While the modern blockbuster began in the 1970s with films like Star Wars and Jaws, the 1980s cemented their status as the major format for mainstream moviegoing (and moviemaking) in Hollywood. Sometimes, a movie could break six figures purely off the back of venerated stars, grand romances, and interesting gimmicks. In the 80s, Star Wars sequels sat side-by-side with Oscar-winning family dramas starring older actors or quirky films that rode off the coattails of flash-in-the-pan trends. And yet, years later, many of these money-making machines have fallen into obscurity.
For Wealth of Geeks‘ Forgotten Blockbusters series, we move into the 1980s to continue our investigation of such ignored classics. Join us as we remember a gossamer time when the Venn diagram between “winning Oscars” and “making money” had a little more overlap. Have a look at these forgotten 1980s blockbusters that warrant a revisit…or deserve obscurity.
1. On Golden Pond (1981)
Box Office: $119 million
It's hard to imagine a time when a quiet, unassuming family drama centering around an old, long-married couple would break the box office and sweep awards season. But Mark Rydell's film adaptation of Ernest Thompson's play Old Golden Pond did that and more, turning a navel-gazing rumination on aging and tense family dynamics into the second-highest-grossing film of the year. (The highest? Raiders of the Lost Ark.) It helped, of course, that the film promised the first-ever collaboration between Golden Age Hollywood stars Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, united by a shrewd supporting performance from Henry's daughter (and the film's producer) Jane Fonda.
2. The Cannonball Run (1981)
Box Office: $72 million
To the world's great shame, Hollywood doesn't make pictures like The Cannonball Run anymore. Hal Needham's rollicking ensemble comedy/car stunt showcase deserves note for a lot of things, from its jam-packed cast (including regular Needham star Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin in his final role, and even a young Jackie Chan) to its breezy, effortless sense of comic momentum. But more than that, The Cannonball Run offers infectious fun, both for audiences and the people who made it, as the now-famous blooper reel (a Needham staple) shows all too well. A less-than-inspired sequel and some spiritual successors like 2001's Rat Race followed.
3. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Box Office: $130 million
Taylor Hackford's romantic military drama feels like an old-fashioned epic straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A troubled Navy candidate (Richard Gere at the height of his powers) enters officer school, juggling his first romance with a local girl (Debra Winger) and the strict demands of his taciturn superior officer (An Oscar-winning Louis Gossett Jr.). It's a melodrama of the classic mold, honeyed cinematography from Donald E. Thorin lending a welcome waxiness to all the twists and turns of Douglas Day Stewart's operatic script. Modern audiences may find it mawkish and overly sentimental, but this Naval drama made a huge splash at the time.
4. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Box Office: $108 million
Parent-child relationships seemed to earn big box office money in the '80s. First, On Golden Pond explored daddy-daughter dynamics, then 1983's Terms of Endearment charted thirty rocky years of fights and tough love between a controlling widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). Winning five Oscars on top of a whopping eleven nominations (including Best Picture, Director, Actress for MacLaine, and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson), that success also came with a box office take of over $100 million. But it also indicated how films for Serious Adults found universal success in their time, a feat that seems rarer in the 2020s.
5. Staying Alive (1983)
Box Office: $127 million
Despite earning a reputation as one of the worst sequels of all time, this Sylvester Stallone-directed follow-up to Saturday Night Fever chucked the disco vibes and hard-hitting New York City grime in favor of a glitzy showbiz lark that plops Tony Manero (Travolta, spending most of his screentime greased up or stuffed into leg warmers) in an ill-conceived Broadway musical called Satan's Alley. The film leading up to the musical itself is a drab, kitschy melodrama about the hard work required to succeed in the world of professional dance — and that's before the gauzy, gaudy costumes and stagecraft of the climactic stage show to which the whole thing leads up. Even so, it earned $127 million on a $22 million budget, the cachet from Fever leading audiences into theaters in droves, even if just to witness a trainwreck.
