At the time? Embarrassing. Now? Fun! Strange how a few years makes you see the joy that was intended.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
When it came out, it was a flop. Not surprising, since it’s a children’s movie that contains a shot of a chicken getting beheaded (it’s during the boat ride scene). The author of the original book, Roald Dahl, despised it. But repeated showings on network television in the 1970s, when there were only a few channels and scant opportunities for kids to watch programs of their own — the beheading was excised for that — made this a beloved property of the post-Moon Shot generation. Gene Wilder’s wild-haired, is-he-or-isn’t-he performance, though wildly different from the squirrelly, goateed Wonka of the book, was a harbinger for modern sarcasm. He also gave the movie the heart it needed to endure — something Johnny Depp, in his unleashed, twerpy interpretation couldn’t muster. Look at the picture. His off-kilter performance is still worth a meme, 41 years later.
2. Newsies (1992)
Backlot production values, second-rate songs, and at the time, second-rate actors. Everyone participating in this thing seems to be crooning “I needed the paycheck.” But Christian Bale no longer slums with properties such as this, and kids who were raised with the electric babysitter of VHS grew up to be ticket buyers for the current Broadway revival, conveniently starring Jeremy Jordan, a boy/man who stirs the loins. The revival spackles over a thin plot about a newsboy strike by casting cute, hairless twinks who can do the splits. That’s why I call it Norma Gay.
3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It’s widely repeated Hollywood lore that upon release, MGM didn’t get out of it what it put in. So it kept re-releasing it to make its investment back. And in the 1950s, it tried airing it television, and that’s when it took off. It took nearly 20 years for redemption. It was the Newsies of its day. Except the songs were good. Thank Yip for that. Sure, it makes no sense. I mean, she goes on this incredible adventure, grows to love all these friends, and then concludes she didn’t need to leave home at all? Whatever. Let’s not be practical and blame Hollywood committee creation. It can mean whatever you want it to. And that’s a formula for endurance.
4. Jem (1985—1988)
How did Jem persist while Inspector Gadget and You Can’t Do That on Television fell into the annals? Probably because this afterschool indulgence has camp appeal for the adults who were nursed on it as kids. She hasn’t had her commercial redemption yet, but it’s only a matter of time. The animation is as crude as a Kodachrome slideshow, the plots as loopy as a peyote trip, and the heroine such a cheesy construct — music industry exec by day, mane-haired front woman of The Holograms by night — that even before you add in the cotton candy hairdo and the synergistic line of dolls, it’s impossible not to admire the conceptual hubris that only the 1980s could produce. I mean, hologram projectors in her earrings? Jane Austen, you’re an amateur.
5. Clue (1985)
When this came out, the ad in the newspaper would tell you which ending your cinema was showing: A, B, or C. These days, magazines and comic books sell multiple copies of variant covers using just such a tactic, but in 1985, it gave audiences multiple reasons not to go. It didn’t help that the talent was strictly D-level, or that Spielberg’s latest, The Color Purple, came out five days later. It should have helped that A Chorus Line came out the same day. Now that we don’t have her, we can truly miss Madeline Kahn and her knack for set pieces such as her unscripted, loopy “Flames on the side of my face” rant. (An audio clip is my phone’s alarm. I never tire of it.) Its latter-day success has been of the cult variety, but it nonetheless went from pariah to precious without outside help.
6. Heathers (1989)
I am proud to say I saw this one in the cinemas, which is saying something considering it only did about $1.1 million. In the late ’90s, Columbine briefly made this one a little too prescient for comfort, but Mean Girls salvaged that perception, and now it’s the high school black comedy cloth from which all others are cut. And is there anything except black comedy when it comes to high schools now? (Zac Efron’s oeuvre excepted.) Christian Slater made Jack Nicholson impressions passé even before Jack himself was. John Hughes’ offbeat earnestness is often credited for giving teen movies their heart, but the nihilistic style and hyper-affected tone of Heathers are so often imitated that now we take them for granted. It was redeemed by emulation.
7. My So-Called Life (1994—1995)
You didn’t watch it then. Neither did I. But is there anyone under 45 who doesn’t now consider this show in the pantheon of the best TV shows of all time? Screw I Love Lucy; our generation loves the noble failures most. We still cite this show as proof the networks don’t know what the hell they’re doing and would gladly kill the golden goose before watching it mature. A generation uses “Jordan Catalano” as a shorthand for the dewey-eyed hottie who may be unworthy of you. The DVD set is a standard library item for Gen X’s DVD shelves. Just 19 episodes, it stands monolithically as a warning that creativity must not be cut down when it’s in its green shoots. Don’t feel bad for the participants. Claire Danes is going strong, creator Winnie Holzman will never have to work again thanks to her script for Broadway’s Wicked, and Jared Leto is still painfully pretty, even if he needs to eat a sandwich. Freaks and Geeks was redeemed by the later victories of its talent, but My So-Called Life endures as a potent object lesson, and in some ways, is the parent of them all.
8. Mommie Dearest (1981)
Never really got it. Faye Dunaway is hammier than Christmas dinner. And kids today don’t know who Joan Crawford was. But middle-aged people can recite segments of this 1981 clunker back to you verbatim — right before you excuse yourself, of course. Somehow, mom-on-child violence + clown make-up eyebrow arch + scene chewing = camp classic for gay dudes. Hence this sorta hilarious mash-up of ABBA and re-mixed clips, which the boys in Chicago talk back to, Rocky Horror style, at Sidetrack every Monday night:
9. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Like Faye Dunaway, Winona Ryder makes the list again out of sheer dramatic effort, if not talent. She was also trimming Johnny Depp’s hair at the time, if you catch my drift. People now consider this one of Tim Burton’s best movies, continuity train wrecks notwithstanding, although his exaggerated suburban mockery owed more to John Waters than to Johnny Depp. Still, Depp, channeling Depeche Mode and sponsored by Aqua Net, was more reined in then than he has been in later years, and his aloof, kewpie doll face helped transition him from 21 Jump Street stud muffinhood to the star he is now. Edward’s untouchable prettyboy persona also helped define his ethos as a celebrity. Once he was a star, this movie (and their other Ed, Ed Wood) got more respect than it got at first. It made about $56 million domestically, which wasn’t awful then, but it decidedly wasn’t the classic it is now.
10. Arrested Development (2003—2006)
That lamented, groundbreaking comedy, a living Simpsons, was misunderstood by the masses in its first run. No one seemed to get it. They get it now. Thanks to DVD and Netflix, they wised up, and now it’s coming back as a mini-series and a big screen revival. Its fast-paced, jump-cut, Mobius-loop plotting is now routine in shows ranging from Modern Family to Raising Hope to Family Guy.