One of the better movies released 40 years ago was “My Favorite Year.” Its star, Peter O’Toole earned a best actor Oscar nomination. The year 1982 isn’t considered a film annus mirabilis, the way, say, 1939 is. But maybe it should be. When you look at some of the releases — “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Tootsie,” “Blade Runner,” “Fanny and Alexander” — what you find is a very favorable year for the movies.
That favorability isn’t owing to just the greatest hits. “My Favorite Year” is representative of 1982 in being a good movie, maybe even a very good movie (your mileage may vary), but not a great one. Part of what made 1982 notable was there being so many good ones to go along with the several truly memorable releases. An “E.T.” or a “Tootsie” is a black swan (but not an Alan Swann, O’Toole’s character in “Year”). With movie years, as with sports teams, the final determinant of a season’s success isn’t the hall of famers; it’s how deep the bench is.
Consider this lineup. In “Missing,” Costa-Gavras indicted US involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup. Has Jack Lemmon ever been more affecting? Paul Mazursky’s “Tempest” reimagines Shakespeare’s autumnal romance — with John Cassavetes, Susan Sarandon, Molly Ringwald (in her movie debut), and Raúl Juliá as modern-day versions of, respectively, Prospero, Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban. Autumnal in a different way is “The Grey Fox,” with Richard Farnsworth — what beautiful eyes he had — as an elderly outlaw in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century.
Alan Parker’s “Shoot the Moon” is an emotionally eruptive love story, with Albert Finney at the end of the movie reaching out to Diane Keaton — literally — and offering a one-word final line that’s shattering. “Personal Best,” the directorial debut of the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, is as good a movie as there is about being an athlete. In any other year, “The Return of Martin Guerre,” Daniel Vigne’s based-on-fact story from 16th-century France about what we’d now call identity theft would easily qualify as best foreign film of 1982 — but for the release of Ingmar Bergman’s family epic, “Fanny and Alexander.”
“My Favorite Year” is further representative in being a comedy. There was a bumper crop in 1982. You need to go back to “Some Like It Hot” (1959) to find an American comedy as good as “Tootsie.” That’s the one where Dustin Hoffman plays an unsuccessful actor who pretends to be a woman to get a part. So what is it about Hollywood, laughter, and cross-dressing — or, for that matter, cross-dressing and 1982? In “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” Steve Martin briefly impersonates Barbara Stanwyck. Gender-bending is the straw stirring the very fizzy drink that is “Victor/Victoria.” Drew Barrymore’s Gertie gives the title character quite the dressy makeover in “E.T.”
But back to comedy. “Night Shift” gave Michael Keaton his first leading role. “Eating Raoul,” with its antic treatment of cannibalism, is quite funny, if not to everyone’s, let us say, taste. Along with “Liquid Sky” and “Chan Is Missing” (neither a comedy), it was an example of the emerging importance of indie movies.
Technically, the funniest movie of 1982 wasn’t a comedy. It’s a concert film, “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.” Pryor also starred in “Some Kind of Hero,” playing a Vietnam vet (not a comedy), and “The Toy,” which is meant to be a comedy, but the less said the better.
The year’s two best comedies other than “Tootsie” were ensemble pieces. Among the then-young performers in Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” are Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Sean Penn. Penn would win Oscars for “Mystic River” (2003) and “Milk” (2008), but his weed-addled surfer Jeff Spicoli is pure, blissed-out genius. Why, oh, why, did he turn his back on comedy? “Diner” features Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, and Daniel Stern. The starring role goes to 1959 Baltimore.
“Diner” was Barry Levinson’s directing debut. Eddie Murphy had the biggest screen debut in 1982. He did it with a bang, in “48 Hrs.” Bang twice over: Pauline Kael, in her New Yorker review, described the convict-cop buddy movie, costarring Nick Nolte, as “a commercial for guns.” Other 1982 film debuts got less attention than Murphy’s, but the careers they launched have been as enduring: Antonio Banderas (“Labyrinth of Passion”), Nicolas Cage (“Fast Times”), Hugh Grant (“Privileged”), Angelina Jolie (“Lookin’ to Get Out”), Gary Oldman (“Remembrance”), and Glenn Close (“The World According to Garp”).
