Monday, February 14, 2011

Pop Culture Valentine's Special: The Ladies of the Eighties

“Let’s hear it for letting someone totally ruin your life — Let’s hear it for love”
The Smoking Popes
 Words: George Khoury

I hate Valentine’s Day. Another day more preoccupied with selling fancy cards, overpriced flowers, cheesy balloons, inedible edible underwear and boxes of craptastic chocolates than with delivering any earnest sentiment for your beloved sweetheart. For this poor romantic, the holiday is yet another painful reminder of every single time he’s ever had his heart broken. They’re generally the days I’m at my absolute lowest as I’m constantly reminded of all my failures with the opposite sex by the constant barrage of junk snail mail and e-mails from matchmakers; young, hot, Russian mail order bride candidates; my mom’s nagging; dating sites; Christian dating cruises; or some local Jersey Jewish singles get-together (and to best of my knowledge I’m not even Jewish). Look, I’ve got my shortcomings, but I’ve come to learn that life likes to kick mud in your eye when you’re down and single.

My trouble with girls started during the lowest point of my life: freshman year of high school in the distant Eighties, a year that my family moved to a new country and I finally decided to focus on my studies. Although I was the youngest in my class, I quickly established myself as the best student there and thus became the inevitable, natural target for a classroom loaded with oversized delinquents and spoiled, rich brats. At first I could handle it or fight back, but it gradually just overwhelmed me to a point that I couldn’t get through a day without having someone trying to get a piece of me. Once I’d been harshly pelted (assaulted, really) by several large backpacks full of heavy text books between classes when someone turned out the lights, what was left of my confidence was flushed away in the toilet for good. None of the girls in that school would talk to me after that — frankly, I can’t say I blame them since I was too inexperienced in everything, culture-crashed, and I committed the cardinal sin of letting my mom buy my school clothes. In other words I was burnt toast — heck, I only learned about the birds and bees from reading Judy Blume’s “Forever.” All the high school movies that I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the hell that I went through at George Washington High. That year it was me against the world — and the world kicked pretty f’ing hard and buried me alive. Towards the end of the academic year, the vice principal started pressing this battered and broken Jersey boy about why one of the school’s best pupils wasn’t returning, but I ran out of that place as if I had busted out of Alcatraz.

For a third year in a row I was in a different school… and for the first time being taught completely in a language other than English. Having lost a ton of confidence (and weight) as a freshman, I remember that my sophomore behavior was very similar to that of South Park’s Tweek Tweak — I was tense and nervous of everyone and I probably sounded pretty awkward to my class. Luckily, I befriended Simon. He was a kindred spirit who had also been picked on ruthlessly during his freshman year — he’s still the only person I know who got his shoestrings tied together by pranksters. Together, we helped one another; he taught me how to start trusting people, and I used my past lessons to teach him how to avoid getting harassed by recommending a proper tailor, a better barber, and other things to ensure teenage survival. Gradually things got better for him, and it also became evident that we had similar outlooks to almost everything in life and started hanging out everywhere after school. We were so likeminded that our friendship even survived him and me falling for the same girl during our senior year — suffice to say that I gave up when Simon was more committed to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness like her, because I couldn’t imagine ever waking up early on Saturday mornings and selling The Watchtower. And when we weren’t playing basketball or striking out at the mall, what exactly did two teenage guys do when they couldn’t get a date? Well, we talked for hours about the girls we couldn’t get at school or “the ladies of the Eighties,” the muses that one would see in popular entertainment during that decade. We were doing countdowns of our favorite ladies and all sorts of stuff long before Nick Hornby trademarked the “Top 5” list in High Fidelity.

The Eighties were a different era for the women of the pop culture scene. We weren’t oversaturated with seeing them everywhere we turned as people are today. There were fewer celebrity magazine covers, fewer television channels, fewer commercials, a lot less paparazzi crap, fewer talk shows, and no mainstream Internet overindulgent coverage whatsoever. Aside from the occasional magazine article or television profile, these women seemed more focused on their actual work (in movies, television, or music) and had a bit more control of their public personas. The Nineties made it seem like companies couldn’t sell a product without having some sort of celebrity endorsement, whether it be their face gracing a publication or their voice heard in a commercial. So the celebrity overexposure and commercialization in media that we see today sadly was inevitable.

