AFI: Eighties-ized: 100 Years… 100 Stars!

In 1999, the American Film Institute released its list of the top 50 screen legends of the 20th century (25 male and 25 female movie stars were included). Keeping up with Retrobacktive’s 80s-themed AFI series, this countdown showcases the top ten male and top ten female actors whose rise to stardom reached heights of unparalleled glory in the 1980s.

Some ground rules: Each actor had to have released one major motion picture before 1985; television roles do not count. Credit is not based solely on award nominations, but a collective overview of accolades, box-office draw, and cultural relevance (i.e. performances still referenced in current media).

Opening this series are…

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Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman

Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman

Bill Murray – Before denouncing Retrobacktive’s countdown based upon Bill Murray’s (relatively) low entrance,remember: A) he still made it on here, and B) there was a solid four-year period between 1984 and 1988 where Murray remained virtually absentee from Hollywood. It’s impressive he made the list considering his disappearance for over a third of the decade. But Ghostbusters is also impressive. As is Caddyshack. And Scrooged. And he’s Bill Freakin’ Murray. Signature Role: Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters.

Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn.

Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn.

Sissy Spacek – When it takes more than one hand to count someone’s Oscar nominations for leading roles, her inclusion on any screen legends’ list hardly needs justification. While no longer courting the limelight, Spacek was a perennial Academy Award nominee during the 80s, capturing four nominations between 1980 and 1986; she won in 1980 for her role as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Signature Role: Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. 

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Emilio Estevez – The de facto leader of the Brat Pack, Estevez eschewed the stage moniker his father adopted in favor of his familial surname. His characters, however, reflected less of his heritage but a great deal of range, from an L.A. slacker-turned-repossession-agent to a bumbling cop to a legendary outlaw. Estevez had a knack for playing against type, a quality that helped set him apart from his MTV-generational colleagues. Signature Role: William H. Boney in Young Guns.

Sean Young – If going bat-shit crazy is a common theme among 80s film stars (read further along), it fits to start early with the most literal example. Young, who was originally cast in Tim Burton’s Batman, was cut from the film after breaking her arm, and replaced by Kim Basinger. When it was revealed that Burton’s much-anticipated follow up, Batman Returns, would include Catwoman, Young made her intentions for the role clear by appearing on talk shows (unscheduled) in a home-made Catwoman costume. Burton was either unimpressed or scared… or both. Michelle Pfeifer was cast instead, and Young’s once promising career began a rapid decent into obscurity. But she did star in Blade Runner, which almost makes up for it. Signature Role: Rachael in Blade Runner.

Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley

Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley

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Eddie Murphy – In the early 80s, Saturday Night Live had fallen from being a breeding ground for young, comedic talent to a direction-less parody of its former self. The only ray of light to emerge from this era was Eddie Murphy. Though a regular cast member on SNL from 1980 to 1984, Murphy’s popularity rapidly spilled over into the world of film with his debut in the 1982 cop-buddy pic 48 Hours. A year later, Murphy starred alongside Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. The success of this film made Eddie Murphy a household name, and ultimately led to his starring role in Beverly Hills Cop after Sylvester Stallone dropped out. Beverly Hills Cop was the biggest film of 1984, and skyrocket Murphy to worldwide acclaim. It was followed up with a further string of hits that included The Golden Child, Coming to America, and Beverly Hills Cop II. Like many of his peers, Murphy’s career has been alluvial since the 80s, though he has found recognition among a new generation as the voice of Donkey from Shrek. Signature Role: Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.

Demi Moore – While her heyday was arguably the 90s, Moore managed to establish herself quickly as the “It” girl of the Brat Pack’s female collective. Despite her association with the group, Moore remained something of an outsider, which ultimately proved strategic in maintaining success past the Brat Pack’s popularity. Nothing, however, could save her from Striptease. Signature Role: Debbie Sullivan in About Last Night…

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Sylvester Stallone – No one can argue the string of duds Stallone put out in the 90s, but in the 80s he was the closest thing Hollywood had to John Wayne. There isn’t a single role between 1980 and 1989 where Sly doesn’t play an overt, brooding tough guy (yeah, even Rhinestone, when you think about it). It became laughable as an eventual caricature, but not many actors can pull off lines like “You’re a disease. And I’m the cure” with such plausible sincerity. His collective body of work during the 80s is not only prolific, but upon reexamination quite good. Crazy as it may sound, Stallone just may have been ahead of his time. Signature Role: Rocky Balboa in… well, any of ’em.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky III.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky III.

