I didn’t live in a town with a movie theatre when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, and since we didn’t even have video-rental options available to us until 1983, I was fairly unaware of the general state of the movie industry in my preteen years.
However, in the mid-eighties, the release of three films – two blockbusters and a surprise sleeper hit – not only introduced me to the general phenomenon of the Hollywood smash, but also expanded my view of Canada by showing that people born in our supposedly quiet country could make and star in movies that the whole world would want to see, over and over again. And, in the process, these films made a major impact on my life that I still feel today, as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary.
Exhibit A: Ghostbusters
The Canadians involved: From left to right, Hamilton, Ontario native Dan Aykroyd, who starred as Dr. Raymond Stantz and also co-wrote the script with co-star Harold Ramis; Toronto, Ontario native Rick Moranis, who played nerdy accountant Louis Tully; producer-director Ivan Reitman, born in Slovakia but raised in Toronto; and producer Joe Medjuck, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Box office: $242 million in the U.S., $295 million worldwide (making it the highest-grossing comedy of all time, a record that would stand for several years afterwards). Worth noting: Those figures aren’t actually adjusted for inflation.
Ecto-mania: Even though my childhood took in the likes of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Jaws and Indiana Jones franchises, and E.T., Ghostbusters was the first movie marketing bonanza to truly filter into every part of my psyche – and not just because I wouldn’t see those other films until several years after their release. (Remember, no theatre in my hometown.) The logo, characters, slogans and chart-topping theme song were everywhere; on the first day of school, my Grade 7 classmates were all raving about how Aykroyd unwittingly unleashed the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on New York City. The movie was so wildly popular in the Nova Scotia capital of Halifax that the city’s movie theatres ran it for five months straight, finally shutting Ghostbusters down about a month before Christmas 1984.
For Hallowe’en that year, my younger sister and I went trick-or-treating as a Ghostbuster (in a Groucho Marx fake-nose-and-glasses) and the internationally-recognized “no ghosts” logo, respectively. I bought the Ghostbusters soundtrack and companion storybook several months before I finally saw the actual movie (on VHS, two days after Hallowe’en 1985). So you can imagine how much it blew my mind to learn that so many participants in this childhood favourite and worldwide pop-culture game-changer were from the same country as me. Seriously, there was a period in my early teens ’80s when Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” theme was pretty much interchangeable with “O Canada” in my patriotic little teenage heart and mind. (It was also interchangeable with Huey Lewis and The News’ “I Want A New Drug.” But that’s another blog post.)
Above: Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray.
Gratuitous Canadian content: At Louis Tully’s ill-fated clientele party, Moranis offers his guests “real smoked salmon from Nova Scotia, Canada.” I refuse to believe that was an accident. Also, John Candy (featured later in this blog post) pops up at the 1:58 mark of Parker’s “Ghostbusters” music video, likely doing a favour for some combination of Moranis, Aykroyd or Reitman (who directed Candy alongside Murray in 1981’s Stripes).
My remake: My best high school friend, Trevor Hall, and I kicked around a politically-themed parody, “Guccibusters,” in the tenth grade. It would have starred Liberal Leader John Turner, NDP Leader Ed Broadbent and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as proton-pack warriors out to bring down then-Prime Minister and noted fancy-shoe collector Brian Mulroney. It never made it past the drawing board, despite a pretty spiffy logo design from Trevor. But maybe that’s just as well.
Above: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson.
Actual remakes: Ghostbusters II, featuring all the Canadians (and other main cast members) referenced earlier, was actually a box-office success and became the eighth-highest grosser of 1989. But it’s seen as a failure by many, likely because of its paint-by-numbers story that spent far too much time re-hashing the original. Despite my belief that this movie probably didn’t need to be made by anybody but greedy Columbia Pictures executives, it holds a special place in my heart because it’s the only Ghostbusters movie that I’ve ever seen in a theatre. (Also, the updated theme song from ’80s rap sensations Run-DMC is actually pretty catchy, and bears no trace of anything that could sound like a Huey Lewis composition.)
Because of my evolving views on the casual depiction of demons in pop culture and the resulting conflict with my Christian values, I don’t see the Ghostbusters franchise the same way I did as a teenager. That, combined with my belief that the original really didn’t need to be remade, kept me from watching the all-female 2016 reboot for several months. However, in the interest of journalistic balance, I finally broke down and checked it out two months ago. It’s not nearly as bad a movie as the knuckle-dragging “Ghostbros” movement would have you believe, but the four female leads – all exceptionally-talented and funny actors – are left hanging by a weak script and poor character development. (Also, Chris Hemsworth’s thick-headed receptionist character wore out his welcome after roughly five minutes.) Definitely not a crowning achievement for Canadians in Hollywood (I hated seeing Aykroyd shoehorned into a cameo and Reitman’s name attached as executive producer); also not a Hollywood achievement, period. What a shame.
