Don’t believe the hype. This wasn’t just the decade movies began to rot. Though pockmarked by ugly blockbusters and yuppie navel-gazing, the ’80s also featured seismic shifts and a quiet revolt. Major talents emerged, directors excised Reagan-era excess, and amid all the fretting about the death of cinema, indie films began to thrive — taking up residence in outposts like Brooklyn and Utah. In truth, there was no shortage of sharp art to puncture the decade’s glassy sheen — especially if you were hip to Lynch, Lee, and Soderbergh, whose work foreshadowed the revolution to come.
Airplane! sets a JPM (jokes per minute) record: July 2, 1980
Setting out to spoof the plane, train, and automobile disaster films of the ’70s, the writing-directing triumvirate of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker packed a dizzying number of naughty double entendres, apropos-of-nothing sight gags, and straight-faced Hollywood vets into Airplane!‘s 88 minutes and started their own bona fide mini-genre (The Naked Gun, Top Secret!, Hot Shots!). ”I read it on a plane,” says star Robert Hays, who can still recite entire scenes 19 years later. ”There was literally something on every page that made me laugh out loud.” Surely he can’t be serious. I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley. Rank 63
Ordinary People uncovers the dysfunctional family: Sept. 19, 1980
For millions of suburbanites, Ordinary People wasn’t just a movie. Robert Redford’s directorial debut became a mirror: The American family saw itself and winced. Every sensitive prepster in America could relate to Timothy Hutton’s fragile son, hounded by guilt after the death of his golden-boy brother. Meanwhile, no mother in the world would admit to the icy manipulations of Mary Tyler Moore’s country-club shrew. (Moore says the character was a lady ”who found it difficult to be affectionate and loving.” Which is like calling Lady Macbeth a supportive housewife.) The Official Preppy Handbook’s evil twin, Ordinary People went down like a bitter pill plopped into a gin fizz. Rank 99
Raging Robert De Niro wins Best Actor for Method eating: March 31, 1981
It’s arguably the greatest film of the ’80s, but Martin Scorsese never wanted to make Raging Bull. From the get-go, the tragic story of middleweight champ Jake LaMotta was solely the passion of Scorsese’s on-screen alter ego, De Niro. Like a rabid Method-acting pit bull, De Niro took grueling boxing lessons from LaMotta before shooting, then put the film on hold for four months to go on his infamous ice-cream-and-pasta bender, packing on 50-plus pounds in order to portray the boxer in flabby decline. ”Dieting is not acting,” says Bull cowriter Paul Schrader, ”but De Niro was the first one to do that kind of thing. It would’ve been a gimmick if he wasn’t so good…but I think it’s the gimmick that won him the award.” Rank 41
Warren Beatty creates the epic Reds: Dec. 4, 1981
Diane Keaton calls it ”a Herculean task.” As Evil Empire-baiting Ronald Reagan settled into the White House, Beatty directed a gorgeous, three-hour-plus epic about…Communists. Reds, the romantic tale of American lefties Jack Reed and Louise Bryant (Beatty and Keaton), bucked the conservative mood of the nation — and the studios. ”Let’s say it took some energy,” says Beatty, who’d won Paramount’s trust with 1978’s smash hit Heaven Can Wait. Beatty’s itinerary was enough to take your breath away: ”We shot the movie in New York, L.A., Washington, Seattle, Taos, London, Manchester, Helsinki, Rovaniemi, Madrid, Stockholm, Guadix, and Seville.” Those frequent-flier miles translated into 12 Oscar nominations — including 4 for its producer-director-cowriter-star. Rank 84
Homeliness triumphs in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: June 11, 1982
The alien had to be scary enough to make Drew Barrymore scream. From that vague direction— the script’s only indication of what E.T. should look like—special-effects whiz Carlo Rambaldi began searching for a face with the right mix of ugliness and innocence. He found it in his Himalayan cat, reimagined with oval eyes, an upturned nose, and no hair. Rambaldi’s pet-spawned creation would go on to become a beloved global image and the star of Steven Spielberg’s greatest commercial success: Until two years ago, E.T. was the highest-grossing film of all time. The three E.T.’s he built for the movie have since rusted and decayed, but says Rambaldi, “I’m convinced 100 years from now E.T. will still be living in everyone’s hearts.” Rank 17
Eddie Murphy arrives in 48 Hrs.: Dec. 8, 1982
It seems impossible to imagine, but Murphy’s career-making role as razor-sharp Reggie Hammond almost went to Gregory Hines. “But he was in Sophisticated Ladies and couldn’t break contract,” says 48 Hrs. director Walter Hill, who reluctantly watched tapes of a whippersnapper making waves on a terrible season of SNL. “I thought he was extraordinary,” Hill recalls. Still, Murphy was not an instant success on the set. At first, “he was nervous and all over the place,” says Hill, who thought he’d have to splice together takes. But things improved. “By the time we shot the bar scene, it was gold,” says Hill. “I remember turning to a colleague after one of the big Eddie takes, and saying ‘We’re rich.’ What I should’ve said, of course, was ‘Eddie’s rich.'” Rank 81
