Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer of 1982: E.T. Dethroned (July 23, 1982)

It's easy to forget these days just how huge a star Burt Reynolds was in his prime, but perhaps the biggest testament to his popularity is that he's the one who finally, if only for a week, ended E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL's reign at the top of the box office in the summer of 1982.  And it wasn't just any Burt Reynolds movie. It wasn't a car chase comedy and it wasn't a cop thriller.  It was a Burt Reynolds musical: the big-screen version of the Broadway smash THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS.

Musicals weren't exactly a dominant genre in 1982 (and E.T. would reclaim the top spot a week later), and Reynolds even tried one once before--with disastrous results--in 1975's infamous bomb AT LONG LAST LOVE.  But the raunchy Broadway production was so popular, and he had a more than capable co-star in Dolly Parton, that, along with ANNIE, it proved to be one of the few successful musicals of its era.  And it was the last time for a long while that Reynolds tried something different.  As far back as 1972's DELIVERANCE, Reynolds showed he had the chops to be a serious actor who was always working (starring in four major films in 1975 alone) and always willing to stretch.  Even in misfires like 1975's HUSTLE, Reynolds rose above the material.  But then he had his biggest hit yet with 1977's SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, and he and director/buddy Hal Needham found a formula and they just stuck with it.  For the next several years, Reynolds was the biggest movie star in the world, and one of the busiest, with SMOKEY and SEMI-TOUGH (both 1977), directing and starring in the dark suicide comedy THE END (1978), reuniting with Needham for HOOPER (1978), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II (1980), and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981), plus the popular love story STARTING OVER (1979), the heist comedy ROUGH CUT (1980), PATERNITY (1981), and later in 1982, teaming up with Goldie Hawn in the romantic comedy BEST FRIENDS.  Reynolds was averaging three movies a year for several years, and given the longer theatrical runs in those days, there was hardly a time when a Burt Reynolds release wasn't in theaters.  The guy was everywhere.  He was huge and everybody loved him.  Burt Reynolds was the man.

But at some point, Reynolds' fans started to turn on him.  The movies kept coming, but people stopped going.  It's possible this turn can be traced back to 1981's SHARKY'S MACHINE, which he also directed.  A dark, melancholy modern film noir about Atlanta vice cops taking down a drug kingpin and one (Reynolds) falling in love with a high-class hooker (Rachel Ward), SHARKY'S MACHINE is, in some ways, a more focused, fully-realized version of HUSTLE, but it was expertly directed (with a legendary Dar Robinson stunt fall in the climax) and featured Reynolds' best performance since DELIVERANCE.  But critics weren't buying it and while it did OK in theaters, it wasn't the Burt that people wanted.  By Christmas 1981, people wanted the funny Burt.  They wanted car chases and wisecracks and the signature Burt laugh.  Reynolds didn't laugh much in SHARKY'S MACHINE, and his fans didn't want to see him as a lonely, sad-sack cop pining for a prostitute who's under the thumb of a sleazy crime lord (Vittorio Gassman).  Reynolds has only directed a handful of films, but as a filmmaker, SHARKY'S MACHINE is his masterpiece.  It's a great film that's only gotten better with age and in a perfect world, it would've done for him what UNFORGIVEN did for Clint Eastwood and established him as a serious artist.  By the time SHARKY'S MACHINE hit theaters, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS was already in the can, but after that, Reynolds just started coasting.  He gave his fans what they wanted to the point where they didn't want it, or him, anymore.  In retrospect, it almost seems like his heart was broken after the cold response SHARKY'S MACHINE got.  Even its own studio seems to have forgotten about it:  Warner released it in a now out-of-print, VHS quality fullscreen DVD in the early days of the format.  There's been talk of a Warner Archive upgrade, but thus far, it hasn't happened.  At 76, Reynolds is still with us and in good health.  It's a mystery why there hasn't been a SHARKY'S MACHINE special edition with a Reynolds commentary.  Maybe they're not interested.  Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it.

Starting in 1983, Reynolds' credits just become ghastly:  nobody went to see Blake Edwards' THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN.  STROKER ACE (1983) and CANNONBALL RUN II (1984) are generally regarded as the two worst films from his heyday.  His seemingly can't-miss pairing with Clint Eastwood on 1984's CITY HEAT was a major disappointment for both actors, and a nightmare for Reynolds after a stunt gone wrong (Reynolds was hit in the face with a real chair instead of a breakaway prop one) resulted in his jaw being shattered, and a liquid diet caused an alarming drop in weight, which then led to AIDS rumors in tabloids and throughout Hollywood.  He directed and starred in 1985's box office dud STICK, which was shot before CITY HEAT, and as a result of his jaw injury and subsequent painkiller addiction, Reynolds was offscreen until 1987's troubled HEAT (which went through three directors, including one who got into an on-set altercation with Reynolds), but by then, his audience moved on.  In four years, he went from the biggest movie star in the world to has-been punchline.  HEAT bombed, as did MALONE later that year, and RENT-A-COP and SWITCHING CHANNELS (both 1988) and PHYSICAL EVIDENCE (1989).  1989's BREAKING IN was a low-budget indie that got Reynolds his best reviews in years, and he had a small-screen comeback with TV series like B.L. STRYKER and the popular EVENING SHADE.  Bankruptcy and a highly-publicized divorce from Loni Anderson constantly kept him in the tabloids.  Approaching 60, Reynolds slowly mounted a comeback as a character actor and got an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as porn filmmaker Jack Horner in 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS.  A few decent roles came after that, but it still didn't lead to the career rebirth one would expect, or that Reynolds was likely anticipating.  Other than occasional TV guest spots on BURN NOTICE and ARCHER, he usually only appears in straight-to-DVD garbage, including an obligatory appearance in an Uwe Boll film. 

