1983: Movies and reaganism

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It was a year of Dickensian dualities, a year of looking forward and looking back, of suffering economic growth and economic decline, of tax cuts and tax increases, of supporting Central American governments and Central American insurgents. Americans witnessed an increase in home sales and an increase in homelessness, military humiliation in Beirut, and military triumph in Grenada. At the beginning of the year, President Reagan's chances for reelection seemed slim, raising serious questions-in light of his age, his performance in office, a skyrocketing national debt, a toppling shift in the international balance of payments, rampant corruption in his administration, and the worst recession since the Great Depression-as to whether Reagan would even run again. By the end of the year, however, despite unemployment rates in excess of 9 percent, the economy was in a clear growth trajectory and Reagan had announced his plans to seek a second term. The year reconfigures not only the Republican Party but also the national ideology. Instead of representing fiscal conservatism, the Republican Party would henceforth stand for unregulated national debt; instead of supporting an international policy of containment, it would favor preemptive intervention (in such places as Grenada, Panama, and Iraq). Rather than representing the conservative restraint in deviating from tradition and altering precedents, the GOP would promote an activist agenda aimed at amending the Constitution. Further, the party would start junking the Keynesian economic system that had provided the foundation for American prosperity over the preceding forty years. In its place, it would advocate an economic philosophy that equated democracy and freedom, a priori, with free markets, social welfare with the dissolution of the social safety net, and national well-being not with the standard of living-which measures the equitable distribution of basic benefits-but with the right to limitlessly inequitable distributions of wealth. The top box office hit was Return of the Jedi, grossing over $300 million, more than the combined gross of the year's next three most successful films. As the culmination of the first Star Wars trilogy (following Star Wars [1977] and The Empire Strikes Back [1980]), the film, with an avid audience waiting, did not need particularly strong reviews to become an instantaneous mega-success. Other than in technical areas, however, Return of the Jedi received very few award nominations and, perhaps in compensation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it a Special Achievement Award for "visual effects". The Academy's competitive award categories, however, were dominated by the second highest grossing film, Terms of Endearment, a blend of comedy and drama that follows a mother-daughter relationship through a series of episodes evoking the changing values, styles, and relationships that marked the transition from the 1960s to the 1980s. The only other box office hit to receive serious recognition was The Big Chill, a film with an inspired sound track full of late sixties and early seventies hits, and an allstar cast including Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Meg Tilley, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Berenger. The film looks back on the 1960s from the perspective of a very affluent group of friends, a decade out of college, who have gathered over three days for the funeral of a college friend who has committed suicide. The other top films at the box office included Risky Business, a kind of reckless teen movie that made Tom Cruise a star. Matthew Broderick also made his mark in War Games, a modest, albeit extremely successful film about a high school computer whiz who accidentally hacks into the U.S. nuclear defense system, almost starting and then barely averting World War III. Another surprise hit, Flashdance, chronicles a female construction worker's attempts to build upon the innovative dance style that she has developed working nights in a girlie bar into the basis for an audition with a ballet school. Its catchy score, combined with the glitzy editing and stylish backlighting that typify many television commercials, turned what was in effect a succession of music videos not only into the third most successful film of the year, but also into an important film style trendsetter. Promoting dance-self-taught and self-styled-as escape from white bluecollar drudgery, the film was a thematic successor to Saturday Night Fever (1977). So was another box office (if not critical) hit, Stayin' Alive, in which John Travolta reprised the role of Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero. Other significant films included two that were well received, and for which there were high expectations, The Right Stuff and Silkwood. Both films depicted true events, the race to put a man on the moon and the death of a whistle-blower who exposed serious safety violations at a nuclear facility. Despite good reviews, much hype, and several award nominations, neither performed as well at the box office as had been expected. Three imports, The Dresser, Educating Rita (both Great Britain), and The Year of Living Dangerously (Australia) were acclaimed for actors' performances. Another small production garnering critical attention was Tender Mercies, directed by an Australian, Bruce Beresford, about an alcoholic country singer, played by Robert Duvall, who puts his life back together. Like The Dresser and Educating Rita-both essentially two-character films- Tender Mercies focuses on a small group of people. The film can be viewed as a country-and-western version of Terms of Endearment in the way that it depicts a family encountering tragedy and redemption. Excepting the epic scope and cosmic revenues of Return of the Jedi, the bulk of the major films had an introspective quality, often tainted by untimely death: The death of Karen Silkwood, the deaths of the daughters in Terms of Endearment and Tender Mercies, the suicides of the Indonesian reporter in The Year of Living Dangerously and of Alex, whose funeral is the initial event of The Big Chill. Even The Right Stuff is informed much more by the deaths of test pilots and the hazards of space flight than by the triumph of the space age. And, given that the Jedi return only after Yoda dies, the films whose titles best capture the film spirit of the year may well be Risky Business, War Games, The Year of Living Dangerously.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAmerican Cinema of the 1980s
Subtitle of host publicationThemes and Variations
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9780813543024
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (all)


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