David Lynch and Mel Brooks team up to get October 1980 off to a heartbreaking start
Plus Robert Duvall gets a second chance
The premise is simple, but the task is not. Every single movie released in the United States during the 1980s, reviewed in chronological order, published month by month.
Buckle up, because this is The Last ‘80s Newsletter You’ll Ever Need…
Larry Holmes managed to TKO Muhammad Ali in the 11th round of a title fight.
Thundarr The Barbarian premiered on Saturday morning TV.
The very first use of home banking by computer took place in Knoxville, TN.
And John Lennon released his terrific single, “(Just Like) Starting Over” in the UK.
I had an uneasy relationship with horror when I was ten years old.
I was fascinated by it, drawn to it, and totally and utterly terrified of it. One of the ways I coped with my fear was by buying and reading Fangoria, and by now, I’ve hinted at the difficulty of keeping Fangoria in the house. If my father found an issue, he would destroy it. Not just throw it out, but shred it so there was no chance I could retrieve it. At the time, neither of us could understand the other’s perspective. For me, Fangoria was a way to indulge my fascination without actually watching every one of the films. I could read about them, digest them at a remove, and I would try to understand how the illusions that disturbed me so greatly were created. I look back at the issues that I was reading at the time, and it seems even more apparent why we both felt so strongly.
I vividly remember this run of issues #7, #8, and #9 and their coverage of the movies that we’ve been talking about since mid-summer 1980. Issue #7 featured The Shining on the cover, #8 was Zombie, and #9 was Motel Hell. While I’d argue that the Motel Hell cover is the most immediately confrontational, it was issue #7 that started the war over Fangoria in my house in the first place. I bought the magazine because of The Shining, which I managed to see in a theater. As soon as you open the issue, though, right after the letters column, there’s a three-page piece on William Lustig’s Maniac, and there’s a photo of the infamous shotgun-blast-at-point-blank effect from the end of the film. I have never forgotten the feeling of seeing that image for the first time, and I still get nervous at the mere mention of that movie as a result. Maniac immediately felt dirty and dangerous and like something more extreme than I even understood existed up to that point. Now, the images are part of a piece about Tom Savini and how he designed and executed those effects, but that’s not what you see at first when you look at the images. I read and re-read that article and eventually demystified Maniac enough that I could watch it and just see it as a movie, even though it was several years after I saw those images for the first time. That was invaluable. My father, though, just saw what looked like a porno spread, devoted to violence instead of sex. He actually didn’t have much of a reaction when I was caught with a Playboy at around the same age. That was more of a “Hey, you shouldn’t have this.” Fangoria caused a visceral reaction in him, and he wasn’t interested in getting past that or exploring it. He couldn’t understand why there was any entertainment in that, and I couldn’t explain it to him yet.
In a month like October of 1980, I wanted to indulge that interest as much as possible, and there were two experiences that I had that absolutely scratched that itch. First, we managed to get my friend’s older brother to take us to see Fade To Black, which I’m not sure I’d describe now as a straight-up horror film. It was certainly sold as one, though, and there was something about the “film-nerd-goes-bad” pitch that I found irresistible. Second, I became completely obsessed with The Elephant Man, which definitely is not a horror film, but which worked on me as a full-body experience in a way that only horror films had before that. I had to buy a book about the real John Merrick and look at pictures of him and try to understand what his life had been like. I had to see the film twice because I wanted to pull apart the impact that it had on me. This was really the age when I started to try to get inside the magic trick, and part of that was because of the enormous power movies had over me at that point.
The biggest movies of the month in my house were Private Benjamin, which my parents evidently went crazy for and which I campaigned to see (unsuccessfully until the film’s video debut), and The Great Santini, which has one of the most confusing releases of any of the films this month. We’ll get into it in the piece below, but it was a film that had been building a critical head of steam for a while by the time I got to see it, and it’s one of the earliest cases I can remember of critics convincing me that I absolutely had to see something as soon as I could. There was a movie we saw this month that made no impression on anyone in the family until it showed up on home video and my younger sister (she would have been five this year) decided to watch it every single day after school for months. I eventually came to loathe that movie, but that first theatrical viewing, it just seemed like innocuous fluff.
