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What Makes Him So Goddamned Special?: Populist Conservatism in Eighties Film

It makes sense, really, that the conservative, materialistic political culture of the 1980s were marshalled in by an actor. Reagan, of course, duly earned his nickname "The Great Communicator" - his mastery of folksy charm, decisive rhetoric, and universal appeal remain unmatched by any of his successors in both the Presidency and the Republican Party. And of all of the "great things" communicated by Reagan, none were greater than the American Dream: getting rich. And vis a vis wealth, rags-to-riches was the ultimate success. Elitism and primogeniture were looked down upon; it was much better to cross the tracks than to start out on the right side of them.

The Hollywood of Reagan's Presidency was much more aware of this facet of the human condition than Reagan's own Hollywood years atop the SAG. By a large degree the hero myth of the 1940s and 50s was devoid of class consciousness. The World Wars had provided enough physical embodiments of bravery to gloss over materialism. Watch most of the period war dramas, and it's hard to tell what kind of neighborhood each kid came from, what schooling they had - much less what car they drove or clothes they wore. Even as late as 1977, George Lucas's seminal classic Star Wars presented a young idealist succeeding without attaching economic virtues to his protagonist. But by the end of Vietnam, war had no heroes to offer, and understandably, the culture of show-me consumerism ushered in (with no small dose of irony) by the grown up members of the 60s counterculture movement proved to be an excellent breeding ground for feel-good movies.

Here now, are 30 popular films of the 1980s which inhabit the populist, anti-authority, self-serving conservative ideals of Reagan Republicans. Accompanying each film is some notes on what criteria it met, and some analysis when necessary of key characters, plot points, scenes, and dialogue.

