“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) dir. John Landis / scr. Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller

Many people of my generation wax rhapsodic about their experience seeing “Star Wars” for the first time in the summer of 1977 on a big screen.  I’m not going to deny how amazing that was.  But for me, as a 33-degree comedy nerd, “National Lampoon’s Animal House” was my holy grail back when I was an impressionable pre-teenager.  Let me explain the difference: “Star Wars” was PG-rated, so you could easily buy a ticket as an 8-year old and get in.  “Animal House” was R-rated, which meant that you could only see it if you could sneak in, or be accompanied by an irresponsible adult.  Please remember this was a time before HBO and other “uncensored” movie channels were a common phenomenon for most households.

The first time I was aware of “Animal House” was when I saw a full-page ad for it in the Washington Post, during the summer of 1978 when I was visiting my Dad.  At that time, the movie was in limited-release, showing in only a handful of theaters, likely to build word-of-mouth before it was released to multiple theaters.  When I saw the ad, the movie was only playing in one theater (the Jennifer Theater),  but had a full-page ad.  I mean, it had to be a big movie, right?   The ad blew my mind.  The poster was a mishmash of multiple outrageous things going on in one image.  I took that movie page home with me to Tidewater, Virginia and studied that image religiously, like it was Picasso’s “Guernica.”  This was an outrageous, off-limits (due to its R-rating) film that promised all kinds of illicit pleasures.  I became a VERY obsessed 8-year old.

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As I entered fourth grade, I ran into classmates who claimed to have seen the film, who told me in explicit detail about all of the wonders they witnessed.  When I finally saw “Animal House,” in a heavily-edited TV version broadcast on the NBC network circa 1981, I thought my classmates were full of s–t.  I enjoyed the film a lot, but very little of what they described was there.  Then, in the fall of 1981, my Dad came to visit us and got use of a house that a friend of his owned, but was not occupying at the time.  The house had one of those exotic mechanical devices called a VCR … and because I was a movie-fanatic, I made a beeline for the tape shelf.  I made a LOT of discoveries on that shelf, which I kept to myself, but signaled to my older brother to take a walk with me away from the house to have a “talk.” I told him that this tape collection had a copy of “Animal House” and discussed whether or not this was the “uncut” version. He advised me to keep it cool and that we would check it out later.  Well, lo and behold, it WAS the uncut version and finally realized that my classmates were NOT full of s–t.  (I also discovered a tape called “Deep Throat,” but that’s a discussion for another day).

For a brief period, “Animal House” was considered the most outrageous, most scandalous mainstream American comedy film.  And … was also the most financially successful.  How successful?  During its production, director John Landis was told he needed a “name” in order to secure a $2 million budget.  Landis talked to Donald Sutherland about taking a part as “Dave” the professor for either a flat fee of $35,000 or the SAG minimum and 10 percent of the gross.  Sutherland opted for the $35,000. “Animal House” grossed $141 million (when $141 million was a lot of money), which means Sutherland would have made $14 million had he taken the 2nd deal.  Heavy sigh …

Like most blockbuster films, audiences interpreted the film to reflect their personal beliefs.  Progressives saw the Deltas as a group of non-conformists fighting against a Nixonian-dean and rival group of Conservative blue-noses (the Omegas).  Conservatives adopted the Deltas as their heroes, because they saw the Deltas as fighting against political correctness (also true).  The real deal is somewhere in between because “Animal House” … like other great comedy films … is an incoherent text.  Seriously, all the best film comedies, whether they be “Duck Soup,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H,” “Putney Swope,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Female Trouble,” “Eating Raoul,” “Repo Man,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “South Park,” etc. are all problematic texts … because there’s something inherently funny about laughing about things we’re not supposed to laugh about.  That’s what makes them funny.  Comedy is not … and should never be … politically correct. Great comedy should always make you feel ashamed …  ideally, MORE than a little ashamed.

As for how “Animal House” holds up nowadays, it’s still very solid. It’s not as “outrageous” as it once was, but it’s still very sharp and holds up much better for me than the original “Star Wars” does.