That movie? Oh, God! Book II.
Let’s get into the truly wild month of movies that was October 1980.
Coast To Coast
Dyan Cannon, Robert Blake, Quinn K. Redeker, Michael Lerner, Maxine Stuart, William Lucking, Ellen Gerstein, Patricia Conklin, David Moody, Rozelle Gayle, Martin Beck, Karen Rushmore, Mae Williams, George P. Wilbur, Tom Pletts, Henry Wills, Hap Lawrence, Tom J. Delaney, Darwin Joston, Dick Durock, Grayce Spence, Dorothy Frazier, Joe Finnegan, Jerry Gatlin, Leonard P. Geer, Cassandra Peterson, Karen Montgomery, Arsenio “Sonny” Trinidad, Vicki Frederick, John Roselius, Al Robertson, Clarke Gordon, Cynthia Gable, Karen McLarty
cinematography by Mario Tosi
music by Charles Bernstein
screenplay by Stanley Weiser
produced by Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch
directed by Joseph Sargent
1 hr 35 mins
A truck driver picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a rich woman on the run and he has to decide if he’s going to turn her in for the reward or not.
There are certain films that feel like an assault on your central nervous system, and it can be hard to pinpoint the exact reason you hate them.
It doesn’t help that Dyan Cannon gives an almost impressively shrill performance here or that Robert Blake seems like he’s about to assault some random audience member at every moment. Sold as a screwball romantic comedy, this is about as far from romantic as Cannibal Holocaust. Sold as a trucker comedy, this is completely inauthentic, with a lead who looks like he isn’t sure where he’s even supposed to sit in a truck. He definitely does not feel like an actual trucker. I mean, let’s be blunt… as a comedy, it’s woefully unfunny, and that seems like the most fundamental test the film could fail.
Even though they’re not identical in terms of plot points, this feels like a pale shadow of Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, which was released earlier in the year. Obviously it wasn’t directly influenced by it, but they certainly feel like they’re drawing from the same basic inspirations. When Maddie (Cannon) learns that the only reason her husband sent her to a mental hospital was to avoid paying her in a divorce, she mounts an escape. Meanwhile, Callahan (Blake) is trying to avoid having his truck repossessed, and when he picks up Maddie, it’s like money fell in his lap. There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea, but the casting is a huge issue. There are plenty of Robert Blake performances that I like, but this is an example of how you kill a film with the wrong casting. I don’t buy him as a trucker. Not remotely. This was the height of trucker culture on film and there was nothing authentic about Blake here, nothing blue-collar or honest about his work. Eastwood wasn’t a trucker, either, but when he played one, truckers saw that as aspirational. He made it look cool. Blake makes it look like a miserable grind, and he appears to openly loathe Cannon. Based on what we see here, I can’t totally blame him. Cannon, who was flat out great in films like The Last of Sheila and Heaven Can Wait, is equally awful here, and for those who find Kate Capshaw annoying in Temple of Doom, imagine that performance turned up by a magnitude of ten and then remove anything even remotely sympathetic or likable, no small trick when it comes to someone as charismatic as Cannon.
There are some solid supporting performances from Michael Lerner, Maxine Stuart and William Lucking, but they’re doing the best they can with lousy material. It’s hard to know exactly who to blame, too. Stanley Weiser, the screenwriter, is a favorite collaborator for Oliver Stone, having written Wall Street and W. and having worked on Any Given Sunday quite a bit. Those scripts are a long way from this, and maybe it’s just as simple as comedy isn’t really his thing. Director Joseph Sargent has an uneven career, to say the least, but his highs include White Lightning and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, so he was certainly capable of greatness. He was also capable of Jaws: The Revenge, but we’ll get there soon enough.
