The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
“The basic ecology of Hollywood is, I’m very much afraid, radically changing.” This was William Goldman, screenwriter of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men, writing in the middle of 1982. The problem, as Goldman saw it, was the sudden dominance of what he called “comic-book movies”—a complaint that’ll be plenty familiar to anyone who has read a single paragraph of film discourse in the past decade.
By today’s standards, the only actual comic-book movie that hit screens in 1982 was Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, not exactly a dominant box-office force. But when Goldman used the phrase “comic-book movies,” he meant something else. Comic-book movies, to Goldman, were about fantasy, not reality: “The comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we prefer it to be. Safer that way.”
When Goldman wrote that essay, included in his essential 1983 book Adventures In The Screen Trade, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, twin boy-wonder buddies, were together or jointly responsible for the five highest-grossing films in history: Jaws, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and new entry E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Both of them were under 40. Within a few years, Lucas and Spielberg had essentially broken the box office, figuring out how to separate more Americans from their movie-ticket money than any other director in history. And they’d done it, Goldman said, by making comic-book movies.
Goldman was quick to point out that he didn’t think that “comic-book movie” was a pejorative, though he didn’t seem too fond of them, either. Goldman’s alarm was over the idea that Hollywood was suddenly directing all of its resources at these comic-book movies—that nothing else would be made. Goldman wrote about Spielberg and Lucas, in other words, in the exact terms that plenty of filmmakers use today when talking about Marvel.
To a veteran Hollywood professional like William Goldman, the sudden rise of a figure like Steven Spielberg must’ve been a jarring, disorienting, world-altering event. Spielberg hadn’t been quite 30 when he’d broken box-office records with a film about a rampaging shark. E.T. opened almost exactly one year after Raiders, and that combination might make the greatest pop-cultural one-two punch from any director in history. Within that year, Spielberg also found the time to co-write and co-produce (and, depending on who you ask, ghost-direct) the hit horror flick Poltergeist, another of the biggest hits of 1982. He’d built an insanely successful personal brand on adventure flicks and sci-fi fantasies. Comic-book movies. Kids’ stuff.
But the genius of Spielberg—the reason his movies have endured the way they have—is that he took his comic-book movies seriously. In E.T., Spielberg made a truly personal film, an almost autobiographical trip back into his own childhood memories. Spielberg had been 13 when his parents divorced—not such a common thing in 1960—and he’d coped by inventing an imaginary alien friend, a sort of dream-life brother. While undertaking the grand project of shooting Raiders in Tunisia, Spielberg started to think back on his young self, wondering if he could reconnect to the quiet and quasi-religious awe of his 1977 film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
At the time, Spielberg had been developing a sci-fi horror film with screenwriter John Sayles. Night Skies was going to be a story about evil aliens who descended upon a remote family, but there was going to be one nice alien who befriended the family’s young son. We’ll sadly never get to see Night Skies, but it sounds like a fancier version of The Hills Have Eyes. Working on Raiders, Spielberg’s attention kept drifting back to the nice alien, and to the memories of his fake childhood friend. He mentioned the idea to the Black Stallion screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was on the set to visit her future ex-husband Harrison Ford. Mathison loved the idea, and she quickly wrote the initial E.T. script. Thus, Spielberg spun his Night Skies idea off into two huge movies, E.T. and Poltergeist.
In the early scenes of E.T., we see some dim echoes of the horror movie that it could’ve been. My dad took me to see E.T. when I was 2; it might’ve been my first theatrical experience. The faint memories I have are all just sheer terror. John Williams’ score eventually turns heart-soaringly triumphant, the way most John Williams scores do, but it starts out as spooky, ominous tones. E.T. himself is a mysterious and elusive figure, always half-hidden in moonlight. The various authority-figure adults out searching for him, all famously shot with faces obscured for almost the entire film, are just as scary. Trucks surge onto the screen suddenly and violently. In its slow build and jarring payoff, the scene of Elliott first meeting E.T. plays as a jump-scare. It’s the earliest concrete memory I can conjure from my entire childhood: that leathery face, in shadow and flashlight, screaming. That thing fucked me up.
