Movie Stars: 1980s Box-Office Dominated by A-List Stars

Batman has grossed over a quarter of billion dollars at the box-office and is still running strong in its video version. Opening in July, the much publicized and eagerly awaited film featured three bankable stars: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, and Kim Basinger. Batman may be one of the few American films in which the villain (Nicholson) is more dominant in the narrative than its nominal hero (Keaton). That the film’s ultimate effectiveness depends on Nicholson’s Joker is attributable as much to the script as to his tour de force performance.

Jack Nicholson

Considered to be the most talented and eccentric actor of his generation, Nicholson has appeared in other blockbusters of the decade: The Shining (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983), and The Witches of Eastwick (1987), all of which were among the ten most viewed films of their respective years.

Does this mean that every film starring Jack Nicholson is bound to become a smash box office hit Not at all. The extremely versatile actor has had his own share of commercial flops (The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Border, Ironweed), though it might not have been his fault. Nonetheless, it is estimated that Nicholson’s earnings from Batman, the movie, video version, book, merchandise, etc., will be around $50 million. Nicholson’s superstardom, and the huge amount of money and power which go along with it, stresses again the drawing power of actors, when they are cast in appropriate roles and in vehicles that suit their talents.

Stars alone could never guarantee success, as many big-budget films have demonstrated. Not even Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty could persuade the large public to see the 50-plus million Ishtar, which was panned by the critics and must be one of the greatest debacles of the entire decade.

Popular notion holds that the appearance of stars is crucial for the film’s commercial appeal: The greater the star’s stature, the better the film’s chances for a strong standing at the box-office. Stars are, undoubtedly, one major ingredient of the success formula of motion pictures, particularly in the U.S. But is their presence a sufficient condition for such success Just how crucial are stars to the box-office appeal of their films

A sobering look at the 100 most viewed films of the decade reveals some interesting patterns about movie stars and their relative commercial appeal.

Eddie Murphy Rules

With the possible exception of Eddie Murphy, stars cannot salvage bad or uninteresting films. Murphy is the only star boasting a consistent string of successes, despite varying degrees of artistic quality and interest. Beginning with his very first film, 48 Hrs, in which he played a second banana to Nick Nolte, and continuing with Trading Places, co-starring Dan Aykroyd, almost every Murphy vehicle has been one of the top grossing movies of the year, including Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and its sequel, The Golden Child (1987), and last year’s Coming to America.

European (or other foreign) actors possess only limited appeal in the American movie market, especially in big metropolitan centers, but they exercise no real power on the average filmgoer. Ask film viewers outside of New York City or Los Angeles to identify the face of Isabelle Hupert, or even Gerard Depardieu, and you are likely to get a blank face.

This may explain the paucity of foreign pictures among the blockbusters of the l980s. The James Bond film series notwithstanding, out of the l00 top grossing films only two were foreign-made, though both English-speaking: Chariots of Fire and the Australian Crocodile Dundee. The success of the Chariots of Fire was undoubtedly related to its surprise win of the l981 Best Picture Oscar, though its cast had no stars to boast.

Aussie Paul Hogan

By contrast, filmgoers were familiar with the presence of Paul Hogan, the star of Crocodile Dundee and its sequel, from his TV commercials. Boosting American tourism to Australia, Hogan was not an unknown quantity. Hogan was, no doubt, a contributing factor, though it could not be assumed that many of the Crocodile Dundee film-viewers went to see him. As far as story and production values are concerned, Crocodile Dundee could easily have been an American film. Formulaic, these action-adventure movies had some humor and a touch of charm, though lacked any discernible national identity or singular Australian characteristics.

Not Many Women

Even though the l980s have been a good decade for women in Hollywood in terms of the screen roles allotted to them, few of the l00 top films have featured female stars. Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, and Sally Field, to mention only a few of Hollywood’s dominant women, continue to be estimable and well-respected performers, though their films seldom made it to the top. A Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn, and Private Benjamin, with Goldie Hawn as a Jewish princess, have been the exception.

In 1981, none of the 10 box-office successes had a female star, and the contribution of Jessica Lange to the bonanza of Toosie (whose big star was Dustin Hoffman), may have been peripheral. Significantly, the only women to have made hits were those appearing in what previously was considered as typically “masculine” fare: science-fiction, actioners, or comedy-adventures.


The most commercially popular genre in the American cinema of the l980s has been the action-adventure film. This distinctly “masculine” form has featured no, or very few, parts for women. One fourth of the men became stars and/or specialized in action-adventure films, but only one woman has become a commercial star following an appearance in the action genre.

Sigourney Weaver’s Rambolina

In l986, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar Award for Aliens, in which she played the head of a spaceship. Weaver thus became the first and only female, in the Oscar’s 62-year-history, to have been nominated for the lead award in an action-adventure film. No wonder Weaver’s co-workers teased her on the set of Aliens, calling her “Rambolina,” as if in her screen heroics and weaponry she were the female counterpart of Sylvester Stallone.

Similarly, as an actress, the sexually appealing Kathleen Turner has had an equal number of failures and successes, but only when she made Romancing the Stone and its sequel Jewel of the Nile, she became a certifiable star. In l986, Bette Midler found herself on the cover of Time magazine, as a result of her smashing comedy-adventure hits: Ruthless People and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Judging by the success of this year’s Beaches, it does help for Midler to be under exclusive contract to Disney’s Touchstone. In fact, Touchstone “specializes” in getting under contract stars who have already proven themselves but whose careers, for one reason or another, have been in decline. They have managed to catapult Robin Williams (Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society) to national stardom, and are hoping to do the same with Tom Selleck (An Innocent Man) and Goldie Hawn.

