“Ghost”, directed by Jerry Zucker, was released thirty years ago today by Paramount Pictures. Patrick Swayze plays Sam, a yuppie banker, who moves into a lavish, boutique Manhattan apartment with his girlfriend, Molly (Demi Moore), a potter. Everything is impossibly swell—Sam is making good money on his investments, Molly is putting her clay works into a famous gallery, and, of course, the couple is hopelessly in love—until a fateful mugging encounter in the New York alleys after a theater performance leaves Sam dead in Molly’s arms. Now a ghost, invisible to and unable to interact with the physical world, Sam uncovers that his death was not random, but the result of a calculated plot. He enlists the help of a medium, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), in order to protect Molly from the malevolent forces that still seek to prey on her.
The film, unexpectedly, was a magnificent box office smash, raking in over a half-billion dollars in cinemas. In 1990, this was enough to make it the third-highest grossing movie of all time (as of 2015, adjusted for inflation, it is still the 93rd best-grossing film release). Additionally, the movie had a formidable presence come Award season, nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture) and winning for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Whoopi Goldberg). Although it would be unlikely for a film like this to replicate that success in contemporary times, thirty years later “Ghost” still retains its charms as a comfort-viewing comic-drama.
A blend of comedy, tragedy, romance and, perhaps, a tinge of horror, Jerry Zucker, of “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” fame and thus enshrined in spoof/parody posterity, ended up being the perfect choice to direct. His experience and expertise in deconstructing the clichés and elements of different genres proved a perfect match with the script, imbuing the familiar genre beats upon which the story is built with unique little spins. The result is that although the overall film is a tad predictable, it is still engaging and fresh to watch.
For example, during the obligatory, introductory expression of love between the two leads, Molly is in the midst of shaping her latest clay creation, which is not not phallic. Subtly tongue-in-cheek while not veering into obscenity, it is a pleasant diversionary tactic for those tired of cloyingly cheesy and romantic introductory dance scenes in romance films. Additionally, there is a sequence in which Sam (now a ghost) learns how to interact with physical matter from a ghost who haunts the subways. What could have been a runtime-wasting and mundane routine is instead a very entertaining sequence, a brief yet engaging exploration of the mysterious Subway Ghost, played by a brilliantly-cast Vincent Schiavelli. His uniquely tragic-looking face and skills as an actor make the character (and by extension, the sequence) at-once weirdly terrifying, farcically humorous, and even melancholic.
Indeed, the real show-stealers are the supporting actors. Swayze and Moore give it their all, but they are undeniably overshadowed by the excellence around them. Tony Goldwyn is great as the duplicitous, sociopathic, backstabbing Carl, a co-worker and (supposedly) best friend to Sam, who in actuality is a greedy, amoral money-launderer. Yet, Whoopi Goldberg is the real revelation, the comic jewel who fills every scene with her zany and loveable larger-than-life screen presence. Her initial freak-outs at having legitimately contacted a ghost and her subsequent misadventures dealing with white-collar bankers recall both classic cinematic comedy-of-manners like “Pygmalion” (better known as its musical reincarnation “My Fair Lady”) and the glory days of “SNL-esque” late-night anarchy, and combines them into a unique comedic package. It is not often that a comedic performance wins an Oscar, but in this case, it was totally warranted.
Yet, that is not to say that the film is entirely without flaws, especially when viewed today. The effects are laughably horrific (especially the demonic spirits) and the music is at-times unbearably cheesy. Some scenes also tend to drag on, prolonging an already-long film (the runtime clocks in at about 128 minutes, far longer than most breezy romantic movies). Indeed, the farewell scene—with Swayze bathed in that cheap, garish, pseudo-heavenly blue light accompanied by that corny orchestral swell—seems to last an eternity. But, despite those flaws, “Ghost” is still a well-crafted and emotionally satisfying good time. It is perfect for a romantic night-in, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.