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Retro Rewind

Splash: Not Your Average Boy-Meets-Fish Rom-com

Art by FanFare, original by Touchstone Films
Retro Rewind is a weekly series that reconsiders pre-2000 pop culture. More here.

Almost every weekend, my Mom dropped me and a friend off at the local movie theatre, The Tri-Cinema. Not one of those cool, historical “movie palaces” from the 1920s, the Tri-Cinema was exactly that: three theatres and a large concession stand in the middle of the lobby. No nacho bar, no arcade, no recliners inside. It was as if a furniture store and bowling alley had decided to move in together. They never showed the R-rated movie (note the singular of that phrase) during daytime hours. My parents never had to worry that we might buy a ticket for The Secret of Nimh, but actually sneak into Nightmare on Elm Street. Happiness was a large tub of popcorn slathered in butter “substance,” a Coke, and Molly Ringwald looking pissed and sad and sweet and pissed again.

My adolescence coincided with what felt like an endless buffet of rom-coms: Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck, Mystic Pizza, Say Anything, Tootsie, Roxanne, Pretty Woman — the list could wrap itself around North America twice and still have a few feet left over. I hoovered them as eagerly as the salty popcorn. Because you know what else coincided with my adolescence? Adolescence. I was reading Judy Blume and feeling very confused about a body that appeared to be waging its own scorched earth campaign against me (Hello acne! Welcome breasts already growing alarmingly asymmetrical and, according to the girls in those Motely Crue videos, entirely too small). Those films were a window on the world for me. They transported me out of my dishwater town and away from my ordinary, dull-times-at-Ridgemont-High life to realities where the quirky, unconventionally pretty girl absolutely ended up with the handsome, popular Jake. Possibility. That’s what these films sold, and I gladly forked over my $2.50 week after week to spend 90 minutes entertaining the notion that this ugly duckling phase might end sooner rather than later. Reader: It did not.

Despite this and all the other ways these movies eventually warped my perspective of romance, I could never quit this genre. Rom-coms are often the perfect antidotes for the uncertainty, cynicism, and turmoil that blankets our day to day in the real world. The formula is as comforting and satisfying as a bowl of greasy mac-n-cheese. But that doesn’t make them disposable or insignificant. I’ve often found that somewhere underneath the meet-cute and run through the airport to stop her from getting on the plane are revealing insights into things like culture, politics, or, in the case of 1984’s Splash, masculine identity. Yes, really.

Image Touchstone Films

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (the team behind Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and a ton of other films like City Slickers and Spies Like Us to name just a few) and directed by Ron Howard, Splash tells the story of Alan Bauer (Tom Hanks), an unlucky-in-love guy from New York City who falls for Madison (Daryl Hannah), a mermaid masquerading as your run-of-the-mill gorgeous, model-ready two-legged person.

While this might sound a little like something dreamed up by a 5-year-old, minus the “and then the boy turns into a spaceship and flies away” part, Splash has roots in the OG fish-hearts-boy love story, Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, published in 1837. Ganz and Mandel put their own spin on the tale, updating it for modern audiences: Madison learns to speak English by watching TV all day in the electronics department of Bloomingdale’s; she hasn’t traded her voice for legs, but instead, somehow, has legs on lease, transforming into her fin when she’s in water; and unlike the little mermaid who longs to stay human and marry the prince (Eye. Roll.), Madison makes it clear that she’s passing through. “Six days, until the moon is full,” she tells Bauer, apparently on a kind of mermaid Rumspringa with a heavy dose of fish-on-dude action. Respect. In short, Ganz and Mandel created a smart, warm, funny take on the source story that manages to still feel relevant more than thirty years after its release. The reason for this, I think, is Bauer: a male character navigating a hybridity that has nothing to do with scales or fins.