The Elephant Man
Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher, Lesley Dunlop, Phoebe Nicholls, Pat Gorman, Claire Davenport, Orla Pederson, Patsy Smart, Frederick Treves, Stromboli, Richard Hunter, James Cormack, Robert Lewis Bush, Roy Evans, Joan Rhodes, Nula Conwell, Tony London, Alfie Curtis, Bernadette Milnes, Brenda Kempner, Carol Harrison, Hugh Manning, Dennis Burgess, Fanny Carby, William Morgan Sheppard, Kathleen Byron, Gerald Case, David Ryall, Deirdre Costello, Pauline Quirke, Kenny Baker, Chris Greener, Marcus Powell, Gilda Cohen, Lesley Scoble, Teri Scoble, Eiji Kusuhara, Robert Day, Patricia Hodge, Tommy Wright, Peter Davidson, John Rapley, Hugh Spight, Teresa Codling, Marion Betzold, Caroline Haigh, Florenzio Morgado, Victor Kravchenko, Beryl Hicks, Michele Amas, Lucie Alford, Penny Wright, Janie Kells, Lydia Lisle
cinematography by Freddie Francis
music by John Morris
screenplay by Christopher De Vore & Eric Bergren & David Lynch
based on the book by Frederick Treves
produced by Jonathan Sanger
directed by David Lynch
2 hrs 4 mins
Dr. Frederick Treves is disturbed when he sees a sideshow exhibition and he works to rescue “elephant man” John Merrick from exploitation and help him find a better life.
If the only thing Mel Brooks had ever done as a filmmaker was produce this movie, that would be enough to guarantee we’d remember him, because The Elephant Man is one of the truly timeless great films of the 1980s, and easily one of the best films we’ve covered so far in this newsletter.
David Lynch was not the obvious choice to direct the film, but when you look at Eraserhead and Lynch’s experimental shorts, you see everything that he brought to the table to make this such a powerful, singular experience. When you watch Eraserhead, it is experiential more than explanatory, a movie that draws you into a particular world that makes you feel a particular way. You may not even fully understand why you feel the way you feel, but Lynch exhibits enormous control over sound and image. It must have been thrilling to see that film with no warning whatsoever.
That’s how I saw The Elephant Man, and it was a formative experience. I was already aware of the story of John Merrick. I knew about the play that had run in London and on Broadway, and I had read a quickie paperback designed to capitalize on all of the attention on Merrick. I didn’t know about the lawsuit between the producers of the plan and Brooksfilms over the use of that title, and I didn’t really understand there was a difference between them. I felt like I knew what the movie was going to be, and in the hands of 99% of all Hollywood filmmakers, the movie would be a simple feel-good story about this poor deformed man who is saved by the kind people at the London Hospital. The end.
Nope. Instead, Lynch’s film is this fever dream of the industrial age, a sweaty, overheated nightmare that exists as much as a sonic landscape as a physical one. The script, written by Lynch with Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, doesn’t really paint Frederick Treves as the uncomplicated saint that would make us feel good as we watch this movie. Instead, the film makes it clear that everyone who encountered Merrick used him in some way, no matter how well-intentioned they were. It was, perhaps, inevitable simply because of human nature, and Merrick’s existence seemed to draw it out of people. He was a mirror for how they wanted to see themselves at best, and he was a magnet for the predatory at worst. The choice to shoot in black-and-white is smart, not only because of what it does to help create this dank mechanical nightmare world, but also because of the way it allows us to engage with Merrick visually. It’s spectacular, textured work by Freddie Francis, and he sculpts this entire thing out of shadow. The make-up, designed by Christopher Tucker, is extraordinary, based on actual casts that were taken from Merrick’s body, and I honestly feel like in a color film, it might be impossible to ever acclimate fully to what we’re seeing. Something about the black-and-white allows us to settle into the truly startling impact of seeing him close-up, and by the end of the film, it’s interesting how invisible it becomes.
