Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: The Boys of Summer

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

What about the actors? I’m glad you asked!

Using my adjusted-for-inflation numbers, and excluding cameo appearances and voiceover work done for cartoons, below are the Top 5 most lucrative stars in summer movie history:

The Boys of Summer:
(5) Will Smith, 257.1 million tickets sold on 7 films
(4) Eddie Murphy, 261.1 million tickets sold on 11 films
(3) Tom Cruise, 356.4 million tickets sold on 14 films
(2) Tom Hanks, 383.3 million tickets sold on 14 films
(1) Harrison Ford, 596.9 million tickets sold on 15 films

Mr. Summer-Fun

Considering that he stars in two of the most iconic summer franchises of all time (Indiana Jones and Air Force One), Ford ranking number one shouldn’t shock anyone. I also expected explosion-happy franchise-savvy action stars like Smith and Cruise to rank where they did, although it’s worth noting that Smith banks his massive figure on significantly fewer films than the others. I guess he got picky after wicky-wicky Wild Wild West.

After mentioning his decline in quality last week, it’s a little surprising to see Murphy putting up such a high number. Appreciate his post-1988 work or not, and I don’t, Murphy has remained a reliable summer fixture. These numbers don’t even include the monstrous Shrek franchise. Factor in his work as a talking donkey – arguably his best role since A Vampire in Brooklyn – and Murphy would pass Cruise on my list.

However, the real surprise has to be Tom Hanks. He’s a very compelling argument for the success of counter-programming. Broad comedies, dog comedies, romantic comedies, historical fiction with retards, mob movies, war movies, crypto-thrillers – there’s not a genre that Hanks hasn’t made into a summer winner, often without having to explode anything. It’s sort of amazing that Hanks manages to beat out the action stars we more commonly associate with summer blockbusters – like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis – but consider this: adjusted for inflation, more people went to see Turner & Hooch than last year’s The Expendables (proving my theory that a dog with an overactive salivary gland is always better casting than Jason Statham). Family friendly is the way to go.

Let’s analyze the numbers put up by our Boys of Summer a little more closely. Combined, they’re responsible for 11 #1 summer movies. Their movies account for 15% of all tickets sold in the last 31 years. That means more than 1 out of every 10 tickets bought over that span has been to a movie starring Ford, Hanks, Cruise, Murphy, or Smith. Their films haven’t been hard to find; at least one of those guys has had a movie released every summer for the last 31 years.

With one exception.

Sandwiched between summers featuring The Temple of Doom and Top Gun, 1985 is the only year in the last 3 decades when all The Boys of Summer decided to take a vacation (Will Smith’s  vacation was probably from high school, but the other 4 were all steadily working at this point). Deserted by its most bankable stars, what could Hollywood do but rest its hopes on a young actor that combined all their best qualities? The sharp wit of Harrison Ford, the sex appeal of Tom Cruise, the likability of Tom Hanks, the skateboarding skills of Eddie Murphy.

It was the summer of Alex P. Keaton.

Where we're going, we don't need movie stars.

(#14) 1985
Tickets Sold:  303.2 million (29 of 31)
#1 at the Box Office:  Back to the Future - 210.6 million
Most Critically Acclaimed:  Back to the Future
Biggest Opening: Rambo: First Blood Part II (#2) – 20.2 million

I shouldn’t have to waste column space describing just how awesome Back to the Future is, but I’m going to anyway. Mix action and comedy with elements of the fantastic, a splash of childlike wonder, toss in a story told with intelligence and heart, and you’ve got what is pretty much the perfect blockbuster. It’s a format perfected by Steven Spielberg. Just enough science fiction to create an intriguing premise, but not enough to alienate a mainstream audience. Exactly the right amount of excitement to make the sentimentality go down easy.

Back to the Future is one of those rare cases where we have concrete proof that a film is only as good as its lead. Could you imagine a Back to the Future that had pushed forward with Eric Stoltz playing Marty McFly? I’d argue that Back to the Future succeeds less on its clever premise and more on Fox’s inherent underdog charm. Sure, the DeLorean time travel and Oedipal friction are great on paper, but 60 million tickets aren’t getting sold to that without a stammering and smirking Fox at the helm. Fox’s elfin appearance is a huge boost to the film. Marty McFly is a hero to the undersized everywhere – a quintessential 80s smart aleck, not afraid to throw down, and capable of absolutely shredding on the guitar.