The film opens with a flashback of a young Alan Bauer with his family on a boat somewhere off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He fixates on something in the water and impulsively jumps in. Underwater he encounters a little blonde girl. They smile and briefly hold hands before Bauer is rescued and pulled to the surface. Weirdest or most darling “meet-cute” in the history of the genre? You decide. Cut to an adult Bauer: he’s overworked and stressed out running his family’s produce business while his brother, Freddie (John Candy), parties his life away; and to top it all off, he’s just been dumped. After attending a friend’s wedding he drowns his sorrow at a bar, rambling to the bartender:

I don’t ask that much do I? I don’t ask to be famous. I don’t ask to be rich. I don’t ask to play center field for the New York Yankees or anything. I just want to meet a woman. I wanna meet a woman. I wanna fall in love. And I wanna get married. And I want to have a kid, and I want to go see him play a tooth in the school play. It’s not much. But I’m kidding myself. It’s never going to happen. I’m going to grow old and grow lonely and I’m gonna die and I’ll be surrounded by a bunch of rotten fruit.

The 1980s culture of rugged masculinity positioned men as not only the pursuers of women and power, but as entitled to a playboy-like freedom to remain perpetually on the prowl, to shirk responsibility at will or choose none at all. In his thoughtful, sensitive-guy-next-door persona Bauer is already an outlier. This gets underscored in his monologue, which aligns him with a more conventional female perspective in two ways: First, that marriage and family are the primary destinations for women; and second, in how it evokes that cringey stereotype of a woman dying alone surrounded by cats instead of “rotten fruit.” Not to mention the line about the tooth — JESUS, HANKS! MY OVARIES! I can’t even imagine what single women in their 20s or 30s were experiencing watching this scene in the ’80s, but it probably felt like somewhere between a mild stroke and an alien abduction.

Bauer stumbles out of the bar, hails a cab, and tells the driver to take him to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He has another boat mishap, falls into the water, and awakes on a beach to find a very naked Daryl Hannah standing in front of him. Before he can process much, she walks up to Bauer and gives him some serious lip action before turning and running back down the beach into the ocean. Now it’s Bauer’s turn to experience the mild stoke/alien abduction combo.

A day or so later, Hannah/Madison, like many immigrants before her, arrives on Ellis Island. She is naked. She doesn’t speak any English. She’s immediately swarmed by a park ranger and crowd of people losing their mind over the spectacle of a tall, blonde, naked woman strolling around as if she were shopping at The GAP. Having found Bauer’s wallet when he fell into the water, she shows his license to the police, indicating with delicate finger-pointing and a beguiling smile, “Him. Please. This guy.” Bauer gets a call at work about this buff blonde woman who apparently knows him and wastes about .6 seconds rushing to the station. Dressed in an oversized I “HEART” N.Y. tee-shirt, courtesy of the Ellis Island gift shop, Madison launches herself into Bauer’s arms for some more passionate mouth-on-mermouth business. The two head to his apartment to read War and Peace and play cribbage. I kid. It’s a one-way ticket to bone town.

Plot-wise, the movie runs along in a conventional way. Two things surface to threaten the lovers’ newfound happiness: One, we know Madison is just passing through; she’s adamant about the mysterious stakes of sticking around longer than six days: “If I stay longer, I can’t ever go back,” she ominously tells Bauer. Two, we meet Dr. Walter Kornbluth played by Eugene Levy, the Tolstoy of comedy. Kornbluth is a highly disregarded scientist stalking Madison in order to expose her true identity and prove himself within the scientific community. It doesn’t take a lot of sleuthing to figure out where the movie is headed.

So while we’re waiting for the inevitable to happen, we get to see Bauer thrown out of his masculine comfort zone. For instance, in a traditional courtship gesture, he buys her an expensive music box from Tiffany. Conversely, Madison trades her rare, seashell necklace to have an entire fountain with a sculpture of a mermaid installed at his apartment. The two had visited the fountain on a walk where Bauer remarked he always loved the piece and was dismayed to learn it was going to be torn down to make room for a new development. Madison gives him the gift that is deeply personal and intimate. It’s the BIG MOVE, the one usually enacted by a man that says something on a soul level like a signed first edition of her favorite book or raising her cat, Dragon, from the dead (Wait, wrong genre, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). It’s not that Madison has upstaged Bauer with a gift that is, let’s face it, a complete mic drop, but rather that we get to see Bauer experience what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such emotional overwhelm, which even by 2021 gender ideals feels a little radical.

