It didn’t seem to have a ghost of a chance of becoming a hit.
Instead, “Ghost” would forever redefine what constitutes a summer blockbuster. The romantic fantasy about Sam Wheat (Patrick
Swayze, in the role that would make him a bona fide sensation), a murdered Manhattan banker in spirit form who relies on con-artist psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg, feisty and funny) to help him save endangered sweetheart Molly (Demi Moore, who turns crying on cue into an Olympic sport), didn’t just wipe out such surefire winners as “Total Recall,” “Die Hard 2” and “Back to the Future III.” The supernatural weeper also would go on to claim the box-office crown as the top-grossing picture of 1990, with a worldwide gross of $505.7 million.
This Hollywood anomaly also cashed in big time during awards season. The rare summer-release contender from a major studio that didn’t qualify as either sci-fi (“Star Wars,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) or action (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Apocalypse Now”) would compete for a best-picture Oscar as well as earn four other nominations.
I must confess I was among the critics initially less than impressed with “Ghost” as it ambitiously if awkwardly attempted to blend a love story, an afterlife fable, a crime thriller and a comedy into a somewhat cockamamie confection for the masses. My dismissive summation? “With more boo-hoo than ‘boo,’ ‘Ghost’ will please those who think hokey is okey-dokey.”
But that was before it became clear that “Ghost” was not about to fade away quickly. After opening at number two behind “Die Hard 2,” it would rise to number one in its second week and continue to linger in the top 5 until Thanksgiving. Such longevity is all but unheard of these days.
That is when I knew that I had completely underestimated the universal attraction of the film’s beyond-the-grave premise of everlasting love and the tactile ooey-gooey eroticism of that now-iconic pottery-wheel scene.
There were reviewers who were far more condescending and dismissive than I was, including Time’s Richard Corliss, who declared it, “A bad movie that a lot of people will like.”
But more than a few sensed there was something innately magical about this haunting concept, including Philadelphia Enquirer’s Carrie Rickey: “Given its obviously commercial aims, ‘Ghost’ is remarkably appealing on a purely personal level. It is about how you deal with death.” In a summer filled with mayhem, this was a rare outing that dared to deal directly with the human consequences of such violence – in this life and beyond.
Here are eight reasons why, despite its lapses in logic and quasi-believable special effects, “Ghost” possesses the power to transfix audiences – then and now.
1. A belief that counter-programming can work if you trust your instincts. In a 2002 article for USA TODAY in 2002, I listed “Ghost” alongside nine other influential blockbusters — including “Jaws” and “Star Wars” — that not only changed how summer movies are made and marketed, but also had lasting impact on pop culture. As director Jerry Zucker then observed about the unlikely success of his $22 million romantic comedy-fantasy hybrid, “Nobody saw this as a summer blockbuster. But ‘Ghost’ did something they can’t do anymore.”
Namely, it opened at only $12 million and was allowed to find moviegoers the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth. He gave most of the credit to screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin for why the film touched so many. “It’s a movie that was guided by a passion and a belief rather than trying to make a hit.”
“Ghost” afterlife: Before “Ghost,” adult fare was usually relegated to the fall. But such a massive out-of-nowhere smash was hard to ignore. Not only did the film open the door for other supernatural summer releases aimed at older audiences such as “Phenomenon,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others,” “Signs” and “The Conjuring” but it paved the way for hot-weather efforts that weren’t easy to categorize such as “Forrest Gump,” “Babe,” “Crash,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and even Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
2. A story that can make grown men cry.
While Molly and Sam see a production of “Macbeth” before their fateful street encounter, screenwriter Rubin was primarily inspired by Hamlet’s father, whose ghost tells his son to avenge his death. In “Ghost,” Sam gets to avenge his own death.
But he based Sam’s struggles to profess his feelings to Molly on his own conflict with such emotions, one that many other males apparently share. As he revealed USA TODAY in 1990, as a young man in his 20s, he preferred to reply “Ditto” whenever someone told him, “I love you.”
Rubin was glad to see his personal experience opening up a floodgate of feelings for other men by allowing Sam to have a second chance to say the L word to Molly. Said Rubin, “One of the things I’m seeing at screenings is how they hold their wives’ hands differently after the movie. When we first showed it to a roomful of Paramount executives, everyone walked out with red eyes.”
Of course, not everyone likes to be manipulated in such a manner. As he noted, “Certain people are angered by being made to feel that way by a movie. They are embarrassed by it. But I wanted to wake them up and tell them not to take other people for granted.”
“Ghost” afterlife: Rubin, who won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for “Ghost,” had another movie top the box office later in 1990: the psychological thriller “Jacob’s Ladder.” He would go to write and direct 1993’s “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. His last screenplay was for 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” He also wrote the stage adaptation and lyrics for “Ghost The Musical,” which premiered in the UK in 2011 and was performed on Broadway in 2012.
