Summer of 1982: ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘Night Shift’ — Ultimate Movie Year
THE STARS ALIGNED IN TWO GREAT MOVIES
“An Officer and a Gentleman”
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Released July 30, 1982
Where to Watch
Directed by Ron Howard
Released July 30, 1982
Where to Watch
Several franchises were born and reborn during the classic movie summer of 1982, and it was also a pivotal period to make generational stars out of several young actors. With the debuts of their new movies during the last weekend of July 1982, Richard Gere affirmed his status in the industry with “An Officer and a Gentleman” while Michael Keaton experienced a breakthrough debut in the comedy “Night Shift.”
Let’s remember the comedy first. “Night Shift” quickly introduces us to Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler), a fussy and insecure morgue attendant who is so passive that he barely makes any resistance when his boss changes his work schedule for the worst. His personal life isn’t much better, as he’s engaged to a fiancee who offers no physical or emotional reassurance for him. Two people change his perspective: Bill Blazejowski (Keaton), his new manic hustling co-worker, and Belinda (Shelly Long), Chuck’s neighbor who’s a prostitute. When Belinda’s pimp ends up in the morgue, Bill and Belinda convince Chuck to start spending their late-night office hours running an escort service.
At the time of this release, the television sitcom “Happy Days” was one of the biggest hits. The series creator, Garry Marshall, just opened his directorial feature film debut with “Young Doctors in Love.” As it turned out, it was “Happy Days” star Ron Howard (who played Richie Cunningham and was also Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show”) who would helm the more successful comedy of the Summer. Howard got some reps in the director’s chair through some television projects and the 1977 film “Grand Theft Auto.” “Night Shift” would become Howard’s second film as a director, with his “Happy Days” castmate Winkler as a lead character who is the complete opposite of his famous portrayal as the Fonz.
When it came to casting the oddball Bill, Howard initially tried to recruit several hot young comedy stars, including John Belushi (who died a few months before the film’s release) and Bill Murray. Screenwriter Lowell Ganz suggested Keaton to Howard, noting, “Keaton is going to be a star for somebody, and he might as well be a star for us.”
“At first, we thought he may have been just a bit too frenetic, but I like that he took his dialogue — which might have sounded like Art Carney in ‘The Honeymooners’ — and made it contemporary,” Ganz said. “What he says is 80% or 90% what was in the script, but he made him an almost New Wave street guy. Almost as if Bill wanted to be black, he wished he had that much going for him; he wanted to be cool. Michael did a good job of keeping that character from being completely obnoxious.”
While a few comedies were released during the Summer of 1982, they mostly missed the mark regarding tone, approach, and quality of jokes. “Night Shift” is the first comedy of the Summer that was a success, creating humor through character development and not through the rapid-fire joke delivery made famous by movies like “Airplane!” This approach hasn’t aged well, like a tired cover band with dated references. Chuck, Bill, and Belinda are not stock characters but three-dimensional people whose unique quirks keep putting them into more uncomfortable (and funny) situations, and “Night Shift” is all the better.
“Winkler is vastly better when he’s not obliged to act the madcap, an identity that seems to come naturally to Keaton,” wrote Gary Arnold for The Washington Post in his review. “Wearing a demeanor reminiscent of Jack Benny and speaking like the real-life, gravely self-serious Woody Allen, Winkler creates an image of put-upon comic dignity and sensitivity that makes Chuck’s well-deserved liberation a richly gratifying deliverance. Keaton has been refining Billy’s squinty-faced, screwball impishness on several television series that never quite clicked. Of course, the chemistry between Winkler and Keaton gives ‘Night Shift decisive sparkle. One presumes it was Ron Howard who encouraged and guided this process. ‘Night Shift’ shows that Howard acquired enormous knowledge about comic staging and acting during those 20 years or so on the tube.”
“Night Shift” wasn’t the only movie of the weekend that made audiences take notice of a new star. By the Summer of 1982, Gere had already made an impression with breakthrough performances in “Days of Heaven” and “American Gigolo.” Still, “An Officer and a Gentleman” solidified his status as a major Hollywood star. Gere stars as Zack Mayo, the wayward neglected son of a Navy officer (Robert Loggia). Frustrated and resentful of his “military brat” upbringing, Zack decides to enlist in the Navy as his form of rebellion. However, a tough and abusive drill sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.) continually hammers Zack and the other class members at the Aviation Officer Candidate School with harsh insults and demanding physical training. The experience pushes Zack to the brink. He finds his only relief in the on-again, off-again relationship with Paula (Debra Winger), a local factory worker among women looking for a suitable military mate.
