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Now do you believe in ghosts?

Movie

Ghost
(1990)

 

As is often the case with the romance genre, no one was predicting Ghost to be the box office sensation it became. Much the same was true of Pretty Woman earlier in that year. There was no hype behind either of them, and the leads didn’t exactly sell tickets. With Woman it was (relatively) unknown Julia Roberts and past-it Richard Gere. Ghost had Patrick Swizzle (okay, I’ll give you Dirty Dancing) and ex brat packer Demi Moore. And then there was the director. One of the guys who made Airplane!? None of the omens were good, but somehow alchemy occurred. Even the Academy wanted in; Ghost was nominated for five Oscars and won two (Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay).

One of the keys to success of Ghost, I believe, is that it managed the feat of being a classic weepie without turning off the male audience. It melded doomed romance with a supernatural murder plot, and even featured a well-judged streak of comedy. Most likely the majority of purchasers of the video were the three-hanky brigade, but few of any gender who saw it loathed it. It spawned a chart resurgence for The Righteous Brothers’ version of Unchained Melody (now its use seems astonishingly cynical, thanks to the “afterlife” of the film and song) and inspired many a parody (top of the list being the one by Jerry Zucker’s brother David in Naked Gun 2 ½ : The Smell of Fear) revolving around the pottery scene. Women wanted a Demi haircut and took pottery lessons (allegedly). It’s safe to say guys weren’t inspired to emulate Patrick Swizzle (never that popular with male audiences).

What made it such a hit? It is gushingly romantic; the promise that true love persists beyond death is a highly appealing one. Yet, to achieve its aim, in theory it needed to sell to the audience early on that these characters are madly love each other. After Swizzle gets offed there is no interaction between the two of them until, really, the climax. I don’t think it really sells their everlasting love, and the actors don’t have all that much chemistry. We see them doing up their apartment and going at it over a potter’s wheel; all that’s missing is a montage sequence proclaiming “Look, they’re in LOVE!” (like the one in The Naked Gun). It’s a very mechanical, chocolate box presentation of a couple. But we “believe” in spite of this.

And so, rather, what makes the film work is the notion of absence and lack. That, and a classic dramatic hook; how do you protect someone when you are apparently powerless? The possibilities for tension are endless, and Zucker makes the most of them. It doesn’t matter so much that Swizzle and Moore aren’t the most believable couple ever. Not when Demi is mooning about moist-eyed for most of the film. And not when Patrick shows such amazing chemistry with Whoopi Goldberg (seriously, that’s the revelation of this film; the two work incredibly well together; given the choice I would usually actively avoid Swizzle films, but he absolutely delivers as Whoopi’s straight man).

Yes, Whoopi. It’s a prize part, and she makes the most of it. To be charitable, Goldberg has had mixed fortunes in movies. But the role of Oda Mae Brown, charlatan medium who discovers she’s no fake, is perfect for her. She would capitalise on her success with Sister Act a year later, but Goldberg hasn’t found a role so suited to talents since. (It should be noted that, for all the positives about Whoopi in this film, Oda Mae is nevertheless Ghost‘s “Magical Negro”, as defined by Spike Lee, a wise supporting character whose narrative goal is to help the white people around her discover their fullest potential  – see the TV Tropes website for further explanation).

This was a career high all round, really. Swizzle starred opposite Keanu Reeves in Point Break, but mostly he went on to take forgettable roles in forgettable movies. Demi built up a head of steam for a while, taking the kind of parts Sharon Stone was doubtless also up for (Indecent ProposalDisclosure) but it was a rather one-note run that all-but ran dry with the overpaid boob-job bomb Striptease in 1996. G.I. Jane was her last real taste of success (if nothing else, it gave her the enduring line “Suck my dick!”), and again showed she looked good with short hair (although this time women weren’t lining up at the hair salon to copy her).

Jerry Zucker was suddenly a serious filmmaker. So what did he do with his success? Nothing much. He made Camelot stinker First Knight and the lacklustre Rat Race. Mystifying really, as Ghost is very well-directed, and mostly very well-judged in getting round parts of the script that might have elicited unintended audience laughter (notably the scene were Swizzle’s Sam Wheat takes possession of Oda Mae’s body for a last clinch with Demi’s Molly Jensen).

