Last month, during TCM’s annual “31 Days of Oscar” feature, during which time the network airs nothing but Oscar-winning/nominated movies, I stayed up late one night to watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” I hadn’t seen it in many years but remembered loving it, and was thrilled over having the opportunity to see it again.
Wow. This movie, which tackles the subject of race in a we-are-all-one-rainbow-nation kind of way, has not aged well. Although it boasts a legendary performance by Spencer Tracy, and a strong cast that also includes Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, the language of the time is now considered offensive, while the film’s message means well yet comes across as condescending today.
I started thinking. What are other movies that, typically through no fault of their own, have not withstood the test of time? One of the first to come to mind was 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Although that movie was given an enormous budget by Paramount Pictures, its special effects have aged poorly, and the Starfleet uniforms (including Persis Khambatta’s hideous, too-short white onesie) went out of style exactly five minutes after the movie premiered. But then I remembered attending a theatrical re-release of 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” that took place in Los Angeles in 2011. That film, widely considered by Trekkies and Trekkers alike to be the series’ best, moves at a snail’s pace by today’s standards, and also hasn’t aged well. Paul Winfield and Kirstie Alley in supporting roles? What, were Robert Guillaume and Dee Wallace Stone unavailable?! I quickly realized that I could fill this list with “Star Trek” films. That was too easy, so I opted to disqualify all of them.
I continued to rack my brain for enough films to compile a list. The 1980’s immediately sprang to mind. The decade of wool ties and parachute pants produced dozens of stale cinematic turkeys. I thought back to the summer of 1986, when my parents first subscribed to cable. I watched every R-rated shoot-‘em-up I could find. “Code of Silence,” “American Ninja,” “Above the Law”…I could keep going. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” came to mind as a grotesque, dated product of the 80’s, during which time seemingly every third action movie that was released featured American soldiers in either Vietnam or the Soviet Union as a crucial plot point. Alas, these noisy, gung ho, USA-good-and-everyone-else-bad movies are no longer in fashion, and yet their stars apparently haven’t gotten that message. “First Blood” star Sylvester Stallone, for one, just keeps cranking out low-grossing “Expendables” sequels, one after the other. Poor Sly has had better years…as has his 1980’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I thought of the two-term Governator’s “Commando” as the perfect companion piece on this list. Ah-nuld’s character kills 81 people in the bombastic revenge film, which also features James Horner’s corny period score (read: heavy on the steel drums). Of course, those two films are merely the tip of the iceberg, and I realized I couldn’t stop there, so I disqualified both of them. (But don’t worry; the 1980’s are still well-represented on my list.)
Finally, after much thought and a lengthy process of elimination (although the aforementioned “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” still makes the cut) – I’ve comprised an admittedly-biased list of what I believe to be ten of cinema’s most outdated movies:
- Top Gun (1986): “I feel the need. The need for speed.” “Son, your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.” “Mother Goose, you pussy!” “Take me to bed or lose me forever.” “You can be my wingman anytime.” With cheesy one-liners such as the quotes above, it’s no wonder that this movie was the biggest box office hit of 1986. The MTV-style aerial cinematography was like nothing audiences had seen before, and the movie won three technical Oscars, plus a fourth Oscar for the film’s very-80’s synth-ballad, “Take My Breath Away.” Problem is, the film’s macho posturing, Cold War jingoism, and – yes – pro-war message all feel extremely dated. Hollywood doesn’t really make war movies anymore, at least not any with a post-WWII setting. Those that are released (“American Sniper” comes to mind) are often polarizing. We as a planet have grown weary from two prolonged wars in the Middle East, neither of which were clear victories. Also, look at the people in this film: We have Tom Cruise, with his million-dollar Ray-Ban smile. And there’s Val Kilmer, cooler-than-cool with his bleached aviator haircut. (I dare you to look him up today.) I won’t even dwell too much upon that homoerotic beach volleyball sequence, during the filming of which the crew no doubt went through two dozen tubes of tanning oil. But don’t get me wrong, Loyal Reader – I used to love this movie. I cried on my first viewing during the scene in which Goose dies! <sorry, spoiler alert> And I can only imagine how fantastic it must look on Blu-ray. But watching it in today’s jaded, anti-war climate is, frankly, painful. Poor Maverick.
