somewhere in time

Dave Holmes Looks Back at the 1987 Box Office When RoboCop Debuted

It was the summer of 1987: Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, Tracey Ullman gave us occasional reprieves from musical comedy to introduce us to a family named the Simpsons, and the original RoboCop reminded us how to respect law enforcement. As we prepare to face the inevitable RoboCop reboot (in theaters today!), let’s train our Somewhere in Time telescopes on the weekend of July 17–19, 1987, and run through the top ten films at the box office when the Paul Verhoeven classic was released.

10. The Witches of Eastwick

Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer — the closest thing to an all-Beyoncé Destiny’s Child we’re ever going to get — play three newly single thirtysomething women in need of a self-esteem boost, by which I mean “a man.” So, naturally, they conjure Jack Nicholson, who fucks a little pizzazz into them, helps them spread their wings and live baby live, and then steals top billing. If you’re looking for the moment when Jack Nicholson made a Jack Nicholson face and it stuck, you will find it in this film.

The creation of this demonic dreamboat stands in direct contrast to current Best Picture nominee I Dream Of Siri Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix and his computer’s system preferences window conjure up a woman with the voice of Scarlett Johansson and no needs of her own. She draws him out of himself and streamlines his email inbox, and then we’re all supposed to act surprised when he falls in love with her.  (Incidentally — and I know I’m on a tangent here, and spoiler alert — wasn’t there a bit of a lost opportunity after that sex scene? Couldn’t old Twombly have said something like “Hey, sweet orgasm you had back there. Given that you’re a microchip, what was that about?” It might have been a nice moment to meditate on the nature of feeling and consciousness, but instead we’re just left to think, Wow, I guess he really rocked that operating system’s world.)

The only other thing I remember about The Witches of Eastwick was a long interview Cher did in Us magazine after its release. (Kids, Us used to do long-form pieces. No, I’m serious.) In it, the writer blithely accuses Cher of name-dropping for referring to Michelle Pfeiffer as “Michi.” Please, Us magazine: Cher’s is the name that drops.

9. Beverly Hills Cop II

I was 12 years old when Sixteen Candles was released and, as such, I have always considered it one of the greatest films ever made. It instilled a lifelong fondness for John Hughes and Molly Ringwald, a grudging respect for Anthony Michael Hall, and an inchoate aching in my heart for Michael Schoeffling. So imagine my chagrin upon recently rewatching and remembering that Molly calls Anthony Michael “a total fag,” that supporting character Long Duk Dong is missing only a dry-cleaning franchise to complete the insulting stereotype royal flush, and that the whole thing culminates in a triumphant date rape. Yikes, Sixteen Candles. Yikes.

Similarly, I’d forgotten that the big climactic laugh in Beverly Hills Cop II comes from gruff detective Taggart gunning down Euro-villain Brigitte Nielsen, then shrugging and cracking his only joke of the entire franchise: “Women.” And then I widen out and notice that there are no female cops, no love interest for Eddie Murphy, and two tons of mincing from Bronson Pinchot. Not to get all Thought Catalog on you, but I am suddenly deeply troubled by the entertainment of my youth.

So let’s focus on the soundtrack: On the plus side, we have George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” and the Jets’ “Cross My Broken Heart”; on the other, Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” To steal a joke structure Lloyd Bentsen was still one full year from unleashing on the American public: I knew Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.” I danced at junior-high mixers to Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.” Bob Seger’s “Shakedown,” you are no Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.”

8. Innerspace

I have a vivid memory of watching this Martin Short vehicle in the theater with a group of my high school friends. We were all 16, driver’s licenses hot off the laminator, caught up in the rapture of freedom. We were also immersed in the business of puberty, and my hormones were making it clear they had no interest in the heterosexuality the rest of me was desperate to claim. Early in the movie, as Meg Ryan runs out on Dennis Quaid’s Lieutenant Tuck Pendleton, I remember saying, out loud, “Man, is she hot.” I wanted to believe it. I wanted the massive, searing crushes I had on an alarming percentage of my male friends to be some kind of temporary physical confusion, a fever that would eventually break. I focused on Meg, willing myself to feel something. And then his towel gets stuck in the door of her taxi, and as she pulls away, Dennis Quaid is left naked on a San Francisco hilltop, his breathtaking ass facing the camera.

Oh, boy, I thought. I’m in trouble.