3. A song and a soundtrack that does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting.
Many classic tear-jerkers employ music as an emotional cue, including “Love Story.”” Dr. Zhivago,” “The Way We Were” and “Beaches.” “Ghost” producer Linda Weinstein knew when she heard the ballad “Unchained Melody” playing on an oldies station on her car radio one day that she found the right love theme to set the mood.
Several artists had done versions of the Oscar-nominated song written by famed movie composer Alex North for the mostly forgotten 1955 prison drama “Unchained.” But the filmmakers went with the most popular version sung by Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers, which was produced by Phil Spector and reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1965.
North told USA TODAY in 1990, a year before he died at age 80, that he wrote the melody right off the top of his head. “I got a call from the producer of ”Unchained” and just sat down and did it. The muses were on my side.”
Hatfield, who died in 2003 at age 63, said in the same article that the duo’s hits, including “Top Gun’s” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feelin’,” have such longevity because, “They’re from period of time when certain songs meant a whole lot to a lot of people. As Bill (Medley, his partner) says in our act, ‘This song created a lot of junior high schools.’”
Composer Maurice Jarre’s transporting Oscar-nominated score beautifully meshes with the ‘60s chestnut, which is used during the famous pottery-wheel scene, when Sam and Molly dance together as a precursor to making love, and when Sam dances one last time with Molly by inhabiting Oda Mae’s body near the end of the film.
“Ghost” afterlife: The popularity of the movie rubbed off on The Righteous Brothers, who experienced a revival on the Billboard charts after the original recording of “Unchained Melody” was re-issued for play on Top 40 radio and hit No. 13 on the Hot 100. The pair also quickly did a new version of the song, which would reach No. 19 on the chart.
4. A director who wanted to spread his wings.
Zucker initially found fame as part of a three-man filmmaking team with his brother, David, and pal Jim Abrahams. Known collectively as ZAZ, they were responsible for co-directing such laugh riots as 1980’s “Airplane!,” 1984’s “Top Secret!” and 1986’s “Ruthless People.”
But Zucker decided to go it alone for the first time with something completely different – a bittersweet love story that explores the world beyond and laced with humorous elements thanks to the chemistry between sassy Goldberg and exasperated Swayze. Critics were, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by what they saw.
Newsweek’s David Ansen gave Zucker his due, admiring how he “navigates the preposterous plot twists and careening mood swings with speed and confidence (and strong support from editor Walter Murch). It’s not surprising that Zucker can make us laugh (thank God Whoopi finally has a part that lets her strut her best stuff) but who knew he’d be good at the sexy, poignant stuff?”
Taking a huge risk gave Zucker the biggest success of his career and his lone brush with the Academy Awards. But given the huge influence that the humor publication had on his work, he has said that, “My greatest thrill was the day Mad magazine spoofed ‘Ghost.’ ”
“Ghost” afterlife: Zucker would go on to direct a historical romance based on the Arthurian legend, 1995’s “First Knight”, with Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond. But the film only did modest business, thanks to being upstaged by a pair of competing swashbucklers,” Rob Roy” and “Braveheart,” that opened earlier that year.
5. An attractive male lead who is equal parts sexy and sensitive.
Rubin believed that Swayze would be a perfect Sam after he saw him break down and cry while discussing his late father during a TV interview. But Zucker thought the he-man actor would be all wrong for the role.
Not only that, Swayze had lost some box-office steam since the surprise sleeper “Dirty Dancing” came along in 1987. While they would become cult favorites after the fact thanks to cable and home video, his macho posturing in the 1989 action flicks “Next of Kin” and “Road House” did not please his newfound fan base and his performances earned him a Razzie nomination.
Zucker reached out to everyone from Paul Hogan and Tom Hanks to David Duchovny and Bruce Willis (Moore’s then-husband). But many turned down the role, because they thought playing a ghost would be too corny. The director finally gave in and allowed Swayze to audition. The result, according to Zucker: “We all had tears in our eyes, right there in the office – and we knew how it ends. I saw a side of Patrick that I never knew existed.”
“Ghost” afterlife: After the actor’s heartfelt handling of what he would call his most difficult role, Swayze ascended to a whole new level of stardom. Even critics who brushed him off before were impressed, such as the Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr: “Swayze, who somehow became a movie star without developing a personality, seems a confident presence for the first time.”
He scored another success as a charismatic Big Kahuna of a gang of bank-robbing surfers in 1991’s “Point Break”, and People magazine would declare him their Sexiest Man Alive that summer. Swayze’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 57 – that same age as his dad — in 2009 adds an extra layer of poignancy to watching “Ghost” today. As he told People in 1990, “”Ghost was about living your life for the moment, because that’s all you’ve got … If you don’t communicate with the people you love, you set yourself up for incredible pain if you lose them.”
6. A wistful female lead who can weep on demand.
Demi Moore’s first starring role in 1986’s “About Last Night …” opposite fellow Brat Pack member Rob Lowe did well enough to promote her to lead status. But a string of disappointing follow-up films – 1986’s “Wisdom,” 1988’s “The Seventh Sign” and 1989’s “We’re No Angels” – did her no favors.
