People are always asking me if I ever get tired of going to the movies. The honest answer is: No, I never get tired of going. But I do get tired of second-tier mediocre Hollywood product, and when you’ve consumed enough of it to wear you out, there’s only one thing that can trump that malaise: stumbling onto a movie that’s fresh, smashing, and original, the kind of picture that reminds you of why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Twenty years ago this week, in the middle of July 1990, was I ever starving for that kind of movie! Entertainment Weekly was just five months old, and though I’d found some films I liked well enough, like the amusing dregs-of-the-Cold War submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October and the fake-brainy futuristic action bash Total Recall, I longed, in the infancy of my connection to my readers, to share something special and exciting. I wanted to announce to them, and to myself, why a magazine like EW existed.
And then the gods of the movie world smiled, and along came Ghost.
It was a yuppie love story, an afterlife thriller with the special-effects ping of good sci-fi, a tale of corporate chicanery, a rude and rowdy trash-meets-class comedy, an old-fashioned swoonfest powered by a haunting unchained melody — and all of this, somehow, from Jerry Zucker, one of the co-directors of Airplane! (He was working from a lively script by Bruce Joel Rubin, but Zucker directed it with extraordinary flair; he was like a happy screwball action painter.) Ghost soon became branded a romantic fantasy for “chicks,” a weeper with a guilty-pleasure label attached. But I knew that it was better than that. As I wrote at the time:
“Ghost is a dazzlingly enjoyable pop thriller. It jumps off from the sort of supernatural premise that usually feels fuddy-duddy — a man is killed, returns as a ghost, and then watches invisibly over his lover — but the material has been brought to life with an up-to-the-minute wit and a spirit of roller-coaster showmanship that leaves you elated…. Who would have thought a sophomoric cut-up like Jerry Zucker would turn out to be a romantic? Ghost is funny, mysterious, and finally moving — a beautiful toy shop of a movie. It makes all the big summer action flicks look like high-priced car wrecks.”
Sitting down to watch Ghost again recently (I hadn’t seen it in 20 years), I felt a twinge of sadness when I realized that I’d be watching Patrick Swayze, who died last fall, play a man who gets murdered and comes back in a kind of parallel existence. Would Swayze’s passing add poignance to the movie? A little bit. Mostly, though, what I realized is that as much as I’d originally liked his performance, I underrated it. He’s actually quite amazing. In my review, all I had to say about him was this:
“Swayze, eyes full of fear and yearning, gives his richest performance yet. Always an intensely physical actor, he makes Sam’s ectoplasmic state seem both real and not real — a prison and a liberation.”
Well, yes, but I wish I’d said more about the Swayze mystique, his unique hermetic glamour as a star. Even cast here, as a buttoned-down investment banker, he never lost his ’50s ducktail or that sightly pouty high-cheekboned narcissism. Swayze always had a dancer’s precision and grace, and that could be a liability; it made him seem a unit unto himself. But in Ghost, a unit unto himself is exactly what he’s playing. In his spectral parallel world, which seems inspired, in part, by the video for A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” he has to learn to master reality, to push objects around and to assert his will with his body. Swayze, leaping through subway car walls, staring at a cat until the beast snarls back at him from across the dimensional divide, is brilliant at making each moment come physically alive. At the same time, he’s a voyeur, reacting to things that he can’t interact with. Locked into a state of moonbeam alertness, Swayze hot-wires every scene. He turns inside-the-room voyeurism into psychological ballet.
Ghost, when you think about it, is a very strange thing, a love story about a love that’s completed in death. Early on, Swayze’s Sam and Demi Moore’s Molly seem perfectly attuned:
“The two playfully caress while Molly is working on one of her tall, squishy sculptures at the pottery wheel; the scene is both an outrageous phallic joke and the most affectionate bit of foreplay imaginable.”
And, of course, there’s…that song! The melancholy! The soaring sweet grandeur! The glorious waltzing 6/8 rhythm! And those righteous, righteous voices! As the golden tones of “Unchained Melody” wash over you in Ghost, is it any wonder that a Phil Spector-produced single that seemed old-fashioned when it came out in 1965 (it was actually written in 1955) turned out to be the freshest pop song of 1990?
And yet, for all its unchained passion, Sam and Molly’s love is missing something. He holds back; it takes his death for him to realize what he had. Seeing Ghost again, I was struck by what a passionate thriller it is. Some of the visual effects haven’t aged well (when Sam sticks his head through a speeding subway train, it looks as primitive as a ’40s rear-projection shot), yet there isn’t a scene in the movie that’s boilerplate. You never know where it’s going, but every moment in it feels right.
As Oda Mae Brown, the sham psychic who doesn’t realize, at first, that her gift is for real, Whoopi Goldberg, exhibiting a spiky contempt for all cooperation with white people (in every encounter with Sam, she wants to know what’s in it for her), still jolts her scenes into the comic stratosphere, even if the trash-meet-class “inner-city” subtext has dated. Back in 1990, when Oda Mae translated Sam’s line to Molly (“You’re in danger”) to the more attitude-happy “You in danger, girl!,” the addition of that street-smart “girl” was enough to bring down the house; it seemed worthy of RuPaul or Paris Is Burning. Today, it sounds like a line you’d expect to hear from one of Goldberg’s cohorts on The View. That said, Whoopi’s performance has lost none of its snappish command. Let’s hear it, too, for Tony Goldwyn, who plays the leftover-’80s yuppie-scum friend with just the right touch of loathsome insincerity and bug-eyed panic.
And what of Demi Moore? She still gives the movie its wistful, calm, soft, and beautiful center. Her look is Audrey Hepburn-worthy in its originality — boyish one minute, girlishly endearing the next — and has there ever been a movie star who cried better? “As Sam and Molly circle each other,” I wrote back then, “Ghost becomes the movie Steven Spielberg’s Always wanted to be — a touching meditation on the endurance of romantic love….Here’s the last thing we might have expected from the summer of 1990: a movie by someone who hasn’t lost his innocence.”
For that’s the thing about Ghost, isn’t it? It’s a movie that dares to be utterly tender and magical, to heighten ordinary feelings into fairy-tale darkness and bliss. It’s like a children’s story for adults, complete with heavenly light and phantoms from hell, and with one very special word (“Ditto”) that says to moviegoers everywhere: Get out your handkerchiefs.
So what are your memories of Ghost? How did it affect you when you first saw it? What’s your favorite scene? Your favorite line? And do you believe, as I do, that it’s Patrick Swayze’s finest hour?