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Summer of ’82: Today is tomorrow’s nostalgia

32 years ago today. Friday June 25, 1982. Newborn Prince William was 3 days old. Sidney Lumet was celebrating his 58th birthday. Ricky Gervais turned 21.

Two movies premiered that afternoon. Blade Runner and The Thing. The top 10 movies at the box office that weekend:

1. E.T. (its 3rd week in theaters)
2. Blade Runner
3. Firefox
4. Rocky III
5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
6. Annie
7. Poltergeist (its 2nd week in theaters)
8. The Thing
9. Megaforce
10. Bambi (reissue)

(Bambi sold more than 8 million tickets in 1982… not bad, considering it sold less than 12 million tickets when it premiered 40 years earlier)

Blade Runner and The Thing opened on the same day. I never knew that until stumbling across it today. At first this was thrilling to learn. Then it made me gloomy and I wasn’t sure why. Working through my feelings about the very special summer of 1982, I’m reminded of the quote: “Everything gone by was better.” Sometimes seems that way, but is it really true?

Too big, too glorious to ignore, E.T. was nominated for 9 Oscars in 1982, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. It only won for Best Visual Effects (beating out the other 2 Visual Effects nominees, Blade Runner and Poltergeist), Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and of course for Best Score (John Williams’ 4th Oscar, after his wins for Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, and Star Wars).

Too big, too prestigious to ignore, Gandhi was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 8. Every Oscar E.T. lost that night, it lost to Gandhi. Every Oscar Gandhi lost, it lost to E.T. (except for Best Makeup which went to Quest for Fire).

Gandhi had a budget of $22 million and had earned $11 by the time Oscar nominations were announced. (It would eventually earn $52 million — 80% of Gandhi’s earnings came after its Oscar nominations). E.T. only cost half as much as Gandhi and earned $723 million worldwide. Nobody was complaining that E.T. was hoovering up all the monies.

Worth noting that Gandhi did not receive a wide release until 2 weeks after the Oscar nominations were announced. Another reminder that the Academy likes to keep the interference of hoi polloi out of the equation while they’re deciding how to tell us what’s best for us. This is nothing new. Just seems that way recently because they keep thinking of new ways to slip past us.

Looking back 32 years to see what audiences were flocking to see is reveals a strange and wondrous mix of classics and oof wtf! But overall, in spite of the head-scratchers, there’s no question that 1982 was an extraordinary summer.

So why does I feel something keeps needling me that needs to be better articulated?

To wrap this post with a purpose and an edge, let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s consider what audiences in 1982 might have thought if they looked back 32 years to the summer of 1950. Here’s a list of the midyear from 64 years ago.

1 Cinderella
2. Annie Get Your Gun
3. Father of the Bride
4. Born Yesterday
5. Winchester ’73
6. Three Little Words
7. Fancy Pants
8. Destination Moon
9. The Damned Don’t Cry
10. At War with the Army
11. Wabash Avenue
12. Cheaper by the Dozen
13. Broken Arrow
14. Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion
15. Duchess of Idaho

In light of those box-office sensations from 6 decades ago, it’s pretty hard to argue that summer movies have never been worse than they are today. In fact, aren’t we lucky to be alive to witness the wonders that our best filmmakers are creating?

Sure, of course, there would be outstanding classics like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd before 1950 ended. The Third Man was playing in US theaters in May of 1950. Let’s remember the past honestly though: Destination Moon earned 10 times more than The Third Man — but does that matter to us now? Of course not. It’s not even easy to dig up these irrelevant numbers anymore.

Fact is, moviegoers in in 1950 didn’t obsess over box-office like we do today, because even though the taste of most moviegoers sucked just as bad back then as it does today, audiences were still smart enough to know that box-office means nothing in the grand scheme of movie history.

All that mattered to them back then is the only thing that should matter to us right now: Are there movies being made for everybody? Are there enough dumb movies for people who like dumb movies? Are there enough smart movies for people who like smart movies?

I believe there always have been, and there always will be.

Ever wonder why Bob Hope was King of the Oscars in the 1950s and mid-1960s? It’s because drek like Bob Hope’s Fancy Pants in 1950 was a hugely successful smash hit for the studios. Bob Hope was Hollywood’s favorite clown in a tux because Bob Hope was the Jim Carey of the 1950s and his stupid movies made everybody rich. Thanks for the memories? Alright, let’s test those memories. Name 10 of Bob Hope’s 60 movies. Now try to name 5 that were worth a damn. And yet.. he’s somehow Oscar royalty. Go figure.

Most of us can name the top 15 or 20 movies of 1950 off the top of our heads — but the big eight studios produced over 240 movies in 1950. 220 of them have mostly been forgotten (and probably 200 of them are better off forgotten).

Nobody thinks about Destination Moon earning twice as much as All About Eve in 1950. In fact. nobody thinks about Destination Moon at all. When we think back about Hollywood history, we only remember the best movies Hollywood has given us. We idealize the past because it’s so easy to forget that Hollywood has always made 20 turds for every golden gem. We forget the turds because TCM doesn’t broadcast them.

So when we watch the wall-to-wall masterpieces Criterion restores so lovingly, some people say, “Wow, what happened to Hollywood? There used to be an endless fountain of classics in theaters.” False. There were 20 great American movies in 1950 and there have been 20 great American movies every single year ever since.

There are 1000 essential movies from the past 80 years There are also 15,000 movies that we’ve all forgotten about — because it would be financial insanity to put all that junk on DVD.

So let’s try not to panic when movies like The Amazing Spiderman 2 earn 10 times more than Labor Day and Labor Day earns 10 times more than Under the Skin. Unless you’re a Hollywood stockholder, all matters is that the studio system allows for all kinds of movies to be made for all kinds of people. Just as it’s always been.

38 Abbot and Costello movies were not The Death of Cinema.
6 Rocky movies were not The Death of Cinema
4 X-Men movies are not The Death of Cinema.

Nobody gives a shit that Rocky III made 5 times more than Blade Runner. The only reason I’ve brought it up today is to remind people that nobody should care if Captain America makes more than 12 Years a Slave.

(Although I confess my own slippery hypocrisy. Am I glad that two fun summer movies I admire — Noah and Godzilla — have together already earned $850 million this year? Yes, that makes me happy. Because now detractors can stop saying these movies “bombed.” Now skeptics can stop gloating about these movies being “financial disappointments.” That matters to me. Because now studios will continue to let Darren Aronofsky and Gareth Edwards do whatever they want to do. Which makes a heckuva lot more sense t
o me than allowing Bob Hope do whatever he wanted to do for 20 years).