As a romantic weepie and suspense thriller, buttressed by big Hollywood glamor, ‘Ghost’ has lingered long after its ascent into heavenly light.
For 25 years we’ve been choking up at the simple word ‘Ditto.’ Ghost, the surprise number one box office draw of 1990 and winner of multiple Academy Awards, is one of those rare perfect pictures. It’s a romantic weepie and it’s a suspense thriller. It’s a supernatural fantasy and it’s a spiritual catharsis. It’s got very funny comedy and big Hollywood glamor. It’s no wonder it’s stayed with us long after it has ascended into a heavenly light.
But it didn’t look like such a slam dunk at first. Indeed, before Patrick Swayze was cast, the producers hoped that they could pair Demi Moore with her then-husband Bruce Willis. He passed on the project, thinking it would not work. (The joke’s on him, he ended up playing a between-worlds ghost in The Sixth Sense just nine years later.)
As we celebrate the film’s anniversary, let’s look back at Six Notable Things About the Movie Ghost.
An Original Screenplay
Ghost emerged as an original concept by Bruce Joel Rubin. Rubin came out of the underground American film movement of the early 1970s, most notably as a collaborator with Brian De Palma on experimental left wing films like Hi, Mom! (a fascinating time capsule featuring a very young Robert De Niro.) He travelled to India, Tibet and Nepal, studying religion and culture, and his first writing credit was Douglas Trumbull’s prescient virtual reality science fiction slash paranoid high tech psychedelic freak-out film Brainstorm. (If you want to see Christopher Walken emerge from the precipice of death with a weird looking gadget on his head, this is the one for you.) Ghost was shot at the same time Adrian Lyne filmed Jacob’s Ladder, an even darker government death trip, this time set among unwitting Vietnam War vets battling LSD flashbacks.
Ghost‘s script had all of the “what if?” but in a kinder, more romantic package. Rubin won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for its mix of the supernatural themes and old fashioned thrills. He continues to work (The Time Traveller’s Wife adaptation was his) and also teaches yoga in California.
An Unlikely Director
Surely you can’t be serious!
If you are merely a casual fan, you might be shocked to learn that the guy who directed Ghost was also the guy who directed …. Airplane!???? Jerry Zucker, younger brother to David Zucker and pals with Jim Abrahams were collectively known as ZAZ, the founders of the Kentucky Fried Theater. They hit pay dirt with their 1980 spoof comedy Airplane! and followed it up with television shows like Police Squad! and films like Top Secret! (They loved exclamation marks!) They dialed back the surrealism a bit for Ruthless People in 1986, but that’s when the team started stretching out a bit and tried stuff on their own. David Zucker continued with the Naked Gun films as a solo act and Abrahams made the Winona Ryder vehicle Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. Jerry Zucker somehow ended up making the highly lucrative and landmark film Ghost.
According to this LA Times article, writer Bruce Joel Rubin was mortified when he learned Zucker would be making the film. “I wanted Milos Forman or Stanley Kubrick (to direct the movie),” Rubin said. “When I was told that the guy who made ‘Airplane!’ was going to direct ‘Ghost,’ I cried.”
Like Tony Goldwyn’s character eventually getting his comeuppance, all’s well that ends well.
In 1990 Patrick Swayze was well known as a hunk and a good dancer, but other than Dirty Dancing (another surprise hit) his output wasn’t exactly what you’d call elevated. He’d turn up in hockey exploitation pictures like Youngblood, for example. But his leading man vitality was etched in clay, however, during a scene that involved … clay.
Demi Moore is a sculptor in Ghost and, as such, has a big spinny thing that can make suggestive looking artwork. When her hubby surprises her with kisses, it’s a big, sloppy, sexy mess – and great cinema. On the soundtrack we heard “Unchained Melody,” a song now forever associated with passionate love that will require a bit of clean-up.
It was a bold song choice, as it was already a hit. It was written in 1955 by Alex North (a noted composer of film scores) and Hy Zaret for a mostly forgotten prison movie called Unchained. The version we love was recorded by the Righteous Brothers in 1965, produced by Phil Spector. It was later covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Cyndi Lauper, but Zucker knew that if you were going to use it, you better go with the classic.
And A Melody We’d Like To Forget
The great twist in Ghost is when Swayze’s Sam Wheat (what a name!) needs to contact his wife from beyond the grave. He finds a medium in Whoopie Goldberg‘s Oda Mae Brown. At first she thinks she’s cracking up, then tries to ignore him. Swayze’s Sam is forced to do something he’d rather not do: he must annoy her! And thus he commences singing the most irritating song in pop history, “I’m Enery the Eighth, I Am.”
Originally written in 1910, it was a hit in British music hall (what the English called vaudeville.) A beloved goofball named Harry Champion was reported to sing it at epic speeds. In 1965 Herman’s Hermits, a pop outfit who also recorded “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Into Something Good” (Trivia! This song was also in ZAZ’s first Naked Gun!), had a novelty hit with this tune. It’s atrocious but just mentioning it got it lodged in your head, didn’t it? And just like Oda Mae Brown, you’ll do anything to make it stop.
The role of Oda Mae Brown was a game changer for Whoopi Goldberg. Her career kicked off with a one-woman show brought to Broadway by Mike Nichols. She did standup and appeared in some not-so-hot comedies. But she was also in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. She was well-known (enough so that she had Gene Roddenberry create the semi-regular role of Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation just for her) but Ghost made her a household name. As the madcap but heartfelt Oda Mae, her skepticism substituted for the audience in this spiritual story. (And what a smart move to write her a huckster first, psychic second.) Whoopi won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African-American woman to win an acting Oscar in 50 years.
Ghost Never Dies
There was never a sequel, but the story of Ghost does live on. A Japanese remake came out in 2010 called Ghost: Mouichido Dakishimetai that was quite successful, and 2011 saw the first British production of Ghost: The Musical, with songs by Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (songwriter for Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette.) The Broadway run was short lived, but the show continues to open around the world, from Mexico to China. Talk about a story with universal appeal.