To relive these old times, the following is my list of some of my favorite ladies from the Eighties, in no real particular order:

I) I remember that back when I was in grade school my first crush had to be Deborah Harry, the lead vocalist from Blondie. A fellow native from the Garden State, the beautiful Ms. Harry was a lively spirit that broke out from the emerging New Wave and Punk music scene in New York City. She has also given some pretty memorable performances as an actress in films like Hairspray and Videodrome. With her punky attitude and captivating style, she was one of the prominent singers of my youth; she was even enormously influential in helping rap cross over to the masses. Her two-tone bottle blonde look, plain coolness, substance, and that ultra-strong self-confidence definitely made a memorable impression on me as I grew up during the Eighties. Her songs like “Atomic,” “Rapture,” “Sunday Girl,” “Call Me,” “In the Flesh,” among others, will always have a place in my iPod.

Fenn in Three of Hearts
 II) My old buddy Simon was perhaps the most determined person that I’ve ever met when he really wanted something. I remember him being so infatuated with Brooke Shields and her awful Sahara movie that he called a local television demanding that they air it (and they eventually caved in). When he finally purchased a VHS player and a membership at a reputable video store, his life would never be the same after discovering the intoxicating Sherilyn Fenn in the rental Two Moon Junction. Back in the day, some videos were intended to be merely rentals and were way overpriced, but despite it being store policy not to duplicate new releases, Simon bribed one of video clerks with the outrageous sum of $50 for a dupe on a TDK video cassette he provided. Hell hath no fury like a determined teenaged boy (nor the power of Ms. Fenn’s attributes)! In my eyes, she was a star from the instant I saw her in the 1985 teen comedy Just One of The Guys. She later achieved greater popularity in Twin Peaks, and still continues to have a successful on-going career in television and movies.

Ione Skye (with actor Dexter Fletcher) in The Rachael Papers
III)  When I was a teenager, my favorite actress and “muse” was the striking Ione Skye. This beautiful, under-rated actress came to fame as the object of John Cusack’s affection in the classic film Say Anything, in which she played the ultimate high school valedictorian, seemingly flawless and graceful, except for the fact that her father is hiding a world of lies from her. An alluring performer since her debut in the eerie “River’s Edge,” my favorite film featuring her is The Rachael Papers, a picture where the American Rachael (Skye) is perused by the pretentious über-Brit teen Charles (actor Dexter Fletcher), with the United Kingdom as the backdrop. In the film, Charlie does a lot of hard planning and scheming to sway her from the arms of her douche of a boyfriend (James Spader), but once he’s finally won her and they’re living together… he realizes that despite all her beauty, he does not find her to be agreeable with his pretentious sensibilities and can’t really “love” his so- called “conquest” for what wonders she has inside.

 A publicity photograph of actress Deborah Foreman in My Chauffeur

IV) “Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?” is the question that Susan Decker (actress Deborah Foreman) uses to see if Chris Knight (actor Val Kilmer) is up to her suitor standards in the classic Real Genius. During the Eighties, the lovely Deborah Foreman always seemed to play the smartest character in any film she was in — she just always seemed to have the upper hand with her winning charm. In the teenage magnum opus Valley Girl from 1983, she’s outstanding as Julie Richman, the materialistic valley girl who falls for the advances of a poor, punk party crasher named Randy (a very young Nicholas Cage) despite constantly being reminded by her friends that he is totally wrong for her. The film is a roller coaster ride in their relationship as the Valley Girl and her punky paramour try to make their union work, with some very nice New Wave sounds in the background. Throughout the romantic ordeal, Foreman flashes a smile that makes the entire emotional and physical hell that Cage goes through worth it, as Foreman’s character learns that there’s more to life than just the Valley and shopping.

Madsen in the film Electric Dreams

V) I’ve seen this actress in some less than stellar films… and yet I’ve never seen a less than stellar performance from Virginia Madsen — and that even includes the wretchedly contrived “Highlander 2.” Ms. Madsen won me over when I saw her in Electric Dreams — a 1984 movie that’s deals with your basic modern love triangle between a boy, a girl, and his computer. If you’ve seen her work, you know that she can pretty much play any role, from sizzling femme fatale (in The Hot Spot) to innocent-looking princess (in Dune). But in Electric Dreams, she simply exudes her natural demure and just glows as a cellist with enticing blond locks who innocently develops a sorta old-fashioned courtship with her insecure neighbor Miles, much to chagrin of his envious personal computer Edgar. For her terrific work in Sideways, she was finally nominated for an Academy Award as Maya, a woman in her forties that’s been through a lot in life and really wants to believe that school teacher/frustrated writer Miles (yes, another Miles, this time played by Paul Giamatti) is just a good enough man to be with her. 

 Soto as Lupe Lamora in the James Bond movie License to Kill

VI) If pressed to choose my favorite Bond girl, I’d have to say Puerto Rican bombshell Talisa Soto would certainly be mine. Although I haven’t seen it in decades, Soto made her acting debut in Spike of Bensonhurst, a pretty quirky and entertaining film about a cocky Italian kid who loves and impregnates her character, while at the same time knocks up the daughter of a mobster. Boy, although it wasn’t a meaty role, this-model-turned-actress looks captivating every moment she’s on-screen. In 1989, the glamorous Soto appeared in License to Kill as Lupe Lamora and began her film career in earnest.

