As I arrive in the early ‘80s, 1981 to be specific, I know the film landscape is going to change. It was not a time of sequels, superhero movies, and intellectual property. I mean, it was, but that world was just beginning. The year 1981 was only four years after Star Wars, after all. It was only six years after Jaws basically invented the summer blockbuster. This was 40 years ago, after all. That was forever ago in pop culture turns. It was a time before cable was prominent and people only really watched movies in theaters. What was going on in 1981 on the big screen? Let’s find out!
Speaking of the beginning of the time of sequels, the top movie in the box office was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now that’s a worthy victor in the box office. That movie is so good. Indiana Jones’ first adventure has grown on me over the years. I enjoyed it as a kid, and then the first time I saw it as an adult I thought it was good, but nothing special. Raiders is so rewatchable, though. That movie is a satisfying watch. Also, in terms of sequels and superheroes, Superman II came out in 1981, giving us General Zod and crew.
If you want to know how 1981 was different, though, the number-two movie in the box office was On Golden Pond. No superheroes. No action. Just a couple of old movie stars falling in love. Then again, maybe this speaks to the power of stars back in the day. Now, the IP is the star. Back then, it was names like Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. The rise of Bill Murray continued in 1981, as Stripes was released. That is a movie I feel like everybody has watched the first hour of and then given up on it. Did people walk out of the theaters too? We also got a James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, but that was a forgettable one.
Over at the Oscars, to nobody’s surprise Hepburn and Fonda won Best Actress and Best Actor for On Golden Pond. However, the winner of Best Picture was Chariots of Fire, a film about two religious runners at the 1924 Olympics. I have never seen it because it seems immensely dull. The score is pretty iconic, though. Chariots of Fire’s primary competition was Reds, an epic film from Warren Beatty, who won Best Director. That being said, Raiders of the Lost Ark got a Best Picture nomination, and I would have liked to see that win.
Looking through the film releases of 1981, I was truly stunned to see that a Charlie Chan movie came out. Chan is an Asian detective character, but infamously he was traditionally played by white actors. I checked to see if an Asian actor was starring, but the star is Peter Ustinov, who is very much a white guy. So my next thought was maybe this was a parody or a satire, an attempt to criticize the tradition of white people playing Chan. Nope. It’s just a movie. That’s so insane to me.
I’m not a big Muppets fan, but maybe my favorite Muppet property is The Great Muppet Caper, and that came out in 1981. An American Werewolf in London is one of my favorite horror comedies. Speaking of inexplicable, Porky’s came out this year as well. Film has changed a lot in the last 40 years. Some of those changes have definitely been for the better.