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By Vernor Rodgers
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1980: ONE OF MY FAVORITE YEARS

With movie theaters still in shutdown mode, it is difficult for those of us who enjoy film to go through the withdrawal from the in-house movie experience. Although films are available via pay TV and streaming, it just is not the same, not being able to take in a movie on a nice big screen, surrounded by sound.

I have found myself becoming nostalgic as I recall all my movie experiences and lately I realized that 1980 was 40 years ago. That year was a watermark one for me as a movie fan. I was early in my career as a journalist and that was the first full year I was living on my own. On my days off I usually gravitated toward the theater to take in a movie and ended up viewing 80 movies that year. It turned out to be one of my all-time favorite years of movie viewing. Here are some highlights.

"ALL THAT JAZZ"

One cannot accuse Bob Fosse, movie director ("Cabaret") and dance choreographer, of not being self-aware. "All That Jazz" was essentially an autobio-pic Fosse directed  and co-wrote -- with Robert Alan Aurthur. Roy Scheider was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Joe Gideon, Fosse's alter-ego, a director and choreographer pretty much burning a candle on both ends. He is in post-production of his latest movie, "The Stand Up" -- based on Fosse's "Lenny" -- while also designing dance routines for a new musical that will be featuring his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) -- obviously patterned after Gwen Verdon -- and pursuing his insatiable appetite for sex.

In between all this, Gideon also is not very successful at being an attentive father to his daughter and holds a double standard against his gorgeous girlfriend Kate (played by Fosse's real-time lover Ann Reinking) -- HE can cheat on her but she cannot on HIM -- while having spiritual and often candidly critical self-analysis sessions with Angelique (read: Angel of Death), played by Jessica Lange. Everything gets sidetracked when Gideon suffers a heart attack, and despite the seriousness of his condition continues to tempt his fate.

A few years ago I got a chance to meet and chat with actress-dancer Sandahl Bergman about the "air-rotica" dance that Gideon designs and features Bergman. She was delighted to talk about it.

Gideon goes out in style in a big production number at the end in which he gets to say goodbye to all those he encountered in his energetic lifelong pursuits before rising up to meet Angelique for all eternity. Unfortunately for Fosse, his end did not arrive so glamorously, as he suffered a fatal heart attack on Sept. 23, 1987, while walking down a street in New York. He was 60 years old.

"THE CHINA SYNDROME"

A gut-wrenching story about a nuclear power plant engineer, Jack Goodall (Jack Lemmon, who received an Academy Award nomination for this role), who after surviving a near catastrophic incident at the plant is compelled to become a whistleblower on the potential dangers at the plant because of shoddy construction. He teams up with a TV reporter, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda, also nominated), a fluff reporter who earns her chops covering  this ultimately tragic story about misinformation and betrayal. Michael Douglas co-stars as Richard Adams, Kimberly's cameraman.

"THE BLACK MARBLE"

A little-seen and under-appreciated movie based upon LAPD novelist Joseph Wambaugh's novel  -- he also wrote the screenplay. Robert Foxworth was excellent as a tormented police officer of Russian descent, A.M. Valnikov, who teams up with Sgt. Natatlie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) as they tackle the pressures of police work in the City of Angels. The two have to battle through their cultural differences while in pursuit of a dog-napper, Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton). That neither Foxworth nor Prentiss received any nominations for this caused ire among the movie's fans. Wambaugh did win an Edgar Allan Poe Award for the screenplay, however.

"WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM"

Not a well received movie among many critics, it proved that movies based on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's books are an acquired taste. John Kaye had the tricky task of adapting Thompson's work for the screen, and certainly Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as his sidekick Lazlo have some nutty moments together, but as a whole you had to be an unforgiving Thompson aficionado to like this venture.

"GORP"

One of the few movies I viewed in which I was sorely tempted to demand a refund. Michael Lembeck and Dennis Quaid star in this goofy comedy about the antics of a group of waiters at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York. My only recollection of the movie was Lembeck's totally out of control overacting.

"THE SHINING"

This adaption of the Stephen King novel not only has weathered the test of time but actually has managed to become accepted as a classic horror movie. King himself hated it and critics were not very complimentary but now it is iconic. The majestic Overlook Hotel in Colorado presents a creepy venue for a great ghost story. And who cannot enjoy over and over again Jack Nicholson's searing performance as the recovering alcoholic teacher-turned-writer-turned-hotel caretaker Jack Torrance slowly going crazy during a snowed-in winter at the Overlook because of his haunted ties to the historical hotel. Torrance's leering and crazy "Heeere's Johnny" is now one of the most famous scenes in movie history. To this day Lisa and Louise Burns, who played the tragically doomed Grady twins, make the rounds at horror conventions. For Lia Beldam, the woman who steps out of the bathtub to tempt Torrance and horrifically transforms into a decaying old lady, this was her only appearance in a movie.