Or maybe I’m overstating Fox’s value. After all, Teen Wolf (#14) also released in the summer of ‘85 and did $170 million less at the box office. Granted, werewolf puberty isn’t as compelling a hook as time travel, but the stars should have aligned for Teen Wolf. Debuting 7 weeks after Back to the Future, and with Fox actually able to do publicity (he skipped promoting Back to the Future to film some European Family Ties adventure), America should’ve fallen in love with slam-dunking werewolves and chicks named Boof. Instead, Teen Wolf finished second in its opening week, losing to Back to the Future. Back in the 80s, a summer film could actually stay on top for more than a week.

However instrumental Fox may or may not have been in the success of his two summer offerings, there’s one claim I can make with absolute certainty.

Coach Bobby Finstock > Doc Brown.

Fox wasn’t the only 80s smartass to pull double duty in ’85. Chevy Chase, fresh from a stint in rehab and unwittingly about to reach a career apex, released both Fletch (#5) and European Vacation (#7). It’s worth noting that European Vacation was the film that finally knocked Back to the Future out of the top spot (at least for a week), and also features the greatest animal stunt work ever captured on film (the dog caught the beret on the first take).

Genius or jerk?

Nothing against the Griswold clan, but I don’t like my Chevy Chase to be a bumbling goofball. I prefer him quick-witted and arrogant. Like in Fletch. Fletch belongs in my personal pantheon of movie characters I aspire to be like. He’s a wildly successful investigative journalist in a world where that involves donning outlandish disguises, or otherwise slouching around town in a Lakers jersey and hoodie. Beautiful married women find him impossible to resist. He’s unflappably cool and always ready with a one-liner. According to Roger Ebert, my go-to source for counter-point quotes, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Wrote Ebert in his two-star review:

Ebert:  “The problem is, Chase's performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level, at least as far as he is concerned. He projects such an inflexible mask of cool detachment, of ironic running commentary, that we're prevented from identifying with him. If he thinks this is all just a little too silly for words, what are we to think? If we're more involved in the action than he is, does that make us chumps? Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.”

This leads me to the question of whether I like Fletch the character or just Chevy Chase. It’s a troubling thought, especially after rereading sections of the Saturday Night Live oral history Live From New York, where Chase consistently comes off as an insufferable asshole. He’s not the sort of guy I want to identify so closely with, and yet, I can’t help myself. He’s just so damn cool.

You know who else is in the pantheon of movie characters I aspire to be like? Master Blaster.

Put away your whistles!

The final part of the Mad Max trilogy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (#13) released in ’85, drawing the biggest stateside number of the series. Perhaps tellingly, it was the least lucrative of the series in its native Australia. Thunderdome may have given us the classic “two men enter, one man leaves” line and the glory that is a genius midget riding on a giant, but I still consider it the weakest of this cult trilogy. The airplane children always struck me as too cuddly for the wasteland, even granting the gradual softening of Max as the trilogy went on. And the Thunderdome itself might be an iconic image, but the fight scene between Max and Blaster doesn’t live up to expectations - it’s just 5 minutes of bouncing around on elastic bands. Weak.

On the subject of cult movies, ’85 was a pretty good year for those too. If the cult in question is twenty-somethings with large DVD collections. A half-dozen future dorm room classics released in ’85, movies given new life by the new millennium’s obsessions with collecting DVDs and 80s nostalgia. Goonies (#4), Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (#9), St. Elmo’s Fire (#12), Weird Science (#20) – when I was in college, any dorm room with a worthwhile DVD collection contained a copy of at least one of those films. I’m hopeful that in a few years the college-aged will have a similar surge of 90s nostalgia, and I hope they invite me to their Mortal Kombat viewing parties.

So, were Michael J. Fox, Chevy Chase, and Master Blaster capable of filling the vacuum left by the disappeared Boys of Summer? Of course not. Even with the massive success of Back to the Future, ’85 was still a lousy summer at the box office, ushering in a period of declining attendance that Hollywood wouldn’t fully bounce back from until the early 90s.

I’m not suggesting that there’s any real correlation between The Boys of Summer and summer attendance. After all, Murphy and Cruise both had films release in 1987, the most sparsely attended season in the years I’ve analyzed. It is interesting, however, to consider what Hollywood looked like for a summer without them. Theaters were overrun by diminutive heartthrobs, smug comedians, and 80s sci-fi kitsch. That doesn’t seem so bad, really.

The List So Far:
(14) 1985
(19) 1988
(31) 2006

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