Steven Spielberg—The King of 80s Hollywood

Through the four decades I’ve officially covered in my “Kings of Hollywood” essay series, this may have been the most competitive. At least, that’s what I thought going into it, but early into the writing process, a clear-cut contender emerged through the ranks.

The same on-paper criteria remain in play as in my previous essays: money made in theaters; scores on Rotten Tomatoes; Academy Award accomplishments; and recognition by the National Film Preservation Board. With those in mind, my top pick should be fairly clear-cut, but let’s actually dig into the numbers, shall we?

In penning my outline, filmmakers John Carpenter and John Hughes teetered between spots one and two, knocking each other up and down with each film that I analyzed in my head. But once I actually sat down to write, after mere seconds of research I stumbled upon a certain Steven Spielberg, who in this ten-year time span oversaw one of the most beloved franchises in Hollywood history, made some Oscar-winning/nominated dramas, and wrote two separate scripts to boot.

Oh, and E.T. was the highest-grossing film of all time upon release, features a near-perfect consensus rating, was selected by the Preservation Board, and garnered the second-most golden statues at the 55th Academy Awards behind Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. That’s pretty hard to eclipse.

After coming in as my runner-up for the 90s spot against Quentin Tarantino, materializing once more in conversation for the best of the 2000s, and again coming in second for the 70s against Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg finally found his time to shine: the 1980s, perhaps the most fan-favorite decade in cinema.

Plenty of cultists are going to have my head for not choosing Carpenter as the center topic, and while I definitely hear the argument on the quantity-quality scale alone, he didn’t make near enough waves at either the Academy Awards or the box office to edge out the victory.

Meanwhile, Spielberg was nominated for best director twice—once for Raiders of the Lost Arc and again for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial—with two nominations for best picture: The Color Purple and, again, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Even more impressive than accolades at the Oscars, he destroyed his competition at the box office. The first three Indiana Jones movies made over a billion dollars combined, while E.T. walked away as the most profitable picture of the decade and the highest-grossing movie of all time until Spielberg broke his own record ten years later with Jurassic Park. That’s just insane. Borderline unhuman.

Johns Hughes and Carpenter garnered decent money with their films, albeit never to a blockbuster extent. I considered them both closely as champion of the decade in the first place because, well, they wrote a ton of scripts apart from what they directed, and versatility in my eyes is equally as important as consistency.

My personal favorite director from this era was one Rob Reiner, responsible for classics such as This is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride—both of which, impressively, have been preserved in the National Film Registry. When you throw in the coming-of-age Stand by Me and romance-comedies When Harry Met Sally and The Sure Thing, his filmography was definitely a sure thing, and his movies went over well with both critics and theatergoers.

However, he didn’t show up at the Oscars, nor did he come close to giving Spielberg a run for his money at the box office.

I could wax lyrical about other top contenders, but frankly, they’re not the most popular names. Guys like Martin Scorsese and Richard Attenborough are definitely top-tier directors whom you’ll probably recognize, but the same might not be said for others like Barry Levinson and Peter Weir.

That said, another name you might know—aside from Steven and the two Johns—is household-name James Cameron. He picked up a couple of Oscars for Aliens in 1986 and The Abyss in 1989, and The Terminator has been preserved in the National Film Registry. Plus, all three movies made a collective $300 million.

However, as much as I love Cameron’s films from this era, those numbers just don’t stack up to Spielberg. Also, Cameron put out Piranha II as his directorial debut in 1982, and no one wants that.

Alright, I lied in saying I wouldn’t spout random names, but there are two others that are undoubtedly worth mentioning, and I’ll start with Robert Zemeckis.

While each of his works garnered great gratitude from critics and had overwhelming success in theaters, he lacked the Academy accolades and Registry resume to truly compete with Spielberg. Back to the Future is one of the more beloved films of the decade, and when you add its first sequel in ‘89 along with both Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, his output honestly shocked me—as did the numbers his movies raked in.

He made over a billion bucks worldwide, but in that same vein, Spielberg made equivalent money with E.T. and The Last Crusade alone, not counting his five other films. In fact, those are the two highest grossing films of the decade, and it’s hardly close.

If we aren’t counting Twilight Zone: The Movie—considering Spielberg only directed a quarter of the product—then his lowest-grossing work was six-time Oscar nominee Empire of the Sun. It made $66 million on a $25 million budget. Not bad, especially for one’s weakest showing. Everything else he made grossed at least $100 million, including another Academy darling.

In 1986, The Color Purple tied a historic record at the Oscars: eleven nominations without a single statue to show for it. That must have been grueling to sit through. Still, double digits from the Academy in any capacity is enough to bolster his argument.

While Spielberg’s movies in total undoubtedly garnered more nominations and wins than anyone else, Oliver Stone actually had more personal achievements at the prestigious ceremony, including best original screenplay for both Platoon and Salvador.

Based off that, it might appear as if Stone had him beat in the versatility department as well, given the penchant for screenwriting. Oliver even wrote scripts that he didn’t direct, such as Scarface and Conan the Barbarian. However, little do people realize or remember, Spielberg also worked on a couple of scripts that he never ended up helming: Poltergeist in 1982 and The Goonies in 1985, with the former going down as a classic of the horror genre and the latter being selected for the NFR.

Ultimately, Stone directed a couple of duds throughout the decade, while the worst film under Spielberg’s belt—Always from 1989—still made adequate money with a decent score of 65% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There is one last name I need to mention, and he directed perhaps my favorite entry of the entire decade: Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee in 1989 was preserved in the National Film Registry, made decent money, and garnered two nominations at the Oscars. Lee’s directorial debut—She’s Gotta Have It in 1986—was also recognized by the NFPB, which is honestly a feat in itself. However, his second film of the decade was fairly underwhelming, and his movies only made modest money.

As I said off the bat, this decade was competitive by the looks of it, with huge names around every corner of Hollywood Boulevard. But appearances can often deceive one into thinking that Robert Zemeckis or Oliver Stone might actually have a shot to beat Steven Spielberg as the foremost director of the 1980s, when in the end, Spielberg was miles ahead from the start.

Thanks for Reading!

That should just about wrap this series up, ladies and gents. With Coppola coming out on top of the 1970s, Spielberg reigning supreme in the eighties, Tarantino owning the subsequent decade and Nolan dominating at the turn of the century, I’d like to give some honorable mentions to a couple of other decades:

1950s – Alfred Hitchcock, who directed ten highly-acclaimed Hollywood films throughout the fifties including standouts like Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.

1960s – Again, the answer is Stanley Kubrick: Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can’t beat that.

2010s – Things get tough here. Steve McQueen and the Russo Brothers had decent showings, but it ultimately came down to Denis Villeneuve as the runner-up and, once again, I think Christopher Nolan takes this one. I’d personally pick Villeneuve, as frankly, Prisoners is an all-time favorite, but all of his films combined failed to garner as much money as Inception by itself, and Nolan had better showings at the Oscars.

Feel free to argue down below, and again, thanks for reading!

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