Meryl Streep – To be fair, Meryl Streep almost did not make this list. As a more than reasonable contender for the title of greatest living actor, Streep transcends an acme of success restrained to one decade. But then you gotta think Silkwood, Ironweed, Out of Africa, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, A Cry in the Dark, Sophie’s Choice, the endless nominations, and the indelible legacy she built during the 1980s. She may be a timeless icon of cinema, but it’s hard not to look at a filmography from the 8os and not think, Damn, what wasn’t this woman not in? Signature Role: Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice.

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Mel Gibson – Imagine this: you help propel the most successful movie ever produced in your adoptive home country to global acclaim; you play the lead in the greatest “buddy-cop” movie ever made – a sub-genre that would dominate the action film arena for the next two decades; then you make Braveheart; then you go insane. Who cares? You’re still Mad Max. Time and lucidity may not have been so kind to Gibson, but as arguably the most popular leading male in the 80s, there’s a lot Mel can be forgiven for. Just not Air America. Signature Role: Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior.

Kim Catrall – Acting chops are irrelevant (though her’s are fine). Catrall cemented her legacy in the hearts of every Gen Y boy by bringing life (pun intended) into the world’s sexiest mannequin. While Mannequin didn’t win over critics, it provided the indelible fantasy of being locked in a department store playland at night with a beautiful woman. In addition to Mannequin, Catrall played numerous vixen-like characters in movies such as Porky’s, Police Academy, and Big Trouble in Little China. Signature Role: Emmy Heshire in Mannequin.

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Michael Keaton – Controversy abounded when Keaton was selected to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in Tim Burton’s live-action production of the famous DC Comics character. At the time, Keaton was known for his comedic fare in films such as Mr. Mom and Gung Ho. The casting proved fruitful as Batman broke many opening-weekend box office records, with Keaton’s quirky portrayal particularly lauded. Keaton’s star continued to rise, not only based upon his nuanced performances, but also for his reputation as one of the most charismatic guests on television talk shows. Signature Role: Beetle Geuse in Beetlejuice.

Whoopi Goldberg – Surprisingly, Whoopi Goldberg is something of a late-comer to the 1980s film scene – though she made the 1985 cutoff. It was, however, this year that her prowess as a serious actor was put on display in The Color Purple, which earned Goldberg an Academy Award nomination. But it was the string of comedic hits to follow that made Whoopi a household name, including Jumping Jack Flash and Burglar. And of course, there’s her EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony awards collection). Signature Role: Terri Doolittle in Jumping Jack Flash.

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Patrick Swayze – A tragic loss by any standards, Swayze left a void in Hollywood that will likely never be filled. In the 80s, Patrick Swayze was all things to all audiences. A dashing heartthrob in Dirty Dancing; the baddest bouncer on the planet in Road House. He at once charmed and dazzled female moviegoers yet impressed male viewers with his restrained toughness. It is a rare quality demonstrated by an elite few in cinema; Swayze undoubtedly earned his rank among the likes of James Dean, Paul Newman, and Robert Mitchum. Signature Role: Dalton in Road House.

Kathleen Turner – She wasn’t bad; she just sounded that way. Kathleen Turner may have worked hard to steer herself from being typecast as a femme fatale, or the embodiment of Gen X’s Lauren Becall, but with the most sultry voice in cinema, and a film debut that would make Rita Hayworth blush, Turner was primed to be one of the decades biggest stars. She found multiple award nominations for her work in films such as Prizzi’s Honor, Romancing the Stone, and Peggy Sue Got Married. Despite her promising career, Turner quickly fell out of the spotlight in the early 1990s, owed to a debilitating struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, severe alcoholism, and a reputation for being difficult to work with. Since then Turner has remained active in theater, television, and working in support of Planned Parenthood of America. Signature Role: Matty Walker in Body Heat.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger – There may have been no bigger star in the 80s than Arnold, literally. The former Mr. Olympia made his feature film debut in the campy Hercules in New York goof-fest. But it wasn’t until 1981’s live-film adaptation of Conan the Barbarian when Arnie finally got the starring role that put him on the action-film map. And from there the future Californian governor dominated the breakout film genre of the decade. Signature Role: T-800 Model 101 in The Terminator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator

Molly Ringwald – Emilio Estevez may have been the Brat Pack’s leader, but Molly Ringwald was undoubtedly Brat Pack auteur John Hughes’ fair-haired child in the 80s. Ringwald served as the cornerstone of the seminal 80s actors collective, portraying standout characters in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. Widely considered the greatest teen star of all time, Ringwald’s ubiquitous Hollywood presence waned in the 90s, but her career eventually came full circle after landing the role of mom Anne Juergens on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Signature Role: Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink.

