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150 Films #6: All the Right Moves (1983)

My path to All the Right Moves began with Rosie O’Donnell.

Back in the ’90s, she had a phenomenally popular daytime talk show. O’Donnell used to have a sense of humor—a great, quick wit, in fact—and as a kid, she was one of my favorite stand-up comics. In fact, I remember during the late-’80s comedy boom, Stand-Up Spotlight on VH1 was appointment television for my sister and me, not because of all the great comedians but because Rosie O’Donnell hosted and did little jokes between each act. Then, she became the standout in A League of Their Own, which I feel like must have run on HBO 400 times a day. In our house, she was beloved by the whole family.

During the summer, the TV would invariably be on channel five at three o’clock. Even though I was at an age when it was wiser to act too cool for O’Donnell’s schtick, it was never a coincidence that if I was bumming around the house, I’d end up in the living room, pretending not to pay attention to her show.

One of the more memorable quirks of the O’Donnell persona was her near-obsessive crush on All the Right Moves star Tom Cruise. On an episode where Lea Thompson joined O’Donnell to promote Caroline in the City, O’Donnell played an eye-opening clip from the film and demanded Thompson dish on the experience.

If you’ve seen All the Right Moves, you know the scene. If you haven’t, it involves nudity. Full-frontal nudity from Marty McFly’s MILF. Near full-frontal from Cruise, as well, which is what got O’Donnell excited; in fact, there’s a half-second penis shot that is allegedly a body double—but what, the internet wonders, if it’s not? (The Rosie O’Donnell Show, needless to say, blurred out the important parts.) That mattered less to my impressionable teenage self than the knowledge that someone I’d had a crush on for as long as I could remember got totally starkers in a major motion picture. Tom who?

Back in the days before internet video was a reliable option to see celebrities naked, we had to rent whole movies. Tempting as it was to simply fast-forward until the nudity, I always liked movies. What would the harm be, I wondered, in watching the movie, mentally marking the time code of the nude scene, and backing up later?

Of course, context can render even full-frontal nudity unsexy. The gray palette and elegiac feel of the film surrounding this sex scene dashed any impure thoughts by the time it arrived. For one thing, the film itself absorbed me. For another, even as a teenager struggling to convince any girl to give me the time of day, I found it wholeheartedly depressing to watch Lisa Litsky (Thompson) moon over Stefen Djordjavic (Cruise). They both knew as well as I did that he didn’t love her. Like me, he just wanted to see her totally starkers. But she loved him, which made the whole thing miserable beyond belief.

The film focuses on Stef, whose sole interest is getting out of the Bruce Springsteen song in which he lives. Stef has grown up in a small Pennsylvania steel town, where the only hope of escape is football. Like many small towns, Ampipe (named for the factory that built it, American Pipe & Steel) culture revolves around football. Stef, who excels on the field, is known by name by factory workers who weren’t good enough to get out.

Stef is good enough, but he has a big problem: he masks insecurity with cockiness. Everyone reading this knows Cruise has built an entire career on cockiness, but as I observed in my 2010 review of the film, All the Right Moves presents a version of Cruise’s cockiness that could have marred his persona with vulnerability. With rare exceptions, Cruise likes to play invincible; his persona has so defined him that an unexpected “oh shit!” eye bulge elicits huge laughs from audiences. Anything that cracks his suave exterior reminds us he’s human, at least for a few seconds.

All the Right Moves hit theatres a few months after his breakthrough in Risky Business, and it allows him to play the same kind of cockiness to a radically different effect. Here, he’s a scared kid, terrified of the future. He has the ambition to dream big and the athleticism to maybe—maybe—make his dreams reality, but nothing’s certain. That shows in his eyes. Even as he mouths off to Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) or boasts in the locker room to his pals (including the late Chris Penn) or pressures Lisa into sex, he lacks the smiling swagger of Cruise as we know him.

This extra shading gives Stef a dynamic edge that most Cruise roles lack. I should note that I’m a bit of a Cruise apologist, so don’t think I’m trashing him here. His unabashed self-assurance can carry even the silliest movies (it even elevates Days of Thunder to the level of “so-so”), but it would have ruined this movie. The veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman directs the film in a way that leans heavily on audience unease. Stef has to feel uncertain about the future so we do. More than anything, he and screenwriter Michael Kane want to to tell a story about human fallibility, not superhuman perseverance.