6. Police Academy (1984)
Box Office: $150 million
While dramas got smarter and more sophisticated in the '80s, comedies, by and large, got dumber. Case in point: The Police Academy series, a seven-film odyssey of mouth-made sound effects, slapstick humor, and sexual innuendo centered around a misfit group of police officers tasked with cleaning up the city streets, one pratfall at a time. The first film (the only one actually set at a police academy) set the mold, with a game cast led by Steve Guttenberg and Kim Cattrall. Made for a modest $5 million budget, it would end up raking in a whopping $150 million. But weak sequel after weak sequel diluted the brand throughout the decade. By the time 1994's Mission to Moscow hit theaters, the American public wanted to defund this particular precinct, and the series has since fallen into obscurity as one of many forgotten 1980s blockbusters.
7. Out of Africa (1985)
Box Office: $227.5 million
Another entry in the “it could only be a blockbuster in the '80s” canon, Sydney Pollack's sweeping epic romance followed Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as a big game hunter and wealthy baroness, respectively, who fall in love amid the heat and jungles of the African plains. Redford and Streep's star power and the lushness of the film's setting and painterly scope catapulted it to box office success. But critics were lukewarm to it at the time, complaining about the thinness of its historical melodrama and main characters. Redford and Streep are magnetic to watch on screen, but the film doesn't give them anything particularly interesting to do over its bloated 161-minute runtime. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, but its particular brand of schmaltz feels out of step years after its release.
8. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
Box Office: $328 million
That‘s not a blockbuster. This is a blockbuster: piggybacking off America's increasing curiosity about Australian people and culture in the '80s, Peter Faiman's $10-million croc-out-of-water comedy emerged from the outback to become the second-highest-grossing American film of 1986 (only outpaced by Top Gun). Paul Hogan stars as the titular “Crocodile” Dundee, a laconic bushman who wanders around New York City, bringing his particular brand of Aussie charm to the Big Apple. Audiences ate it up like a bloomin' onion, even leading to two sequels. But Americans thirsty for Aussie cultural imports quickly moved on to Steve Irwin, and the rest was history.
9. Back to School (1986)
Box Office: $91 million
Rodney Dangerfield's no-nonsense, tie-tugging brand of comedy was all the rage in the '80s, and the success of Caddyshack made him a household name. Enter Back to School, where Dangerfield stood front and center as a rich businessman who slums it at his son's Midwestern college. It's a classic snobs vs. slobs story, with Dangerfield's inimitable, bug-eyed comic energy lifting the whole thing beyond the sum of its parts. It made $91 million on an $11 million budget, but it's safe to say comedies like these don't crop up much past Apatow productions like Old School in the 2000s.
10. Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Box Office: $168 million
In a year that included hits like Fatal Attraction, Beverly Hills Cop 2, and The Untouchables, Hollywood's biggest box-office hit for 1987 was this unassuming little comedy about three bachelor besties (Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Guttenberg) suddenly charged with the care of a love child that shows up on their doorstep. The premise screams “adapted from a 1960s French film” (because it was), but the surprising chemistry of its central trio and the presence of a cute baby catapulted it to a $168 million return, the biggest takeaway of any movie that year. (Fun fact: It was directed by Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, of all people, fresh off directing the most comedic entry in the franchise, The Voyage Home.)
11. Cocktail (1988)
Box Office: $78 million
Back before Tom Cruise had a reputation for jumping on couches or off mile-high cliffs, he found himself at the center of 1988's surprise hit, a neon-soaked cash-in on the nascent trend of flair bartending. Unlike many of the films on this list, Cocktail got rock-bottom reviews and even won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture. But it still raked in $170 million off a $20 million budget, making it one of Cruise's earliest and most forgotten successes…and one of the biggest forgotten 1980s blockbusters.
12. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Box Office: $227 million
For a while there, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids became a bonafide franchise in the late '80s and early '90s. A slicker, more accessible redo of '50s pulp films like The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Joe Johnston-directed original explored the adventures of the children of a goofy inventor (Rick Moranis), who accidentally shrinks them down to the size of a pea and throws them out with the trash. Thus, the quest to cross the backyard becomes an epic adventure filled with big ants, even bigger Oatmeal Creme Pies, and state-of-the-art practical and special effects to bring their quest to life. The film enjoyed such success it held the record for the highest-grossing live-action Disney film of all time for five years. But Disney couldn't translate that enthusiasm to its two sequels, so the franchise quickly faded from memory. Its impact remained, however, in the form of the Epcot attraction Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!, which played in Disney theme parks until 2010.