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Michael J. Fox – In an earlier post, Retrobacktive named Michael J. Fox the definitive actor of the 80s. But a significant component of Fox’s universal popularity was his deft portrayal of conservative yuppie Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. Following AFI’s exclusive cinematic theme, Fox’s Emmy-winning television work is omitted from consideration, yet that only holds the Canadian actor at the number two spot. Fox effortlessly transitioned his small-screen career into cinema stardom with the runaway success of Back to the Future. Audience pleasing leads in The Secret of My Success and Bright Lights, Big City also contributed to Fox’s meteoric rise. Though stricken with Parkinson’s Disease since the early 90s, Fox has continued to maintain a successful presence on television, though his last major film release was over 16 years ago in The Frighteners. Signature Role: Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

Sigourney Weaver – The six toughest words from any 80s movie: “Get away from her, you bitch!” And if you think it would have held the same guttural authenticity with any other actor, remember this: Weaver was actually nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Aliens. That’s right; she carried a grizzly sci-fi action romp to the stuffy 80s Oscar party. If that weren’t enough, she also played the female lead in the greatest 80s movie, Ghostbusters. Then there’s Working Girl, and Gorillas in the Mist, which earned Weaver Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards at the 1988 Golden Globes, the first person to ever win both in the same year. Signature Role: Ellen Ripley in Aliens.

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Tom Cruise – If a Gen kid (a “Gen” is either a member of Generation X or Y, and comprise the youth of the 80s) could create a cinematic soundtrack to accompany his or her autobiography, you might hear kitschy lines from Tom Cruise at every moment. Virtually every film from the first decade of Cruise’s career is culturally poignant in some way. From his early roles in The Outsiders, All the Right Moves, Risky Business, and Legend, to maturing work in The Color of Money, Rain Man, and Top Gun. Cruise then capped off the decade with a shining performance as paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, earning his first Golden Globe award for Best Actor and first Academy Award nomination. While his personal life has comprised a generous portion of his celebrity for the past 20 years, Cruise’s popularity at the box office has never waned. In 2012, he was still the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Signature Role: Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun.

Phoebe Cates – She has never been nominated for an Oscar. And her filmography is modest compared to many of her contemporaries. But remembering the 80s is more than just picking the “biggest” people and moments from it (okay, it’s sorta that); it’s about remembering! Put yourself back in that time and try to recall who or what was on everyone’s mind. Certainly Gremlins. Despite its controversial content, the film was a huge success. But if your memory needs further jogging, go find a music file for The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” Play it. What comes to mind? If you’re a guy over the age of 30, it’s one scene from one film in particular. Is this worthy of the number one spot on this list? No. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gremlins is! Signature Role: Kate Beringer in Gremlins.

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New Year – Retrobacktive Returns with AFI: Eighties-ized!

Hello, and happy 2014.

It is now a new year and aspirations are high. Given the plethora of twists and turns Retrobacktive has yet to explore (“give or take a decade…” Damn it! Where are the 70s and 90s?!), why not start 2014 with an ambitious undertaking married to a tried-and-true staple of the digital reliquary?

From 1998 to 2008 the American Film Institute presented 13 lists of movies that were categorized and rated based upon their merit and cultural impact. As one of those lists was an update presented ten years after the original, AFI compiled a total of 12 unique countdowns within their series. There are 12 months in a year. Thus (wink wink, nudge nudge)…

Here are the guidelines: Retrobacktive will present its take on AFI’s “greatest” series with an original countdown based upon the institute’s lists starting with 1998’s 100 Years…100 Movies. Each month there will be a new countdown that follows the next chronological list from the series. While some subjectivity will find its way into these lists, attempts to measure each entry based on creativity, legacy, and artistic merit are considered. All films will have been released between 1970 and 1999, with the exception of this inaugural list which contains only films released between 1980 and 1989.

Finally, considering the abbreviated era of time within Retrobacktive’s scope, only 20 films will be presented for each list.

This seems fair.

And so, our first drum roll for 2014 leads to…

20) Batman (1989) – Believe it or not, there was a time when superhero movies were not that popular. Today it feels like studios release a new comic-book flick every week, but back in the early 80s there wasn’t much outside the Superman franchise. By 1987, however, even that series had floundered thanks to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Warner Bros. had been sitting on the rights to Batman for some time, and wanted Tim Burton to direct, but were wary of the unproven director’s abilities. After the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Warner Bros. greenlit production for Batman with Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton in the titular role.

The casting of Keaton as Batman sparked controversy among fans as he was known at the time for playing comedic characters. Producer Jon Peters, however, lobbied for the actor’s casting, and Keaton’s tormented performance is often lauded for adding to the film’s dark tone. Batman was a commercial success breaking opening-weekend box office records and going on to win an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.  While much of the character’s legacy today is centered around Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Tim Burton’s Batman deserves as much, if not more, credit for establishing the iconic image of the brooding, tortured superhero.