That’s not to say he gets everything right. The magical dime climbing the door, then floating, isn’t shot to most wondrous effect. And Tony Goldwyn’s best pal/arch fiend Carl is so OTT he’s laughable (even if the money laundering subplot is reasonably solid). Not only does he get Swizzle killed (but hey, that was an accident), he tries to get it on with Molly in the most deliriously unsubtle way. No wonder he burns in hell (which I’ll come to). By the climax you won’t believe there’s any place higher he can over-act to, but Goldwyn manages it. Still, Zucker needs to make him earn his spectacularly messy and unlikely demise (as I said, much of the film is a credit to Zucker managing to blend potentially derisive elements). Goldwyn has since spent most of his time in TV, both acting and directing (although you sense that the latter is where his he’s most comfortable).

Rick Aviles’ Willie Lopez plays the sort of street thug you expect to see in a Gene Wilder movie; there are only broad strokes there. To an extent, that’s also true of the character we see in possibly the most interesting, and certainly the most offbeat, section of the film. Vincent Schiavelli’s curious looks ensured a career of oddball parts (he appears in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and he makes a striking impression as the haunted subway ghost whom Sam seeks advice from. Initially belligerent, the last we see of him is a confused phantom unable to accept his suicide and presumably fated to forever stalk the (literal) underworld. Curiously, both Schiavelli and Swayze died at 57 from cancer.

The theme of acceptance of death has been explored in other screenplays by Bruce Joel Rubin, most notably Jacob’s Ladder (which came out in the same year as Ghost). There was something of a mini-wave of afterlife-themed movies during this period, another being Flatliners. What’s curious about Ghost is that it appears to extol an essentially Christian viewpoint in its iteration of a spiritual world. That is, while there is no mention of God, nor angels, Rubin clearly establishes an afterlife of reward or punishment for what we do in the physical realm. Sam sees the traditional white light beckoning him when he first dies (another of Zucker’s nifty tricks is to show Sam run off down the street after Willie, only slowly coming to realise he has left his dying body behind him) but refuses to go (he stays partly, it seems, at the request of Molly). This light again appears at the climax.

In contrast, when both Willie and Carl buy the farm they are dragged off by hooded wraiths. It’s a powerful and disturbing effect (enough to put the fear of God in you!) and I’d forgotten that the film lays out its stall quite so starkly. It’s unclear whether the subway ghost would eventually be dragged off to hell (or purgatory?) for his crime against himself; or maybe his sentence is the one he is experiencing? But then there’s Sam; presumably hanging around as a ghost and causing the deaths of two individuals doesn’t factor in to where you go, as they had it coming? The emergency room ghost comments, as someone expires and goes into the light, “It could’ve been the other ones. You never know”.

Interesting too that Sam, if you like, is trained in ghostly ways by a “dark master”. The subway ghost draws on negative emotions (anger) in order to affect the physical universe. He’s inclusive about what can have that effect (“You’ve gotta take all yer emotion, all yer love, all yer pain and push it way down deep inta the pit of yer stomach and let it explode like a reactor!”), but Sam also appears to use anger to become tangible. Sam isn’t exactly being trained by Ben Kenobi.

In the real word, Rubin is a meditation and yoga teacher; there is little sense from his work generally that his (Buddhist) beliefs tend to the black and white. Indeed, he’s said interviews that he envisaged Ghost as a more “grey-toned” film than the one it became. Whether that means the theme of damnation became a more concrete one than it was in the script, I don’t know.

The tagline for the movie was “Believe”; simple and effective. Which sums up the film; at least, it is deceptively so. It continues to “work” as a piece of entertainment, although there are times where the romantic elements are laid on with a trowel (and it’s a bit of a strain on credulity that it takes Molly so long to commit to the idea that Sam is still around). That’s its one drawback, really; there is very little subtlety to Ghost, with the result that it sometimes tips into the cheesy. A Japanese remake is underway. And, of course, there is the musical. No, I haven’t seen it.

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