The make-up wouldn’t matter if John Hurt didn’t give one of the great screen performances here, a remarkable portrait of dignity in suffering. One of the reasons the make-up becomes more and more invisible as the film wears on is because Hurt never plays as if he’s wearing it. There is a delicacy to John Merrick, as if he is so aware of his exterior that he has learned how to convey grace despite it, and no matter how many times I go back to this film, I am always amazed anew at just how deeply felt a performance it is and how much nuance Hurt is able to convey through what must have been a truly claustrophobic set of appliances. Anthony Hopkins is tremendous as Dr. Treves, the physician whose discovery of Merrick sets the film’s events in motion. I love Anne Bancroft’s work as Madge Kendal, an actress who begins to visit Merrick in the hospital. Everyone has to play the moment they first encounter him, and the range of reactions speaks to who they are as people. While the make-up was not awarded with an Oscar, it was obvious that make-up effects were becoming a cornerstone of film craft and the intensity of the outcry around that decision led the Academy to create a best Make-up award which was instituted the following year.
As important as the visuals are in the film, the score and the incredible soundscape of the film are just as crucial. David Lynch is credited as one of the film’s sound designers, and it feels like an extension of the work he did on Eraserhead, immersive and disturbing and ominous. While much of the film is simply conversations in English hospital rooms, there’s still a strong sense of surreality pushing in at the edge of things, especially in the film’s opening and closing. It’s still very much David Lynch, uncompromised, but telling a simple, human story that will punch a hole in you if you are even remotely capable of empathy.
The First Deadly Sin
Frank Sinatra, Faye Dunaway, David Dukes, George Coe, Brenda Vaccaro, Martin Gabel, Anthony Zerbe, James Whitmore, Joe Spinell, Anna Navarro, Jeffrey DeMunn, John Devaney, Robert Weil, Hugh Hurd, Jon DeVries, Eddie Jones, Victor Arnold, Frenk Bongiorno, Reuben Green, Tom Signorelli, Richard Backus, Frederick Rolf, Carol Gustafson, Michael H. Ingram, Bill Couch, Larry Loonin, Denise Lute, Robert Canedello, Sherman Jones, Nick Cairis, Bruce McLane, Scott Palmer, David Vaszuez, Ramón Franco, Leila Danette, Rosalyn Braverman, Ramona Brooks, Sophia Sopher, Billi Vitale, Nan Whitehead, Chico Kasindir, Paul M. Hunt, Dadi Pinero, Riki Colon, Nick DeMarinis, Henry E. Bradley, Jay Hargrove, Don Jay, James Hayden, Deborah Howell, Lydea Meléndez, Iliana Barsann, Pearl Franklin, Ellen Whyte, Theta Tucker, David Gideon, Floyd Katske, Vanessa Pesce, Vivian Oswald, Gloria Suave, Bruce Willis
cinematography by Jack Priestley
music by Gordon Jenkins
screenplay by Mann Rubin
based on the novel by Lawrence Sanders
produced by George Pappas and Mark Shanker
directed by Brian G. Hutton
1 hr 52 mins
A NYPD detective tries to stop a serial killer while dealing with an emotionally-draining health crisis involving his wife.
What a weird movie.
First, this is technically a sequel to The Anderson Tapes, the Sidney Lumet film starring Sean Connery, where Ralph Meeker played Detective Ed Delaney. That film was based on the debut novel by Lawrence Sanders, and he wrote a whole series of books about Delaney. In the film version of The Anderson Tapes, you’d never know Delaney was the focus of the series. It’s sort of like the first Pink Panther film in that way, where the criminal is the star of the original, but it’s the cop who ends up getting spun off into the series. In that analogy, this film is the Shot in the Dark of this series, only if A Shot in the Dark was terrible and they never ever made another one.
If they were hoping they were going to get a series of films out of this adaptation, though, they must have been deeply disappointed. Brian Hutton didn’t have a long career as a director, but he managed to make a few really solid movies, Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. Mann Rubin, a screenwriter who started his career at DC comics in the 50s before jumping to television, was the one charged with adapting the Sanders novel, and I’m confused by the choices that were made. The film was developed for Roman Polanski to direct, and this would have been a follow-up to Chinatown if he’d made it. Maybe the book is more of a thriller. Certainly there are sequences here that suggest the shape of a thriller, telling the story of a serial killer who is attacking people with a weird ice axe, but structurally, I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish.