19) Return of the Jedi (1983) – To address the immediate concern of all Empire Strikes Back devotees, yes, the first Star Wars sequel was made in 1980 and could have been included on this list. But it wasn’t. And no consideration was given to include only one Star Wars film on this countdown, though in many ways Empire is the superior film. This is, however, an 80s retrospective, and when it comes to cultural impact that exists in the vacuum of time, it’s hard to deny posters of lovable Ewoks on every Gen X boy’s bedroom wall. As captivating as The Empire Strikes Back’s morose tone was, ROTJ provided a bit more of the effervescent jubilation inherent to the 80s.

18) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – John Hughes is as synonymous with 80s cinema as Woody Allen is with awkward charm – which incidentally is also what most of Hughes’ films are about. But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ masterpiece. It inspires every boy’s favorite fantasy of dodging school to spend a day carousing through an urban wonderland with your beautiful girlfriend, best pal, and a really fast, red car. It may not have the varied introspection of The Breakfast Club, but who needs introspection when you’ve got Abe Froman: the Sausage King of Chicago?

17) The Thing (1982) – Allow me to save the trouble for anyone interested in seeing a Retrobacktive face-off between Wes Craven and John Carpenter for best 80s horror director. Carpenter wins. As great as Craven, Hennenlotter, and Barker were, Carpenter had a subtle charm that the others just couldn’t match. With The Thing, he nails it despite the fact that its gore level is through the roof. What Carpenter does with this remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World is elevate the psychological component of isolation and distrust among those fighting for survival. This is a more faithful recreation of the original source material Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, only with all the grizzly benefits of 80s animatronics.

16) The Princess Bride (1987) – “Hello. My name in Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Good luck! Have fun storming the castle!” “Never go in with a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Shall I continue? “Miracle Max: Beat it or I’ll call the brute squad. Fezzik: I’m on the brute squad. Miracle Max: you are the brute squad.” Swashbucklers may have seem dated in the era of big hair and neon tights, but The Princess Bride out-slices any Errol Flynn flick. Although lead stars Cary Elwes and Robin Wright never recaptured the recognition this film brought them, they are supported by one of the strongest casts ever assembled for the screen, including Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Chris Sarandon, and the undeniably charismatic Andre the Giant.

15) Top Gun (1985) – It was the movie that made Tom Cruise a bona fide superstar. All those retro-trendy aviator sunglasses the hipsters sport now? Guess where the trend originally started. Cruise’s cocky-yet-competent fighter pilot Pete Mitchell personified a decade marked by brazenness – Pete’s ‘call name’ is Maverick after all. When he’s not buzzing the tower in an F-14 jet, Mitchell races his motorcycle down runways, picks up girls with cheesy renditions of Everly Brothers tunes, and rocks a mean pair of tighty-whiteys (admit it, fellas, we all think of buying some after watching Top Gun). Despite being the Miami Vice of the Air Force, this movie continues to hold its own against today’s ubiquitous military dramas. While known better now for his outlandish talk show appearances and devotion to Scientology, Cruise gives a meaningful performance nuanced with brushstrokes of human infallibility. Watching Top Gun today consistently begs the question can’t someone tell Tom Cruise to go back to drama.

14) The Road Warrior (1981) – Few film franchises have ignited legacies as indelible to an era as George Miller’s Mad Max series. Images of leather-clad, mohawked biker gangs set against the backdrop of desolate wastelands became staples of 80s post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

The original Mad Max was a cultural phenomenon that realized massive global success and sparked the Australian New Wave cinema craze. The one country where it remained relatively unknown was the United States. When Miller and production partner Byron Kennedy decided to make a sequel it was simply dubbed Mad Max 2. Warner Bros., however, feared American audiences wouldn’t relate to the subject matter as a sequel, so the stateside release of the film was titled The Road Warrior. And unlike Mad Max, it found critical and commercial success in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world.

Much like a western, the plot is uncomplicated; Mel Gibson’s despondent anti-hero rediscovers his lost humanity while aiding a group of settlers in their battle against a merciless group of thugs. Where the films excels is in its fast-cut pacing, non-stop fight scenes, and one of the greatest car chases ever captured on film.

13) The Fly (1986) – Here is another example of a classic 50s horror film – based on an innovative sci-fi short story – being updated in an age of seemingly limitless cinematic effects work. The Fly is arguably the greatest “science-experiment-gone-wrong” story ever told, and there was no better director to capture the torturous physical and mental transformation of Jeff Goldblum’s doomed main character than David Cronenberg.