Exhibit B: Back To The Future
Box office: $210.6 million in North America and $383.87 million worldwide, making it the runaway winner in both categories for 1985
The Canadian involved: A seemingly-ageless lad from Burnaby, British Columbia by the name of Michael J. Fox, starring as time-travelling teenager Marty McFly. Already winning hearts (and three Emmys) as smart-aleck right-wing son Alex P. Keaton on the NBC sitcom Family Ties, Fox somehow balanced his TV duties with his movie shooting schedule when the original Marty, Eric Stolz, was dismissed from the role midway through Back To The Future‘s filming. It’s a wonder Fox got any sleep during the ’80s, which could account for his Pepsi consumption during that period.
The Fox network: Canada wasn’t used to having a teen heartthrob (or even a “25-year-old-who-can-pass-for-a-teen” heartthrob) in its midst, so it felt like the country collectively gave Michael J. Fox a high-five and a hug (or at least the hand gesture from the 17-second mark of this ad) when his fame exploded like a souped-up DeLorean at 88 MPH in the mid-’80s. CBC-TV even convinced Fox to come back to Canada and co-host a New Year’s Eve 1985 special, including a sketch in which Fox truly went “back to the future” and ruminated about tomorrow’s political leaders with two other actors wearing odd space-suit types of costumes. (Future Canadian Prime Minister: Bryan Adams. Future Liberal Leader: Inexplicably, Tina Turner. Future NDP Leader: Corey Hart, using the campaign slogan “Never Surrender.”)
My remake: Partly channelling Back To The Future but mostly drawing on a time-travelling comedy-drama released a year and a half later, Peggy Sue Got Married, I delivered the Grade 9 “Class Prophecy” at the Ecole L’Ardoise year-end banquet in the guise of a 21st-century Canadian who had inexplicably been thrown 30 years back in time. Among my revelations from the future: The rise to power of “the great Quebec Liberal, Sacha Trudeau.” (Well, I wasn’t all that far off.)
Above: Michael J. Fox with co-stars Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd.
Actual remakes: Like Ghostbusters, I remain convinced that Back To The Future should have remained a single-chapter story, but Hollywood had other ideas. At least Back To The Future Part III featured a lively, creative and engaging story that breathed new life into the series after the dystopian nightmare of Back To The Future Part II, whose 50 years’ worth of alternative-timeline-hopping left my head spinning and squandered the smart self-awareness and utter joy of the original. Oddly, these qualities that escaped the first sequel were gleefully abundant in the early-’90s Back To The Future Saturday morning cartoon series, which didn’t involve Fox but featured Christopher Lloyd playing Doc Brown in live-action inserts. The show lasted two seasons, unlike the modern-day rip-off Rick and Morty, which has inexplicably lasted three entire seasons on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
He didn’t need roads: In a development that nobody saw coming, perhaps not even Michael J. Fox himself, his greatest impact on the world didn’t come in Alex P. Keaton’s sweater-vests or on Marty McFly’s hoverboards but in his very public grappling with a medical condition that nearly ended his acting career. In early 2000, Fox announced that he would leave the ABC sitcom Spin City after its fourth-season finale to spend more time with his family and devote his energies to raising funds and awareness for Parkinson’s Disease; he had been diagnosed with the condition in 1991 and went public with it in 1998. Fox’s emotional departure from Spin City was a likely factor in his Emmy win later that year for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series; I had a Canadian flag waving and shed a lot of tears when Jennifer Aniston called Fox’s name.
His public appearances understandably diminished after that time, but Michael J. Fox has done a lot to earn my respect over the past 17 years, most notably in his dogged determination to assist others struggling with Parkinson’s and find a cure for the disease. He didn’t shy away from his symptoms in the 2013-14 NBC sitcom The Michael J. Fox Show (which might have lasted longer with better writing); he’s also accepted his status as an ’80s icon through his more-than-willing participation in Back To The Future’s 30th anniversary celebrations. (This particular bit, with Fox and Christopher Lloyd blasting onto ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live in the trademark DeLorean, still cracks me up.)
From a Canadian perspective, Fox returned to British Columbia to deliver a pair of unforgettable moments in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics – this so-sincere-it-bleeds-maple-syrup ad for Hockey Canada, and this appearance in the closing ceremonies. “If you’re good at something, we will claim you,” Fox said in his Olympic speech, and we’ve definitely done that over the past 35 years as he’s staked his claim to stardom in Hollywood and pursued a more altruistic path in his later years. Trust me, I rarely felt happier to be on Twitter the day Michael J. Fox “liked” one of my tweets (which suggested that a Trump-related Twitter conversation between himself and former TV sibling Justine Bateman might be the closest thing we ever get to a Family Ties reunion).
Exhibit C: Splash
Box office: $69.8 million in the U.S. (unadjusted for inflation), making it the tenth-highest-grossing movie of 1984
The Canadians involved: SCTV alumni (and former Schmenge Brothers) Eugene Levy of Hamilton, Ontario and John Candy of Newmarket, Ontario, as mermaid-hunting scientist Dr. Walter Kornbluth and walking-hormone-with-a-heart-of-gold Freddie Bauer, respectively.
