Forty years ago the movies had almost left behind the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. Almost. In 1981, blockbusters were continuing to take over multiplexes, themselves still a relatively new phenomenon. Big hair would soon arrive, but not quite yet. Further scrambling the transition was the continuing presence of several eminent figures from the Studio Era.
Movie generations came together in a movie about generations coming together, “On Golden Pond.” The year’s second-biggest box-office hit, it starred Studio Era royalty, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, who both won Oscars, and New Hollywood royalty, Henry’s daughter Jane. Another New Hollywood royal, Warren Beatty, won the directing Oscar for “Reds.” Its epic tale of the American journalist John Reed (Beatty) falling in love with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and the Russian Revolution — in that order — was traditional enough that it wowed Ronald Reagan at a White House screening.
The year’s biggest hit, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” founded a franchise. (So did, yes, “Porky’s.”) Franchises would be very ‘80s. “Superman II,” “Halloween II,” and “Friday the 13th Part II” all came out in 1981. Steven Spielberg, who directed “Raiders,” came out of the New Hollywood. It also looked back, to the movie derring-do of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“Raiders” certified the box-office status of Harrison Ford. If someone had said in 1977 that one of the two male leads in “Star Wars” was going to dominate the 1980s, the smart money would have been on the boyish blond playing Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, not the guy pushing 40 with the smirky-snaggly grin playing Han Solo. It took a little while for things to sort themselves out (”Force 10 From Navarone,” 1978? “Hanover Street,” 1979?), but “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) indicated what “Raiders” confirmed: Ford was the one.
This is how different 1981 at the movies was from today: “Superman II” was the only superhero movie among the top 10 box-office hits. Other than a Bond picture, ”For Your Eyes Only,” there were no series movies on the list, or any animation. (The year’s biggest animated feature? Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound.”) The most unexpected movie on the list, sneaking in at number 10, was the wildly inventive “Time Bandits,” directed by “Monty Python” alum Terry Gilliam.
Two comedies made the top 10. “Arthur” starred Dudley Moore as a bibulous, bubble-bath-taking billionaire. Playing his butler, John Gielgud won a best supporting actor Oscar. His “I’ll alert the media” must be the decade’s most dryly delivered line. The other comedy was “Stripes.” Bill Murray in the Army? Say no more. “Saturday Night Live” alums in movie comedy was already a thing. Chevy Chase, with Carrie Fisher, starred in “Under the Rainbow,” and John Belushi was in two movies: “Neighbors,” with “SNL” sidekick Dan Aykroyd, and the romantic comedy — yes, romantic comedy — “Continental Divide,” with Blair Brown.
Three very different comedic talents also had 1981 releases: John Waters, “Polyester”; Albert Brooks,” “Modern Romance”; and Mel Brooks, “History of the World, Part I.” There was no “Part II,” which is just as well. That said, the movie’s “Inquisition” number is up there with “Springtime for Hitler,” from “The Producers.” None of them was as funny as “Mommie Dearest,” with Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford. Alas, the humor — “No more wire hangers!” — was not intentional. Oddly enough, 1981 was the one year between 1977 and 2018 when Woody Allen didn’t release a movie.
You could argue that the biggest star of 1981 wasn’t a star but a writer-director. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the scripts for “Continental Divide,” “Raiders,” and “Body Heat.” That very sultry neo-noir was Kasdan’s directorial debut. Other directors making feature debuts were Michael Mann, with his taut existential thriller, “Thief”; Ken Burns, with “Brooklyn Bridge” (earning him an Oscar nomination right out of the gate); Hugh Hudson, whose “Chariots of Fire” won the best picture Oscar; and Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose high-spirited thriller, “Diva,” was easily the year’s most stylish film.
Two Studio Era giants released their final directorial efforts: Billy Wilder (“Buddy Buddy”) and George Cukor (“Rich and Famous”). John Huston was getting ready for a final resurgence, though you wouldn’t have known it from his World War II prison camp/soccer drama “Victory.” Wait, prison camp/soccer? Yes, costarring with Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine was Pelé.
Louis Malle directed a pair of highly idiosyncratic movies — “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre” — both in their very different ways quite marvelous. Australian film continued to punch above its weight, with Mel Gibson starring in “Gallipoli” and “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (speaking of franchises).
John Carpenter’s grimly futuristic “Escape From New York” boasted the year’s best character name, Kurt Russell’s eyepatch-wearing Snake Plissken. An even grimmer view of New York, since based on fact, could be found in Sidney Lumet’s excellent cops-and-corruption drama “Prince of the City.”
Making debuts in 1981 were Kathleen Turner (in “Body Heat”) Kenneth Branagh (uncredited in “Chariots of Fire”), Ben Affleck (all of 8 years old, in “The Dark End of the Street”),Tom Cruise (18th-billed in “Endless Love,” its theme song endlessly played on the radio that summer), Sean Penn (fourth-billed in “Taps” — Cruise was fifth-billed), Kevin Costner (fifth-billed in, ahem, “Malibu Hot Summer”), and Denzel Washington (fifth-billed as, further ahem, George Segal’s son in ”Carbon Copy”). It wasn’t just the rest of the decade 1981 was looking ahead to. It was the next 40 years.
Atlantic City Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Body Heat Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Brooklyn Bridge Available on Amazon Prime, pbs.org
Diva Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
My Dinner With Andre Available on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, iTunes
Prince of the City Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Raiders of the Lost Ark Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Reds Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Thief Available on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
Time Bandits Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.