LAST YEAR probably exceeded both commercial and artistic expectations to such an extent that it will be used as a stick with which to beat the inevitable years ahead that fall short of expectations. Not that 1983 is likely to be one of those years. The resurgent box office of 1982, which included at least nine new hits of various magnitude--"Tootsie,""48 Hours," "The Dark Crystal," "Best Friends," "Airplane II," "The Sequel," "The Verdict," "Gandhi" and "Sophie's Choice"--has generated a momentum that should be sustained by 1983's movies. That stockpile seems prodigiously protected in commercial terms by the upcoming Sequels of Summer--"Revenge of the Jedi" first and foremost, of course, but also "Superman III," the Sean Connery James Bond adventure "Never Say Never Again," the Roger Moore James Bond adventure "Octopussy," a 3-D continuation of "Jaws," a generation-after update on "Psycho," a five years-after update on "Saturday Night Fever" titled "Staying Alive" and a morning-after update on "Porky's."
An annual gross of $3 billion once loomed as an unattainable plateau for the movie industry. Since the 1982 gross may exceed it by as much as half a billion, the $4 billion plateau suddenly looks attainable, given a second consecutive year of big attractions. The business appears uncharacteristically slump-proof through mid-1984, when the hits of '82-'83 should have run their course.
Considering the present lofty prospects, there would seem to be an urgent vested interest in sustaining the momentum, since any new slump could be a crushing setback. The hitch is that there's no way of making the medium itself foolproof. Essentially, sustaining the momentum depends on trusting the available talent and encouraging the aspiring talent within sane fiscal limits.
The most frequent and humanly gratifying enhancements to the quality of movie illusion in general could be observed in the depiction of intimacy. The emphasis could range from something intensely dramatic to something playfully comic, but the finest movies of the year seemed to share a preoccupation with, and a flair for, realizing the intimate moment. Despite variations in genre or scope, it's a thread that unites my traditional augmented "best" of the year--"E.T.," "Das Boot," "Shoot the Moon," "Sophie's Choice," "Man of Iron," "The Devil's Playground," "The Road Warrior," "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "The Chosen," "Ticket to Heaven," "Tex," "Personal Best," "Night Shift," "My Favorite Year," "Barbarosa," "The Escape Artist," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "48 Hours," "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip," "Diner," "Diva," "From Mao to Mozart," "My Dinner With Andre," "Quest for Fire," "Three Brothers," "Garde a Vue," "Montenegro," "Missing."
Without exception these movies seem most confident and authentic when observing the evolution of peculiarly close and sometimes symbiotic relationships or isolating characters for unguarded, heartfelt expressions of emotion. As a rule, the quality of feeling in the pictures transcends the formats and plots that structure them.
Even Spielberg, whose rapport with actors often is overlooked by critics who grudgingly acknowledge his flair for spectacle, is at his soundest in "E.T." when elaborating on the secret friendship of the alien and the children rather than tailoring the plot to conventional chase thriller patterns. The latter no doubt needs to be done, but it's the former that makes "E.T." an enchanting and transporting emotional experience.
I think it's possible that what we've witnessed over the course of this year is a welcome breakdown of the myth of the director's supremacy, replaced by a reaffirmation of his importance as the orchestrator or guiding intelligence of a dedicated group effort.
Although it's obvious that 1982 has been the Year of "E.T.," the magnitude of the film's popular impact and success may now obscure the fact that it was one of the year's sleepers. Come to think of it, the year was sleeper-intensive, a characteristic that also may explain the unusually high quality of the output. The specialized distribution subsidiaries recently created by some of the major companies played significant roles in this respect: "Das Boot," the maiden acquisition of Columbia's Triumph Films, and "Diva," an astute selection by UA Classics, became resounding art-house hits. "The Chosen" was acquired on the rebound by 20th Century-Fox after its original distributor expired, and it appears that the film is being nurtured into a modest success.
The importance of such efforts is also underlined by the strictly localized success of "Barbarosa" and "The Escape Artist," which managed to rally audiences in the Washington area but remain neglected assets of Universal and Warners, respectively. Since the majors are disinclined to take a chance on extensively releasing or promoting pictures with doubtful mass appeal, it's absolutely necessary that alternative operations like Triumph and UA Classics be created and encouraged to supply the missing incentive and handle the sensitive cases. The business now tends to reward a hit in awesome dimensions while disposing of the apparent flops with ruthless alacrity. The logical undesirable outcome of this trend would be a dreadfully lopsided business, organized only for the extremes of runaway popularity or utter rejection.
It's worth recalling that of the five 1982 releases that ended up earning more than $100 million at the box-office, only "Rocky III" was regarded as a money attraction in advance. The others--"On Golden Pond," "Porky's," "E.T." and "An Officer and a Gentleman"--far exceeded initially cautious or downright pessimistic estimations. The safe bets of the summer, for example, were supposed to be the overproduced musicals, "Annie" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," presumably covering all audience bets from the wholesome to the racy. Their combined grosses did exceed $100 million, scarcely an insignificant performance and perhaps a sign that moviegoers remain fond of musicals, but also less than impressive in light of their combined production costs, roughly $80 million.
"E.T.," picked up by Universal after Columbia demurred on the project, is surely one of the greatest turnaround bargains in Hollywood history. Spielberg completed the film for slightly more than $10 million, considered a frugal sum for a major studio production shot in the Los Angeles area these days. The domestic gross is now approaching $320 million, and the initial foreign engagements, launched over the Christmas season, promise to improve the country's balance-of-payments position singlehandedly.
Like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" the previous summer, "E.T." also was a potential blockbuster played very close to the vest by filmmaker and distributor. Until the eve of its release, "E.T." remained a virtually unknown quantity within the trade, in part to protect the novelty value and increase the eventual public impact. The secrecy also encouraged a good deal of misinformed rumor to the effect that the movie was "in trouble," some kind of juvenile comedy that would lay a big egg since everyone knew that Spielberg couldn't be trusted to direct comedy after the debacle of "1941." I suppose half the fun of playing it close to the vest is luring such intramural misinformation into the open.
Now that the impact of "E.T." has reverberated throughout American popular culture and begun to Go Global, it's difficult to recollect the pre-release setting in which it was so effectively kept under wraps. Those also were the days when crying at "E.T." was a reaction people simply couldn't help. .
It will be interesting to see if the principal beneficiary of the Year of "E.T.," the Hollywood filmmaking fraternity, has the decency to admit that it really would be bad, self-defeating form to deprive Spielberg of the Academy Award recognition he so obviously merits. It seems impossible for a hit of this magnitude to be denied the ultimate accolades of the movie academy in favor of--what? "Gandhi"? "Tootsie"? "Missing"? I think sounder arguments could be made for "Sophie's Choice" or "An Officer and a Gentleman" or "Diner" if one were seeking upset alternatives, but what's the point of seeking them? "E.T." hasn't been only a record-breaking moneymaker, after all. It's been a phenomenal and, in my estimation, perfectly sincere and desirable inspirational hit. Even the quasi-religious appeal has always been disarmingly straightforward and humorous--so obvious to everyone closely involved, for example, that the advertising logo openly copied Michelangelo's most famous sacred painting from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
If last year's whimsical dark-horse selection, "Chariots of Fire," was supposed to be an inspirational rouser, what could disqualify "E.T." from similar recognition? Only the strange disqualification, especially in a Hollywood context, of having made too much money to get the Oscar as an ultimate reward. It doesn't make any sense, but I suspect that "Gandhi" will end up the perversely "dignified" choice of the Academy membership, loathe to admit that they can be overwhelmed by the movie that the industry has actually thrived on.