E.T. works so well, at least in part, because the film holds Elliott’s perspective throughout. When he’s scared, we’re scared. When he’s happy, we’re happy. When he’s heartbroken, so are we. E.T. is largely a film about empathy. E.T. and Elliott (Henry Thomas) are two creatures from distant worlds who can only communicate in broken language but who still love and protect each other. They forge a mysterious psychic bond. There’s a bit of vague post-hippie mysticism in the connection between the two. Late in the movie, a scientist tries to understand the link between E.T. and Elliott. “Elliott thinks its thoughts?,” a scientist asks. “No,” Elliott’s brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) explains. “Elliott feels his feelings.” Spielberg works that same empathy magic on us, getting us to feel the way his own 13-year-old self felt when he made up that space-buddy in the first place.
This whole enterprise could’ve gone wrong any number of ways. Spielberg was working with child actors, always a perilous proposition. He made allowances, shooting the movie in chronological sequence so that the kids could bond with the creature. The kids, it’s worth noting, are all remarkably capable and well-cast, even if only one of them, youngest sibling Drew Barrymore, went on to become a bonafide movie star. Those casting decisions are absolutely crucial. Similarly, if E.T. himself hadn’t looked amazing, the film would’ve been difficult to watch. The Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who’d worked with Spielberg on Close Encounters, designed an incredibly communicative creature—an actual costume, worn by two actors with dwarfism and one 13-year-old boy who’d been born without legs.
There were people who didn’t think Spielberg could pull the story off, even after all the success he’d had. Columbia Pictures boss Marvin Antonowsky, who’d been developing Night Skies with Spielberg, passed on E.T. because he didn’t want to be involved in a corny Disney movie. (Universal bought E.T. from Columbia for a mere million dollars and a much-more-lucrative 5% of the gross.) Spielberg wanted Elliott to lure E.T. to his house by tempting him with M&Ms, but M&Ms’ parent company Mars Incorporated didn’t want to be associated with the movie. Spielberg instead went with Reese’s Pieces, and sales of the candy tripled when E.T. came out.
Rewatching E.T. just underscores how foolish anyone was to doubt Spielberg. E.T. is the work of a master popular entertainer at the peak of his craft. The entire story plays out with its own dreamlike fairy-tale logic. Spielberg shows his characters in silhouette whenever possible. He fills the screen with fog and shadow. E.T. speaks in hums and mutters before finally forming words learned from watching Sesame Street. Often, Spielberg works without dialogue; the scene of the frogs escaping the school is a great moment of mostly unspoken kid rebellion.
There’s some real sadness at work in E.T., some exorcising of personal demons. Elliott’s father is a remarked-upon absence in the film. Elliott and his siblings spend much of the movie mourning the loss of their nuclear family, deeply inhaling the smell of the absent man’s sweatshirt. Their mother (Dee Wallace) falls to pieces whenever anyone mentions him. She seems a bit like a kid herself, which might be why she’s the one adult who gets to show her face before the ending. The film ends with Elliott once again suffering the heartbreak of losing a family member, as E.T. disappears into the sky, rasping his farewells.
But if Spielberg was working out his own deep-seated shit in making the film, he resisted any temptation to make E.T. a period piece. Instead, E.T. exists firmly within the context of early-’80s suburbia. The family lives in a big house and owns an Audi. When he meets E.T., Michael wanders into the house singing Elvis Costello and yammering about Asteroids. When Elliott calls his brother “penis-breath,” his mother yells at him but also stifles her laughter. (One of the best things about the Spielberg-associated movie kids of the ’80s is that they cuss and act like assholes to each other. I don’t know where Hollywood lost the knowledge that kids do that.)
