May 22, 2009

The Evolution of the 80s Teen Movie - How Bob Clark, Gen X, and Home Video Changed the Landscape of American Cinema

Part I

There was a time when Hollywood wasn’t producing very many movies about or starring young people. From the mid-50s (when Hollywood first began depicting the lives of young people onscreen in films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle) all the way through the 1970s, only a small handful of pictures were being made featuring teenagers (or early twentysomethings) in starring roles. Typically, rather than offering an examination of young people’s lives (in either a real or imagined way) these films were quick, lightweight attempts to cash in on a young star’s presumably limited fame and box office appeal. This was most apparent during the 1970s when Jodie Foster, for example, after her strong performance as a 12-year old prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, followed up with the saccharine Disney family-comedy Freaky Friday, and the gimmicky Bugsy Malone, a gangster movie spoof featuring an all children’s cast. In other instances, teen films were merely vehicles for a handful of recognizable child actors to perform opposite established adult box office stars. Tatum O’Neal, for example, gained fame after her Academy Award-winning performance in Peter Bogdonavich’s 1970 feature, Paper Moon. But through the remainder of the decade, O’Neal’s best roles were in The Bad News Bears with Walter Matthau, International Velvet, opposite heavyweights Christopher Plummer and Anthony Hopkins, and the disappointing Nickelodeon (1976), starring Tatum’s father Ryan O’Neal and the country’s number one leading man at the time, Burt Reynolds.

Furthermore, most of the aforementioned films from Foster, O’Neal and the handful of other young actors judged capable of carrying a picture, such as Kristy McNichol (Little Darlings, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia), Scott Baio (Bugsy Malone, Skatetown, USA), and Brooke Shields (Tilt, Just You and Me Kid), were box office and/or critical failures. As a result, Hollywood remained hesitant to script and produce films that explored the world of teenagers in a meaningful way. In an era where most of the top production executives were holdovers from the Hollywood’s old studio system, “star power” was still something of a prerequisite for getting pictures green-lighted and “kid actors” didn’t have enough of it to become anything more than novel, short-term box office draws. Case in point, even when casting the (what would prove to be wildly successful) frat comedy Animal House, the filmmakers turned to 30-year olds Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert, and the established 29-year old star of Saturday Night Live, John Belushi, to portray the college-age protagonists.

But as the eighties rolled in, Hollywood’s attitude towards writing, producing and casting films about young people and their willingness to examine their lives and experiences was about to change. The film that would initiate this change was a most unlikely entry.

Porky’s was a low-budget high school comedy written and directed by Bob Clark, a 40 year old Hollywood veteran whose best known work had been as a writer for The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Porky’s was produced for a meager $4 million dollars, but would prove to be groundbreaking in a number of ways, including its subject matter. Unabashedly raunchy, even by today’s standards, Porky’s follows a group of high school boys as they play practical jokes on each other, spy on the cheerleaders in the shower, and torment the girls phys ed teacher, Miss Ballbricker. The story centers on the boys’ attempts to gain entry to a local strip bar and their subsequent confrontation with the bar’s owner (the one and only Porky himself.) Some of the film’s more hilarious scenes involve the guys enlisting the services of a prostitute, two gym teachers having loud sex in a laundry room, and one of the boys teasing the girls with his penis and having it nearly yanked clean off by Ballbricker. Interestingly, even amidst all this highly-charged sexual humor, Clark manages to work in a redeeming social message, as one of the boys learns a lesson about racial tolerance. Make no mistake however, Porky’s is first and foremost a riotous, rude and gross comedy about a bunch of guys trying to… well… get laid—a plot that would be repeated ad nauseum in teen films throughout the 80s, 90s, and into the next millineum. Porky’s though, was the first to tread this ground, and in doing so, became a huge hit.

Another significant aspect about Porky’s was the fact that it featured a cast of unknowns. The film’s box office success flew in the face of conventional wisdom and proved that when it came to the teen movie genre, star power was of little importance. On the strength of the teen and twentysomething dollar, Porky’s grossed nearly $60 million at the box office. Hollywood took notice and a fundamental philosophical shift occurred, as “coming of age” stories like Breaking Away (1979), Foxes (1980), and Endless Love (1981), which sought to honestly explore all sides of the teen experience, both serious and comedic, were passed over (by both producers and consumers) in favor of bawdy teen sex romps. Indeed, the success of Porky’s triggered a frenzied race among production companies and major studios to cash in on the film’s success by duplicating its formula. As a result, the next two years brought a slew of Porky’s clones, most of which featured similar casts of unknowns and offered little more plotwise than a group of pubescent boys out for sex. The Last American Virgin (1982), Goin’ All the Way (1982), My Tutor (1983), Private School (1983), Spring Fever (1983), Spring Break (1983) and Losin’ It (1983) are prime examples. All of these, however, failed to match the success of Bob Clark's film. Despite this, though, the new genre of the teen movie would not be short-lived, as the film industry pleasantly realized it had two additional sources of revenue for their movies—cable television and home video. These two new outlets would prove pivotal to the success of teen movies, and would fuel Hollywood’s continued exploration, expansion, and diversification of the genre through the remainder of the decade.

Next week:
Part II - The VCR and The Outsiders Make Their Marks

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1 comment:

sir jorge said...

That's a great post, i read this one first, now going forward to part two, great stuff