Ah, the 1980s. When I mention that curious span of time, most likely a flood of images goes through your mind: big hair, Michael Jackson, E.T., Ronald Reagan, neon-colored clothes, pop music with a lot of synth. It’s natural that we think of these things, but frankly I believe it’s time to stop seeing this decade as little more than a grab-bag of nostalgic pop culture tropes. Indeed the decade in which I spent most of my childhood, and which is hard to believe is now 30 years in the past, is becoming increasingly recognized as an important era, culturally and politically, in American history. It also has–if you look closely–a sort of gestalt of its own when it comes to cinema. As both a film buff and a historian, I think we can learn a lot about a time period by analyzing its movies. Consequently, I’ve decided to do this series of blog articles, a tour of 1980s cinema through the choice of 25 notable examples.

Just a word of caution: this is not a “best-of” list. The films I’ve chosen here are not the most artistically superior of the decade (though a few are very high quality), nor are they necessarily my favorites, or the most popular. Instead, these are films that I think tap most directly into the various cultural and historical cross-currents of the 1980s, or which go the farthest to setting the cinematic conversation that was going on during that decade. While some are well-known, others I’ve chosen precisely because they’re a little obscure, but still well worth watching. So, without further ado, here are the first five.

9 to 5 (1980; Colin Higgins, Director)

Feminism had rather a rough time in the ’80s. The election of a social conservative–Ronald Reagan–who had wide support from, among others, people like Phyllis Schlafly who promised a return to more “traditional” gender politics after the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s ultimately spelled doom in 1982 for the Equal Rights Amendment, and there’s a sense that women’s equality took a long step backwards between 1980 and 1990. While I think there’s room for debate on that, Colin Higgins’s office comedy 9 to 5 capitalizes on gender politics in a bold way that I doubt any Hollywood film would dare to attempt today.

The story of three secretaries–played by Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda–at a large corporate headquarters, and their ongoing battles with their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman), 9 to 5 appears to be a slapstick comedy, but it raises some pretty daring issues about gender equality, economic freedom and the hidden costs of corporate culture. It’s unerringly smart in its characterizations, dialogue and the way it both uses and challenges gender stereotypes. It’s worth a watch alone for the dream sequences, featuring Fonda as a big-game hunter of chauvinist pigs and Parton as a reverse-sexist boss who gives Coleman “a taste of his own medicine.” Brilliantly funny, 9 to 5 was one of the earliest hits of the 1980s.

Urban Cowboy (1980, James Bridges, Director)

James Bridges’s Urban Cowboy, developed as a star vehicle for Saturday Night Fever sensation John Travolta, depicts the actualization of one of the main cultural yearnings of the 1980s: the idea of repackaging and indeed reliving nostalgic ways of living from the past. There are no literal cowboys in Urban Cowboy, which is a torchy love story involving Bud (Travolta) and his tumultuous love affair and marriage with Sissy (Debra Winger), after Bud moves to urban Houston from the Texas sticks. Yet the culture in which the characters steep themselves is unabashedly romantic for visions of the West: cowboy hats and boots, overbearing masculinity, the submissiveness and possession of women, and a way of life that treats Houston in 1980 as a wild frontier to be conquered, just as cowboys did on the range a century earlier.

The attempt to recreate past lifestyles was virtually an obsession among Americans in the 1980s, and it comes through in numerous other movies: the John Hughes teen comedies, for example, as well as Back to the Future try to import 1950s lifestyles into a 1980s present. In actuality, the nostalgia tended to be very different from the reality. That disconnect is portrayed very vividly in Urban Cowboy. Many of the characters are preoccupied with riding a mechanical bull, a modern machine that merely imitates the motion of a real cow. In 1980 that’s as close as you get to being a “real” cowboy. It’s rather a melancholy rumination, to be sure, but totally apt for the ’80s.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner, Director)

Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars sequel needs no introduction, but it is worth stating how incredibly underrated it is. Though Star Wars fans often judge it as the best of all of the franchise’s films, even without its Star Wars baggage it’s one of the best films of the 1980s, standing alone. Kershner, a much stronger and more intuitive director than George Lucas, succeeds at both deconstructing the Star Wars mythos–the 1977 film was a morally and politically simplistic tale based on cowboy epics and samurai films–and also building it up into an almost Classical mythology. Empire is dark and brooding, taking place on ice planets and eerily sterile Art Deco space cities. It takes Star Wars’s bulletproof hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and turns him into a very flawed, almost incompetent amateur, fighting his own selfishness as much as the evil Empire. And its famous reveal at the end of Luke’s parentage further blurs the line between good and evil. Star Wars would never have taken that risk. Empire does it.