- Hatari! (1962): If you’re wondering, “hatari” means “danger” in Swahili. That title is a bit of false advertising for this John Wayne comedic adventure, which finds the Duke playing American expat Sean Mercer, who heads up a motley crew of goofballs, comedian Red Buttons among them, on an assignment to ensnare wild animals in Kenya and send them off to zoos around the world. One problem with “Hatari!” is that the film is essentially a comedy, and as such, I seldom felt that the characters were ever in any real danger. But the bigger problem, which you’ve surely clued into already, is that this movie would never be green-lit in today’s climate of animal rights and environmental consciousness. There is a cute, essentially harmless subplot in which Dallas (Italian actress Elsa Martinelli), the object of Sean’s eye, falls in love with a trio of elephant cubs that she helped Wayne’s team corral…but there’s also a horrifying chase scene involving the team’s pursuit of a rhinoceros. Filmmaker Howard Hawks used a live rhino for the sequence, and if it was thrilling to behold in 1962, it hurts my heart to watch today. Leave these poor creatures alone!
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967): This is an interesting entry, because although it feels very dated today, it was years ahead of its time when released back in 1967. The film, written by William Rose and directed by Stanley Kramer, was perhaps the first attempt by Hollywood to tackle interracial romance as something that need not be feared. The specifics: idealistic young college student Joey (Katharine Houghton) comes home from a Hawaii vacation to visit her parents, liberal San Francisco newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy, in his last – and best – performance) and his even more liberal wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn, who won one of her four Oscars for her performance here). They are without words when she introduces them to her surprise fiancé, John, a successful physician who also happens to be black – and played by Sidney Poitier to boot. The Draytons are progressives, proud of the fact that they raised their daughter to be color blind. Daddy Drayton, however, is afraid to bless the union for fear of what his daughter and her fiancé may face in a world that won’t always share his family’s liberal values. This smart film struck a chord with audiences all over the country – even in the Deep South, where it was a surprise hit. But its use by white actors of the word “Negro” is jarring to hear in such a context, and the film’s noble speechifying (mostly by Tracy) barely scratches the surface of what’s at stakes, race-wise, in today’s post-Ferguson world.
- The Graduate (1967): This acclaimed comedy was released in the same year as #3 entry “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Both films competed for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost to Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night.” All three films feel outdated today, but “The Graduate” is a special case because I simply don’t understand many of the cultural references that this movie is peppered with. I found it outdated upon my first viewing in 1996, and time hasn’t done much to soften my opinion. The film won just one Oscar (Best Director – Mike Nichols) out of six nominations. That may or may not mean anything. If you haven’t seen “The Graduate,” know that it’s about aimless college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who finds momentary sexual satisfaction – but not direction – in a fling with the much older Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). He has the chance at a more meaningful relationship with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Robinson), although neither Benjamin nor Elaine can see the romantic potential in each other. But will they before the end of the third reel? The acting in this movie is universally strong (all three leads received Oscar nominations), and the infamous seduction scene has an odd sexiness to it, but I just didn’t find the film funny at all. I suspect that’s because its humorous bon mots are largely lost on anyone who came of age later than the mid-sixties. For myself – and, I think, for other Gen Xers – the kind of soul-searching that the movie’s main character undergoes is better-handled in later films such as “Lost in Translation.”
