By John H. Foote
Towards the end of the seventies many of the emerging and established directors suffered huge box office failures that would impact not only their careers, but the cinema of the time. Drunk with power, with access to hundreds of millions of dollars and free to make whatever films they wanted, they lost their way, one by one, falling victim to their own egos.
Already an egotist, alienating his family and friends, Peter Bogdanovich was head over heels in love with Cybill Sheperd, and made the mistake of believing she was a great actress. She was not. She never was.
He cast her in lead roles in both Daisy Miller (1974), a full scale disaster of the Henry James classic work of literature, and the lead in At Long Last Love (1975), a tribute to the tunes of Cole Porter. Each film was crucified by the critics and made very little money of any. In both films Sheperd resembled Daffy Duck in A Clockwork Orange, so miscast was the actress. Bogdanovich never really recovered, though he did direct again and scored one hit with Mask (1985), he was all but finished as a filmmaker. There were many quiet smiles when this unspeakably arrogant man was brought down by none other than himself.
Oscar winning Best Director William Friedkin (1971’s The French Connection) had followed his thrilling crime film, which won five Academy Awards, with The Exorcist (1973), a giant at the box office and nominated for 10 Academy Awards. The Exorcist wrote a new book on horror, and audiences went back numerous times to see the film (five for me). At a dinner in France one evening he announced to the great master Clouzot his next film would be a remake of the master’s film The Wages of Fear (1953), which he would call Sorcerer (1977). Now to be clear, Sorcerer is a fine film that happened to fall under the substantial shadow of Star Wars (1977) and never recovered, losing millions and devastating the director. He would continue directing, but only attain the heights he had once owned with one film, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).
Martin Scorsese had burst into cinema with Mean Streets (1973) and the searing Taxi Driver (1976), making him one of the darkest yet exciting new directors in movies. Fearless to explore the darkest aspects of humanity, Scorsese next wanted to make a musical like the kind he had grown up on, bringing modern elements to it, stylistically. He did just that with New York. New York (1977), casting Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli in the film, and proceeded to go wildly over budget. The studio took the film over in the editing room, Scorsese was hospitalized for excessive cocaine use, the studio cut and snipped key sequences and the film opened to savage reviews. De Niro was woefully miscast in the film, one of the most irritating performances in film history, while Minnelli was luminous and should have been nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress, along with the art direction, costumes, and the original song “New York, New York”. Instead? Nothing. And Scorsese felt he might not ever direct a film again. He did – a little boxing picture called Raging Bull (1980).
The two Sidneys, Sydney Lumet and Sidney Pollack respectively, each bombed – Lumet with The Wiz (1977), a terrible adaptation of the Broadway play The Wiz, a black and modern retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” that had soared on stage; and Pollack made a love story, Bobby Deerfield (1977), with Al Pacino and Marthe Keller that had not a shred of emotion. She was the love interest dying of cancer and nobody, apparently not even Pacino given his near mute performance, cared one iota. Both duds hurt each director, but they bounced back.
Even the wunderkind Steven Spielberg felt the sting of failure with his wildly out of control 1941 (1979), a noisy, chaotic mess of a comedy with very few laughs. The one good thing to come out of it – Spielberg realized he needed help producing, he could not do it alone, he was better as a director with a co-producer, someone to say no to him.
The end of this director’s era came in the first year of the eighties with the colossal failure of Oscar winner Michael Cimino’s $44 million-dollar western Heaven’s Gate (1980). Just crowned Best Director for The Deer Hunter (1978), a powerful film predicated on lies told by the director, United Artists signed Cimino for the western and he had started filming when the lies came out. Had they been public before the Oscars and the contracts were signed, there might not have been a film. Showing a blatant disregard for the studio chiefs and the budget, the $7 million-dollar film quickly ballooned to $17 million, then $25 million, and it just kept rising. Believing Cimino would deliver a film for the ages, an Academy Award winning masterpiece, they kept going, but they were also under the gun because no one else knew the footage as he did, only Cimino could make sense of the miles of footage he was shooting, often 50 takes and printing them all.
All in the film cost $44 million dollars, in today’s market that would be $132,000,000, an obscene amount for a western and the film ruined United Artists. Pulled from release after brutal reactions in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto (I was in that audience), time was allowed for Cimino to further edit the four-hour mess down to size. As critic Pauline Kael aptly stated, “I could see what to cut, that was easy, but I couldn’t see what to keep.” While beautiful to look at it, audiences do not come to look at still photography. Just two moments come to mind, the stunning roller-skating sequence, and the final gunfight. Directors were no longer to be trusted with big budget films, they were brought to heel, made responsible for bombs. Two years after Comino’s bomb Francis Ford Coppola failed miserably with One from the Heart (1982), forever ending the era of the director, done was their financial freedom.
So, the films of the eighties are a diverse lot.
The greatest of them come at the beginning of the decade, and as the studios took more and more control, the films suffered. Some of the films. For many years the eighties were disparaged as a weak decade for cinema, but in hindsight there were many great films released in that 10-year span. If not a hit in theatres when released, the films had a second chance with the advent of home video, the renting of films to watch at home, eventually audiences were able to purchase them. DVD followed, and then the state-of-the-art Blu Ray, which exists to this day.
The generation of film goer emerging from the eighties is very likely the best educated cinematically than any before it. They had at their fingertips tens of thousands of films, and that has grown to hundreds of thousands from all decades as far back as the silent cinema.
I would come home from university on weekend and Dad would stop at the video store and I would pile them up, perhaps eight to 10 and watch them over and over, discovering what I had not seen, watching what I wanted to see again. It taught me the eighties cinema was quite something after all.
I began with 186 films, narrowed it down to 50 and finally 30, though admittedly it was a challenge. We begin tomorrow with Number 30.
I would be amiss without a huge thank you to Alan Hurst, my partner in this venture and the man who handles all postings, grammar checking and finds the perfect art for each piece. Thanks my cousin, my friend for all you do, and continue to do.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.