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“Heaven Help Us” (1985) dir. Michael Dinner, scr. Charles Purpura

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve come across recently on HBO On Demand is seeing “Heaven Help Us” again for the first time since 1985.  This was a film that was promoted as a crass “Porky’s”-style teen sex comedy back in the day, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s an extremely funny, sometimes raunchy, but also frequently poignant look at a group of teenagers in Catholic high school in Brooklyn back in the mid-1960s.  The cast includes Andrew McCarthy, John Heard, Donald Sutherland, Wallace Shawn, a pre-“Entourage” and “Platoon” Kevin Dillon, a VERY young Patrick Dempsey, Stephen Geoffreys, Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson’s voice), and Mary Stuart Masterson in one of her first roles.  This is far from a perfect film, but it’s so damn good and much better than its critical and popular reception back in the day.  It’s weird to imagine this was considered disposable teen trash back in the day, because it’s not only better than most teen films released in the last several years, but much better than a lot of mainstream films released in the last 30 years.   Seriously, this is a sleeper that’s worth rediscovering.  The attached scene here is a school Brother, hilariously played by Wallace Shawn, delivering a stern lecture before a high school dance.  And yes, I still have more than a little crush on Mary Stuart Masterson’s character even 30 years later. Dave says check it out!

An interpretation of “Catcher in the Rye” from “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993) dir. Fred Schepisi, scr. John Guare

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I’ve been on a J.D. Salinger kick recently based on my total absorption into the new 12-pound David Sheilds / Shane Salerno Salinger bio that came out last week. At some point, I may give some thoughts on this book and Salinger, but in the meantime, here’s a terrific critique on Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” delivered by one of the characters from the film adaptation of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” Will Smith plays the character giving the analysis and it’s a nice reminder that Smith is a very good actor when he’s not playing some variation of the Tom Cruise-inspired cocky jacka– that sadly makes up many of his more, um, renowned roles. Playing the other roles here are Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Ian McKellan. A damn fine and sadly ignored film if I do say so.

“Ordinary People” (1980) dir. Robert Redford

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“Ordinary People” winning the Best Picture Oscar over “Raging Bull” in 1980 is considered one of the biggest cinematic crimes of all time by many. I’m not one of those people. “Raging Bull” is, indeed, the better film, but “Ordinary People” is a really good movie and much better than its reputation would have you believe. (Funny, but no one complains that “Coal Miner’s Daughter” got robbed that year … which is one of THE best biopics of all time … but I digress).

“Ordinary People” is often dismissed as the type of middlebrow melodrama that philistines give points to because it displays such “good taste.” That’s not entirely unfair, but “Ordinary People” has a lot of virtues. It contains a great script by Alvin Sargent, admirable (albeit non-flashy) directing by Redford, and best of all, solid acting performances by Donald Sutherland (arguably his best performance … and one that is severely underrated), Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern (who is receiving a well-deserved career resurgence on “Downton Abbey,”) … and Timothy Hutton.

Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for this film, but he’s actually the lead. He should have been a contender for Best Actor, but considering his competition that year included Robert DeNiro for “Raging Bull,” Peter O’Toole for “The Stuntman,” John Hurt for “The Elephant Man,” and Robert Duvall for “The Great Santini,” putting Hutton in the Supporting Actor category was probably a shrewder move. His character is the center of the film and Hutton’s extremely rich performance is the emotional core.

Hutton’s performance is so raw, so wounded, so ferocious, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by any actor. It is the equivalent of James Dean’s performance in “Rebel Without a Cause,” only without the method actor baggage that Dean brings to “Rebel.” It’s an incredibly intense performance that’s neither mannered or pretentious. As much as I love Sean Penn, many of his performances ultimately seem like acting. Hutton’s portrayal of a teenager trying to come to grips with his brother’s death, his own suicide attempt (due to guilt over his brother’s death), and the fact that his mother may not love him seems heartbreakingly real.

Hutton seemed poised to become one of the best and most successful actors of his generation. But fate had a different idea in mind. What’s sad is that Hutton didn’t piss away his talent with bad choices or bad movies … at least not in the beginning. With the exception of “Taps” (which was a hit), none of his follow-up performances achieved the popular or critical success of “Ordinary People.” And all of these follow-up performances were perfectly admirable choices: “Taps,” Sidney Lumet’s “Daniel,” John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and Fred Schepisi’s “Iceman.”  All of these films were among the best, if not underrated films, of the first half of the 1980s.  This was an era before young actors were seeking out their “franchise” to bank $100 million before they got relegated to character roles.  Hutton has stayed employed over the years and it’s always a joy to see him on screen. But Hutton should have had the career Sean Penn had (though please note, I am in no way saying Penn doesn’t richly deserve the great success he’s obtained). If anyone deserves a Robert Downey Jr.-style comeback, it’s Hutton. He’s the real deal.