Over the course of the movie, Stef’s façade of confidence jeopardizes everything he has going: he casually dismisses the only college scout (Terry O’Quinn in a tiny role) who shows interest; he turns his back on friends who make it clear they’d rather carve out a nice rut in familiar Ampipe than get out into an uncertain world; he alienates Lisa; and, most importantly, he enrages Nickerson, who cuts Stef from the team and blackballs him to scouts.

By the time Stef and Lisa finally make amends and have sex for the first time, it’s abundantly clear that he sees this as settling for less. When his best friend, Brian (Penn), knocks up his girlfriend and chooses to roll with it instead of taking a USC scholarship, Stef is horrified and uncomprehending. What’s worse: Lisa knows it. She only allows it to happen, the film implies, because Stef has lost everything else. He has no way out, just like Lisa has no way out, which means they can finally be together forever. How could anybody find this moment of copulation in any way arousing? She loves him, but they’re both trapped in the misery of their circumstances.

And that, ultimately, is the main reason I fell in love with All the Right Moves: its resonant portrayal of blue-collar desperation and fear.

I don’t think I realized until high school that I grew up poor. Maybe I was just unobservant—I do seem to recall my sister doing a fair amount of complaining about all we lacked—or maybe my parents did a good job of protecting us from… No, I’m going with “unobservant” on this one. I mean, we used to accompany Mom on trips to the food pantry at the Presbyterian church, and at one point my dad had three jobs trying to keep a roof over our head. These aren’t exactly subtle indicators… But hey, we never starved, and I don’t feel like I was ever really left wanting.

I didn’t play football. I didn’t grow up in a steel town. I didn’t have a super-hot girlfriend who both loved me and hoped I’d fail so we could be together. The specifics of the story don’t resonate so much as what drives the characters: parents who want better for their kids, apprehensive kids who worry one mistake will obliterate their chance at a future, petty teachers willing to ruin a student’s life out of spite… I’ve seen a steady stream of married couples who could have been Stef and Lisa, who looked at each other with simultaneous affection and disappointment. I’ve seen kids with older brothers who never got out and bummed around, trying to carve out a life on a dead-end job and a rusty beater car. I’ve seen people—hundreds of them, all through my life, including yesterday in the waiting area at Great Clips—who can chart every mistake they’d ever made but choose to ignore them all so they can make it to tomorrow with a gritted-teeth smile.

I may have been unobservant when it came to my own family, but I know how poor affects people, even “privileged” white people, and All the Right Moves does a really good job of capturing it at various ages and social strata. Unlike similar “factory life” movies like Blue Collar or even Flashdance, this film emphasizes the stress and wariness of teenagers who feel boxed in by life. Naturally, that resonated with me when I first saw it, but the fact that it gets things right makes it an enduring statement on blue-collar life. It’s hard to eke out a day-to-day living as an adult who couldn’t “make it”; it’s damn near impossible to be 16 and know where you came from and where you want to go, with only the slimmest possibility that you’ll ever do better than Mom or Dad.

What truly sets All the Right Moves apart from other teen movies, other sports movies, and other blue-collar movies is the relationship that forms between Stef and Nickerson. Nickerson isn’t an unorthodox hard-ass like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers; he’s not comically apathetic like Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears; he’s not even ineptly optimistic like Rick Moranis in Little Giants. Nickerson is just a man, a good coach who doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life as a typing teacher who coaches small-town high school football on the side. He and Stef clash because they both want to be scouted: Stef defies direction to show them he’s a great player, and Nickerson rigidly demands obedience to show them he’s a great coach.

Unlike Stef, though, Nickerson has the power and connections to destroy the person he sees as a threat. He never thinks, “He’s just a kid.” He thinks, “I don’t care who he is–we both have one chance to get out of here, and I won’t let him destroy mine!” Teachers and coaches are human beings. All the Right Moves doesn’t idealize, demonize, or in any way exaggerate who Nickerson is. Like every other character in the film, his behavior demonstrates the fragile fallibility that can make or break any person, especially one desperate to escape humble origins.

This is not a happy film, but it has a happy ending that it works hard to earn. Even then, it doesn’t pull punches, surrounding Stef with his hardhat-wearing father and brother and the girl who loves him. To some, this is enough. Not to everyone, though, and not to Stef. As someone who has always wanted more, who has fumbled and made mistakes while working hard toward something—I think Obama calls us “strivers”—All the Right Moves is the only film I’ve seen to truly capture the diversity of experience and complexity of emotions involved in “striving.”

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: American Splendor (2003)

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