AND THEN SUMMER ARRIVED AND ....


"THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK"

The second "Star Wars" movie although it was Episode 5 in the saga. It remains my favorite of the "Star Wars" franchise. Although Episode 4, "A New Hope", ended on an upbeat note, the fortunes of the rebel alliance have fallen and now they are confined to a godforsaken ice planet, Hoth, as Darth Vader is using all of the resources of the Empire to track down Luke Skywalker.

Amid this good vs evil dynamic are the sub-plots, notably the soap-operish drama of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and her affections for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Not to mention the love-hate interplay between C3PO and R2D2.

Pre-release of "Empire" included the secrecy surrounding the appearance of Yoda, the Jedi Master. While in the process of dying of hypothermia on Hoth after a nasty encounter with an abominable snowman, Luke is visited by Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in spirit form, who tells the young man to go to the Dagobah System to learn from Yoda. He does this once the rebels successfully flee from Hoth. Meanwhile, Han, Leia and C3PO are busy trying to elude Empire ships in the Millinneum Falcon and engaging in a pre-romantic dustup (3PO excluded, of course). Leia is in denial she could possibly be drooling over a mercenary, self-absorbed, scruffy-looking nerfherder like Han. 

Luke turns out to be something of a troublesome student under the guidance of Yoda, always doubting the teachings, sometimes doing the opposite of Yoda's directions. Then on top of that, Luke ditches class so he can go rescue his friends, who have encountered Darth and a cast of thousands of stormtroopers at Lando Calrission's cloud city. Inevitably, Luke and Darth face off, and then after slicing off Luke's hand, old Darth delivers the stunner: sorry about your hand and by the way, I am your father.

"Empire" ends with a stunned Luke dealing with his newly discovered family roots, Han sealed in carbonite and being shipped to crime boss-blob Jabba the Hut and the rest of us wondering how Leia is going to reconcile her feelings for Luke while finally admitting to being in love with Han. That's a lot to leave the viewers hanging with, especially with the next movie not due FOR THREE YEARS.

I have a friend who claimed that as he was leaving the theater after viewing "Empire" and strolling by the line of people waiting to get inside for the next showing, he blurted the spoiler "I can't believe Darth Vader is Luke's father." Do I believe he did this? Nope. Had it been true, he would not have lived to tell the tale.

"AIRPLANE!"

This movie benefited greatly from being part of the previews package shown before "The Empire Strikes Back" and as a result became the second smash film of the summer. The brainchild of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers David and Jerry, "Airplane!" was a delight, sort of an anti-Woody Allen movie. No sophisticated humor, just sight gags, silly dialog and puns. Another act of genius was casting veteran actors known for dramatic and action roles -- Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen -- and letting them deadpan the funny lines, and having an L.A. Lakers superstar (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) play an airline pilot. Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty enjoyed a brief moment in the film world's limelight as the troubled lovers, Ted and Elaine, trying to resolve their shaky relationship amid the pending disaster of a commercial airline flight being endangered as the flight crew is disabled via food poisoning.

There are so many sight gags it takes multiple viewings to catch them all. Lines of dialog have endured in the mainstream to this day ("Surely you're not serious." "I am totally serious. And don't call me Shirley.") Peter Graves reportedly was uncomfortable initially with his character, the perverted flight captain Clarence Ovuer, trying to lure the young boy passenger Joey (Rossie Harris) into some dirty dialog with such leading questions as "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?" "Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?" Leslie Nielsen enjoyed a career resurgence, teaming up with the Zuckers and Abrahams in the "Police Squad!" comedies, and catching talk show hosts off guard with a fart machine during live interviews. Interestingly, I saw Robert Hays at a convention a few years ago and was surprised he was not drawing very many people to his table for autographs. A shame.

"DRESSED TO KILL"

Brian DePalma was a director who shook me up when I was younger with his sometimes shocking and terrifying murder scenes in his movies, notably "Sisters" and this movie "Dressed to Kill." DePalma was a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, and Kate Miller's (Angie Dickinson) brutal murder by slashing in an elevator after a tryst in a taxicab is a much more explicit homage to Marion Crane's (Janet Leigh) stabbing death in the shower in "Psycho." Nancy Allen, who was married to DePalma at the time, plays Liz Blake, who teams up with the nerdy Peter Miller (Keith Gordon) in trying to track down a serial killer. Michael Caine is delicious as Dr. Robert Elliott, who exploits his position as a psychiatrist to achieve his demented goals.