It’s not a mystery, since the film shows us the killer fairly early on. It’s not a slasher movie, because while we see a few attacks, they’re clumsily staged and they’re not showcases for gore effects. They’re just perfunctory plot points. It’s not a procedural because the way they solve this thing is ridiculous, and the way it resolves is (I guess) meant to be a Dirty Harry-like kick in the gut that doesn’t land because the police work is so disconnected from reality. Oddly, the film spends a ton of time focused on a subplot about Delaney’s wife and her ongoing medical crisis. If this made some kind of thematic point that illuminated the stuff about the killer, I’d be fine with it, and if it worked as drama on its own, I’d be interested, but every single time we cut to this storyline, the movie grinds to a halt.
This was Frank Sinatra’s last starring role, and he feels tired here. Sinatra was an actor who could deliver a great performance, but the conditions had to be just right, and he was out of practice by at least a decade when he made this movie. His wife is played by Faye Dunaway, and based on the amount of real estate they give their relationship in the film, it’s clear that we’re meant to feel this powerful emotional bond between these two. We do not. They do not convincingly feel like a married couple. There’s zero spark between them, and we have to spend so much time watching them not connect that it really spotlights what a bad casting choice these two were. David Dukes does his best to give his bad guy character some color, but the film has no idea what to do with the scenes where we watch him clean up after himself. He’s certainly not built into a credible enough threat to justify Sinatra’s cold-blooded execution of him at the end of the movie. Nothing the film does earns an ending like this, and it feels hollow, dumb, nihilistic for no reason, especially when the film then kills Dunaway just to wrap things up.
Julie Carmen, Tony Knesich, Gregory Cleghorne, Buck Henry, John Adames, Lupe Garnica, Jessica Castillo, Tom Noonan, Ronald Maccone, George Yudzevich, Gena Rowlands, Gary Howard Klar, William E. Rice, Frank Belgiorno, J.C. Quinn, Alex Stevens, Sonny Landham, Harry Madsen, Shanton Granger, John Pavelko, Ray Baker, Ross Charap, Irvin Graham, Michael Proscia, T.S. Rosenbaum, Santos Morales, Meta Shaw Stevens, Marilyn Putnam, John Finnegan, Gaetano Lisi, Richard M. Kaye, Steve Lefkowitz, George Poidomani, Lawrence Tierney, Asa Adil Qawee, Vincent Pecorella, Iris Fernandez, Jade Bari, David Resnick, Thomas J. Buckman, Joe Dabenigno, Bill Wiley, John M. Sefakis, Val Avery, Walter Dukes, Janet Ruben, Ferruccio Hrvatin, Edward Wilson, Basilio Franchina, Carl Levy, Warren Selvaggi, Nathan Seril, Vladimir Drazenovic, Edward Jacobs, Brad Johnston, Jerry Jaffe
cinematography by Fred Schuler
music by Bill Conti
screenplay by John Cassavetes
produced by Sam Shaw
directed by John Cassavetes
2 hrs 3 mins
When the mob kills a shady accountant and his family, one little boy gets away, and his neighbor Gloria is going to do whatever the hell she has to do to protect him.
This is the closest thing to a conventional commercial film that John Cassavetes ever wrote and directed, and he never intended to make it. He saw this as something he could write and sell quickly, and he was correct. He was ready to walk away from it, but then Columbia cast his wife Gena Rowlands in the film, and once they did that, she couldn’t imagine anyone else directing her.
I admire and respect Cassavetes far more than I actually enjoy his work, and that’s fine. I don’t have to enjoy his films to marvel at the ferocious independence of them. It doesn’t matter if they work for me. Those films, movies like Shadows and Faces and Husbands and Opening Night, are movies that are deeply personal, experimental at times, invaluable as a record of a major shift in the way acting in movies looked and felt. I love that Cassavetes put so much of himself into his work and that he worked in Hollywood just so he could finance his far more personal independent work. He wasn’t following a model that existed before him. He carved out this path that you see many filmmakers successfully emulate today, and he did it without knowing it was even possible. He did it because he had to. There was no other way for him to make his art.
