Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer of 1982: E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (June 11, 1982)

Released June 11, 1982, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL is arguably the moment that Steven Spielberg became "Steven Spielberg."  With a resume already boasting JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), E.T. surpassed them all at the box office, remaining at the top for six weeks and ultimately grossing a then-unheard-of $359 million during its initial theatrical run.  It was still in first-run theaters a year after its release.  But it started relatively small, opening in first place with $11 million on 1100 screens.  But great reviews and positive word of mouth caused it to get more popular as the weeks went on and moviegoers went back to see it multiple times.  By its sixth week, it was still making more than it did during its initial weekend.  Throughout the rest of the summer, it would be knocked out of the top spot three times by new films, but would be back on top the next weekend.  As late as the weekend of October 15, 1982, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL was still the #1 movie in the country.

Spielberg directing Henry Thomas
It became a huge film yet, at its core, it was a small, deeply personal film for Spielberg.  According to the director, E.T.'s origins go back to an imaginary friend he created as a child, around the time his parents divorced.  Working with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who, at the time, was married to Spielberg's RAIDERS star Harrison Ford), Spielberg constructed the story around that sense of loneliness and isolation he felt during this traumatic period of his childhood and continued to be affected by as an adult. And as a filmmaker who related to the typical American moviegoer better than perhaps all of his contemporaries, Spielberg's film spoke to people:  Ten-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) is the middle child in a home with a divorced, stressed-out single mom (Dee Wallace).  He's playfully pushed around by his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and annoyed by little sister Gertie (six-year-old Drew Barrymore).  Like the Freelings in POLTERGEIST, this was another family that seemed very much like any in our neighborhood.

Spielberg's film uses a stranded alien and his friendship with a little boy as the springboard to a story that is essentially about the innocence of childhood.  This point is brought home by Elliott's conversation late in the film with scientist Keys (Peter Coyote), who wants to capture the stranded E.T. and study him, but only entered his field of study because of a childhood fascination with alien life.  He would've wanted E.T. for a friend, but as an adult, he views it not as a friend, but as a scientific specimen. Keys sees himself in Elliott and also represents the grown Elliott, who displays wisdom and self-reliance beyond his years, due in part to his parents' divorce and a preoccupied, working mom.

Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton.

Like any huge success, E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL became a pop-culture phenomenon, and not just for adding "penis breath" to the lexicon.  Sales of Reese's Pieces skyrocketed, "E.T. phone home!" became a catchphrase, Neil Diamond based his hit song "Heartlight" on it, and it also led to what's largely considered the worst Atari 2600 game ever created.

Neil Diamond was a big fan of the film and in response to it, wrote "Heartlight" with Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach.  Released in late 1982, "Heartlight" is, to date, Diamond's last chart-topping single, though it cost him and his co-writers $25,000 to utilize the ideas from Spielberg's film in the song.

E.T. also spawned the usual ripoffs, though less in number than you'd expect.  One highlight was the Spanish-made POD PEOPLE (1983), which became a classic MST3K episode.  Directed by Juan Piquer Simon (PIECES), POD PEOPLE had a young boy befriending an aardvark-looking alien and naming him "Trumpy."  Even worse than that was the positively fecal MAC AND ME (1988), a feature-length McDonald's commercial disguised as a movie.  MAC AND ME is an embarrassment even by the standards of shameless ripoffs.

E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL is due out on Blu-ray later this year, and Spielberg has assured fans that the ill-advised changes he made to the 20th anniversary edition in 2002 will be reversed.  Apparently suffering from an acute bout of George Lucasitis, Spielberg digitally removed some guns being waved by federal agents and replaced them with walkie-talkies.  After the changes met with much criticism, Spielberg regretted his decision and vowed he was finished digitally altering his past films.  If only he could convince Lucas to do the same.

The only other film to open this weekend was the ill-fated GREASE 2.   GREASE was one of 1978's biggest hits and that film's choreographer, Patricia Birch, was promoted to director for the sequel.  But with most of the core cast opting to take a pass (Didi Conn as Frenchy was the only major cast member to return, with supporting players Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, and Eddie Deezen also reappearing), it was hard for GREASE 2 to generate much excitement without John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.  In their stead were two relative unknowns: Maxwell Caulfield as the visiting cousin of Newton-John's Sandy, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Stephanie, the new leader of the Pink Ladies.  Universally panned and ignored by fans, GREASE 2 disappeared from theaters quickly, but over the years, GREASE fans have warmed up to it a bit and it's generally not considered the train wreck it once was.  But even those who didn't like it in 1982 (meaning, almost everyone) agreed that 24-year-old Pfeiffer, in her fourth film, was the best thing about it, and most critics correctly predicted that she'd go on to bigger and better things.  And sure enough, a year later, she co-starred with Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's landmark SCARFACE and her career, which thus far boasts three Oscar nominations, grew from there.

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