To anybody else just entering the world of the fortysomething, ‘25 years ago’ still means the 1960s: my first experience of cultural silver anniversary celebrations centered around Sgt. Pepper and The Prisoner. The very notion that 25 years ago, the summer movie season of 1990 was about to begin, is as chilling as it is incomprehensible. What was it that Ferris Bueller said about life moving pretty fast? Don’t believe me? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is thirty next year. Sleep tight.
Just how well have some of these movies lasted, and are there any little masterpieces that were forgotten at the time, still waiting to be excavated from the rubble? With Avengers: Age of Ultron having just opened 2015’s summer movie season proper, let’s put on our Vanilla Ice T-shirts, strike a Vogue pose, Madonna-style and kick it old school for a while.
Summer ’90 was so much about sequels that it felt like an actual sequel in itself – the follow-up to 1989: the year of Batman, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2. That was a stupendously successful summer and helped 1989 become the most profitable year in Hollywood’s history. Moreover it crystalised the notion that the more you spend, the more you get back. Batman’s unheard-of returns were credited in part to the ubiquitous (undeniably masterful) advertising campaign that Warner Bros unleashed, in conjunction with hundreds of merchandising tie-in products.
The closest thing to a comic book superhero that 1990 had to offer was Dick Tracy. Chester Gould’s 1930s flatfoot didn’t have the name recognition of Bruce Wayne or his alter ego (and at 53, with only two film appearances in the 1980s, Warren Beatty wasn’t at the tip of too many teenage tongues either).
Nonetheless, an advertising blitzkrieg by Disney ushered in a simple but iconic poster campaign and a bounty of Dick Tracy toys, action figures, two-way radio wristwatches, trench-coats, jewellery, books and soundtrack albums (one Danny Elfman score and one Madonna pop song tie-in) because…that’s what you did now. These were days of Dionysian excess, summed up neatly by a fax-based back-and-forth between Dick Tracy producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and his rival Don Simpson.
With Tom Cruise stock-car drama Days of Thunder under his arm (and predicted by many to blow away all competition) the legendary producer and cocaine & hooker enthusiast let Katzenberg know that “Wherever you go, you won’t escape the Thunder.” Katzenberg confidently replied, “Wait till you see how big my Dick is.” They would both be taking cold showers by summer’s end.
Dick Tracy felt like a last hurrah for many New Hollywood heroes of the 60s and 70s. Beatty surrounded himself with some of the biggest names of the past 30 years – James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Dick van Dyke and Al Pacino, trying out his new gravel-throated ‘Hoo-ha’ voice for the first time. There was more nectar for fans of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation around the corner when Jack Nicholson finally brought J.J. Gittes back to life in the frustratingly delayed Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. Paramount was so confident of the box-office magnetism of the post-Batman (and $60m wealthier) superstar, that the poster didn’t even carry the title of the picture, only Nicholson’s name.
Years in gestation, with a carousel of talent swapping job descriptions seemingly at random, The Two Jakes was originally set to star legendary Paramount head and producer Robert Evans as Jake No. 2, with writer Robert Towne directing Jack Nicholson. In the end, Nicholson directed himself, while Evans was persuaded to restrict his talents to the producer’s office and was replaced by Harvey Keitel.
The 16 year-long battle to bring JJ Gittes back to the screen concluded with a harsh critical reception and complete apathy from American audiences (it grossed a paltry $10m before vanishing). This put the kibosh on Nicholson’s directing career and also killed off Towne’s proposed third Chinatown movie, ‘Gittes vs Gittes.’ 1990 would see two further sequels to some of the greatest films of Hollywood’s second Golden Age.
Along with The Two Jakes, the maddening limpness of The Godfather Part III and the sheer awfulness of Peter Bogdonovich’s Last Picture Show sequel Texasville amounted to one of the biggest collective cinematic let-downs of the decade, unmatched for nine years until the release of The Phantom Menace.