The year was 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. "Every Breath You Take" by The Police was on top of the charts. Swatches were all the rage. At the multiplex, cinema was thriving: 1983 was packed with movies that would go on to become true classics, including one of the greatest gangster movies of all time and the Christmas movie that completely redefined holiday traditions. Meanwhile, the biggest release of the year was the record-breaking final installment in the original Star Wars trilogy. All of which is to say, it was a truly memorable year at the movies.
In celebration of the films turning 40 this year, A.frame is looking back at some of the most unforgettable releases from 1983 — the ones that still stand the text of time four decades later.
A Christmas Story
A Christmas Story was a major change of pace for its director, Bob Clark, who was known for his '70s horror films and the raunchy teen comedy, Porky's (1981). Based on the childhood experiences of writer Jean Shepherd, the film takes place during a snowy December in Indiana in 1940. Peter Billingsley stars as nine-year-old Ralphie, a determined boy who dreams of getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Along the way, Ralphie hits more than a few speed bumps as he weathers his colorful family, a hostile department store Santa, and his schoolmates. Today, A Christmas Story is considered one of the most popular Christmas films ever made, and has inspired multiple sequels and even a live TV production.
A storm of Stephen King adaptations appeared in movie theaters throughout the '80s following Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), and John Carpenter's turn came with this sleek, streamlined version of a novel about teen tragedy instigated by a red 1958 Plymouth Fury. Keith Gordon stars as Arnie Cunningham, a bullied student whose new set of wheels turns out to be a vehicle for vengeance. Carpenter also provides one of his trademark earworm synthesizer scores, here backed by a prime selection of '50s golden oldies on the soundtrack.
The influence of MTV on Hollywood was inarguable after the massive surprise success of this Adrian Lyne romantic drama. Written by Thomas Hedley Jr. and Joe Eszterhas, Flashdance stars Jennifer Beals as Alex, a Pittsburgh welder by day and nightclub performer by night who wants to get into ballet school. The impeccably performed and edited finale of the film became an instant classic movie scene, imitated for years to come.
Playing in many theaters for up to a year (and well after its release on VHS), Flashdance boasts a wildly popular soundtrack featuring the uplifting, Oscar-winning song "Flashdance… What a Feeling," performed by Irene Cara. (Another hit song from the soundtrack, "Maniac," performed by Michael Sembello, was also nominated for Best Original Song.) The film also received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Nagisa Ōshima, one of the most respected directors within the Japanese New Wave, delivered his biggest international production with this gripping depiction of Japanese prisoners of war during World War II. The film stars two titans of the world music scene, David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, with the latter also providing the score and the haunting theme song "Forbidden Colours," performed by David Sylvian. A co-production between Japan, the U.K. and New Zealand, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is now regarded as one of the high points in '80s world cinema, and a showcase for one of Bowie's finest performances.
National Lampoon's Vacation
After the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, the popular satirical magazine struck gold once again with its fourth feature, National Lampoon's Vacation. Here, another Saturday Night Live alumnus, Chevy Chase, stars as the hapless patriarch Clark Griswold, who tries to steer his family (Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) through an ill-fated, cross-country trek to Wally World. Written by John Hughes (loosely based on his National Lampoon short story) and directed by Harold Ramin, the movie features scene-stealing bits from the likes of John Candy, Randy Quaid, Christie Brinkley and an unforgettable Imogene Coca. The popular film spawned five sequels, including 1989's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
All four of the influential young adult novels written by S.E. Hinton between 1967 and 1979 were adapted in swift succession in the first half of the '80s due to their strong popularity among middle school and high school students. The most ambitious and star-studded of these was Francis Ford Coppola's stylized, earnest rendition of her debut novel, The Outsiders, about the Oklahoma gang The Greasers, whose turf scuffles lead to death, a flight from justice, and a tragic passage to manhood. C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise are among the packed cast, and Coppola would revisit the film for an extended cut entitled The Outsiders: The Complete Novel in 2005.
The Right Stuff
The early history of America's space program comes to life on a truly massive canvas in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of the classic book by Tom Wolfe. From the groundbreaking test pilots who made research breakthroughs to the seven astronauts who trained for the United States' first mission, the film paints a pivotal moment in 20th Century history featuring such figures as Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid). The film would go on to receive nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and winning Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing.