There are also little touches in E.T. (and, for that matter, Poltergeist) about how Spielberg and his cadre of movie-brat friends had helped shape the world of Elliott and his family. Star Wars is all over the place. Elliott shows E.T. his collection of random Empire Strikes Back action figures. Michael impersonates Yoda. E.T. himself sees a Yoda costume at Halloween and lurches toward him, moaning about home. Years later, Lucas repaid the favor when he worked terrible-looking CGI E.T. creatures into a Galactic Senate cameo in The Phantom Menace.
Star Wars certainly influenced E.T. in its own ways. The opening shot of E.T. is a long, lingering look at the night sky, and it echoes the traditional beginnings of Star Wars films. E.T.’s magical powers of telekinesis and resurrection seem to work a whole lot like the Force. Elliott tells his family that E.T. is “feeling everything”—the kind of thing that Obi-Wan Kenobi once told Luke Skywalker to do. Tonally, though, the movie is a close echo of Spielberg’s own Close Encounters. This time, the protagonist isn’t a grown man who intermittently acts childlike; he’s an actual child, the first underaged hero of many for Spielberg. And where Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary ends Close Encounters by leaving his family behind for the stars, Elliott declines E.T.’s invitation to go live with him in space.
By today’s comic-book movie standards, this is all small, intimate stuff. It resonated. The film quickly became a cultural phenomenon. It played in theaters for months, earning more than twice as much as the year’s No. 2 movie, the Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie. A couple of months into 1983, it went beyond Star Wars and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. Nancy Reagan reportedly cried while watching it. So did Princess Diana. Michael Jackson was such a fan that he narrated the soundtrack album, which came out the same month as Thriller. Soon after seeing the movie together, Neil Diamond, Carole Bayer Sager, and her then-husband Burt Bacharach wrote the hit song “Heartlight.” In fact, it practically became news when someone didn’t like E.T.—like the conservative columnist George Will, who complained that the film demonized adult authority. (Will evidently missed the whole plot development where Peter Coyote’s once-threatening Keys turns out to be a sympathetic force who’s also been wanting to hang out with an alien since he was a little kid.)
Writing shortly after its release, William Goldman said that he had “no doubt” that E.T. would win Best Picture. The comic-book movies had choked out everything else; there were no adult films left to award. Goldman was wrong. E.T. lost to Richard Attenborough’s long and portentous hagiography Gandhi. A Spielberg film wouldn’t win Best Picture for another decade. He finally got there with Schindler’s List, his own long and portentous hagiography. To date, that’s still the only Spielberg film that’s won Best Picture, which is wild to think about.
But Oscars don’t matter. Spielberg went on to absolutely dominate Hollywood for many years to come. At least half of the blockbusters of the ’80s are directed, produced, or inspired by Spielberg. These days, I don’t think I know anyone who prefers Gandhi to E.T. The comic-book movies won.
The contender: The aforementioned Poltergeist, the No. 8 film at the 1982 box office, is its own kind of miracle, and it works as a fascinating flipside to E.T. Both movies tell the stories of troubled families meeting supernatural forces in deepest suburbia. But where E.T. is a heartwarming myth, Poltergeist gets nasty with it, putting its family through literal hell. (Poltergeist and E.T. opened only a mere week apart in the U.S.)
Poltergeist is credited to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre master Tobe Hooper, though there’s been plenty of speculation that Spielberg actually split directing duties with Hooper. Either way, it’s a great amalgam of the two auteurs’ aesthetics. Poltergeist has a near-perfect sense for early-’80s parenthood, as in the scene where the mom smokes a joint while the dad reads a book about Ronald Reagan. (That dad, Craig T. Nelson, has still been able to play a clueless and devoted suburban dad, at least in voice-acting form, as recently as Incredibles 2. That’s a hell of a run of dad roles.) Poltergeist takes this adorable family unit and subjects it to kidnappings, grabby trees, interdimensional vortexes, rotting-flesh visions, angry Raiders-tomb corpses, and one extremely fucked-up toy clown. It’s scary and fun in equal measures.
Next time: George Lucas completes his initial Star Wars saga with Return Of The Jedi, finding room in his world for gangster slugs and guerrilla teddy bears.