1980s Film and Television
© 2017 John F. Rychlicki III Leilah Publications
All rights reserved.

If the cinematic era from the 1930s to the late 1950s, beginning arguably with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, was Hollywood’s Golden Age, then 1980s film and television was Hollywood’s renaissance.  Hollywood’s Golden Age was built on the success of the studio model of integration; the “Big Five” studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO and Fox) all controlled stakes, or purchased blocks of films in their own theater chains, ensuring that their films would be distributed.  The “Little Three;” Universal, Columbia Pictures and United Artists,  never owned more than small theater circuits, relying on independent theaters for distribution.

The Golden Age of Hollywood film saw the theatrical shift from silent film to “talkie” movies.  This cinematic wonder changed the landscape of cinema causing many ripples in the industry; vaudeville became deader than disco overnight, unable to compete with the now talking motion pictures.  Former vaudeville and stage actors wound up migrating to film in order to find work.  One of them, a Hungarian immigrant with a terribly thick accent, landed the lead role as “Count Dracula” in Universal’s 1931 picture.  Bela Lugosi was a rare instance of success in the sound-enabled shift from silence.

Along with vaudeville, thousands of piano players who were hired to play the Background Music for silent films also found themselves looking for work.  Smaller production studios that did not have the money to convert to sound-enabled cinema found themselves left behind and bankrupt, solidifying the power of the “Big Eight” Hollywood studios.  The blockbuster renaissance of 1980s cinema began with a series of blockbuster films; Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather I & II (1972, and 1974 respectively) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1979).  Blockbuster directors George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick led a resurgence of blockbuster drama, sci-fi, and action cinema.

A string of blockbuster franchises characterized the film industry of the 1980s; the original Star Trek films, the “Indiana Jones” adventure films, the paranormal comedy Ghostbusters, the sci-fi “Back to the Future” films, and the “Rocky” dramas.  Numerous horror films gained popularity also, shifting from the classic terror films of the 1960s and 1970s namely the memorable “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and Roger Corman’s series of horror films under American International Pictures featuring Vincent Price in numerous roles.

Horror films like “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” and “Nightmare On Elm Street,” boasted a new breed of violence and gore, with sequels dragging on into the 21st century.  Blockbuster dramas and adventures defined the 1980s and the imagination of an entire generation, while a cluster of “coming of age” films identified Generation X to the world.  Topical Cold War films illustrated the Soviet menace for the Baby Boomers (Doctor Zhivago, Doctor Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate), while their generation saw Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Gary Cooper; Generation X saw the rise of the “Brat pack” movies, defining their generation.

John Hughes wrote and directed a cluster of films that Generation X came to identify their social awkwardness and angst in social acceptance.  Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles,” won unanimous praise and success in 1984 with its honest depiction of upper middle class high school angst that every teenager identified with at the time.  Generation X identified with the themes of acceptance and understanding sprinkled with moments of levity mixed with insecurity, dysfunction, out-of-touch adults in “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Weird Science,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Every GenX teenager could identify with a character, and situations of acceptance and dysfunction in Hughes’ stories.

By mid-decade, the videocassette recorder (VCR) allowed moviegoers to enjoy their favorite blockbusters in the comfort of their homes.  More people watched VHS movies on their VCRs than in the theatre by the mid-1980s.  Contrary to predictions, home video did not kill the movie theatre industry by the decade’s end.  To feed burgeoning home video and cable network sales (buoyed by cable channels Home Box Office/HBO, and Cinemax), independent studios expanded to increase film production.  Thus, cable television and home video drove the expansion theatrical releases of independent studios.

The 1980s blockbusters and many others became part of massive product merchandising and mass-market consumer appeal.  Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) became a merchandising empire.  Blockbusters transformed into ‘home entertainment,’ effectively making obsolete the “stand-alone” motion pictures of the 1950s through the mid-1970s.