After finding success with cult horror films such as Scanners and Videodrome, Cronenberg was primed to make his mark with a big-budget production. He delivered with a reinterpretation of George Langelaan’s 1957 short story about a scientist whose experiments with teleportation go horribly wrong when a housefly is sent through space with him. Although the premise provided Cronenberg with an endless platter to set his trademark gore upon, the film’s cornerstone is the deterioration of the relationship between Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’ Veronica Quaife. Goldblum in particular gives a gut-wrenching performance as a lost soul whose physical destruction is eclipsed only by his mental collapse. Be warned: this film is not for the weak of heart, and requires a strong stomach to sit through. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

12) Gremlins (1984) – Gremlins is the Johnny Rotten of movies. It did everything wrong and without apology. First, all the wrong names were attached to the film, namely Steven Spielberg as executive producer and veteran character actors Hoyt Axton and Polly Holliday, who were better known for playing lighthearted television roles. Second, the film had a vivid Christmas setting despite a summer release. But the biggest curveball was the extensive promotion that revolved around Gizmo, the cute little mogwai the presented the movie as a story of one mild-mannered young man’s fluffy little pet. From there the movie spit right in the audience’s face. Many parents who brought their kids to see Gremlins did, in fact, leave halfway through the film, unprepared for its graphic violence, dark humor, and unnerving tone. This, however, only mirrors the eponymous characters’ qualities. The gremlins are punks; they’d want to see mothers whisking their children away in disgust. Gremlins was widely criticized for being too explicit for a PG rating. Hence it became, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the catalysts in the development of the PG-13 rating.

11) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Most fans all know the story by now: Tom Selleck was originally offered the role of Indiana Jones, but had to decline because of his commitment to Magnum P.I. The truth is Harrison Ford was Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play the adventuring archeologist. Screenwriter George Lucas was concerned Ford would be seen as his go-to actor, but that ultimately would not matter. Raiders of the Lost Ark proved to be bigger than the sum of all the principals who came to create it. It was far and away the most successful film of 1981, and is still one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation.

10) First Blood (1982) – Sylvester Stallone’s most well-known character may be Rocky Balboa, but an argument for his most nuanced performance could be made for that of the unhinged Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Adapted to screen from David Morrell’s book, First Blood is the story of an aimless war hero suffering from deep survivor’s guilt after learning the last living member of his platoon died from cancer as a result of exposure to agent orange. Isolated and out of touch with civilian life, Rambo runs afoul with a small-town sheriff who attempts to make an example of him. The result is a mental snap which Stallone executes brilliantly as a stoic but efficient killer. And his emotional breakdown at the movie’s climax gives sobering insight to the suffering many veterans endure after returning from war. First Blood went on to spawn three sequels, and is widely considered the progenitor of the archetypal 80s action film where one man must defend himself against many in a contained, foreign environment.

9) Rain Man (1988) – It wasn’t all machine guns and monsters in the 80s. Hollywood managed to turn out a few dramatic flicks, too. Rain Man remains most notable for Dustin Hoffman’s celebrated performance as Raymond Babbit, an autistic man with a nearly eidetic memory who has spent the majority of his life in a mental institution. Tom Cruise plays Raymond’s estranged brother, Charlie, who seeks out Raymond when he learns their late father bequeathed his multimillion dollar estate to the older, autistic son. Although Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor, film critics often consider Cruise’s character to be the film’s actual protagonist. His transformation from a callous, money-hungry opportunist into a caring and sensitive brother desperate to reconnect with his family is deftly executed, but understated by Hoffman’s unbreakable acting. The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Levinson), and Best Original Screenplay.

8) The Terminator (1984) – This is one of those films that had such an enormous sequel, it’s almost always overshadowed in any discussion about the franchise itself. A shame because The Terminator is the best Terminator film in the series. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a tour de force – the other two sequels pale dimly with the absence of protagonist Sarah Connor – but it steps into bounds that borderline fantastic (read: campy). The original is pure sci-fi/horror/action with a tight but brilliant script (there’s even a moment in the movie where one of the characters admits that the plot is brilliant because it “doesn’t require a shred of evidence to prove!”), and a perfect cast. Try to imagine anyone else in Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s respective roles. It’s impossible.

7) Back to the Future (1985) – Everything about this movie scream 1980s. It stars the definitive 80s actor, Michael J. Fox, features a cameo by Huey Lewis (as well as his bitchin’ soundtrack song “The Power of Love”), and the story’s MacGuffin, a time machine, is a DeLorean. It helps that the script is hilarious and witty, the acting perfectly balanced, and the suspense nail-biting. If it weren’t for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Back to the Future might have had a possible contender for the title of Greatest 80s Trilogy. But as it stands, the Back to the Future series has no competition. Even considering Back to the Future II. It probably seemed funny on paper, but Michael J. Fox in drag just doesn’t work.

