A happy 75th to John Badham, who broke through in 1977 with Saturday Night Fever and had a good and fun run before slowing down at the end of the last millennium. Recently, he’s been working in television and teaching at Chapman University, and last year, he came out with a book, John Badham on Directing, prompting a round of interviews—Cari Beauchamp (Thompson on Hollywood), Susan King (Los Angeles Times) and a couple of others we’ll get to in a moment.
Badham’s debut feature was The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), produced by Motown and Universal and featuring Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. Then, the mega-hit: “The way Saturday Night Fever has been directed and shot, we feel the languorous pull of the discotheque, and the gaudiness is transformed,” wrote Pauline Kael. “These are among the most hypnotically beautiful pop dance scenes ever filmed…. Saturday Night Fever gets at something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you’d like to be.”
Badham followed up two years later with Dracula, featuring Frank Langella as the Count, Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence and a score by John Williams. Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) stars Richard Dreyfuss as a man who sues for his right to die, pitting against an anti-euthanasia hospital administrator played by John Cassavetes. Gene Siskel championed Blue Thunder (1983) as a “perfect summertime entertainment” (as did Christoph Huber) but Roger Ebert found the story simply too implausible.
The film starred two unknowns, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, and follows a teenage hacker, David Lightman (played by Broderick) who stumbles into a US Defense Department central computer. Lightman plays what he thinks is an innocent game of “Global Thermonuclear War” with a virtual counterpart, but his fictional attack on America, is believed to be very real by NORAD commanders and World War III becomes a very definite possibility.
On the set, director Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman, Beverly Hills Cop) was fighting with producers over creative decisions and, after a two week negotiation, Badham was brought in to replace Brest. The new hire started on a Monday and was shooting three days later…. Badham quickly won over Broderick and Sheedy, who had feared for their jobs, and eventually, American audiences.
American Flyers (1985) came and went but Short Circuit (1986) was a hit despite mixed reviews. Stakeout (1983), with Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez, would spawn a sequel ten years later, Another Stakeout. Bird on a Wire (1990) stars Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn and The Hard Way (1991) pairs James Woods as a hot-tempered cop and Michael J. Fox as a spoiled movie star. Speaking to Clint Morris at Moviehole last year, Badham called Woods “really kind of a wild and loud and bawdy personality, who is smarter than you and me and about 50 other people put together. And he’s a real tornado on the set. Acting opposite him you have to watch out, you’ll get your life stolen from you by Jimmy Woods. I mean, he could upstage King Kong. And it drove Michael crazy, because Michael was used to, from the Back to the Future films and his television series, to being, ‘Everybody get out of the way ’cause Michael’s the funny one.’ And he never reckoned with Jimmy Woods. [chuckle] So it was great.”
Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda, is a remake of Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990). Thing is, on the popular front, by the mid-90s, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers were challenging the tried-and-true formula for popcorn entertainment perfected in the 80s, and neither critics nor audiences took to Drop Zone (1994), Nick of Time (1995), with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken, or Incognito (1997). But for many of us, that director’s reel embedded up there will take you right back.
More viewing. Jeremy Kagan talks with Badham for the Directors’ Guild.