Hello. So, here we are, at the end of the decade. Like the pop music – indeed, like the very money of the 1980s - cinema had been pursuing all sorts of ideas and markets. For neither the first nor last time, we watched as the leftfield wiped the floor with what looked like guaranteed hits. From serious drama to science fiction, the great explosion of cinema for children or the maturation of the 1970s blockbuster, the formula for success remained out of reach.
Success by cheating was the central theme of Working Girl, a film that tied up all sorts of 1980s thematics . The two leads were box office supernovae: Harrison Ford plays a wholesome everyman city manager and Sigorney Weaver, the indie Amazon made great by Ghostbusters, is his evil boss. The heroine of the film though is a blonde icon of meritocracy. Melanie Griffith is introduced early in the film arriving at the Big Apple in the same manner as immigrants would have done a century earlier – but this is class, not national migration and Griffith’s triumph in the workplace is a whole lot more palatable to the audience. Here’s the tie-in single, Let The River Run, sung by Carly Simon.
Working Girl straddled the central American ideals rendered anew in 1980s Reaganomics and looked forward to the new, punchy feminism of the 1990s. It was a mainstream film for mainstream ideas, well made and good fun. It’s as close to a formula as you might expect to get.
Over here, as is often the way, we weren’t doing films in quite the same fashion. In fact, one of the great films of 1989 was different in almost every respect to Working Girl – and yet gave us one of today’s enduring feminist icons in Helen Mirren. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the enduring masterwork of Peter Greenaway. The film is a mannered, faintly surrealist sequence of episodes rendered almost entirely as a series of dark baroque oil paintings. Visceral is too insufficient a word to cover its violence and wet heat, punctuated with a series of utterly credible sexual encounters. Greenaway’s familiar composer-at-arms Michael Nyman produced this wonderful baroque-Weimar hybrid, as if Handel was writing music for a Brecht stage play; decadent, confrontational, wry and yet not without pathos.
Yes, it’s difficult to know exactly what people are going to want to see. Well, almost. From the perspective of almost a quarter of a century on from 1989, there is one film that has become a totemic genre-in-itself, a hugely entertaining blockbuster that props up the Christmas schedules almost as regularly as It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, with the emotional driver of family vs money, it’s not dissimilar to Frank Capra’s perennial classic – though, I’m not entirely sure we can see Jimmy Stewart coining one of cinema’s most famous one liners by dropping a makeshift bomb down a lift shaft. Yes, Die Hard is 18 certificate-entertainment at its most wholesome, a Western fought out in an echt-1980s corporate tower block, with the double distillation of an Englishman playing a German as a baddie. The good guys win and the film plays out with Vaughan Monroe singing in the season. Happy Christmas indeed!