  • Caddyshack - Besides the obvious overtures of country club snobbery, the "Upstairs Downstairs" approach to caddies and their masters, and the inclusion of populist icon Rodney "I Don't Get No Respect" Dangerfield, the ultimate message is "you can compete with the richies of the world." It also features the following exchange on the virtues of education:
    Danny: I gotta go to college.
    Ty: You don't gotta go to college. What is this, Russia?
    Also, even the littlest of little guys - the talking gopher - bests his foe.
  • Stripes - A tacit endorsement of the military-industrial complex as a source of instilling work ethic, self-confidence, and advanced mobile weapons unit tactics. A great speech by Bill Murray's character sums up the ideal:
    We're Americans. With a capital "A", huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog.
    And when he delivers it, despite all evidence to the contrary, you believe it. A powerful message indeed.
  • Ghostbusters - The third Ramis/Murray collaboration on the list, and perhaps one of the most interesting. The bad guy in the movie? The EPA. The good guy? Fringe science. It also features a class-crossing romance between a classically trained (read: uptight) musician and a hip-talking lifelong academic - to quote the movie, "more like a game show host" than a scientist. And then his choice quote delivered to the hungry media: "No job is too big, no fee is too big!" In its less popular but equally on sequel, Aykroyd's character refers to New Yorkers as "ungrateful yuppie larva." So much for Reagan Republicanism.
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off - The usual anti-authoritarian bend is given a twist by the climactic car crash at the end. But even then the hedonism of the trio's actions and its consequences are viewed as a mini-triumph of the "Tomorrow is another day" spirit. The foil in Rooney is not just a dichotomy of slavery vs. freedom, but also Rooney's own decision to enter the unpromising field of educational administration versus Ferris' seemingly bright future. When Jeanie asks herself, "what makes him so goddamn special?" it's hard to find an answer that isn't mildly troubling when compared with our own existence.
  • Pretty In Pink - She doesn't choose Duckie. Need I say more?
  • Some Kind of Wonderful - So blunt it literally features a game of chicken on railroad tracks (what side will he choose?)
  • Arthur - By creating an uncomfortable lump in the back of every playboy's throat, the movie stands as a tour de force of populist conservatism. Rags to riches? Check. Employee with more insight than his employer? Check. Embarrassing elitism? Check. The only mistake it makes is in redeeming its central character, but Dudley Moore is too entertaining to let this befall Arthur. Also gave strong inspiration to the 21st century's Objectivist poster-boy, Captain Jack Sparrow.
  • Annie - The Little Orphan of course, had her roots in a comic strip dating back to the Great Depression (another popular time for populism), but it took a mid-70s Broadway musical to bring it to the big screen. Ultimate message: if you're cute enough, someone will provide. See: Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
  • The Toy - Another populist premise: Rich man buys poor man, poor man becomes hero by sticking it to the rich man. The only way such an awkward thing can occur is through the mediary of a child, and Richard Pryor waters down the message with some heartfelt moments with the young boy. But ultimately, like Annie, the rich will always reward the hoi polloi that can muster up some intangible skill. In fact, the harrowing truth - that the writers can't really name what makes Ferris Bueller, or Jack Brown, or Little Orphan Annie so special besides a can-do spirit - is probably left on a number of screenwriter floors.
  • Brewster's Millions - The answer to the age old riddle of "if I were king for a day", it's got all the hallmarks of populist conservatism: a class-conscious romance, stuffed-shirt bureaucrats, even the age old American pastime of baseball. Trickle-down economics in the form of a moral: you've got to spend money to make money.
  • Trading Places - An entire movie dedicated to the heroics of the commodities market. Only Harvard Lampoon alum John Hughes could find the humor in NYSE board rooms. The trifecta: rags to riches, riches to rags, and riches to rags to riches.
  • The Secret of My Success - Rags to riches (literally, a boy from Kansas) combined with such choice quotes as "He's not a person, he's a suit" and "You're irresistible when you turn on that boyish charm" (the titular secret thus revealed) - equating sexual prowess with life skills. There's definitely something sexual about the titles of the corporate rags-to-riches comedies - Trading Places, Working Girl,
  • Working Girl - For some reason, the corporate workplace became a veritable bastion for karma in 80s film. The prostitution semiotics of the title aside, it features not only head-scratching ethics ("You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there") but also the practicality of self-promotion ("I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?") and class-crossing romance.
  • Crocodile Dundee, Splash, Walk Like A Man, Big, High Spirits, Howard the Duck, Weird Science - You don't even have to be:
    • from America
    • a Homo sapien
    • raised by humans
    • an adult
    • alive
    • from Earth
    • an actual entity
    to find true love in a big-city class-crossing romance.
  • Flashdance - Your first hint? A welder wants to do ballet. Give full credit where it's due: this is really the first movie to feature a young adult trying to move across the tracks into the higher form of their own talents (repeated ad nauseum in such films as Honey, Drumline, Bring It On, Step Up, Save the Last Dance, etc.) From the worst-childhood-imagination-ever department: "When I was a kid all I wanted was to be able to afford to eat in restaurants like this."
  • Dirty Dancing - The country club snobbery of Caddyshack revisited. Takes a passing shot at The Fountainhead (clear message: everybody counts!), has a reversal of Flashdance art migration (again, the title has its own implication: there is a style of dancing that is not dirty), and saves all its pity for the working stiffs of the movie. Work hard and you too can have the time of your life.
  • Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II - The sly, ever-so-sleazy anti-hero of Axel Foley finds its roots in Joel Chandler Harris's Br'er Rabbit folk tales, which when placed against uber-rich idle playboy supervillains gets results by playing dumb. It's a wink to the audience, who no doubt root for Axel on the premise that Beverly Hills residents have it coming to them. Keep this boy running.
  • Risky Business - Anti-education; pro-entrepreneurship.
  • Three Men And A Baby - Remember when Tom Selleck tells off that Hungarian orchestra player? Interesting to think about - we love our humble bachelors, but why are we so down on the cellist, who clearly worked hard to get where he was? Does musical training breed some sort of unfounded arrogance? Revenge against the piano teachers of our youth? Tone deaf jealousy?
  • The Money Pit - Besides another arrogant classical musician and yet another class-crossing romance (compare to the good old days, when Adam's Rib, Gone With The Wind, and Philadelphia Story could tell a romance without crossing economic lines), it also not only hinges around money, but around real estate: how New York.
  • Ruthless People - Wherein the ruthless people are rich businessmen, and the "victims" are honest young bright eyes cum kidnappers.
  • Back to the Future - The hidden underbelly: if you don't take charge of your life, you'll end up like the pre-time travel George McFly. AKA a doubly wimpy Crispin Glover. I share a shudder with you all.
  • Teen Wolf - Standing out is a virtue, especially if it translates into madd b-ball skillz. The strange career arc of Messr. Fox is a metaphor for the 80s/90s dichotomy: outgoing ladder-climbing do-gooder evolves into backpedaling, soul-searching do-gooder. You can basically draw a line at 1988's Bright Lights, Big City (the same year as Wall Street, Big, Beetlejuice, Rain Man, and any other number of darker films about the consequences of materialism. Also the same year as Reagan's departure. The arc metaphor thickens.)
  • Revenge of the Nerds - "Would you rather live in the ascendency of a civilization or during its decline?"
  • Also, seriously, nerds as proxy for the working class. "Alpha" males abound. Need I say more?
  • Club Paradise - It involves defeating greedy developers. How? By beating them at their own game: turning a crappy resort into a tourist haven.
  • National Lampoon's Vacation - A microcosm of the American Dream. Wally World symbolizes everything right with the world, and the obstacles in the Griswald family's way are typical: bureaucracy, street crime, and a strong sense of abandonment by the establishment. You can have your fun, but you'll have to fight for it. The concept is watered down but essentially repeated in the two main sequels, National Lampoon's European Vacation and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
  • Sixteen Candles - Again, literal school classification standing in for social classification (vis a vis Ted's insistence that he's "only a freshman"), which makes the May-December romance of Samantha and Jake seem much more monumental than it would be at any other high school. Also features a healthy dose of fuddy-duddyism ("You don't spell it, son, you eat it") and the lingering sense that Jake really ought to be sticking with Caroline.
  • The Breakfast Club - Class-crossing romance + anti-authoritarian message = "don't dream it, do it" for the pogo generation.
  • Footloose - Anti-authority at its finest, it also features a sensibility that morality really has no place in our daily lives anymore. I think this meshes nicely with the out and out hedonism of the aforementioned films. It's not just that The Me Decade is right; it's that the generation before is equally wrong.
  • Cocktail - Fail out of b-school? No problem, just drink your way to the top. Oh, and the Mr. Deeds-in-reverse twist (the poor girl is a richie!) only proves that if you're young and arty, you'd better be on a trust fund or you'll never meet Tom Cruise.
  • Weekend at Bernie's - A kind of deranged sibling of Cocktail, it features corporate misdeeds as a kind of "trapped in paradise" motif. And, you know, Bernie deserved it. He wasn't playing by the rules, right? The logical extension of winner-take-all American capitalism: kill or be killed.
  • The Goonies - In case you've forgotten the onus for the wild adventure, developers (of the old money variety) are taking over the island the Goonies live on to make way for commercial properties. Class warfare at its finest ("Andy, you - you Goonie!" Was there ever a better condemnation of economic slumming?)
  • Lethal Weapon - A vaguely more serious variation of Beverly Hills Cop, it also pits blue-collar cops against the rich and the powerful. Notice that all of the hero cops of the 80s play by their own rules (Die Hard's John McClain, Axel Foley, Riggs, even Robocop.)

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