I think what makes Gloria feel so different than most of his other films as a director is that you can actually describe the story in a way that makes it sound like it’s going to have three conventional acts and do all the things you expect a movie to do. It’s not “three men have existential meltdowns because an old friend has a heart attack” or “a couple decide to divorce and they both have existential meltdowns” or “a woman preparing to perform a play has an existential meltdown.” Gloria’s too busy to have an existential meltdown. She’s got this ten year old boy to take care of, and she’s got to use everything she learned as a mob girlfriend to keep them both alive. What makes this still feel like a Cassavetes film is how he never does any of the things you expect him to do the way you expect him to do it. The film is genuinely tense and thrilling, but it’s not an “action movie.” Cassavetes is always playing the reality of the situation. Gloria is just some random neighbor, just trying to borrow some coffee from the Dawn family. She has no idea that Jack is a mob accountant or that he screwed up and started informing for the FBI or that the mob knows or that there’s a hit out on him. She just wants her coffee, and next thing she knows, she’s in charge of Phil, the family’s little boy. She makes a desperate choice at one point, and it’s crucial. If she just handed Phil over, she could easily go back to her life, and she doesn’t owe Phil or his family anything.
Rowlands makes us understand why Gloria can’t do that, and it’s one of her very best performances. I had two grandmothers when I was young, and Rowlands in this film reminds me of my dad’s mother, a woman with a real no-nonsense strength, straightforward in a way that almost feels brusque, but with a fierce capacity for love. I love the way violence erupts in the film, feeling random and dangerous and genuine, and Rowlands never feels like a badass superhero. Instead, she feels like a real person who is forced to do some difficult and scary things just so she can keep moving forward. I think all the adults in the film are very good, but the weak link here is the work by John Adames as Phil. I think Rowlands makes him better than he is, but he’s still not very good. He’s one of those movie kids who thinks louder means better, and he feels like he only has a couple of gears as a performer. Still, he’s a kid, and he’s not the reason you watch the film. If you have ever like Rowlands in anything, you should see her here, and if you’re not particularly familiar with her, then buckle up, because she is incandescent and iconic here.
I love the way the film looks, and it’s such a specific moment in NYC history, before anyone started really pushing to clean things up. Cassavetes loves to ground his movies, to make them feel lived in and raw, and that works to Gloria’s advantage, making it feel threatening for Gloria to have to navigate this city with this marked little boy that everyone’s looking for, and making her feel like a no-shit hero when she stands up for him even when it seems like she shouldn’t.
The Great Santini (re-release)
Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, Michael O’Keefe, Lisa Jane Persky, Julie Anne Haddock, Brian Andrews, Stan Shaw, Theresa Merritt, David Keith, Paul Mantee, Michael Strong, Bennett Liss, Joe Dorsey, David Frankham, Jan Stratton, Paul Gleason, W.K. Stratton, Lew Horn, Michael Rougas, Al Garcia, Stacy MacGregor, Harold B. Bibey, Gene Jones, Harry Pickins Porth, Albert Smith, Walter Gay, Wendell Gregory, Bill Nelson, Bill Eudaly, Wayne Sharpnack, Morris Phifer, Brad Baldwin, Ronnie Cross, Timothy Norton, Richard Horswell, Ronald Garrett Jr., Hank Chappell, Reggie Malphrus, Doyle Kelley, Larry Burke, K.C. Stiglbauer, Randy Cauthen, Tom Conroy, Lance Snyder, Tony Langdale, Gerry Towles, Ray Nix, Chip Upchurch, Nicole von der Heyde, Nancy Black, Lisa Collins, Kim Duncan, Claudette Evans, Carol Monson, Tara Hudson, Sandra Patterson, Holly Malphrus, Sarah Sanford, Denise Walker, Edwina Dawn Tucker
cinematography by Ralph Woolsey
music by Elmer Bernstein
screenplay by Lewis John Carlino
based on the novel by Pat Conroy
produced by Charles A. Pratt
directed by Lewis John Carlino
1 hr 55 mins
In South Carolina, 1962, Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum and his oldest son Ben clash over Bull’s abuse as he tries to control his family like the men under his command.