And with all due respect to Meg Ryan, loudly praising her hotness is about the clunkiest declaration of hetero desire a teenage gay boy could think up. I might as well have said, “Gee, that Bernadette Peters seems like she’d be a wild lay!”

7. Adventures in Babysitting

The PG-13 rating was created in the wake of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Adventures in Babysitting was pretty much made for it. It’s the perfect caper comedy for the young moviegoers of the ’80s: some action for the boys, a spunky role model for the girls, and just enough fucks to make all the kids think they’re watching something more sophisticated than they are. Too bad all the black characters in this movie are criminals or blues musicians. Also too bad that Keith Coogan’s character calls little sister Maya Brewton’s beloved Thor “a homo” throughout the film, and even worse that it’s meant to engender sympathy for Thor. Bonus points are granted for a surprisingly attractive Vincent D’Onofrio, but still: troubling.

6. Dragnet

A sloppy half-parody of your parents’ police procedural, Dragnet has pretty much been forgotten and there’s no need to remind you of it here, unless you want to see the music video for the soundtrack’s lead single, “City of Crime,” in which Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks rap and dance. Does that sound like something you’d be interested in? Here you go:

Also: Pep Streebek. Tuck Pendleton. Axel Foley. Our action-comedy character name game was on point in 1987.

5. Full Metal Jacket

For the male college student of the 1990s, a Full Metal Jacket poster on your dorm room wall was the simplest way to convey depth, to brand yourself, to tell the world “I am a man who appreciates art and does not flinch from life’s darker side. Please, please consider having sex with me.” (The female equivalent was any photograph by Robert Doisneau.) What do the kids do these days? Are there still walls? Do they just text each other SpongeBob GIFs?

4. Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise

This was the blockbuster sequel to a hit 1984 comedy that also culminated in a triumphant date rape. If you’ve forgotten or successfully repressed the memory, at the end of Revenge of the Nerds, masked nerd Lewis goes downtown on cheerleader Betty, who mistakenly thinks that she’s being serviced by Ted McGinley’s bo-hunk character. Upon his unmasking, is she upset by the deception? Nope; turns out nerds are tender, thoughtful lovers, because all they ever think about is sex. So, you know — relax, ladies: These oversexed genius goofballs know what’s best for your vagina.

I’m seriously considering putting together a support group for those of us who saw these movies in our formative years.

And then there’s the character of Lamar Latrelle. How hackneyed a collection of gay clichés is Lamar Latrelle? Let’s just say that in the pre-spring-break packing montage, we see that his suitcase contains bear porn, jewelry, and nothing else. It’s never clear whether we’re supposed to cheer for Lamar or laugh at him, but in this desert of backward stereotypes, a little ambiguity is like a long, cool drink of water. (Also, if you’re in a great big hurry to get bummed out, please have a gander at Larry B. Scott’s official site. Larry, 1996 called, and they don’t want their web design back.)

Interestingly, this is the second film in the top ten to feature Bradley Whitford as a snarling preppy villain (the first being Adventures in Babysitting). The man who would be Josh Lyman is a man who could have been William Zabka.

3. Jaws IV: The Revenge

This movie should be in a museum. Oh, it’s bad, but it’s culturally significant; it represents the moment just before such a film would be intentionally bad. Jaws IV is basically Piranha 3D, only nobody was kidding. (I mean: The shark roars.)

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Not familiar with this one, so let’s turn the spotlight on the music of summer 1987 for a moment. Living in a Box gave us “Living in a Box” from the album Living in a Box, yet surprisingly never charted again. Cutting Crew, Robbie Nevil, and T’Pau came out of the gate strong, and the Outfield seemed poised to continue their hitting streak, but none quite lived up to the promise of their early singles. And a young Suzanne Vega topped the charts with “Luka,” a peppy little number about child abuse. Jesus, this was a bleaker summer than I remembered.

1. RoboCop

At long last, instead of applause, a rapist gets a bullet right in the dick. Sometimes it takes an out-of-control vigilante robot policeman to remind us of our humanity. (For a truly amazing heightening of this classic Hollywood moment, please watch this scene from the recent My Robocop Remake. Not recommended if you are at work or even mildly squeamish.)

I have a lot to discuss with my therapist this week. See you next Wednesday.

Dave Holmes Revisits RoboCop’s 1987 Box Office