“Garp” would have been the year’s biggest literary adaptation, except for the presence of “Sophie’s Choice.” In the title role, Meryl Streep won a best actress Oscar. Paul Newman, in “The Verdict,” was nominated for a best actor Oscar. Based on Barry Reed’s 1980 novel, it didn’t have the literary pedigree of John Irving’s “Garp” or William Styron’s “Choice,” but it’s the best movie of the three. Thank you, Sidney Lumet. Don’t forget “Blade Runner,” based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” In a way, Ridley Scott’s film reverses the ‘82 formula. It isn’t all that good a movie, but it’s indisputably a great one. That is, it quickly joined the visionary company of “Metropolis” (1927) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) as one of those rare films that changed the look of the medium and the conception of what it was capable of.
Newman lost in the Oscar race to Ben Kingsley, playing the title role in “Gandhi.” Richard Attenborough’s biopic also won best picture. As the movie critic Joe Morgenstern explained, Academy members couldn’t resist voting for a movie about someone who was what they all wanted to be: tan, moral, and thin.
Newman would win a best actor Oscar four years later, for “The Color of Money.” No such recognition would come for another nominee, Tom Waits. Yes, it’s true: Tom Waits has been an Oscar nominee. It was for his music for Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” the commercial failure of which put Coppola in hock for a decade. Waits lost to Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse for “Victor/Victoria.”
It was a big year for Sylvester Stallone, with “Rocky III” (they do tend to run together, that’s the one with Mr. T) and “First Blood,” the first Rambo movie. Who’d win a fight between Rocky and Rambo? The answer presumably depends on whether it took place in the ring or someplace where arrows are allowed. But would either win a fight with the title character of “Conan the Barbarian”? It was co-written by, ahem, Oliver Stone.
“Rocky III” was the year’s biggest sequel, but far from the only one. Roman numerals abounded: “Amityville II: The Possession,” “Death Wish II,” “Friday the 13th, Part III,” “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” “Piranha II: The Spawning” (codirected by someone named James Cameron), “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (in which Ricardo Montalban is so over the top he’s just right), “Airplane II: The Sequel” (another comedy, and pretty good). “Grease 2″ gets points for using an Arabic numeral — and for giving Michelle Pfeiffer her first starring role in a feature film. “Trail of the Pink Panther” deserves special mention, sequel-wise. The seventh film in the comedy franchise, it was the last to star Peter Sellers, who’d died in 1980.
Klaus Kinski reunited with Werner Herzog for the very Kinskian/Herzogian “Fitzcarraldo.” With all due respect to Ricardo Montalban, there’s over the top — then there’s Kinskian/Herzogian over the top. It’s not every movie whose plot involves carrying a ship over a mountain in the Amazon. Nor is it every movie that gets its own documentary. Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” also came out in 1982. Now there’s a double feature.
Science fiction was a triple feature. “Blade Runner” you know about. You may also know that “E.T.” quickly became the biggest-grossing title of all time, a record it held for a decade. There will be an IMAX re-release on Aug. 12, in honor of the film’s 40th anniversary. But don’t forget “Tron.” Jeff Bridges plays a computer programmer who ends up inside the software running a mainframe computer.
“Mainframe,” now there’s a word you don’t hear anymore. “Tron” holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood feature to use computer-generated imagery. “CGI,” now there’s a term you hear all the time. Forget the great films from 1982. Forget all the good and very good ones, too. At the distance of four decades, “Tron” may be the movie that mattered the most. You may or may not remember where were you in ‘82. But “Tron” remembers where it was: looking toward the future.
Five to stream
Diner Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu
Fast Times at Ridgemont High Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu
My Favorite Year Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, HBO Max, Vudu, YouTube
Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
The Verdict Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.