caricatured Japanese hibachi chef complete with nonsensical jabbering, squinty eyes and huge buck teeth, and made even an 11-year-old suburban white boy think, “ummm ” Picture “The Office”‘s Michael Scott doing his Ping character, but with less sensitivity.
Most ’80s “80s Hair”: “Pretty in Pink” (1986) – This one almost broke me. There’s just so much out there (and so much of it). Obviously, Richard Dean Anderson’s MacGyver hockey mullet was the epitome of all ’80s hair crimes, but he was a TV guy. So, after much deliberation, I have to go with Andrew McCarthy’s perma-coif in this teen staple as nice-guy rich boy Blaine.
Sure, he had stiff competition even in his own film, with the somehow middle-aged high school villain James Spader’s blonde evil-guy pouffe and the sticky new wave pompadour atop Jon Cryer’s Duckie. But there’s something so quintessentially ’80s about Blaine’s impeccably manicured, desperately casual salon cut that just epitomizes ’80s guys who spent more time on their hair than their sisters did. (When McCarthy was forced to wear a bad wig for the re-shot finale, it looked like his hair had simply achieved sentience and was trying to escape.)
Most Representative ’80s Oscar Travesty: “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) – Look, I like this movie. Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are great, and it’s a quaintly moving little fable of tolerance. But winning Best Picture over Spike Lee’s un-nominated masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” was just deliberately insulting (or tragically, terrifyingly out of touch – take your pick, Academy members!)
Lee’s exhilarating, brilliantly constructed howl of rage at the state of race relations in America was the best film of 1989, and exactly the sort of movie wake-up call the Oscar voters slept through by instead handing the statue to the filmic equivalent of a nice, soothing cup of cinematic tea.
Biggest Comedy Action ’80s Blockbuster (In a Smarter, Parallel Dimension): “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986) – This John Carpenter-directed action flick is many things: A peerless vehicle for Kurt Russell’s signature brand of goofball leading-man charm, an affectionate throwback to old-time adventure serials and, at its root, a slyly hilarious deconstruction of the sort of mindless action heroics clogging every ’80s multiplex.
Russell’s macho trucker-turned-reluctant-evil fighter Jack Burton is the very soul of jingoistic American overconfidence – stampeding into battle against ancient, unfathomable evil with nothing but his trusty knife, a belly full of cheap American beer and a catchphrase for every occasion. Honorable mention: Fred Ward in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.”
Greatest ’80s Villain, Teen Movie Edition: William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence, leader of the Cobra Kai dojo in “The Karate Kid” (1984) – Why are we even discussing this?
Greatest ’80s Villain, Adult Edition: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” (1988) – Seriously, I’m trying to be clever, but there’s just no question on this one either, right?
Acceptable ’80s Performance By a Teen Heartthrob Named Corey: Corey Haim: “Lucas” (1986). Corey Feldman: N/A.
Least Likely ’80s Action Hero: Billy Crystal in “Running Scared” (1986). That didn’t work …
Most Egregious Onscreen ’80s Sexual Assault Played for Laughs: “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984): Having sex with the jock quarterback’s girlfriend while disguised so she thinks you’re him? More like “Revenge of the Date Rapists.” Honorable mention: Paul Gleason and a gorilla in “Trading Places.”
Most Homophobic ’80s Eddie Murphy Character: There was no one funnier than Eddie in the ’80s, and few more thoughtlessly gay bash-y. He’s sort of apologized since, but for impressionable teen males, Eddie did some serious damage.
His “hilarious gay guy” disguise in “Beverly Hills Cop” was one thing, but literally half of his concert film “Eddie Murphy: Delirious” (1983), buoyed along by Murphy’s electric charisma and undeniable comic chops, caused a lot of ignorant high school guys to parrot his lines – no doubt unknowingly hurting a lot of their friends’ feelings. That’s why I don’t feel sorry when he stars in “Norbit.”
And finally The Most 80s Thing That Has Ever Existed: “Top Gun” (1986) – Jingoism. Xenophobia. Literally faceless evil Russkies. Military fetishization. Karaoke. Hilariously unintentional homoeroticism. Ritualized bro-handshakes. Kelly McGillis trying not to be taller than love interest Tom Cruise. Shirtless beach volleyball action. And Kenny Loggins, warning us that we were, indeed, all entering the black hole that was the ’80s Danger Zone.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.