Kornbluth prevails. Madison’s mermaid identity is revealed in a shockingly public manner. She’s captured and whisked away to a government research facility. Bauer is confused, hurt, and deeply humiliated. In one scene the research team put Bauer and Madison in a tank together to study their interaction. It goes about as well as you could expect after discovering the love of your life is a distant cousin of Moby Dick. Madison tries to explain, to apologize. Bauer is angry, but ambivalent. He cycles through a nuanced range of emotions that seem to say: I’m hurt. Was it ever even real? How could something and someone who seemed so perfect end up being (literally) something else? And isn’t this the lesson that women in real life have to learn over and over again — accepting a version of love and relationships that is perpetually imperfect over the fairy tale version presented in books and TV and films?

After he’s released, Bauer realizes he’s being a class A-dum-dum and about to lose the only woman he’s completely loved. Kornbluth undergoes his own change of heart and the two team up with Freddie to bust Madison out of marine jail (sorry not sorry aquariums: you are water zoos). They are successful until they’re not and end up being chased by the police and the military through the streets of Manhattan all the way to a pier at the edge of the East River. Decision time: Madison can stay forever, giving up her mer-powers while also being pursued by the government for the rest of her life or abandon Bauer and return to the sea. Literally standing on the precipice the situation appears hopeless until — WAIT!

Madison recalls that it was she who Bauer encountered under the water in Cape Cod as a kid. Not only that, he was safe with her, no scuba gear required. It’s the perfect land-and-sea package. This solves everything! Until it doesn’t. Madison gives it to him straight: If you come with me, you can’t ever go back. Huh. So, let me do the math here. We have a man who must decide if he’s willing to sacrifice the life he knows for a completely unknown, utterly foreign “ever after” with the woman he loves. Is that a cliché or what? Reader: it is not, at least not in the 80s where gender roles were more firmly entrenched and it was still women who were expected to acquiesce in some way — leave a career, move to a new place, drop a passion — to fit themselves into a man’s life and world.

Does Bauer have the sack to put his money where his fish-worshipping-heart is? Negative. The military choppers circle. The police and army vehicles come screeching up to the end of the dock. “Go,” he says, crestfallen. “I love you, Madison. Go!” They kiss and she dives off the pier. Divers race after her. “Leave her alone!” Bauer screams to the armed frogmen because yelling will do the trick. The first time I watched this film and got to this point my stomach balled itself into a little fist of anxiety. Things were taking a tilt I did not appreciate, Opie. NUT UP, BAUER! I shouted in my heart. And, thankfully, he does because this is still 1984 and audiences would burn the movie theatre to the ground if they were denied their happy rom-com ending. Inches away from getting collared, Bauer realizes his future is under the waves somewhere. He leaps literally and figuratively.

At first, Bauer sinks like a stone. Realizing what’s happening, Madison swims back to him. She kisses him, reviving him, essentially saving him as she’s been doing throughout the entire movie (Eye. Roll.). Two divers close in. They tussle with Bauer and Madison. She lands a smartly-aimed flipper to the crotch on one while Bauer twists the scuba mask off another. Free and clear, the power ocean couple embrace and kiss again before swimming off into the sea version of the sunset. Who knows what awaits them, but one thing is clear: Bauer’s making a life, a whole new self, on Madison’s terms now, and that’s a “happily ever after” I can really get behind.

As I said, possibility — ultimately that’s what Splash gave audiences and still does. Not just in terms of romance and soulmates and sweet endings that promise even sweeter new beginnings. But also in offering a glimpse into what masculinity might look and feel like were it expanded in some way to take into account feminine experiences and perspectives. It’s a peek at where male identity was always headed. In this respect Splash also feels hopeful: that a man like Alan Bauer is no more mythical or strange than a mermaid living amongst us in New York City.

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Sheila M.

Sheila M.


Author: League of Extraordinarily Funny Women (Running Press); writer & photographer & enthusiastic New Englandaaahhh