Fishing for laughs: With breakout performances for both Darryl Hannah as mermaid Madison and Tom Hanks as her unwitting love interest Allan Bauer, some cynics might sneer at the concept of supporting actors being integral to a movie like Splash. Director Ron Howard thought otherwise, so while Levy chews the scenery as he attempts to capture Hannah in the movie’s first half, his Dr. Kornbluth inspires unexpected empathy when he later realizes his grave error and enlists Hanks and Candy to set the mermaid free. Meanwhile, Candy starts the film as a leering would-be ladies’ man, delighted to have a letter published in Penthouse, but slowly evolves into a minor hero when he dresses down his brother for refusing to break Madison free. (“You’ll never be that happy again,” Freddie admonishes Allan, before declaring: “I’LL never be that happy!”)
How big an impact did John Candy make in Splash? Some of the film’s early posters have his name listed above those of Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert even thought Candy should have replaced Hanks as the male lead. From Ebert’s review of Splash, still available online: “You remember Candy from SCTV. He is the large, shambling, Charles Laughton-type who has such a natural charisma that he’s funny just standing there.” Other students of cinema felt the same way; check out this sequence from Maniac Magazine’s movie parody “Splat,” as illustrated by future MAD Magazine art director Sam Viviano and written by “Jovial Bob” Stine, who later evolved into Goosebumps author R.L. Stine.
My remake: Splash made an immediate and lasting impact on me when I first saw it on VHS in the spring of 1985, five months before my thirteenth birthday. So it should come as no surprise that I spent much of the eighth grade writing a treatment for a sequel set in Nova Scotia, specifically Halifax. John Candy’s Freddie was the only character I carried over from the original (I have no idea why he relocated from New York City to Halifax), and served as mentor to nephew Ronnie Bauer, who fell for a teenage mermaid he first met while swimming in Chocolate Lake, located just outside the city. (She later saved Ronnie after a boating accident in Bedford Basin.) I never sent the meticulously-typed-up story to anybody, and never got the nerve to show it to my first teenage crush, even though she happened to have the same first name as the mermaid character in my Splash sequel fan-fiction. Completely coincidental, I swear.
Actual remakes: Despite my best efforts, I never expected to see an actual Splash sequel after reading a 1986 interview with Tom Hanks in which he dismissed rumours of his involvement in such a project. (“I’ve read that we already finished it – I hope I had a good time,” he told one reporter.) And yet, in the spring of 1988, ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney broadcast the TV-movie Splash, Too, with a pre-Wings Amy Yasbeck playing Madison and Todd Waring (who?) as Allan. The only returning cast member was Dody Goodman, the struck-by-lightning receptionist at the Bauers’ fresh-fruit warehouse. I veered back and forth between finding it original and charming (Yasbeck actually worked well as Madison, in and out of the tail) and feeling like I was watching a cheaply-made sitcom. Also: No John Candy, no Eugene Levy. Shouldn’t have happened.
In 1994, with Tom Hanks winning hearts and Oscars as Forrest Gump, I visualized a Splash remake in which Hanks as Gump courts Hannah as Madison, encountering the mermaid while at the helm of the Jenny as he scoured the seas for the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. And yet that still might not be the most bizarre Splash reboot scenario imaginable: the original film’s producer, Brian Grazer, announced last year that he was working on a gender-swapped update with Channing Tatum as a merman that woos jaded land-lubber Jillian Bell. The premise is intriguing, especially if this version is able to retain the original’s sweetness and light, but I’ve had conversations with folks in the know that suggest the new Splash is dead in the water. Check the marine forecasts for future details, folks.
Swimming into the future: Interviewed last year about his voice role as the father of the title character in Finding Dory, Eugene Levy recalled his Splash experience as being “a huge opportunity for a Toronto kid like myself” and added:
When we were working on Splash – you just kind of had this sense that you were working on something major. Something special. And then when the finished film came out and was such a huge hit — or for that matter, to see how well Splash had held up over the years – it’s been such a pleasure to be associated with that project.
Which circles back to my original point – despite Canada’s size, many of us, even those living in major urban centres, tended to regard the country as a small fish in the big global pond. That made it even more special when “kids” from Toronto or Burnaby or Fredericton got to prove their worth in big Hollywood hits like Splash, Back To The Future or Ghostbusters.
As for the Cape Breton kid who was so enamoured with Splash that he wrote a sequel set in Nova Scotia, he had no idea that, decades later, a woman not even born when Splash hit theatres would establish an award-winning mermaid modelling company in Halifax and that her signature silicone tail would bear such striking similarities to the costume design created by Robert Short and Thom Shouse for the original movie. (She counts the two of them as personal friends.)
Cathy and I had a business meeting with her in Halifax last month to kick around some promotional ideas for my forthcoming album, Ocean Playground.
Stay tuned, folks…