Meryl Streep speaks in tongues in Sophie’s Choice: Dec. 10, 1982
Playing William Styron’s Holocaust-survivor heroine, Streep uttered her lines, appropriately, in Polish, German, and thickly accented English. She ended up reaching new heights of character immersion and winning an Oscar for her efforts. The actress credits a crash course in Polish and sheer necessity for the triple play. “When people ask ‘How do you do those accents?’ it’s sort of like, ‘How do you memorize all those lines?'” says Streep of the skill that has become her trademark. “I couldn’t have played that part without speaking the way she would have spoken.” Rank 56
Dustin Hoffman does drag for Tootsie: Dec. 17, 1982
“The problem with Tootsie,” says director Sydney Pollack, “was trying to keep it from being a one-joke film. It wasn’t just about watching Hoffman dress up as a woman. Though that was funny.” Indeed. But Hoffman, surrounded by a first-rate cast that included Best Supporting Actress nominees Jessica Lange (who won) and Teri Garr, imbued both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels with so much humanity that the film soared. Presaging an unfortunate era of movies written by committee, Tootsie rolled through multiple screenwriters on its way to 10 Oscar nods. The final product was credited to Don McGuire, Larry Gelbart, and Murray Schisgal— but one unlucky lady didn’t get her due. “The movie I made,” says Pollack, “was really written by Gelbart and Elaine May.” Rank 69
Tom Cruise shows his shady side in Risky Business: Aug. 5, 1983
It was the most memorable entrance of the ’80s: Cruise sliding across the floor wearing tightie-whities and a big smile, as Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” blared in the background. Risky Business not only catapulted Cruise onto the A list, it also featured what would become the Reese’s Pieces of eyewear: Ray-Ban Wayfarers. “My prop man was elderly,” remembers director Paul Brickman. “He brought this box of sunglasses and they were horrendous. So Tom and I jumped into my car, went to an optician in Skokie, Ill., and picked out the Ray-Bans.” After the film opened, sales of the Wayfarers jumped more than 1800 percent. Rank 82
Shirley MacLaine lets loose in Terms of Endearment: Nov. 23, 1983
The movie that epitomized the tag line “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry…,” Endearment may have been Hollywood’s first dramedy: a jokey hit about a dysfunctional family and terminal cancer. Director-writer James L. Brooks knew that for the film to work, it had to be played over the top. And play it MacLaine did. Her Oscar-winning turn as a controlling Houston matron reached its height in a hospital scene where, in one demanding shriek, she captured the rage and panic of a mother watching her daughter (Debra Winger) die. “That came from some difficult moments when my sister was ill,” says Brooks. “We got the horror of the moment, but it also worked as a joke. We didn’t sacrifice honesty for humor.” Rank 67
Spinal Tap brews a new genre: the mockumentary: March 2, 1984
Spawned from an ABC-TV special, This Is Spinal Tap brilliantly blurred the lines between fiction and reality (it became the gold standard for mockumentaries) and set the stage for shows like VH1’s Behind the Music. “The rough cut was over seven hours long and it’s all in the vault,” notes director Rob Reiner, who says inspiration was drawn from true tales of on-the-road foibles by, among others, Van Halen (diva food complaints) and Tom Petty (getting lost under the stage). “We’ve thought about releasing it— it’s funny enough— but it just doesn’t stand alone.” In other words, to quote one of Tap‘s great bons mots, there’s a “fine line between stupid and clever.” Rank 52
Sigourney Weaver gets into the action in Aliens: July 18, 1986
They weren’t chick flicks, but the Alien series was a giant leap forward for womankind. As Ripley, Weaver went where only males had gone before, kicking butt as the recurring lead in a big-budget action franchise— and becoming the only action heroine to win an Oscar nomination. Her finest moment is in Aliens (directed by James Cameron), where she straps herself into a rock-’em-sock’-em robot and bitch-slaps the queen alien into space. But, says Weaver, Ripley was tough from the start. “Someone designed these beautiful pink and blue costumes for me, and [Alien director Ridley Scott] took one look and said, ‘You look like f—ing Jackie Onassis in space.’ We got rid of them.” Rank 54
Dennis Hopper inhales in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: Sept. 19, 1986
The script called for Frank Booth’s voice to be “very high and strange-sounding,” but Hopper knew the devil himself should not be confused with Donald Duck. In his script notes for Blue Velvet, director David Lynch specified that Booth, a film villain unmatched in his pure depravity, should inhale helium to heighten an act of sex or violence. Hopper knew differently. “That would have been too self-conscious,” he says. “I did enough drugs to know that nitrous oxide would be more effective.” Lynch agreed, and the scene in which Booth, sucking gas, rapes Isabella Rossellini’s character, is among the most devastating moments ever put on film. Was Hopper really high? “Nah, it was pure Lee Strasberg.” Rank 24