- Saturday Night Fever (1977): Future action movie director John Badham (“Blue Thunder”) helmed this 70’s musical about immature Brooklyn teen Tony Manero, who whiles away his weekend nights at local disco “2001 Odyssey” to push aside the reality of his wrong-side-of-the-tracks background, which includes gang warfare and – yes – rape. John Travolta, already a household name courtesy of TV’s “Welcome Back, Kotter,” became a bonafide star following his work here. He plays Tony as a cocky brat on the dance floor and a troubled kid in the real world. This is an impressive, physical performance, arguably the best Travolta’s ever given. His Oscar nomination for Best Actor is well-deserved. The soundtrack, dominated by BeeGee’s tunes including the pulsating “Stayin’ Alive,” is legendary, but alas, whenever this tune is featured in a movie today, it is usually in a satirical way, and its inclusion almost always elicits giggles from the audience. The film’s macho histrionics, while relevant for a coming of age tale set during an era of pre-AIDS sexual promiscuity, seem overcooked today. For what it’s worth, any other young-kid-discovers-himself-through-dance picture could also vie for this slot. “Breakin’,” “Rappin’,” “Save the Last Dance,” “Step Up,” etc. Even if those films were to generate performances on par with that of John Travolta as he is seen here (and they don’t), they are products of their specific decade, and fall out of fashion quickly.
- Birth of a Nation (1915): The second film on this list that deals with the subject of race (though in a different way) and the oldest film as well, “The Birth of a Nation” was released 100 years ago! I first watched this 3-hour-plus silent epic in my Intro to Film class in college, and was immediately floored by the movie’s scope and ambition. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first movie to feature multiple narratives within a single film, which follows the rivalry between two Civil War-era families, one of which is pro-Union and the other which of is pro-Confederacy. I also remember the film’s depiction of African-Americans as slow-witted and aggressive threats; one controversial sequence essentially documents the formation of the Ku Klux Klan by showing a character that hides in a bush, dressed in all white. He jumps out of the brush as an African-American strolls past. The hooded clansman startles the black man into running away, and is thus considered a hero. Many of the film’s African-American characters were played by white actor in blackface, something that would never happen today unless as a social satire (Robert Downey, Jr.’s role-within-a-role from 2008’s “Tropic Thunder” comes to mind). The film garnered considerable controversy even in 1915, and director D.W. Griffith was so infuriated by efforts to ban it that he directly tackled the subject of free press in his next movie, 1916’s “Intolerance.”) Incidentally, “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have been used by the KKK as a recruiting film. I still admire the film as an ambitious piece of Silent Era cinema that adapts a novel (Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s “The Clansman”) based in part on actual events, but I am appalled by its unfortunate association as being a tool of hate-mongering propaganda, even though that surely was not its original intent.
- American Beauty (1999): I adored this audacious mood piece when it was first released in the fall of 1999. It was perhaps the best movie from a year that saw more than the usual number of acclaimed films. But I gave “American Beauty” another viewing recently, and I can say that it hasn’t aged as well as “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Toy Story II,” “Election,” and other pictures from that same year. The movie was distributed by Dreamworks, then a major studio, but it’s an independent film at heart. The indie-movie plot follows the journey of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, who won his second Oscar for the performance), a middle-class schlub trapped in an unhappy marriage until he meets his daughter’s alluring best friend (newcomer Mena Suvari) and uses his lust for her as motivation to get his proverbial mojo back. Meanwhile, daughter Jane (Thora Birch) feels ignored until she gets attention from the mysterious new kid on the block, the camcorder-toting Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who in turn is browbeaten by a domineering, closeted, ex-military father Frank (Chris Cooper). Annette Bening (Oscar-nominated for this but actually quite shrill if you accept the film as a straight drama) plays Lester’s real estate agent wife, Carolyn. Allison Janney and Peter Gallagher round out the impressive cast. I like the message – beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, and it can be something different to everyone – but there’s a good deal of ironic hipster pretense that screenwriter Alan Ball brought to his HBO series “Six Feet Under” as well. If “American Beauty” were released today, it would not be by a major studio, and it would surely go ignored come Oscar night.
