What was allowed in 1986 is cringeworthy today
Two movies I loved as a child celebrated their 30th anniversaries recently, and when I looked back upon them nostalgically, as one does, I saw products of their time that mostly hold up – save for one horribly dated, unforgivable element each. The kind of offense that makes it hard to still appreciate the movie when that one inexcusable part dominates your mind.
Both “Crocodile” Dundee and Short Circuit have decent scripts. The former was even nominated for an Oscar. The latter remains quotable. Their main characters are major figures of 1980s pop culture. Not on the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger and E.T., but higher up than Yakov Smirnoff and The Noid. But I can no longer enjoy these movies. Not as they are, anyway.
Their respective crimes are things that shouldn’t have even been tolerated at the time. In Dundee it’s a scene where Paul Hogan’s titular Aussie-out-of-water grabs a transgender woman’s crotch, embarrassing her as a bar full of people laugh her off the premises. For Short Circuit, it’s the existence of a featured player, white actor Fisher Stevens, in brownface playing an Indian character.
Dundee’s situation is somewhat a matter of the movie being of its time. Just as The Birth of a Nation can be accepted for its filmmaking craft despite its racially offensive stereotypes and numerous other movies have had insensitive portrayals of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. through the years, it’s a problem of trans acceptance being so nonexistent as to be a joke.
Short Circuit’s casting issue, which recently received full-on address in Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None, seems like a surprising circumstance even for the period. But 1986 was also the year when Hollywood thought it a good idea to put out a movie in which C. Thomas Howell plays a white guy who chemically tans himself enough to pass as a black guy.
The difference between Soul Man and Short Circuit is that the former was attempting to make statements about race within a vehicle consciously updating John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” as a college comedy dealing with political incorrectness and affirmative action. It’s just an unfortunately misguided effort because of the blackface.
Short Circuit is worse because the casting comes across as a totally unconscious mistake. Not innocently but negligently. And it’s particularly upsetting because many of us who grew up loving the movie had no idea of the problem – I even knew well of Stevens as a fan of the previous year’s My Science Project and didn’t put it together that it was the same actor.
We want Short Circuit, but not as it is. Fortunately, a remake of the sci-fi comedy has been in the works for years. Is it possible that they do it shot-for-shot and actor-for-actor but just replace Stevens, maybe with Ansari? They can’t change the robot design or voice (Tim Blaney). And I bet Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, G.W. Bailey, and Austin Pendleton would all be down to return.
Or is the better option – especially in the wake of Chappie being such a flop – to re-release Short Circuit with a “Special Edition”? Thanks to complaints about what was done to the Star Wars movies and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the “fixing” of movies remains frowned upon, but in this case it’d have to be embraced. Digital technology exists that could just replace Stevens.
As for Dundee, a remake is probably out of the question. The movie is as tied to Paul Hogan as the Tramp character is tied to Charlie Chaplin. And there’s none of the exoticization of Australia today that we had in the 1980s, when Men at Work also had us wondering about vegemite. Hogan could just remake it himself, but sadly ex-wife Linda Kozlowski would not join him.
Should Paramount simply remove the offensive scene? It would actually be pretty easy. But as is, shouldn’t the studio pull it from circulation the way Disney has with Song of the South (technically also a 1986 release, via reissue)? Or should it remain intact for historical significance, as representative of intolerance of transgender on screen and off at the time?
As for Soul Man, you have to wonder: if it was remade as a better quality film and maybe starred, say, Robert Downey Jr. – who earned an Oscar nod eight years ago for playing a white guy in blackface – would it be more acceptable? What if it was directed by an African-American director? Or what if it went the way of Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man and starred a black actor in the role, and like Godfrey Cambridge he starts out the movie in whiteface and then plays naturally when the character dons blackface?
Well, the other issue for something like Soul Man and even “Black Like Me” today is that it’s offensive enough to consider a white person going undercover as black person as a way to reveal the racial discrimination and hardships for African Americans. Because it dismisses the idea that we can just take African Americans’ own word for these problems.
Therefore it’s best not to touch that movie at all. Its very premise and pretty much all of its content is unsalvageable. Unlike a comedy about an Outback folk hero visiting the urban jungle of NYC or about a sentient war machine who just wants input, of the informational and emotional sorts. It doesn’t even have an iconic song like Song of the South. An original one, that is.
The other two movies need to be remade, and by that I mean redone or reworked in whatever way they can be so that they still feed our nostalgia but don’t make us feel uncomfortable watching and guilty for liking. And if “Special Edition” makeovers is the solution, we come back and name numerous other movies from the 1980s that can join them.