No. 28: The Outsiders

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Calculating inflation with box office grosses isn’t really an exact science since they don’t really factor in studio expectations at the time (which is why you won’t hear me mention inflation very often in this series) but in actual dollar amount, $25 million in 1983 equates to about $55 million in today’s money, certainly a respectable amount for a studio film with a moderate budget. I bring this up because Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s classic young adult novel The Outsiders is the first movie on our countdown to cross the $25 million threshold. There’s nothing official about that number as a dividing line but it’s safe to say that from here on out, every movie we’re dealing with can be considered a legitimate hit and probably made a dent in the popular consciousness in 1983.

While The Outsiders is a film that seems to hold a lot of sway in today’s popular culture (can’t tell you how many of my friends told me to “do it for Johnny!” this weekend when I mentioned I’d be watching this film), at the time of its release the film didn’t seem to make quite as big an impact. It opened in second place behind our last film on the countdown, Spring Break and never led at the box office through its entire run. Critics were mixed on the film (Roger Ebert flat out didn’t like it) and many pundits began to question whether Coppola was still the same filmmaker who took the 1970s by storm with The Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.

There’s a pretty obvious reason why the film is viewed far more favorably today and that’s the cast. In 1983, the cast list for The Outsiders carried almost no cache whatsoever and audiences responded accordingly but in the eyes of today’s audiences, the film looks like one of the most star-studded affairs of the ’80s. Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane. What sound like Dream Team, slam dunk casting choices today were bold and insightful moves by Coppola in 1983 and as the cast members went on to become huge stars in the following years, the film has enjoyed a huge boost in public perception.

When it comes to the screenplay, I have to say I share the feelings of many of the critics of the day. There’s not nearly enough action in the film’s 91 minute running time and what action there is doesn’t feel very cohesive. It feels like a string of rather unrelated, arbitrary events rather than understandable actions leading to inevitable consequences. As is the case with any adaptation, I’m sure some folks will say Coppola was simply being faithful to the source material but that’s never a valid excuse for a movie that doesn’t work. A movie has to work as a movie and stories don’t always work the same in print as they do on screen. That’s the challenge any screenwriter faces when adapting written material into a film and Coppola bears the sole responsibility for this clumsy adaptation (while Coppola wrote the version of the screenplay used during the production, Kathleen Rowell received the writing credit due to some confusing Writers Guild issues).

The story follows two groups of teenagers in an Oklahoma town, one group called the Greasers from the poor side of town and another group called the Socs (which is inexplicably pronounced “soashes” in the film). Poor kids vs. rich kids, pretty basic stuff. The conflict between the two sides defines some of the troubled teens who revel in the prospects of rumbling in the streets while others somberly wax on about how much better the world would be if there were no Greasers or Socs and we could all just get along. It’s a fairly obvious allegorical tale that is tailor-made for 8th grade English classes and in fact it was a letter from a class of junior high students who had read the book that spurred Coppola to make the film in the first place.

I don’t mean for that last paragraph to sound negative. There’s certainly a place for young adult fiction both in print and indeed in film. I feel pretty confident this film would be fairly effective for a junior high English class getting their first taste of ideas like teenage angst, classism and prejudice, and perhaps on a somewhat deeper level the tragic theme of fading youth and lost innocence.

Coppola’s treatment of that last idea is what nearly takes the film into a level of maturity that adult film lovers can appreciate. With a carefully balanced color palate of reds and golds, Coppola builds a running motif of sunsets in the film, playing off the film’s themes of the beauty of youth tragically fading away from these characters as their hope for a brighter future vanishes. Coppola’s work here behind the camera with cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) is a perfect counterpoint to his work with his brilliantly dark and shadowy work with Gordon Willis in The Godfather.

It’s a great-looking film enhanced even more so by the consistently solid performances Coppola is photographing throughout the film. Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe all grab your attention when watching the film but the truth is their roles are very minor in the film. This was the first major feature film job for all three men and each would later rise to prominence in star roles in films released later that same year.

The five performances that really drive the film come from actors who would see a similarly meteoric rise in the coming years, though none would reach the superstar status that Cruise, Swayze and Lowe would reach at their respective peaks. C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio, each in his first major big screen role, lead the film as the sympathetic heroes Ponyboy Curtis and Johnny Cade (respectively). Both actors show an awful lot of the likability and boyish vulnerability that led them to stardom the following year (Howell in Red Dawn, Macchio in The Karate Kid).

Matt Dillon had already been on the scene for a few years but his performance as Dallas in The Outsiders helped solidify his bad boy image that became his trademark in the ’80s.

The real discovery of the film comes from the only prominent female performance in the film. Diane Lane (aged 18 here) stars as Cherry Valance, the Soc girl with a heart of gold who befriends Ponyboy. Lane had a little more film acting experience than her co-stars at this point but was still far from a household name. Her confidence is evident here as she seems to rattle off her dialogue as though it were totally improvised in some of the early scenes in the film. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s stunningly beautiful here and stands out to me so far as one of the real stars in the making in 1983 along with Lea Thompson.

Probably the most fun performance of all for me is Emilio Estevez, who plays Two Bit, an energetic and playful Greaser with a penchant for Mickey Mouse cartoons. Like his fellow cast members, this was a big-screen debut for Estevez and while using his family’s real last name to avoid riding his father’s coattails was an admirable move, there’s no chance anyone who was familiar with Martin Sheen would ever fail to notice how much Estevez resembles him both in appearance and personality. Watching Martin Sheen earlier in this series in his phenomenal performance in The Dead Zone, his on-screen presence and confidence are present in every way in his son here.

It’s tremendous fun watching all these future superstars collaborating in their early days (including an early cameo from Sophia Coppola who goes by the stage name “Domino” in the end credits) but as a film in and of itself, The Outsiders is only mildly effective. It’s function as a time capsule for the careers of these future stars is what makes it a compelling watch in 2010.

Next Up: Tom Selleck in the Indiana Jones knockoff High Road to China.