6) Die Hard (1987) – This film really deserves its own Retrobacktive entry (and honestly the number one spot on this list, but as mentioned, an actual measuring system was used). To be clear: this is the greatest action movie ever made. Are there flaws? Yes. Are they kept to a bare minimum relative to the garbage barges of ridiculous crap audiences are forced to put up with in other action films. Also yes. While it has been referenced in virtually every review ever written about Die Hard, it’s worth noting again; the pièce de résistance in this flick is Bruce Willis’ everyman characterization of John McClane. Stallone and Schwarzenegger did what they did very well, but the last thing film-goers needed in the late 80s was another overblown superhero. Willis gave audiences something everybody could relate to. Of course, let’s not forget Alan Rickman… but wait, that’s topic for another month’s list.

5) Field of Dreams (1989) – A sports movie had to find its way onto the list. Bull Durham and Major League were strong contenders, but there’s something to be said for a picture that can produce a phrase so ubiquitous people say it without even thinking of the source from which it came. If you build it, they will come. And they did. Phil Alden Robinson’s directorial debut In the Mood may have disappointed audiences, but sophomore effort Field of Dreams‘ story of an Iowa farmer’s mystical reconciliation with his father though baseball undoubtedly redeemed the filmmaker and further propelled star Kevin Costner’s career. James Earl Jones’ monologue best sums up the heart of this gem.

4) Big (1988) – Heart-warming. Funny. Original. Sentimental? Perhaps, but is that the worst quality we could attribute to a big-budget Tom Hanks vehicle? For those exclusively familiar with the AIDS-patient/Forrest Gump/lost in space Tom Hanks, Big is the film that took the once tongue-in-cheek actor from a likeable goofball and transformed him into an Academy Award-contending film star. Virtually all of Big‘s emotional depth can be attributed to Hanks’ uncanny performance as a 13-year-old boy trapped in a thirty-something’s body. But what really gives this film it’s iconic reputation are the numerous scenes that stand-out as indelible, if not cliched, classic cinema moments. Most notably Hanks and Robert Loggia’s “Chopsticks” duet on the pedal-powered keyboard. Moments like that aren’t constructed; they just occur while the camera happens to be rolling.

3) This is Spinal Tap (1984) – Despite the seemingly endless amount of famous quotes that emanated from this Rob Reiner classic, the truth is This is Spinal Tap was not a huge, breakout success upon release. But eventually as a number of renowned musicians began to take note and compare their own experiences with that of England’s dim-witted but “loudest band,” This is Spinal Tap soared in popularity. Say what you want about Gone With the Wind; when it comes to quotable movies lines… well, again, topic for another list. But the whole production is all the more impressive when you consider the vast majority of the dialogue was ad-libbed by Reiner, and lead actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.

2) Robocop (1987) – Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop. Imagine yourself a young boy in the 80s whose tastes for the finer things in life include superheros, gunfire, explosions, robots, and invincibility. If you can come up with a better tag line for such an audience, quick your job and write movie poster copy.

Of course, any young person watching this movie in his or her youth (Warning: do not let young people watch this movie; it is traumatically violent) will miss the endless allegories and critiques of capitalism, greed, consumerism, commercial exploitation, and identity loss. On the surface, Robcocop is a sci-fi superhero thriller where the protagonist holsters his gun inside his leg. Similar to The Terminator, no one should have expected such a cerebral story and polished production. Yet it was praised by critics and became the 16th top-grossing movie of 1987. Although many of the film’s themes reflect the monetary and commercial obsessiveness of the 80s, the film continues to echo through time as a dark foreshadow on the dangers of reckless technological and social incorporation.

1) Ghostbusters (1984) – Of the things one could say of Ghostbusters‘ legacy, none is more appealing than the addition of Bill Murray. Yes, the film is rounded out by a flawless cast, including writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts. But it is Murray who remains indefatigable in his signature role as the wise-cracking, aloof Peter Venkman.

When Aykroyd first conceived the project he had fellow Blues Brother John Belushi in mind for the role of Venkman. Belushi, however, died while the script was still in development. Murray stepped into the role, improvising the majority of his lines and ad-libbing his way into comedy history.

The strength of Ghostbusters lies in the cast’s collective performance. Aykroyd and Ramis are the brains and subsequently the nerds; Murray is much like the older brother who is by now immune to his surrounding absurdity yet beyond reproach in his criticism of it. Hudson is the everyman; Weaver is the beautiful damsel in distress; Potts and Moranis are the quintessential New Yorkers providing an elemental sense of geography (where else could Ghostbusters take place?). The story was never intended to be highbrow, but just as most Hollywood triumphs weren’t, the sum of its parts magically work together to create something bigger. Ghostbusters is in the hearts and minds of a generation still yearning to wear a proton-pack and drive Ecto-1, and its legacy is now ready to be passed down to the next audience who will undoubtedly find something to relate to, something to mimic, something to idolize, and always something to laugh at.