STEVE MCQUEEN'S SWAN SONGS

Steve McQueen died of cancer in November 1980, and his final two movies were released in the latter part of 1980. Sadly, neither one will be remembered among his better work.

"Tom Horn" was a solid if not particularly accurate retelling of a former Army scout hired to track down cattle rustlers but ultimately is convicted and hanged for the killing of a young boy despite some questions regarding his guilt. McQueen's portrayal of Horn is mostly a sympathetic one although in reality Horn was not a nice person and quoted as saying,  "Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market. "

The final McQueen movie was "The Hunter," in which he plays Papa Thorson, who hunts down bail jumpers. It was in this movie McQueen acknowledged he was getting too old for these adventures. After a particularly long foot pursuit, he is seen lying on his back, gasping for breath, a very different visual from that in "Bullitt," wherein after chasing a suspect across a San Francisco airport runway, calmly and not out of breath and nary a bead of sweat on his forehead, he guns down the bad guy.

"THE STUNTMAN"

Peter O'Toole received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Eli Cross, an eccentric and demanding movie director who cares little for the costs financially and physically as long as he gets the desired shot. Steve Railsback, so good as Charles Manson in the TV movie "Helter Skelter," is Cameron, who is fleeing from police but latches on to Eli's movie production as a stuntman. While matching wits with the egomaniac Cross, Cameron finds himself falling for the leading lady on the film, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey). This is a visually energetic film with quite a few twists along the way.

"ORDINARY PEOPLE"

As fall arrived, so did some of the movies hankering for Academy Award nominations and this one was one of the more successful efforts. Based upon the Judith Guest novel and directed by Robert Redford, it was definitely an emotional wringer of a movie. Timothy Hutton won an Academy Award in what has been his only nomination, playing Conrad, a teen with a major case of survivor's guilt in the aftermath of a boating accident that killed his older brother Buck that he revered. Following a suicide attempt, Conrad tries to get back to a normal life. But the stigma of trying to commit suicide and a frigid relationship with his emotionally vacant mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore, who picked up an Oscar nomination) hamper his recovery. One of the biggest oversights was that Donald Sutherland, as Calvin, husband of Beth and father of Conrad, did not get a nomination despite a heartbreaking performance as a man caught in the middle of an alienated mother-son relationship while trying to salvage a crumbling family. What is truly worthy of mentioning was that the scene at the end of the movie, wherein Calvin is distressed as he admits to Beth that he may not love her anymore, had to be reshot, with only Sutherland present and no Moore from which to play off of.

"ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN"

It's hard to resist a movie in which Clint Eastwood beats up people, Glen Campbell sings, Ruth Gordon finds love late in life and an orangutan named Clyde is everybody's best buddy, well except for some bad guys.

This was the second and final of the Philo Beddoe films (the first one was titled "Every Which Way But Loose") in which Eastwood plays Philo, who scraps cars with his pals Orville and Clyde and makes money on the side taking on foes in bare-fisted fighting. Philo, being pursued by an inept, revenge-driven motorcycle gang, the Black Widows, led by Cholla (John Quade), has managed to secure the affections of singer Lynne Halsey Taylor (Sondra Locke) while Ma (Ruth Gordon), who sort of rules over the house of Philo, Orville and Clyde, falls in love. Philo agrees to a high-stakes fight with a renowned brawler named Jack Wilson (William Smith). But the fight attracts all kinds of seedy and greedy people, putting Philo and his family at risk. In the end, Philo gains unlikely allies as the Black Widows and Wilson team up with him and they vanquish the bad guys and later celebrate at a nice, homey Country Western bar.

"POPEYE"

This was kind of a mess of a movie, directed by Robert Altman, he of improvisation in his movies. But seeing super talented Robin Williams as the sailor with the huge, steroid-like-juiced arms, try to fit in with the town of Sweethaven, basically run by the intimidating Bluto (Paul Smith) is a fun experience. Shelley Duvall was born to play the thin-as-a-rail and emotionally wacky Olive Oyl (who, engaged to the menacing Bluto, can only sing this praise of him, "He's large"). Pretty much panned by critics, there are some good moments. For me it is when Popeye single-handedly takes out a group of bullies -- led by Spike (Dennis Franz) -- in what apparently is the town's only restaurant.


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