by Sam Juliano
Ghost is a trap for snobs. A big 1990 Hollywood release with marketable stars normally starts off with a strike against it, and the supernatural premise of featuring a man being murdered, returning as a ghost, and then watching invisibly over his lover was certain to have some critics out impersonating ghostbusters. And despite a majority of favorable notices, there remains to this day some who deride this popular comic fantasy with John Simon-styled venom, dismissing it as trite, sophomoric, and cloyingly sentimental. But square can be beautiful too, and Ghost has gloriously survived the lambasting from the intelligentsia to stand today as a romantic favorite among audiences who largely find bliss in all shapes and varieties in re-visitations. The film was the second biggest grosser worldwide in its release year, trailing only Home Alone.
Featuring three popular actors who in this film give their very best performances (to be sure Swayze is not much of an actor at any rate), Ghost, directed by cinematic laughmeister extraordinaire Jerry Zucker is reliant on its eccentric fabric to overcome what some believe is a ghost story that for all its built in deceits is still exceedingly difficult to believe. The film alternates between the somber and broadly comic, yet the entire enterprise is held together by the emotional glue of romance that would even go as far as to have the lovers make pottery while engaging in a steamy make-out. The early scenes of the film are idyllic and amorous, chronicling the young couple’s move into a Big Apple apartment, though the film’s deftly measured screenplay (sure there is some hokey dialogue, but it comes with the turf) by Bruce Joel Rudin issues some dire warnings that include the hoisting of an angel into a window, Molly’s wish to see a performance of Macbeth, and a news flash of an airplane crash.
With narrative brevity Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze), who is a successful yuppie Wall Street investment banker, and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), who is an aspiring artist, shortly see their union permanently shattered when a sleazy looking mugger confronts and accidentally shoots Sam after an unexpected struggle. Sam uneasily transforms into a ghost, leaving behind a bleeding corpse that is DOA at an area hospital.
The initial ghost-like posturings for Sam are not exactly smooth, as he has trouble getting accustomed to walking through doors, walls and subway turnstiles. He meets his first fellow apparition in a hospital emergency room, a crusty old gent who speaks like a stand up comic. His maiden attempts to reach Molly fall on deaf eyes and ears. His then proceeds to invade the personal space of a feisty hustler named Oda Mae Brown who is a self-employed spiritualist who works out of a Brooklyn storefront for a $20 fee that is doubled when she tells her customers she’ll remove a “curse” that is upon them. Brown is played by Whoopi Goldberg, and the famed talk show host and sometimes thespian steals every scene she’s in – no surprise since she has never had a role that fits her as this one does. Her oft-hand back talk is a hoot, as are her irascible retorts to the many requests made by Sam. Sam’s interference with a spurious seance reveal that she is the only one around who can communicate with him, and two develop a testy bond that is sustained by her fondness for the prospects of financial gain.
Shortly thereafter Sam finds out a horrible secret about his work colleague Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn), though the audience had been on to this for quite some time. A plot to steal money forged an alliance between Carl and the killer Willie Lopez (Rick Aviles) and the bogus burglary runs further amok when communication between Carl and Molly reveals some crucial details that implicate Oda Mae, who is then pursued by Willie, hell-bent on silencing her. She narrowly escapes, and later -in the film’s most uproarious scene – poses as ‘Rita Miller’ to withdraw money to foil Carl’s laundering scheme. Goldberg’s acting in this scene is fabulous, (“That’s my name, Rita Miller”, and “I signed the wrong name”) and she is just as funny when she won’t let go of a seven digit check she is ordered to donate to two nuns on the street. Sam tells Oda Mae he needs her to get some of her fake IDs. The only way he would know that Oda Mae once made fake IDs is if he was with Molly at the police station earlier on when Oda Mae’s police record was pulled and the officer told Molly that Oda Mae was arrested for making fake IDs. Sam was not with Molly, as he was already dead. Another such faux pas occurs later when Sam hears loud sound effects as ghosts pass through what is actually an open door. But these and some other gaffes fail to compromise the enormous amount of fun one gains by watching this unapologetic entry in the guilty pleasure genre that is much more pleasure than guilt. Indeed back in 1990 Philadelphia News critic Gary Thompson opened his review of the film with: “Sappy, melodramatic but never insincere, Ghost takes a B list cast and an impossibly hokey story and blends them into an entertaining picture, though one you’ll probably kick yourself for liking.”
Even a good number of those who love the film have conceded that some of the special effects are cheesy, especially when heaven and hell are calling. The good guys are carried away on beams of celestial light, while the bad guys are pulled down into a bottomless pit by animated figures in black shrouds.
The film’s romantic underpinning is mostly guided by two elements, one narrative and the other musical. The former is a device whereby Oda Mae is guided by Sam’s ghost to tell Molly intimate things that only she and Sam knew, like special items of clothes, jewelry and places where they were stored or kept. The inherent romanticism of such a deceit revolves around intimacy and knowing things that aren’t known by others. The score by celebrated film composer Maurice Jarre makes aching use of the Righteous Brothers’ standard “Unchained Melody” which many don’t realize was written by composer Alex North for the 1955 prison drama Unchained and turned into a #1 R & B hit for Al Hibbons and Roy Hamilton before the Righteous Brothers took it to Number 4 on the pop charts ten years later. Jarre’s main orchestral theme is sumptuous, though the idea is only heard in its full-flavored harmonic grandeur in a four-minute suite over the end credits. Much of the rest of the score contains the kind of dissonance you’d expect to hear in a horror or mystery film, though Ghost does qualify in part.
The film does contain some charming set pieces. When Sam enters a subway a fellow ghost has a hissy fit, pursuing him in the spirit dimension to get off his train. Towering Vincent Schiavelli, a distinct sad-eyed actor who played a mental ward patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the scary specter who briefly lightens up when Sam insists on knowing how to move objects. Carl’s death scene is most effectively staged, although it’s the film’s goriest passage, and the inevitable finale with tearful goodbyes is the height of bittersweet bliss. Ghost is proof parcel that it doesn’t take narrative profundity to produce a touching romance. All it takes is knowing the audience pulse in crafting a popular entertainment with wide appeal.
The fil a story, Ghost is not the typical romantic comedy, hindered by death, melancholy, and remorse. And yet, the mysticism of Sam and Molly’s love story was partly elevated to the level of cult status by the film’s music. The score rises from the depths of Mauric