Flashback: 30 years ago, supernatural weeper ‘Ghost’ would forever redefine the summer blockbuster season

Given that the summer blockbuster season has been a bust as theater chains shut down while cases of the deadly coronavirus rose. Studios continue push openings of highly anticipated films into the fall, next year and beyond. Warner Bros. seems determined to open “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan‘s new big-screen spectacular that involves a secret agent who is tasked to stop World War III.  For now, it is expected to play in selective cities and auditoriums in the U.S. starting on September 3.

But more and more titles are turning to VOD or streaming services as options to serve a cinema-starved audience, including Spike Lee‘s “Da 5 Bloods,” Judd Apatow‘s “The King of Staten Island” and “Greyhound,” a war film starring Tom Hanks.

The lack of multiplex visits during these steamy summer days has made me nostalgic for the when I was a movie critic and basked in the escapist hot-weather fare that typically consisted of either action films like “Batman” or “Die Hard” and sci-fi outings like “Star Wars” and “E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.” But 30 years ago, a film materialized in the midst in July of 199o that would defy most of the signposts of a summer hit — namely, a supernatural romantic weeper aimed at adults named “Ghost.”

The plot involved a murdered Manhattan banker named Sam (Patrick Swayze) is present in spirit form and relies on a con-artist psychic Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) as a go-between to help his endangered weepy artist girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore).  While critics initially dismissed the jarring mix of genres — Richard Corliss of Time magazine damned it as “a bad movie that a lot of people will like”–but public opinion counted more, especially at the box office. The film directed by Jerry Zucker  — best known as part of the team behind the comedy spoof “Airplane!” — would not only beat out such typical fare as “Total Recall,” “Die Hard 2” and “Back to the Future 3” that summer. It would also go on to be the top box-office title of the year with a worldwide gross of $505 million. “Ghost” would also scare up a Best Picture Oscar nomination and four others, including a supporting actress win for Goldberg.

Here are five reasons why “Ghost” possesses the power to transfix audiences, now and then, and how it led to other supernatural summer releases as “Phenomenon,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “The Others” and “The Conjuring.”

No. 1: A belief that counter-programming can work. As Zucker observed about the unlikely success of his $22 million comedy-fantasy-romance hybrid,  “Nobody saw this as a summer blockbuster. But ‘Ghost’ did something they can’t do anymore.” That would be building old-fashioned word or mouth. The director also credited screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin for why the film touched so many, saying, “It’s a movie that was guided by a passion and a belief rather than trying to make a hit.” It would manage to linger in the top-five popular films through the Thanksgiving holiday.

No. 2: A story that can make grown men cry. Screenwriter Rubin based Sam’s struggles to profess his feelings to Molly on his own conflict with expressing such emotions. He based his character on the response he would give as a young man in his 20s –“Ditto” — whenever anyone told him, “I love you.” Rubin, who won an Academy Award for his original screenplay, was glad to see his personal experience allow other men respond to Sam’s second chance to say the L word to Molly. “When we first showed it to a roomful of Paramount executives, everyone walked out with red eyes.”

No. 3: The right tear-jerker musical cue. It was producer Linda Weinstein who heard the ballad “Unchained Melody” playing on an oldies station in her car and knew she found the right love theme to set the mood.  The Oscar-nominated song originally heard in a 1955 prison drama “Unchained” but “Ghost” went with the 1965 version by Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers. The song is heard in the infamous pottery-wheel scene, when Sam and Molly dance together as a precursor to making love and is reprised when Sam inhabits Oda Mae’s body to dance with Molly one last time.

No. 4:  Just the right casting. Rubin thought Swayze would a perfect Sam after he saw the actor break down and weep when talking about his late father in a TV interview. But Zucker was skeptical about Swayze’s he-man image. But after several actors turned down the part, he allowed Swayze to audition — and he brought those in the office to tears. As for Moore, she had a string of non-starter movies in the ’80s. Legend says Moore was able to cry out either eye at will and be quite fetching by doing so. As for Goldberg, after earning a best actress Oscar nomination for her work in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with her. But Goldberg’s bogus clairvoyant and Swayze’s sexy-sensitive spirit also made for an special couple. Her role does lean towards being an example of the “magical other,” as a Black woman unselfishly helping out a Tribeca-loft-inhabiting yuppie couple but who could deliver the line, “Molly, you in danger, girl,” with such panache.

No. 5:  A one-of-a-kind foreplay scene that launched a wave of countless adult-ed pottery classes and parodies. The ooey-gooey pottery wheel scene has been lampooned and referenced countless times on such TV shows as “In Living Color,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Futurama,” “Community,” “30 Rock,” “Glee” and “Bob’s Burgers.” But any parody couldn’t top the one in the trailer for Zucker’s older brother David’s 1991 comedy “Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” with stars Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley behind the wheel.

If you feel as the need to laugh, cry or croon “Unchained Melody” right about now, you can find “Ghost” available on multiple streaming sites.

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