Therefore, it was no surprise that filmmakers were considering almost every hot actress at that time – Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner, Debra Winger, Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan and even Madonna – for the role of Molly.
Legend has it that Moore’s ability to cry out of either eye at will won her the role. And, re-watching the film now, it is true that few other mere mortals would look quite so lovely while rivers of tears are streaming down their face. That adorable gamine haircut doesn’t hurt, either. Gene Siskel got right to the point when he wrote, “Moore has never been more fetching.”
But it is also hard to imagine any of these other choices pairing half as well – and with such unaffected passion and honesty — opposite Swayze. The actor called the pottery scene the sexiest thing he has ever done on film – and, as they say, it takes two to tango especially if it involves caressing a rather suggestive moist mound of clay together.
“Ghost” afterlife: At a 2013 AFI event where the film was shown, Moore talked about her own uncertainty about doing “Ghost,” even though she herself was drawn by the script. As she said in her intro, “It’s a love story, and it’s a guy — a dead guy — trying to save his wife, and there is a comedy part, but really, really it’s a love story, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really a recipe for disaster … It’s either going to be something really special, really amazing, or really an absolute bust.’ “
Instead, Moore’s career took off like a rocket afterwards with meaty parts opposite top-notch co-stars in high-profile projects – 1992’s “A Few Good Men,” 1993’s “Indecent Proposal,” 1994’s “Disclosure,” 1995’s “The Scarlet Letter,” 1996’s “Striptease,” 1997’s “G.I. Jane” — once she got over a brief slump in 1991 with the likes of “The Butcher’s Wife.”
7. A funny character actress who can link all the elements together.
Hollywood didn’t really know at first how to best utilize a unique talent like Whoopi Goldberg, who went from doing character monologues on Broadway to earning a best actress Oscar nomination as the much-abused Celie in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple “.
Somehow, she ended up spending the rest of ‘80s in a bunch of oddball action films such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Burglar” and “Fatal Beauty.” But that all changed when TV actress Jackee Harry dropped out of “Ghost” after being hired as the bogus clairvoyant and Sam’s reluctant go-between Oda Mae Brown, who is key to convincing the audience that she and Sam have a connection while it often looks as if she is arguing with herself.
Critics had a renewed appreciation for Goldberg at her back-talking best even if some criticized her role as being an example of the “magical other,” an African-American woman who unselfishly agrees to help out a Tribeca-loft-inhabiting yuppie couple.
As Sheila Benson wrote of her charlatan medium’s arrival in the film in her Los Angeles Times review, “This little spun-sugar movie gets some needed vinegar. Oda Mae, stunned to discover that her gift is real, is Goldberg in her element, giving the film its kick and energy. In the three-way scenes with Sam and Molly, as Sam’s mouthpiece on Earth, translating, transposing, deleting in outrage when his language offends her, Goldberg is gleefully, wickedly funny.”
“Ghost” afterlife. Through the years, Goldberg acknowledged that it was Swayze’s recommendation that got her the audition and she even mentioned him during her acceptance speech when she won her supporting-actress Oscar. Because of “Ghost,” she started to be cast in roles more suited to showcasing her talents, including the 1991 comedy “Soapdish,” the 1992 singing-nun hit “Sister Act” and its sequel, 1993’s “Made in America,” 1994’s “The Lion King” and 1995’s “Boys on the Side.”
8. The scene that probably launched countless adult-ed pottery classes.
Yes, the pottery- wheel interlude continues to be lampooned and referenced, especially on TV shows through the years. They include “In Living Color,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Family Guy,” “Futurama,” “Community,” “30 Rock,” “Ellen,” “Glee” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
But nothing can top one of the first tributes paid to clay-molding foreplay done by Zucker’s older brother, David, in the trailer for 1991’s “Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” with stars Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley sitting behind the wheel.
As the Naked Gun director explained at the time: “I make my living punching holes in serious movies . After watching that pottery scene the third time, I thought, ‘How ironic if I poked fun at ‘Ghost.’”
Jerry was a good sport about the parody, even loaning his brother the actual jukebox used to play “Unchained Melody” for the one-day shoot. After all, as David has said, he taught Jerry “everything he knows.”
“Ghost” afterlife: Matters got truly meta, however, when Ashton Kutcher – Moore’s ex-husband – and his “Two and a Half Men” cast mate Jon Cryer re-created the scene last year during the sitcom’s closing credits.
Another sign of “Ghost’s” lasting impact is a bit of rap slang that first showed up in the early ‘90s – “I’m Swayze.” The phrase is similar to another reference, “I’m ghost,” meaning, “I’m out of here.” Notorious B.I.G. was particularly keen on employing the reference in his songs and Swayze even put in a cameo appearance in Ja Rule’s “Murder Reigns” video, acknowledging his place in hip-hop culture.