- Working Girl (1988): Behold those shoulder pads! Behold the giant 80’s hair! Behold that New Yawk girrrrrl power! This film was a surprise box office smash when it was released in 1988, and garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director (Mike Nichols), and Best Actress (Melanie Griffith). Griffith, although miscast, is luminous as Tess McGill, a Wall Street secretary from Staten Island who stumbles into the business – and romantic – opportunity of a lifetime after her new boss Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver, also nominated) becomes bedridden following a skiing accident. Tess learns that Katherine tried to pass off one of Tess’s ideas as her own, and plans her revenge, transforming herself into a rising Wall Street star and wooing Katherine’s beau, Jack Trainer (an embarrassed-looking Harrison Ford), in the process. The deft screenplay told its tale from a woman’s perspective, which is still a rarity in Hollywood 27 years later! On the other hand, the whole greed-is-good, Wall-Street-characters-make-perfect-heroes angle, taken right out of the previous year’s “Wall Street,” feels as dated as the movie’s title, which of course means something entirely different now.
- Sixteen Candles (1984): I love this movie. It is one of my all-time cinematic guilty pleasures. In it, Molly Ringwald plays Samantha, who wakes up on the morning of her 16th birthday to discover to her horror that, in the chaos surrounding her older sister’s wedding, Sam’s entire family has forgotten her birthday. To add insult to injury, Sam can’t escape the overbearing affections of über-geek classmate Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall, who steals his every scene), while her own crush, senior Jake (Michael Shoeffling), doesn’t seem to notice that she exists…or so she thinks. There are fun performances, memorable one-liners, and a near-perfect happy ending. That being said, “Sixteen Candles” marks off many blanks in the “only in 1980’s cinema” checklist: 1) The shower scene. Seemingly every 80’s movie, even PG-rated comedies such as this one, featured a scene with a nude female in the shower. Although I appreciate a good-looking woman as much as the next person, this indulgence is wholly unnecessary. 2) Long Duk Dong’s un-PC characterization. “The Donger” (an exchange student played by the prolific Gedde Watanabe) is a generic stereotype of all East Asians, rather than the specific ethnicity his character was supposed to be (Korean by name, although one character called him a “Chinaman”). 3) The film’s setting – all-white suburbia in which every house is two levels and is home to a happily-married white couple and their two precocious children. But I digress. Is “Sixteen Candles” the only outdated John Hughes movie? No; “The Breakfast Club” also has its moments. But that one gets a free pass, as the struggles of the drama’s “brain,” “athlete,” “basket case,” “princess,” and “criminal” characters still resonate today.
- The Siege (1998): The inclusion of the final film on this list, “The Siege,” is something of a paradox. On the one hand, the film’s message, that terror attacks on U.S. soil could lead to Martial law at worst and racial profiling at best, is never more relevant than today. On the other hand, in today’s politically correct, post-9/11 world, this kind of thought-provoking film would never be green-lit by a major studio…at least not as a big-budget work of fiction. The film’s main character, FBI Special Agent Frank Hubbard (Denzel Washington, in a corker of a performance), attempts to take down a terror cell operating out of Brooklyn before the cell strikes again. Meanwhile, an enigmatic CIA agent (Annette Bening, in a fascinating turn) and an overzealous army officer (a well-cast Bruce Willis) one-up him every step of the way, not out of malicious intent but out of their own motives that arise from complicated U.S. politics. The movie walks a fine line between brilliance and overkill. It briefly ventures into the latter territory during the third act, but is a slow-burning thriller for much of its duration. Today, “The Siege” seems like something ripped from the headlines, yet it was an original screenplay from an original idea. It is damning to Hollywood that we won’t see anything like it again for the foreseeable future.
Has “Top Gun” become as painful for you to watch as it is for me? And can you believe that a sequel is in the works?! What other old movies did you once enjoy but recently re-watched and found painful to sit through? Leave a comment below and let your fellow Loyal Readers know!