“It’s so funny to me now when people tell me how tender and soft it was because it’s not,” director Taylor Hackford said in a 2000 interview. “It was full of sex and profanity and was about very gritty, edgy people. It was a tough film to make, with all the strong personalities involved — Don Simpson tried to fire me two weeks into shooting — but we stuck it out, and I’m very proud of the final result, and I think it still holds up.”
After watching the awkward perspective of last week’s “The World According to Garp,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” is significantly more grounded and naturalistic in its storytelling, making this film the best pure drama released during the Summer. Gere is entirely compelling as the cynical but wounded Zack. He’s a young man who’s lost and so guarded that it’s difficult to trust him. Aching hurt is revealed in his eyes if you can get past his defenses. It all complements one of the best performances of Gere’s career. Let it also be said that Gere and Winger have palatable, lustful chemistry, the likes of which I have not seen in modern mainstream movies in years.
I don’t know if that says more about the state of Hollywood films or how good Gere and Winger are at their jobs. There are plenty of reports that the two lead actors kept their distance from one another when the cameras turned off ( Winger called Gere “a brick wall” and director Taylor Hackford “an animal”). The film was also criticized for being sappy and sentimental, but that never registered on my radar. In an age where the biggest movie stars include “too cool for the room” Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson, watching a film filled with broken people desperate to find a connection with each other feels like a weirdly welcome relief.
“Undeniably, there’s an element of corniness to this,” wrote Janet Maslin in her New York Times review. “But that doesn’t keep ‘An Officer and a Gentleman” from being a first-rate movie — a beautifully acted, thoroughly involving romance. If this Summer hasn’t previously had a wonderful Hollywood love story to call its own, it has one now.”
Although “Night Shift” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” debuted on the same weekend, their box office journeys were divergent. “Night Shift” opened with a modest $2.5 million. It would gross a total of $21 million — a modest sum but very profitable off its reported $8.1 million budget while gaining enough acclaim to become a reliable favorite in the growing video rental and cable T.V. industries. “An Officer and a Gentleman” became one of the top drawing movies of the year. The drama held its own against a box office champion in “E.T.” but maintained a presence in first-run theaters well into the winter, finishing with $129.8 million in domestic earnings and a top-five finish for the year. To give you even more context, “An Officer and a Gentleman” outperformed hits like “Rocky III” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Several actors in “Night Shift” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” would go on to have other career successes. Long would become a famed cast member of the NBC sitcom “Cheers,” set to debut a month after the release of “Night Shift.” Gossett Jr. won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance here, and Winger also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. After leaving the Fonz behind, Winkler would continue working in more minor roles with multiple acclaimed works, including “Scream,” “Arrested Development,” and “Barry.”
But there’s no doubt that the two stars who shined the brightest were Keaton and Gere. When you watch many movies, you’ll see several talented people, but every once in a while, you’ll encounter someone magic on screen, a star being born before you.
At the Box Office: After falling to second place last week, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” won back its crown as the summer box office champion. “E.T.” grossed $10.4 million over the weekend to return to first place and bring its domestic total to $169.5 million. Last week’s top dog, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” dropped to second place with $9 million. I hope producers were content in the knowledge that their movie would answer the trivia question of which movie was the first to outgross “E.T.” at the box office.
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“An Officer and a Gentleman” debuted third with $3.3 million in only 346 theaters, helping the drama secure the highest per-screen average for a movie by a wide margin. “An Officer and a Gentleman” would expand to more theaters in the coming months with great success, and it would win a few weekends on its months into its release.
“Young Doctors in Love” edged out “Night Shift” for fourth place, grossing $2.6 million over “Night Shift’s” $2.5 million, which was suitable for a fifth-place finish.
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“When a comedy goes wrong, it goes very wrong. ‘Young Doctors in Love’ goes very wrong.”
Next Week: “The Pirate Movie”
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 29, 2022.