Broad Comedy

Comedy has never had it better at the box-office than in the l980s, not even in the golden age of the screwball comedy during the Great Depression. The vast majority of the decade’s blockbusters have been comedy-adventures, and the ruder and louder the comedies are the better their chances for profitability. In the l980s, screen comedians seem to have made their mark with a vengeance. In addition to Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams scored an unexpected triumph in Good Morning Vietnam, Tom Hanks in Big and Turner and Hooch, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, and Steve Martin in Parenthood.

As could be expected, the overproduced Ghostbusters and its sequel, Ghostbusters, did well for their performers. Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who also wrote the script), the original was a funny “horror” film, full of skit humor and disjointed parodies that were best suited to their talents. The special effects are not always to the point of the story, but the Ghostbusters movies are not about coherence or structured narrative; there are too many loose ends in their screenplays.

TV: Source of New Movie Stars

The most distinctive attribute of the decade’s big stars is that many of them have come from television, where they were groomed and polished their craft. We are not talking about one or two TV stars that made it big in Hollywood. We are talking about a group of performers who, singly jointly, have come to dominate American film comedy of the l980s. As alumni of the Second City revue companies or NBC’s Saturday Night Live, they wrote, produced, and starred (in different capacities and different combinations) such popular films as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Animal House and its variants.

Is it premature to celebrate the togetherness of film and TV, mediums that were once in direct competition with each other Gone are the days when the two cultural media used to be “natural enemies.” Unlike radio, which was always considered a legitimate avenue for screen actors to pursue before or during their screen careers, television was regarded a threat to the very existence of film.

As late as the 1950s, there was a good deal of resentment and suspicion of the new, increasingly popular, medium. Hollywood’s studios feared so much the competition from television that they prohibited their stars from appearing on the small screen. For example, Clark Gable’s MGM contract stipulated that he would appear in television productions only if they became a substantial part of the business (i.e as advertisement for his big screen work). Gable’s lengthy screen career was marked by only two TV appearances, both in the late l950s: the first when he presented an Academy Award, and the second, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Humphrey Bogart also avoided television, regarding it suspiciously as a threat to his livelihood as a movie actor. He subsequently made only one big television appearance, in l955, recreating his previous stage and film role as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.

As late as l969, Jimmy Cagney shocked the television industry, when he refused a lucrative offer for a ten-second commercial. Committed to screen acting, it was a matter of principle to him, no matter how much money he was going to earn.

For better or for worse, this suspicion forced television to develop its own stars: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby and, of course, the performers of Saturday Night Live. The transition from TV to film stardom is not always smooth and not always possible. Mary Tyler Moore and Shelley Long are still struggling to find the right vehicles.

It took several years for Tom Selleck to have made the transition from Magnum P.I. to a bankable screen star. However, Three Men and a Baby (l987) showed that with the right vehicle, he and Tad Danson, another popular TV star (Cheers), could attract moviegoers. While only thirteen of the l00 top-grossing movies have lacked bankable movie stars, at least half of them were directed and or produced by a star filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg and his entertainment empire are their own stars, dominating the shape and form of such starless blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, and the technologically wonderful Who Framed Roger Rabit. Bob Hoskins is a talented British actor, but it’s doubtful whether viewers flocked to see the film because of his performance.


The few blockbusters marked by the absence of star directors or performers have been high-concept films. Behind the success of each one of them stands a hip factor, an original idea, a technological innovation, a spoof of previously made films. For example, the l980 comedy Airplane was a zany spoof of the Airport disaster movies. Fast-paced, with a nonstop string of gags, Airplane had three directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who collaborated again in Ruthless People (l986).

Written and directed by Bob Clark, the starless Porky’s (1982) was another bawdy, raucous comedy. Set in the Eisenhower era, its rude humor was specifically designed for teen-aged audiences, who made it the fifth most popular film of the year. Porky’s also has the distinction of being the only blockbuster to have opened in the winter (March). Most of the hits have been released in the two high-seasons of filmgoing, during the summer or Christmas.

The success of Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), but not its sequel, depended less on its narrative and protagonists (played by distinguished stage or screen actors), than the format and visual style of a Sci-fi comedy, in the best tradition of the Lucas-Spielberg movies. Cocoon was marked by an adolescent sensibility, being a tale of elderly people’s need for rejuvenation, told from the point of view of young people.

If one were to choose the two figures who have put their stamp on the American commercial cinema of the l980s, one would have to single out Eddie Murphy as a performer and Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker. It seems irrelevant to ask how many people have actually laughed while watching The Golden Child. Or whether the recently released Harlem Nights is an ego trip or a self-promoted star-vehicle The fact remains that Murphy’s name appears five times in the credits of Harlem Nights. The vast majority of blockbusters have featured major movie stars. This has been one of the few consistent attributes of commercial American cinema from its beginnings. Stardom as a system, created and fabricated by the movie moguls, may no longer exists, but individual stars (and their agents) have never been as powerful as today. The old studios, as we knew them, may be dead, but big movie stars are well and alive in Hollywood.

Box-Office Hits With No Stars

Chariots of Fire
Karate Kid
Police Academy
Footloose Color
Purple Cocoon
The Goonies
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

This essay was written in 1990