A glamour shot of Jennifer Connelly for The Rocketeer

VII) If you’re going do a list such as this from the Eighties, you can’t do one without mentioning the elegant Jennifer Connelly. She’s seemingly been around forever since her debut as child actor in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Quickly, she grew up before the eyes of cinema-goers in cult favorites like Labyrinth, The Hot Spot, and The Rocketeer. Although her captivating green eyes, dark locks, unique charisma, and great talent would always ensure that she’d be around on the silver screen, interestingly enough, starting with Dark City, she began to really cement her reputation with interesting film choices that saw her working with some of the best directors and actors in film. Nowadays, she’s one of the most recognizable leading actresses and an Academy Award winner for her acting in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind as Alicia Nash, the distressed wife coping with her genius husband’s harsh bout with mental instability.

Hoffs (of The Bangles) promotional poster promoting her Rickenbacker guitar.

VIII) In terms of cultural impact on the actual music, I always felt that MTV was probably at their height of influence during the mid- to late Eighties, back in the day when they actually showcased a heavy rotation of music videos from the era’s most popular acts. At the time, a favorite sight and sound were those of The Bangles, with some catchy pop hits like “Walk like an Egyptian,” “Manic Monday,” and “If She Knew What She Wants.” By the time the inescapable monster hit “Eternal Flame” came out, there was no escape from the sight and sounds of the ever-pretty Susanna Hoffs (the lead singer of this particular track). At around the same time, her film The Allnighter was played endlessly on cable television. Hard to believe that the lovely songstress is over fifty years old; it seems like only yesterday that she and her Bangles mates were all over the airwaves and MTV — and Ms. Hoffs still looks and sounds as beautifully groovy as ever. It’s always refreshing to see that some good things never change.

Tomei in Only You

IX) Boy, it’s hard to resist the angelic Marisa Tomei when she flashes her trademark smile. I was a big Lisa Bonet fan during her Cosby Show days, but on the spin-off A Different World, Tomei’s sunny portrayal of her upbeat character really made it hard for viewers not to fall for her, too. In 1992, the performer received an Oscar for her work as the lovable Mona Lisa Vito, the somewhat emotionally neglected girlfriend who is a lot more than she seems in the classic comedy My Cousin Vinny. She remains one of the few actresses unafraid to seek challenging roles in some of the most aggressive and interesting films coming out of cinema today. Her parts in pictures such as The Wrestler, In the Bedroom, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are a testament to that.

Shue in Adventures in Babysitting

Wow, nine women already? I want to make sure that I gave some honorable props to New Jersey’s Elisabeth Shue, the exotic Brazilian import Sonia Braga, the highly photogenic actress/singer Vanity, the indelible Diane Lane and, of course, the unforgettable Phoebe Cates. If we open this up to debate, there are plenty more names that I’m sure you and I might be able to add. All these women have a special place in my memories and those of most members of Generation X; they were the leading ladies of the movies, television and music that we were exposed to as youngsters.

As for whatever happened to my old buddy Simon… he and I did our first year of college together, even taking the same major and classes until my family moved back to the States. Over time, we stopped being so shallow about girls, as we learned that it wasn’t so hard to fall for one once you got to talk to her and know her personality. These days we don’t keep in touch too much, but Simon turned out to be quite a ladies’ man until he finally got hitched. The years inevitably drift old friends apart, but for several years we were brothers-in-arms as we worried together about what cruel fate the future had in store for us.

Vanity press photo from The Last Dragon

Funny, I’m the guy who always wakes up late at night and realizes much too late that a girl was flirting with me earlier that day — I’ve never been the brightest guy when it comes down to these things. In fact, I’ve come to understand that I have the power of invisibility. On a Valentine’s Day that seems like only yesterday, I remember working myself up to ask a slightly older woman that I really dug out to a lunch date at a nearby diner. Well, she never gave me an answer. She just looked right through me as if I said nothing or wasn’t even there. It stung even more because I know I heard myself quite clearly, and I can still hear the crickets chirping as I waited for her reply. Ironically, I ended up working with her younger sister for a few years and always worried she might have known the secret about my feat of invisibility. Yeah, I’ll spare you more humiliating stories. Well, thank God for my leading ladies of the Eighties, the muses of the past for keeping my friend and I somewhat spirited throughout some of the worst times of our lives.

Brazilian actress Sonia Braga starred in memorable films like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Moon Over Parador. She also made some guest appearances on The Cosby Show.