Honorable Mention: Aliens, The Karate Kid Part II, Manhunter, Rocky IV, Pretty in Pink, Wall Street, To Live & Die in L.A., Lethal Weapon

Definitive Eighties: Michael J. Fox, Actor

In the decade that nurtured the birth of Reaganomics there was perhaps no greater right-wing evangelist, or icon of conservative ambition, than young Ohioan Alex P. Keaton. He rejected those notions of the previous counterculture generation – including those of his own parents – and openly held the ideals of Milton Friedman, William Buckley, Jr., and Richard Nixon in the highest regard. He worked tirelessly to not just put himself within position of economic benefit, but to participate in its very direction. He eventually broke free from the confinement of Columbus to engage first-hand in the financial world of Wall Street before following his idols’ footsteps into the political arena, ultimately serving as a United States Senator.

Alex Keaton was undeniably charming in his emphatic, if not buffoonish, devotion to conservatism. As he should have been given that Alex Keaton was never a real person, but the indelible protagonist played by Michael J. Fox on the hit NBC sitcom Family Ties.

Airing from 1982 to 1989, Family Ties chronicled the lives of the Keatons, a middle-class suburban family comprised of liberal parents at constant odds with their conservative children. Though mother Elyse (Meredith Baxter) and father Steven (Michael Gross) were to be the focal characters of the program, Fox quickly became the breakout star. He continually defined the tenor of the sociopolitical era with his earnest albeit self-absorbed portrayal, which would go on to earn the him three Emmy awards and the number 17 spot in TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time” list.

File:Family Ties cast.jpg

(Michael J. Fox, second-from-right. Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Although it would be the role that would launch Fox into stardom, NBC hadn’t originally intended to cast the 21-year-old Canadian actor. Even after first-choice Matthew Broderick turned down the opportunity to play Keaton, producer Brandon Tartikoff lobbied to have Fox removed from the show, doubting the actor’s ability to connect with an audience. At its peak, Family Ties’ viewership represented one-third of American households. But even as Fox’s nimble charisma continued to put naysayers to silence, there were few who could have anticipated just how giant the actor’s future would be.

A 1.21 Gigawatt Role

By now, even the most novice cinephile knows that when principal shooting for Back to the Future began in 1984, Eric Stoltz was cast in the lead role of Marty McFly. Many, however, believe that Stoltz was director Robert Zemeckis‘ first choice for the part. But this is something of an inaccuracy. Though Zemeckis was impressed with Stoltz’ performance in Mask, Michael J. Fox was his first choice for the lead. Conflict, however, with filming for Family Ties initially kept Fox from accepting the role.

As Fox had become the centerpiece of the show, producer Gary David Goldberg feared with Meredith Baxter absent on maternity leave, losing their two biggest stars would be a ratings disaster for Family Ties. Production of Back to the Future moved forward with Stoltz, but five weeks into filming, Zemeckis came to an unsettling conclusion: Stoltz was miscast. Convinced Stoltz could not deliver the whimsical disbelief essential to the role, Zemeckis scrapped five weeks of filming to start anew. It was an expensive decision that cost production $3 million and pushed the release date back from May to July. But by now Baxter had returned to Family Ties, and the producers of Back to the Future were able to negotiate a deal with Goldberg that allowed Fox to work on the film after shooting dailies for his show.

The process was arduous but fruitful. Fox’s everyman charm and on-screen chemistry with co-star Christopher Lloyd made Back to the Future a runaway success. The film grossed over $380 million and became the most successful movie of 1985. It propelled Fox into Hollywood superstardom. The fervor of Back to the Future was followed up not two months later with the release of Teen Wolf. Along with a hit TV show, Michael J. Fox had almost overnight become a bonafide movie star.

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Cover of Back to the Future

Fox credited much of his acclaim as Marty McFly with how easily relatable he found the character. Like McFly, Fox was both an avid skateboarder and guitar player. It was a genuine kinship that translated with the audience. Back to the Future spawned a franchise the included two sequels, Back to the Future II (1989) and Back to the Future III (1990), an animated television series, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, Fox was briefly in a precarious position. He’d found success in playing off-beat yet engaging teenagers. The pitfalls of typecasting were abundant during the mid-80s as many of the child stars of the 70s attempted to reinvent themselves for a more adult audience.

