Where were you when he turned 62? (This joke will make sense later if you don’t get it.)
It’s Ron Howard‘s 62nd birthday and since we don’t know his address, our gift to him will be looking at his gifts to us. We’re assessing his huge body of work and picking our 10 favorites, which is no small task considering he’s been at this since he was an infant.
Most film snobs like to promote the auteur theory, a sometimes-workable, sometimes-poppycock idea that motion pictures, the most collaborative of all art forms, is branded with an author’s mark, and that mark is traceable throughout that director’s entire career.
Ron Howard is no auteur. He’s a journeyman Hollywood professional of the highest order. There’s no genre he can’t tackle, nothing he won’t try. He doesn’t always knock ’em out of the park (ugh The Dilemma, ugh Far and How The Grinch Stole Christmas) but having grown up around cameras as a child actor, Howard has a knack for drawing out performances. His production company, Imagine Entertainment, was also responsible for roughly 83% of all film and television product in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in case you weren’t paying attention.
Howard has been a major presence in American pop culture for over 50 years. (And let’s not forget who orbits him: his father Rance, his brother Clint, his daughter Bryce.) Isolating just ten best is impossible, which is why we cheated. You’ll still get a chance to yell at us in the comments afterwards.
* The Andy Griffith Show
From 1960 through 1968 television audiences who needed a blast of nostalgia during some turbulent years could turn to CBS’ weekly broadcast of the Andy Griffith Show. The down-home, goofy, lovable citizens of Mayberry existed in a fantasyland of old fashioned values and innocuous comedy. If it weren’t for the sharp writing and good performances, it would be impossible to stomach today, even as a time capsule experiment. Through it all, there’s Opie, scrappy lil Ron Howard, Sheriff Andy’s precocious son, always in the mix of some shenanigans with Aunt Bee, Deputy Barney, Floyd the Barber, Cousin Gomer, Cousin Goober and plenty of others. Its memorable theme song whistles over the image of this adorable tyke walking back from the fishin’ hole. If you don’t like this idiotic show you hate America. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
* Happy Days/American Graffiti
As time marched on and Howard grew up, it was time for a different type of nostalgia. Happy Days capitalized on the 1970s love of the greaser 1950s period and for 11 seasons (!) good-natured Richie Cunningham lived an apple pie American life beside the ever-so-slightly rebellious Fonzie (ayyyyy!) and his dopey friends Potsie and Ralph Malph. This segued nicely to Howard’s first major film role, the very similar love letter to fast cars and teenage troubles in George Lucas‘ “where were you in ’62?” hit American Graffiti. Both properties went heavy on the diners and rock n’ roll.
* Night Shift
Richie Cunningham . . .rated R?
Ron Howard had made the move behind the camera to direct a few cheapies for schlock producer Roger Corman, but this was his first mainstream outing. And it was a hit (though very much a product of its time.) Casting his old pal The Fonz (Henry Winkler) against type as an ulcer-ridden milquetoast city worker, he’s forced to share duties with the boss’ rambunctious nephew, played by Michael Keaton. Through a series of story contortions they end up turning a morgue into a brothel and nightclub. Hey, it was 1982. This flick is one hell of a snapshot of a different era.
We’re cheating, but we’re putting two enormous 80s hits together. Hey, they are both supernatural and they both involve water, so it makes sense. Splash made superstars out of Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah – a lonely New Yorker and a lonely mermaid who fall in love despite the odds. It’s really sweet and its release just happened to dovetail with America’s obsession with sushi. Coincidence?
Cocoon is a little more complex, involving space aliens returning to earth to bring back some left behind comrades. But their efforts involve giving a blast of regenerative energy to a number of senior citizens at an old folks’ home. It’s exciting and touching, and is the urtext for wacky grandpa montages.
Re-teaming with his ol’ pal George Lucas, this time it’s Howard calling the shots. Willow is a beloved high fantasy that mixed swords, sorcery, dwarves and Val Kilmer. Talk about a witches’ brew! Despite outstanding location photography and special effects, it wasn’t quite the hit everyone expected. Critics were mixed, box office receipts were slight. Luckily this was the early era of premium cable, when a PG movie like this could run over and over and over again, making this a hallmark film for people of a certain age. (Okay, me. I’m talking about me.) Ignore the bird, follow the river!
* The Paper
Stop the presses! This movie isn’t as out-of-date as you might think. Sure, a look at the newspaper biz from a time before the world went online feels like checking in on another planet, but the characters, enthusiasm and brute energy found in a newsroom (and from folks with metaphorical ink in their veins) is the same now as it ever was. And it’s contagious. This day-in-the-life of a New York tabloid starring Michael Keaton, Randy Quaid, Glenn Close and Robert Duvall is the best movie ever made about the newspaper business. And if that isn’t quite the case, we can always issue a retraction tomorrow.
* Apollo 13
How can you possibly maintain suspense in a movie where you know everybody comes out fine? Ron Howard knows how! It involves clever dialogue, ace performances (Tom Hanks! Ed Harris! Kevin Bacon! The moon and stars!) and a keen eye for period detail. Whenever I can’t figure out how to open a weird email attachment I think “failure is not an option!” and get ready to apply the ol’ noggin to get the job done. Apollo 13 is a true superhero’s movie.
* A Beautiful Mind
As frequently happens in Hollywood, the Academy Awards are sometimes all about timing. Ron Howard should have won for Apollo 13 but didn’t, so he won for this lesser film instead. Russell Crowe, in a sharp reversal of his Gladiator performance, exercises his brain instead of his brawn. As the Nobel-winning economist who used higher math to figure out how to score with women, A Beautiful Mind shows the struggle of a genius battling mental illness. If nothing else, his dark road will make you feel better that you did so poorly in math.
* Arrested Development
I know that voice!
Yep, that’s Ron Howard, the producer and narrator behind the early aughts’ finest situation comedy. While Arrested Development is Mitchell Hurwitz’ baby, it originated from Howard’s idea to blend the conventions from the shows that made him a household name with the absurdity of reality television. Thus, the Bluth Family and their shenanigans were born. (That Henry Winkler eventually popped up just made it even nicer.)
Some of Ron Howard’s recent movies haven’t been so hot – we’re not going to lie. That whale movie with Chris Hemsworth was a disaster. But their collaboration Rush from 2013 is one definitely worth checking out. It was only a modest success in the United States, but overseas, where the Formula One stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda are more well known, it fared a little better. What’s more the racing scenes are a marvel, continuing George Lucas’ pursuit of capturing the essence of speed on film from American Grafitti. Strap in.