The Empire Strikes Back profoundly shakes up the conventions of Hollywood moviemaking, while at the same time flaunting them. This dichotomy appears nowhere else in the Star Wars franchise. In the cultural and political terms of 1980, it asked a daring question of Americans, then only 7 years out from Vietnam and engaged in an ever-chilling Cold War with the Russians: what if we are the “Evil Empire” without acknowledging it? That, I think, is Empire’s ultimate meaning.

Airplane! (1980, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, Directors)

The 1980s could not happen, and could not even begin, without first a profound and unmistakable cultural act of turning one’s back on the 1970s. This manifested itself in many ways: Ronald Reagan’s electoral drubbing of 1970s sad-sack President Jimmy Carter, the sudden fall from grace of disco as a popular obsession, and the return to more conservative (pre-1960s) cultural values. Airplane! helped turn America’s back on the 1970s by making a literal joke out of one of the previous decade’s most popular art forms: the disaster movie. By spoofing the Airport and Towering Inferno type blockbusters with a scattershot blast of lowbrow humor, Airplane! announced in no uncertain terms that the 1970s were over, and everything was different in the new decade.

Airplane! also had a profound effect on the genre of comedy in general. The Zucker brothers “upped the ante,” so to speak, in comedic film. A more cerebral gag that takes a minute and a half to set up, with a single laugh as a payoff, was, after Airplane! no longer acceptable. Airplane! throws a joke at you literally every 15 seconds. Most of them are dumb sight gags, but that hardly matters. It was the pacing that counted. Looking at Airplane! from a standpoint of cultural history, the numerous jokes at the expense of Ronald Reagan seem to stand out; Airplane! was very socially and politically aware. Daring stuff for a low-budget, 90 minute comedy with no major stars. It changed movies forever.

S.O.B. (1981, Blake Edwards, Director)

This may seem a strange entry on this list. Who, after all, remembers S.O.B., one of Blake Edwards’s (The Pink Panther) lesser comedies? It wasn’t a box office hit when released and received generally mixed reviews, though critics have treated S.O.B. much more kindly in recent years. Like Airplane! it’s an all-out anarchic comedy that will sink into any gutter on a moment’s notice for a laugh, but unlike Airplane! it’s also a very sharp and carefully-aimed satire, mostly at the movie business. The story of a successful movie producer (Richard Mulligan) who’s driven insane and to the brink of suicide by his first big flop, the movie is a madcap romp featuring character actors like Robert Vaughan, Larry Hagman and Robert Preston in comedic roles, but most notably Julie Andrews, Edwards’s real-life wife, as a thinly-veiled facsimile of herself.

Indeed that’s the punchline of S.O.B.: squeaky clean Mary Poppins showing her boobs in a movie. It sounds like a dumb gag, but it taps into the weird schizoid quality of the 1980s, where childhood (and child-like) innocence was at once elevated and idolized–think E.T.–and also deliberately debased and deconstructed, as in this film. The early 1980s, when S.O.B. came out, was the “Golden Age” of pornography, especially soft-core, which occurred during the exact same era when the aforementioned Phyllis Schlafly and “family values” were supposedly reconquering a wayward America. S.O.B. is a frontal assault on this tension, and that’s why I think it symbolizes the 1980s in a way other films don’t.

Check back for Part II of this series, which will deal with the years 1982-83.
The posters for 9 to 5 and The Empire Strikes Back are both copyright (C) 1980 by Twentieth Century Fox. I believe my inclusion of them here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.