But in his day, he was a movie star in the truest sense of the word, and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS finds him at a time when he was still bringing his A-game.  Parton and director Colin Higgins were reuniting after their 1980 smash 9 TO 5, and longtime Reynolds pal Charles Durning got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Governor.  Reynolds' buddies Dom DeLuise and Jim Nabors also co-starred.  THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS grossed just under $70 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1982 and the most popular movie musical of the decade.

George Roy Hill's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, based on the 1978 John Irving novel, also opened this weekend.  Irving's book was considered unfilmable by some, but Hill had shown an ability to meet that challenge before with his 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.  Hill had several classics to his name--1969's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, 1973's Best Picture Oscar winner THE STING, and the 1977 hockey comedy SLAP SHOT--and was working from a script by Steve Tesich, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1979's BREAKING AWAY.  GARP was an important film for Robin Williams, in just his second starring film role after 1980's POPEYE and the TV series MORK & MINDY, which had wrapped up its fourth and final season earlier in the year.  Williams had many serious moments in this comedy-drama, but critics and audiences didn't seem quite ready to consider him anything but the wacky comedian they saw on TV, and much of GARP's acclaim went to two of Williams' co-stars:  John Lithgow as transsexual ex-football star Roberta Muldoon, and veteran stage actress Glenn Close, making her big-screen debut as Garp's mother.  Both Lithgow and Close received Supporting Oscar nominations for their work in GARP.  Close immediately proved to be the real deal, earning Oscar nominations for her first three films, and by 1989, she'd made eight films and received Oscar nominations for five of them.

Williams' gained his earliest notoriety when his Mork was a guest character on HAPPY DAYS, which led to the spinoff MORK & MINDY.  Another HAPPY DAYS cast member had a film opening this weekend with Scott Baio starring in the comedy ZAPPED.  Baio joined HAPPY DAYS in 1977 and had developed a following as Fonzie's cousin Chachi Arcola, introduced as a love interest for a maturing Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran).  Joanie and Chachi's romance gave ABC the idea to give Moran and Baio their own show with JOANIE LOVES CHACHI, which was yanked after one season and the two actors returned to HAPPY DAYS until the show ended in 1984.  While Moran tried to get a big-screen career going with the Roger Corman-produced GALAXY OF TERROR (1981), ZAPPED teamed Baio with fellow ABC series stars Willie Aames (EIGHT IS ENOUGH) and Heather Thomas (THE FALL GUY).  Baio plays a science nerd who acquires telekinetic powers, leading to much wackiness and topless young women, which made ZAPPED a video store and cable TV favorite for the rest of the decade.  It also starred Felice Schachter (one of the original girls on the first season of THE FACTS OF LIFE), Merritt Butrick (STAR TREK II and soon to be on TV's SQUARE PEGS), cult-movie regular Irwin Keyes, veteran TV actress Sue Ann Langdon, all-purpose nerd Eddie Deezen, LaWanda "SANFORD & SON's Aunt Esther" Page, and the great Scatman Crothers.  ZAPPED led to the 1990 sequel ZAPPED AGAIN, with only Langdon returning from the 1982 film.  Baio and Aames would become friends and take their ZAPPED magic to the small-screen for the long-running CHARLES IN CHARGE.

Also in theaters was the great John Frankenheimer's action thriller THE CHALLENGE, which featured the badass teaming of Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune, paired up to take on a bunch of Japanese bad guys after a rare sword.  Co-written by John Sayles, THE CHALLENGE bombed in theaters and was made at a time when Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE TRAIN, SECONDS) was in a serious career slump and his battle with alcoholism took him to a personal low point.  Frankenheimer went into rehab after finishing THE CHALLENGE and slowly began to rebuild his stellar career, which was back in solid standing when he died in 2002.  THE CHALLENGE is hardly Frankenheimer's finest hour, but it's fast-moving and undeniably entertaining, and like ZAPPED, became a constant fixture on cable throughout the 1980s.  Glenn and the incredible Mifune make a great team, as evidenced in this YouTube clip of all of their CHALLENGE kills.

TOP 10 FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 23, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com)

5.   RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (re-release)
7.   TRON

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