Oliver Stone shows that war really is hell with Platoon: Dec. 19, 1986
Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, and Stanley Kubrick have all done cinematic tours of duty there, but face it: When you think of Vietnam movies, you think of Oliver Stone. His Best Picture winner Platoon, an unprecedented depiction of Vietnam combat, was also made by a guy who fought there. For Marine-turned-actor Dale Dye, it was about time. With its unnerving authenticity, “Platoon broke this ice jam between the nation and our Vietnam vets,” says Dye. Staging the film’s most controversial sequence— Tom Berenger’s cold-blooded killing of a Vietnamese civilian— overwhelmed even Dye: “It was like I was back in Vietnam. Oliver had the same reaction. We had to walk away. We sat down on a rice-paddy berm and just didn’t say anything.” Rank 50
Glenn Close springs from the tub in Fatal Attraction: Sept. 18, 1987
In the original version of Adrian Lyne’s thriller, Close’s character killed herself and framed her onetime lover (Michael Douglas) for her death. But when test audiences hated this downer of a demise, Paramount shot a different ending— months after production had wrapped. The new finale, with its gasping resurrection, jolted audiences, created the decade’s date-movie nightmare, and secured Hollywood’s devotion to test screenings. “The luckiest thing was that I hadn’t cut my hair,” laughs Close, who credits the film’s $157 million success to the change. “It would have been really horrible to have done all of that bathtub stuff in a wig.” Rank 39
Seeing the good in greenbacks in Wall Street: Dec. 11, 1987
Ironically, the movie was released after the crash of 1987, but the image of slithery Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) preaching Greed will save the USA to a pack of Brooks Brothers-clad wolves remains one of the most enduring of the era. Intended as a stinging condemnation of slash-and-burn ’80s excess, Oliver Stone’s monologue had a sinister double edge— it was adopted by Wall Street as a mantra. “A lot of it was taken from a famous Carl Icahn speech to TWA shareholders,” remembers Douglas. “I read it and was amazed he didn’t cut it. And then we ended up doing it in one take.” Rank 91
Indies come of age with Sex, Lies and Videotape: Jan.22, 1989
Sundance can’t take credit for the birth of independent film. After all, Roger Corman and John Cassavetes had been bucking the studios since the ’50s. But Robert Redford’s annual do-it-yourself Shangri-la sparked the indie revolution of the ’90s when Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape premiered there in 1989. The $1.2 million Cinderella story went on to gross $25 million in the U.S. and change the way movies are made and distributed. “Sex, lies really woke people up,” says festival codirector Geoffrey Gilmore. “That’s what showed Sundance was about the creation of possibilities.” Rank 15
Mookie throws the trash can in Do The Right Thing: June 30, 1989
After Do the Right Thing showed at Cannes, the hand-wringing started. Newsweek termed it “dynamite under every seat”; TIME reported worries that it “could trigger a riot,” and a fierce (and long overdue) debate about race boiled over in the sweltering economic recession of waning Reaganism. To this day, the film provokes frothy emotions. “It was certainly not one of our great movies,” snorts former New York mayor Ed Koch. “It was contentious and filled with race hate— directed at whites and blacks.” Not surprisingly, the Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network disagrees: “It was a turning point for how the last generation of the 20th century would deal with social questions. It was far more than just a movie.” Put simply, Lee’s hurled trash can heralded the arrival of a serious talent. And to quote Mister Senor Love Daddy, that’s the truth, Ruth. Rank 21
Disney resurfaces on the sturdy fins of The Little Mermaid: Nov. 15, 1989
Arriviste honchos Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg greenlit Mermaid the same day as Oliver & Company. Who knew Ariel would outswim her twin brother and turn animation, after decades of dormancy, into a multibillion-dollar box office phenom? “We had no idea what we had till the first preview,” says codirector Ron Clements. “It played as well to adults as to children.” Codirector John Musker recalls Katzenberg “getting stars in his eyes— or maybe dollar signs. He knew this would show people Disney was okay for grown-ups. The stigma was broken.” And even Paramount’s South Park gang owes a debt to those genre-defining Alan Menken/Howard Ashman songs. Rank 43
Best Picture Oscar winners
1980 Ordinary People
1981 Chariots of Fire
1983 Terms of Endearment
1985 Out of Africa
1987 The Last Emporer
1988 Rain Man
1989 Driving Miss Daisy
Beyond the top 10
A selective guide to some other ’80s treasures
1. The Road Warrior (1982) Refurbishing Shane for the punk generation, director George Miller and star Mel Gibson created a whole new genre of postapocalyptic action.
2. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) Your average action-comedy-sci-fi cult musical made movies safe for postmodern irony. And why is that watermelon there?
3. Back to the Future (1985) Robert Zemeckis’ joyously clever time-travel farce sends future boy Michael J. Fox to the 1950s for one freaky oedipal dilemma.
4. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) The big-screen debut of a unique star (Pee-wee Herman) and a one-of-a-kind director (Tim Burton) remains an enchanting toy box.
5. Re-Animator (1985) The best gore film ever made? It’s certainly the funniest. And Stuart Gordon’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation gives carnage outrageous style.
6. Raising Arizona (1987) Until Fargo, the Coen brothers’ finest— a loopy, live-action Road Runner cartoon featuring a magnificently bedraggled Nicolas Cage.
7. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) Silliness triumphant. An inspired marriage of British goonery and Stateside pratfalls, Wanda lets Kevin Kline and John Cleese soar.
8. Field of Dreams (1989) An American classic in the truest sense— aching with loss, hope, redemption, and magic. It may be Kevin Costner’s best inning.
9. The Killer (1989) Hong Kong’s John Woo took action films to delirious new levels with this balletic, bullet-spattered classic.
10. Say Anything… (1989) All those cruddy ’80s teen comedies are forgiven; Cameron Crowe’s funny, smart, eternal tale of young love was well worth waiting for.
Best of the rest
Best on-screen nervous breakdown: (male) Albert Brooks in Broadcast News; (female) Jessica Lange in Frances
Best aristocrats: Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche in Trading Places
Best twist ending: No Way Out
Best debacle: Heaven’s Gate
Best wild-party scene: Bachelor Party
Best unsung performance: James Caan in Thief
Best couple: (off screen) Sean Penn and Madonna; (on screen) Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in Lost in America
Best closing credits: The outtakes at the end of The Cannonball Run
Best Western: The Long Riders
Best place we wish we lived: That really big seaside house in The World According to Garp
Best date movie: Bull Durham
Best movie to see if you can’t get a date: Sex, Lies and Videotape
Best dad: Crispin Glover in Back to the Future
Best mom: JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist
Best backstabbing bitch: Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction
Best Nazi: That guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark who burns the palm of his hand and later reveals the scar when he does the “Heil Hitler” salute
Best villain: Alan Rickman in Die Hard
Best incentive to exercise: Chariots of Fire
Best incentive not to go camping: Southern Comfort
Best astronaut flick: The Right Stuff
Best prison flick: Down by Law
Best death: Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment
1. “Wendy, darling, light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya…I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”
2. “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”
3. “I’m not gonna be ignored.”
4. “I’ll hit you so hard I’ll kill your whole family.”
5. “Did you f— – my wife?”
6. “Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”
7. “Get away from her, you bitch!”
8. “Say hello to my little friend!”
9. “Do or do not. There is no try.”
10. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
11. “Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It’s just not really widely reported.”
12. “No wire hangers ever!”
13. “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
14. “Say it…’I lost the nest egg.'”
15. “There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”
1. Jack Nicholson (The Shining) 2. Kathleen Turner (Body Heat) 3. Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) 4. Timothy Daly (Diner) 5. Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) 6. Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors) 7. Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) 8. Al Pacino (Scarface) 9. the voice of Frank Oz as Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back) 10. Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing) 11. Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap) 12. Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest) 13. Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride) 14. Albert Brooks (Lost in America) 15. Pee-wee Herman (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure)
Jan. 1, 1980: Sherry Lansing, Hollywood’s first female major-studio head, is named president of Twentieth Century Fox.
April 29, 1980: Cinema legend Alfred Hitchcock dies. His legacy includes more than 50 films.
June 9, 1980: Trailblazing comic Richard Pryor catches fire while freebasing cocaine. He later admits it was a suicide attempt.
