Recently, I saw an article that claimed that 1999 was the best year in Hollywood history. Then another claimed it was…1971?
I beg to disagree.
It is my belief that the greatest single year in Hollywood was 1987. Here’s my thinking.
To me, a classic film is basically one that you can see time and again and still be interested in it.
1987 didn’t have just one or two classics.
1987 had dozens of them.
Take a look at the classic thriller line-up from that year.
No Way Out
Full Metal Jacket
A Prayer for the Dying
Less Than Zero
Someone To Watch Over Me
But that was just in thrillers.
Check out the incredible array of other classic movies that came out that year.
The Princess Bride
Plains Trains and Automobiles
Three Men and a Baby
Good Morning Vietnam
Empire of the Sun
The Lost Boys
Some Kind of Wonderful
Throw Momma from the Train
The Witches of Eastwick
The reason why I know 1987 was the height of Hollywood is because I was there.
But in 1987 when I was in high school, my girlfriend and I would go out to the movies every Friday night and almost every single weekend, we would be presented with an incredible film. And since the number of quality films was nothing short of jaw dropping, often we would have to choose which classic we would see.
Ever hear of the classic comedies, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Three Men and a Baby? Well, back in 1987, they came out on the same Friday night!
That year Robocop came out a week after Full Metal Jacket, and then a few weeks later, No Way Out, and a week after that, Dirty Dancing.
The next month, Fatal Attraction was released. Then two weeks later, The Princess Bride, and two weeks later, Wall Street.
That we 1987 moviegoers were rolling in such great quantities of high-quality movies begs the question, why?
Why were the films of the mid 80s to mid 90s so good?
To my mind, it is because from somewhere in that time frame, the artistic marriage of style and substance, of form and function, was perfectly balanced in a way that had not been seen previously and, with few exceptions, has not been seen since.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of movies from other eras.
The thirties, forties, fifties had some really great films, especially the black and white noirs. It’s A Wonderful Life, Double Indemnity, and most of Hitchcock are outstanding.
But what they lack to people born in the last quarter of the twentieth century is pace.
They are pretty slow, especially to a modern audience.
That’s why in the 1970s, films started to speed up.
Thriller films like The Godfather, The French Connection, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and The Shining are faster and more kinetic.
But there is a problem.
The movies do not look that good.
In these popular 70s films, it seems like it is always overcast, a depressing grayness pervades them. You practically have to squint to see what’s happening.
The movies of 1970s had speed and substance, but not a lot of brightness or style. They looked too cold, grim, dark.
But then in the early 80s, something happened.
The visuals, the pictures on the screen became suddenly much brighter and more vibrant.
Perhaps there was a technological improvement in the methods for lighting a film or perhaps in the cameras or the film stock itself because suddenly you can SEE everything better.
For example, google image two random stills from the Steven Spielberg classics, the 1970s era, Jaws, and 1980’s, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In Raiders, it is as if a light switch has been turned on.
For another glaring example of the visual quality upgrade of films, compare the two office comedies, 9 to 5 (1980) to Working Girl (1988.)
Dolly Parton in 9 to 5 was a sex symbol at the time and the film is still quite gray and dull.
But Working Girl? It’s bright. It’s sexy! You can’t take your eyes off Melanie Griffith who is like a fresh young Marilyn Monroe. Harrison Ford, too, is good looking and energetic. Even the villain, Sigourney Weaver, is vibrant and everyone is so stylishly dressed. Not just the actors but the high-end NYC setting seems on fire with compelling color, coolness, energy and style.
That was it. Style. These late 80s early 90s films had style to burn. The great fashion designer Giorgio Armani did the wardrobes for BOTH The Untouchables and Goodfellas.
But coupled with this style, these films still retained their speed and most importantly their human relatable substance.
Because of its terrific script and story, we can relate to the very human and likeable Melanie Griffith character and so root along with her in her quest. At the end, because her struggles are very human and relatable, her triumph is that much more uplifting.
But post 1995, it seemed to become the opposite.
There was a lot of eye-catching style but the human story substance began to wane.
The films of post 1995 were certainly bright and super quick, and really cool looking, but the scripts and stories were less realistic and relatable.
Take today’s superhero films for example.
Their visually interesting style, color and special effects are nothing short of miraculous. Yet because the indestructible main characters are not human, the ability of the human audience to truly share in their journey is limiting.
In contrast, the thriller heroes of the late 80s and early 90s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon are human beings just like us and so the fantasy of vicariously living through their exciting quests—feeling their human pains and human joys and human hopes and human triumphs—is more believable and therefore perhaps richer and more satisfying.
To sum up.
The films of the 1970s were too cold. The films post 1995 a tad too wild and out there.
It was only in the late 1980s into the early 1990s that for a brief bright shining moment, the visual style, action, and the solid human story substance came together in a way that was just right.