Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox
Eighties films have a weirdly terrible reputation. Sandwiched between the solemn 70s and the pretentious 90s, they are seen as neon coloured popcorn schlock, the opposite of art, made in an era when producers took over from screenwriters and suddenly hedonistic bozos like Don Simpson dominated instead of auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola. And yet, 80s movies have endured in a way disposable junk really should not. And thats for a simple reason: 80s movies are FUN.
Sure, its nice to feel that warm glow of superiority you get from watching, I dont know, Five Easy Pieces (look at me! Im watching a quite depressing movie about an oil rig worker. Bravo me!), but, lets be honest, its not exactly a laugh. When you want to kick back and genuinely enjoy yourself, its the 80s you reach for, and, yes, I said you because I know for a fact all of you highbrow Guardian readers still watch
Top Gun, The Blues Brothers and Romancing the Stone, no matter how hard you try to hide those DVDs behind your Michael Cimino Collection.
And that is for a very simple reason: no other decade has made fun movies as brilliantly as the 80s. While the pitches are easily parodied firefighters who fight ghosts instead of fire; poor girl wants to go to the prom the scripts, at their best, and many were the best, are masterpieces of concision, storytelling and boiled to the bone pure comedy. Seriously, go back and look at
Back to the Future. Here is a film that should be confusing but isnt, should require endless exposition but slips it in almost unnoticed, has multiple tones going on but they never feel crossed or weird, and has some of the funniest dialogue ever committed to screen. And dont even get me started on the casting. BTTF is the most perfectly cast movie of all time, yes, even beating The Godfather (dont @ me). Snobs snort about how 80s movies are just catchphrases, but a catchphrase is just a really memorable line, and the lines in 80s movies ring through the decades because they are bang on: Ill have what shes having, As you wish, Life moves pretty fast. If you dont stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Eighties movies mastered the art of being both smart and silly. For that reason, they perfected the most fun genres. The 80s owns the action comedy (
Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones), the romantic comedy ( When Harry Met Sally , Say Anything), the teen movie ( The Breakfast Club, Ferris Buellers Day Off, Dirty Dancing, Heathers), the time travel movie (Back to the Future, Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure), the Christmas movie ( Die Hard, Scrooged, Gremlins), the odd-couple movie ( Lethal Weapon, Trading Places, Midnight Run), the fish out of water movie ( ET, The Terminator, Coming to America), the John Candy movies ( Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck), the Cher movies ( Moonstruck, Mask), films about childhood ( Hope and Glory, Stand By Me, Big), the superhero movie ( Batman), the womens weepies ( Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment), the unacknowledged homoerotica movies (Top Gun, Three Men and a Baby), the musical montages (Ferris Buellers Day Off, Flashdance, Top Gun) … I mean, I could continue all day but Id run out of internet.
From left, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in 9 to 5. Photograph: Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock
But I would like to add one more infrequently acknowledged truth about 80s, and one that Guardian readers should really take into account here: yes, there was some terrible racist (
Sixteen Candles, 48 Hours) and misogynistic ( Fatal Attraction) garbage in 80s movies, but on the whole they look astonishingly liberal, especially compared with what we see today in mainstream movies. They took on abortion (Dirty Dancing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), social class ( Pretty in Pink, Dirty Dancing again) and feminism ( 9 to 5, The Witches of Eastwick, Tootsie). When was the last time you saw a blockbuster comedy at your cinema starring an all-black cast? The answer is 1989, because that is when Coming to America was released. And when was the last time a black actor was the biggest star of his decade? That would be the 80s again, with Eddie Murphy, a man so talented he is still, alas, in a category of one.
These kinds of novelties keep 80s movies feeling so fresh, but with the fun built in. So, frankly, you can take your Citizen Kanes and your Deer Hunters and you can stick em. You want to spend your Friday night with Apocalypse Now? Knock yourself out. Ill be over here, hooting away to Trading Places. And you know youll end up wandering over and hooting next to me on the sofa. Pass the frozen orange juice.
Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Dont Learn Them from Movies Any More) by Hadley Freeman is out now.