Fox countered, however, with a string of movies that relayed his calculated wit in increasingly adult roles. He finished two films in 1987. In Light of Day he played, Joe Rasnick, the guitar playing brother of Joan Jett’s character, Patti Rasnick. While not a hit, the film received critical praise and was an unequivocal departure from Fox’s previous light-hearted fare.

The Secret of My Success brought Fox back to his comedic origins, but this time in the more sophisticated setting of the boardroom. Fox played financial wiz Brantley Foster, who moves to New York for a lofty job only to find himself living a double life in order to scale the walls of corporate success. It is arguably Fox’s bawdiest role, pitting him against corporate megalomania (in an ironic twist as Fox was still portraying Alex Keaton on Family Ties) while screwball sexual farce ensues.

It was not, however, until 1988 that Fox was given the opportunity to truly break out of the hapless-come-charming youth persona he’d set the bar for with his earlier work. In Bright Lights, Big City – a screen adaptation of Jay McInerney’s second-person examination of urban decadence – Fox starred as Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who numbs his emotional turmoil with drugs, alcohol, and the endless solace of big city anonymity. The performance is uniquely Fox, filled with rattled wittiness faintly a hair above tragic isolation. While critics stood polarized on Fox’s selection as the lead, Bright Lights, Big City would be the door that would lead Fox through his ultimate acting arc.

Cover of "Bright Lights, Big City"

Cover of Bright Lights, Big City

By 1989, Family Ties had come to an end, but Fox’s movie career was in full swing. He’d followed up his smash success as Marty McFly with Back to the Future Part II, simultaneously filming the second sequel, Back to the Future Part III, and having them released only six months apart. But it was a lesser-known film by Brian De Palma that showcased Fox’s most reaching role. In Casualties of War, Fox plays Max Eriksson, a troubled Vietnam vet who recalls the horrific rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by his fellow squad members. The film is graphic in its recount of the Incident on Hill 192, with Fox playing the sole center of morality, defying orders and threats in an ultimately vain effort to save the teenage girl. The film is purely morose, absent even the smallest shred of Fox’s frenetic giddiness. Casualties of War failed to resonate with audiences, but it remains Fox’s most desperate characterization to date and cemented his breadth within cinema.

Despite demonstrating his ability to contend with “dramatic” actors such as Sean Penn and Keifer Sutherland, Fox returned to his comedic roots by wrapping up the Back to the Future series in 1990, and releasing Doc Hollywood in 1991. A string of lighthearted fare followed, including Life With Mikey and For Love or For Money in 1993, and Greedy in 1994, until Fox’s last major film role in 1996’s The Frighteners.

Rise of the Incurable Optimist

Unlike the seminal roles he’d created during the 80s, Fox’s 90s character canon – with the exception of Doc Hollywood – is mostly forgettable. Fox, however, remained indefatigable, reclaiming his infectious small-screen charisma as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty in ABC’s Spin City (1996-2002). As the ringleader of a social misfit New York City municipal administration, Fox captured audiences virtually overnight by engaging over 15 years’ worth of practiced coyness, restrained disbelief, and righteous mockery, and amalgamating it into the relentlessly kinetic Mike Flaherty. It remains his most definitive character.

Sadly the kinesis that drove Fox’s performance was a symptom of the real-life disease he had been suffering from in private since 1991. It was on the set of Doc Hollywood that Fox began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. He filmed three seasons of Spin City before revealing he had Parkinson’s and that the fourth season would be his last as the show’s star. He accumulated three Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award during his run as lead actor on the series, after which he continued in Emmy-winning guest appearances on television shows such as Rescue Me, Boston Legal, and Scrubs.

Since his diagnosis, Fox has most commonly been seen in the public eye as a crusader in the fight for stem cell and degenerative disease research. He has published three autobiographies, and will return to television on September 26, 2013 in The Michael J. Fox Show. Outside of his role as a public advocate for medical research, Fox has continuously delivered open, honest, and at times self-mocking candor in both acting and personal demonstration. The actor has received two honorary doctorates of law, one honorary doctorate of medicine, and was lauded by Time Magazine in 2007 “to be celebrated for his work, his kindness, his humor under duress, and for a noble heart.”

While his accomplishments as an actor can often be overlooked in relation to his highly publicized battle with Parkinson’s Disease, there is no denying that Fox’s versatility, timing, and natural aplomb make him the irrefutable cornerstone of the last 30 years of North American film and television. Thus, Michael J. Fox earns the title of Retrobacktive’s Definitive Eighties: Actor.

39th Emmy Awards - Sept. 1987- rehearsal - Per...

39th Emmy Awards – Sept. 1987- rehearsal – “photo by Alan Light” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holy cow, look at that coat!