March 30, 1981: John Hinckley Jr., obsessed with Taxi Driver‘s Jodie Foster, tries to assassinate President Reagan.
March 29, 1982: Memorable Oscar moment: Dark horse Chariots of Fire wins Best Picture over Warren Beatty’s Reds.
May 1982: Master’s degree in hand, Spike Lee graduates from NYU. His student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads puts him at the head of the class.
June 11, 1982: Ouch. Reese’s Pieces candy-coated morsels are featured in E.T. after M&M’s declines to offer its treats for the movie.
Sept. 3, 1982: Mall rats flock to see Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh relive high school in the age-defining Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Sept. 23, 1983: Costner watch: A who’s who of young actors gain fame with The Big Chill. But Kevin Costner (the dead guy) ends up on the cutting-room floor.
Oct. 7, 1983: After 12 years, Sean Connery returns as Bond, James Bond, in Never Say Never Again.
Oct. 21, 1983: Houston, we have a problem: The Right Stuff crashes and burns at the box office. Still, it gets the good stuff: eight Oscar nods.
March 9, 1984: Touchstone, recently formed by Disney to woo audiences over the age of 12, has its first hit: Splash.
Aug. 10, 1984: With Red Dawn, the MPAA debuts its PG-13 rating, added after hits like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scared the %#&! out of kids.
1984: Future noir director Quentin Tarantino lands a job at L.A.’s Video Archives.
September 1984: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Barry Diller quit Paramount to seek mogul-dom. They eventually land at the top of Disney, DreamWorks, and USA Networks.
March 25, 1985: Memorable Oscar moment: Greystoke earns a nomination for screenwriter P.H. Vazak— a.k.a. writer Robert Towne’s komondor pooch.
March 29, 1985: Thrift shopper Madonna draws raves for her debut in Desperately Seeking Susan.
June 10, 1985: After a night on the town with Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Judd Nelson, journalist David Blum dubs the St. Elmo’s Fire stars “The Brat Pack.”
Oct. 2, 1985: Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS alerts America to the seriousness of the epidemic.
May 16, 1986: Top Gun emerges as the archetype of ’80s action-movie excess.
March 30, 1987: Memorable Oscar moment: Paul Newman, 62, wins Best Actor for The Color of Money. He opted not to attend, claiming “I’ve been there six times and lost. Maybe if I stay away I’ll win.”
May 15, 1987: Ishtar becomes a synonym for fiasco.
Feb. 15, 1989: Ads touting Rain Man as an Oscar nominee accidentally run before the noms are announced. Unjinxed, the movie wins Best Picture.
It’s been 15 years since the release of The Terminator, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is still deeply in touch with his inner cyborg. At the photo shoot for this reunion of the movie’s stars, Schwarzenegger, done up in black Armani leather, takes a few giant robot steps from his dressing room to the mirrored lounge where his chiseled-armed costar, Linda Hamilton, is getting ready. “Whe-e-e-re’s Leeenda?” he asks, ever the android. “I a-a-a-m back.”
Actually, he never left. The two Terminator movies, about robots sent from the future to alter present-day history, made Schwarzenegger king of the action movie and helped make director James Cameron king of the world.
Few moviegoers remember that the first film was only a modest box office hit; it was the 1991 sequel’s $200 million-plus take that cemented the reputations of all involved. As Hamilton aptly puts it, “I became the body of the ’90s. Now I have to cover my arms every time I go out. People still look.” It’s the favorable reaction from cops that still perplexes Schwarzenegger. “Basically, I played a guy who goes into a police station, kills everyone, then goes downstairs and says, ‘I’ll be back.’ This is a guy who cops like? Why?”
Linda Blair’s Five Favorite Child Performances
Anna Paquin in The Piano 1993: “This intense, engaging performance reminded me just how precious and unique a child’s gifts are.”
Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon 1973: “Tatum presented the kind of comedic timing exhibited by much older actors.”
Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver 1976: “She delivered a one-of-a-kind, riveting, adult performance— and raised the mark for all actors, young and old.”
Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet 1944: “She brought such love and kindness to her character, it was hard to believe her story wasn’t real.”
Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker 1962: “Brilliant on every level.”
At the age of 13, Linda Blair received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Exorcist.
The going rate: 1988
Avg. Ticket Price: $4.11 Avg. Movie Budget: $18.1 mil
Dennis Hoppers’s Five Favorite Movie Villains
Vincent Price in whatever he did Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M 1931 Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs 1991 Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo 1948 Charles Boyer in Gaslight 1944