The '80s teen comedy had rarely been a favorite with critics until the release of this hilarious portrait of suburban capitalism in action. Risky Business features Tom Cruise in a star-making performance as high schooler Joel Goodsen, whose nervousness over getting into the right college gets sidetracked by an alliance with resourceful sex worker Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). Getting the tone right proved to be tricky, yielding a more wistful original ending viewable on home video. Director Paul Brickman laced it with a surreal sensibility, thanks in part to Tangerine Dream's iconic electronic score, balanced by raucous verbal and physical comedy highlighted by Joe Pantoliano's Guido the Killer Pimp.
Howard Hawks' classic Pre-Code 1932 gangster film got a stylish and highly controversial makeover by director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone in what would become one of the most popular VHS rental titles of all time, and a milestone in hip-hop culture. Al Pacino delivers one of his most iconic performances as Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who rises to the top of Miami's criminal underworld but nurtures an unhealthy level of control over his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham round out the principal cast in this neon-soaked epic, which also features a legendary soundtrack overseen by electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
The tragic true story of Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower at an Oklahoma plutonium planet, took years to eventually reach the screen with Meryl Streep starring as the history-making activist. Director Mike Nichols and writers Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen aimed for as much accuracy as possible in the cinematic account of her life and the dangers she encountered at her workplace, with Kurt Russell and Cher showing off acting chops few viewers were prepared for at the time. The film would go on to receive five Oscar nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Streep, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cher, and Best Film Editing.
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
Originally announced via posters and teaser trailers as Revenge of the Jedi, this third feature in the beloved space saga was the year's most anticipated film after its predecessor, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, revealed a plot twist and concluded with a cliffhanger. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams are all back as our heroic Rebels, this time with a forest planet full of Ewoks and a final face-off against Darth Vader and the Emperor serving as the endgame of this initial Star Wars trilogy. John Williams' epic score has come to be regarded as one of the best in the entire franchise, and the film would receive four Oscar nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing, and ultimately receiving a Special Achievement Academy Award for a visual effects team that included Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Phil Tippett.
Robert Duvall won a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for his nuanced portrayal of Mac Sledge, a country singer who tries to beat his reliance on the bottle while bonding with a Texas widow, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper). Shot on location in Texas, Bruce Beresford's acclaimed, understated drama earned a total of five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Song for the song "Over You." In addition to Duvall's Oscar win, Tender Mercies also won for its screenplay.
Terms of Endearment
Based on Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel, James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment was the year's biggest Oscar winner. The film would also go down as one of the decade's defining tearjerkers, a study in the challenges and rewards of mother-daughter relationships embodied by Shirley MacLaine (who won a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar) and Debra Winger (who was nominated in the same category). Terms of Endearment received a total of 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for John Lithgow, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. In addition to the Oscar win for MacLaine, the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Jack Nicholson, who steals several scenes as one-time astronaut Garrett Breedlove, a role originally written for Burt Reynolds.
Eddie Murphy shines in his second starring film vehicle opposite Dan Aykroyd in John Landis' class-conscious twist on The Prince and the Pauper. A pampered stock broker socialite swaps places against his will with a fast-talking street hustler thanks to a diabolical bet between the Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche). Jamie Lee Curtis proved she had comedy chops playing a sex worker who becomes an invaluable ally, and Denholm Elliott plays a butler whose skills are much greater than they appear.
Hollywood's first computer-age techno thriller for teens stars Matthew Broderick as an amateur high school hacker who inadvertently triggers a pathway to World War III when he stumbles into a new computerized defense system. John Badham's fast-paced blend of suspense, romance and anti-nuclear war message struck a chord with audiences and ended up receiving three Oscar nominations (for Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound).
Barbra Streisand's passion project found the Oscar-winning star embarking on her first directorial endeavor, as well as co-writing and producing. Based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the romantic musical drama features Streisand as the intellectually curious Jewish girl whose community forbids females from reading academic and religious texts. When her father dies, she poses as a boy in defiance of social norms, but finds the path to an education more emotionally fraught than anticipated.
Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman won an Oscar for Best Adaptation Score. The film also received nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Amy Irving, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and two nominations for Best Original Song, one for the song "The Way He Makes Me Feel" and another for the song "Papa, Can You Hear Me?"