Another cluster of blockbuster films ungracefully mimicked the ideological template of Reaganism and his worldview of the Soviet Union, as an “evil empire” attempting to impose its will on the world.  Cold War productions like “Iron Eagle,” and “Top Gun” (1986), had American fighter pilots combat Soviets and their allied planes.  “Red Dawn” (1986) and “Invasion USA” (1985) featured small bands of gung-ho Americans repelling Soviet invasions on American soil.  The “Rambo” film series had a Vietnam Veteran rescue missing Vietnam War prisoners.  A Rambo sequel portrayed Rambo aiding fictional Afghani rebels fighting the Soviet invasion.  Unfortunately, the fictionalized version of the guts-and-glory Rambo’s fight with the Afghanis actually mirrors Reagan’s military and political support of guerilla fighters who would later organize to become the Taliban, engineering the terrorists behind the September 11 attacks.  Maybe next movie, or inevitable remake, Rambo will get it right?

During the 1980s, instead of making films, Hollywood shifted to the production of film entertainment, a different enterprise that encompassed production and distribution of entertainment in a variety of markets and media, including video games, cable television, publishing, and product mass marketing.  Not only were moviegoers attracted to blockbuster movies on the big silver screen, now children were enticed to by the video games, read the books, and buy the toys, while adults enjoyed the movies on VHS and cable television.

Soap operas, sitcoms, and dramas dominated television programming during the 1980s, long before dramatic programs home to cable TV in the 1990s and during the 2000s.  Drama and soap-opera programming often merged in the form of crime dramas, as prominent evening shows like Dallas, Knots Landing, and Dynasty made way for Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, and L.A. Law; precursors to the much copied crime drama shows of the 2000s – NCIS, NYPD Blue, CSI, and Law & Order.  The crime drama programming of the 2000s has grown nearly indistinguishable from one another, while the programming of the 1980s maintained unique dramatic themes.

Situation comedies, sitcoms, dealt with the teen angst of middle class America like Growing Pains, Silver Spoons while shows like A Different World, What’s Happening, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and the highly acclaimed Cosby Show appealed to young African Americans by depictions of blacks in various urban situations from not-so-affluent (Sanford & Son) to the affluent “movin’ on up” (Jeffersons, and Cosby Show) premise toppling various stereotypes.

Programs like Gimme A Break, Threes Company, Who’s The Boss, Facts of Life, and Different Strokes played on unconventional living situations, usually an ‘outsider’ moving in with a larger middle class family or oddly matched roommates.  Foreigners, and in one case an alien from outer space became the butt of comedy in shows like Perfect Strangers, Taxi, and Mork & Mindy.  Later in the 1990s, families would see programming mock, and upturn conventional norms of family life with shows like Roseanne and Married With Children.

The premise of 1980s television often echoed the living situations of middle class America – often with a liberal twist in the form of an outsider to the family’s living situation or an antagonistic character within the living situation, or setting – (“Sam” in Cheers, “Archie Bunker” in All in the Family, “Jack” in Three’s Company, “Nell Carter” in Gimme A Break!).  Crime dramas, soap operas, and science fiction serials rang in the decade with mass merchandising targeting the respective viewership for each genre.  Film in the 1980s saw a changing landscape with the Hollywood blockbusters and mass-marketing campaigns.

Though popular in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to John Wayne, Western films did not fare well, compared to the rarely successful crime dramas (Scarface, 1983), (Johnny Dangerously, 1984).  Science fiction, Vietnam War-oriented, and action-adventure blockbusters overshadowed teenage comedies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986 and The Breakfast Club, 1985) and surprisingly successful musicals (Flashdance 1983,  Purple Rain 1984, Footloose and Dirty Dancing 1987, Little Shop of Horrors 1986, and La Bamba 1987).  As the decade ended with a rash of blockbuster sequels in 1989 (James Bond License to Kill, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Back to the Future Part II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Halloween V, the unforgettable Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) the Blockbuster Era of Hollywood and the long-running 1980s television serials assimilated the home video and cable mass market – giving way to the digital age of the 1990s and 2000s.

Cinematic and television programming themes in the 1980s had many recurring themes, articulating shifts in social and political relations during the decade.  Films and television during the 1980s portrayed hardheaded social realities in dramatized documentary fashion.  There is an aesthetic, anticipatory dimension to 1980s television and film genres that creates an artistic global landscape, transcending the scope of a generation’s vision, articulating future hopes, dreams, or nightmares.