Wednesday 12 February 2020

The medium and the message: "Ghost"

To mark Valentine's Day, 1990's Ghost is rematerialising on UK screens this week, one of the more prominent artefacts of Hollywood's necromantic phase. The previous decade had seen plenty of life-after-death, as the VFX houses founded in the wake of Star Wars made it even easier for directors to turn flesh-and-blood performers into phantoms: some of it enduring (Ghost Busters, Beetlejuice), some of it less so (High Spirits, Haunted Honeymoon). Ghost's USP - somewhat surprisingly, given that its director was Airplane!'s Jerry Zucker - was to play the material mostly straight, casting leads (Swayze, Moore) who weren't exactly renowned for their comic chops, and then floating them sincerely, to the accompaniment of a Maurice Jarre score, through the events of a Bruce Joel Rubin script. One obvious inspiration would be the travails of Orpheus in the underworld - for which the New York subway system, presided over by a memorably grumpy Vincent Schiavelli, fills in - though the movie's most iconic scene takes place above ground early on, as a bare-chested Patrick and a sticky-fingered Demi are set to some po-faced erotic pottery and a final earthly fuck to the strains of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody". (Zucker's own brother David would make merry with that in The Naked Gun 2½ a year later, confirming a definitive split in the Zucker ranks.) Much else tessellates squarely with turn-of-the-Nineties yuppie cinema: it opens with Sam Wheat (Swayze) and his squeeze Molly (Moore) doing up a house, shifty pal Tony Goldwyn compliments Sam on his braces while eyeing up a Ferrari Testarossa, and Sam's premature death is surely born of the yuppie fear of being set upon in an alleyway with suboptimal lighting by some dusky-skinned representative of the underclass. (He corks it as Batman's parents corked it, and you'll remember that story was very much back in the zeitgeist circa 1990.)

Rewinding thirty years - I hadn't seen the film since it premiered on TV in the early 1990s - the surprise is just how Caucasian the movie now appears. It really needs Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae Brown, the phoney medium who winds up playing Cupid to the sundered lovers, to give it its energy: the opening half-hour is a little sluggish about its set-up, and the non-Goldberg scenes are oddly hushed and hobbled by the fact the leads are more aspirational than truly compelling. Only with Oda Mae's arrival does Ghost begin to have fun with its concept: it's the medium being kept awake by the now-ghostly Sam singing "Henry the Eighth", or squabbling with someone nobody else on screen can see or hear ("He's so testy!"). We even get a glimpse of a kinkier film when Sam leaps into Oda Mae's body so as to get one more slowdance in with Molly - though the Rubin/Zucker straight edge manifests in the decision to film this as hunky Patrick canoodling with Demi, not Demi making whoopie with Whoopi. Goldberg would win the Supporting Actress Oscar, becoming only the fourth black Oscar winner in seventy years; with 2020 vision, Oda Mae rarely looks like more than a lively plot device, a necessary interlocutor. (We'd have to wait until 1992's Sister Act - seemingly inspired by an unlikely interaction Oda Mae has here with nuns - for Goldberg to be granted anything like her own, distinctive voice.) The biggest Judeo-Christian blockbuster since Ben-Hur, it was always a deeply conservative vision of this world and the next - a film that nudges the upwardly mobile Sam towards the light, while watching its streetpunks ripped apart by demons - though I will concede it's gained a newfound poignancy from the fact that Swayze and Schiavelli have themselves moved on to a higher spectral plane. Like Swayze's other big hit of the period Dirty Dancing, it may rely on an audience's nostalgia for being there when it became the phenomenon it did; anybody coming fresh to it may share Oda Mae's reaction to being shown a photo of Sam Wheat and his creamed-corn sweetheart: "Cute! White, but cute."

Ghost returns to selected cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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