Orion was still fairly new as a company when they first tried releasing The Great Santini in the fall of 1979, and the only polite way to put it is that they bungled it completely. Critics and audiences alike responded to the movie if they saw it, but Orion, depending on Warner Bros as a distributor, couldn’t figure out how to get people into the theater. They released it in several different markets with several different titles, including The Ace, Reaching Out, and Sons and Heroes, but they still couldn’t get anyone to show up. Frustrated, they sold the film off to HBO instead of mounting a national release. The HBO release killed the limited NYC release dead, and Orion gave up, pulling the film from theaters completely.
Then the damnedest thing happened… critics refused to shut up about it.
It took almost a year for Orion to convince Warner Bros to give the film a second shot in theaters, and while it never became a legitimate hit, it went on to several Oscar nominations, and the Academy grouped it in with 1980’s films, nominating Robert Duvall alongside John Hurt for The Elephant Man, Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, Jack Lemmon for Tribute and Peter O’Toole for The Stunt Man. In addition, Michael O’Keefe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, losing to Timothy Hutton as another troubled young man. If the film had been in contention in 1979 for its first release, it might have had a better shot at its awards, but those nominations were a clear sign that the film’s second release counted as a genuine rehabilitation.
When they re-released the film this month, they leaned heavily on the year of critical attention the film had received by that point, and the poster they used looked like this:
Now, that’s not much of a movie poster, but it gets the point across. Lots of critics quotes. The movie is adapted from a Pat Conroy novel, and it’s a solid character study about a U.S. Marine Corps officer who runs his home the same way he runs his squadron and the effect that has on his family and his community. Much of Conroy’s work draws upon autobiography, and there were a number of films made from his work, including Conrack, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. His father really was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and he spent his childhood moving frequently with his gigantic family (he was the oldest of seven kids) and having to live up to his father’s rigorous ideas about manhood. The publication of the book originally caused problems for Conroy within his family, but eventually led to a reconciliation with his father, who seemed determined to prove that he wasn’t the same as the character in the book.
Robert Duvall wears this role like a second skin, and it is disconcerting how good he is at terrorizing and bullying his family. Michael O’Keefe plays Ben, the Pat Conroy stand-in, and I love his work here. The same thing that made him perfect to play Danny Noonan makes him a compelling choice here. Although he’s clearly young, there’s something adult and focused about O’Keefe that makes him seem like he really can stand up to whatever it is that Robert Duvall or Ted Knight might throw at him. You can’t scare this kid, hard as you try. The basketball scene between the two of them is a classic because of just how wired in both Duvall and O’Keefe are with one another. Blythe Danner, criminally underrated for most of her career, is a perfect embodiment of a certain kind of Southern mom. I grew up all over the American South, and around the time that Conroy was writing about. These are people and places I recognize (and not just because the Meechums live in the same house where The Big Chill was shot) and it feels authentically observed, both about family life and military culture.
I wish Warner/Orion would get their shit together and finally put out a well-mastered Blu-ray of this. The last time it came out on DVD, it was still mastered for full-frame, and it feels like a film that has been forgotten enough by pop culture that the company doesn’t feel any urgency to take care of it. It’s a shame because while it is a fairly blunt thing overall, The Great Santini is full of terrific performances and some clear-eyed observations about how toxic a certain kind of masculinity can be. If you’ve never seen it, it should be one of your priorities as a reader of this newsletter to track it down.
Okay… here’s something we haven’t done before. Normally, I make sure to include everything from a weekend in the same newsletter, but this month, that first weekend featured ten releases. So, for the first time, I’m breaking a weekend in half. You’ll get the rest of October 3 in three short days, and it’s amazing how much more stuff there still is to discuss. Christopher Reeve and Jamie Lee Curtis are both featured, so make sure you’re here on April 18th!
And if you’re not a subscriber, you’ll not only miss that second half of the first weekend, but you’ll miss all the rest of October. There are so many movies! For example… you’ll get Paul Simon! And Art Garfunkel! Both! And not in the same film!
And don’t forget, there’s an awesome new iPhone app for Substack that makes it so much easier to read everything. You really should download it and check it out!