“On This Day” is a new column, one which we hope to be somewhat of a regular constituent of the ‘hole, that will explore the box-office on a given date in history – usually, 20 or 25 years ago (keeping it nice and round-numbered; no loose change so we don’t weigh down our pockets). It’s always interesting to look back at films that opened on the same week/day/month as current offerings, but more so, enjoyable – we believe, anyway – to revisit, if even in text form, some of the classics from yesteryear. We’re almost providing a service to both the film-fan and the local video library’s ‘classic’ shelf here.
Can’t Buy Me Love
Opened 25 Years Ago This Week.
Like many of Touchstone Pictures’ releases at the time (Touchstone was Disney’s ‘adult’ label, they released such gems as “Stakeout”, “Good Morning Vietnam”, “Three Men and a Baby”, “Turner & Hooch” and “Hello Again” during that 1987-1989 period), writer Michael Swerdlick and director Steve Rash’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” (or “Boy Rents Girl” as it was known throughout production) caught many – including box-office forecasters – by surprise.
A well-written, terrifically-performed romantic comedy, the “Pretty Woman” precursor told of a gangly high school nerd named Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey, years before he’d transform into a TV stud) who, in an effort to become more popular, pays the most popular girl in school, Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend to be his girlfriend.
Both Ronald and Cindy learn a lot through the process – he, that being popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when his popularity comes at the expense of losing some life-long friends and, for that matter, most of his dignity; she, realizing just how tough some of the so-called ‘nerds’ have it, and as she grows closer to Ronald, begins to fall in love – let alone embarrass themselves plenty in the meantime, especially he with that ridiculous African tribal dance he takes to the Prom.
It was a fun time for movies in 1987, and teens – and older folks, too – lapped up “Can’t Buy Me Love”. The film went on to become a high grosser at the box office (in Australia it was the number one film for a wee bit; in the states, it made over $30 million which was big money back then – taking inflation into consideration) and served as a real calling card for star Dempsey, who would go on to become a staple in romantic-comedies for quite a few more years to come, headlining such (inferior but) similar-themed efforts as “Loverboy”, “The Woo Woo Kid” and “Some Girls”. Twenty-odd years-later he would inadvertently rebrand himself as a television heartthrob, accepting the role of Dr Derek Shepard (thanks to Rob Lowe passing!) on the enormously-successful “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
• “Can’t Buy Me Love” Director Steve Rash tells Moviehole that the film wasn’t expected to do well. “We had nothing – no stars, no action, no high-concept story – just a nice little independent film called “Boy Rents Girl” from Apollo Pictures, who planned to self-distribute. As usual during editing, we screened the work print for post-production companies bidding for sound effects and mixing. Meanwhile, the friend of the producer who we had hired as an extra in the movie began his new position at Disney to seek and acquire independent films for distribution. He sneaked into one of those screenings – to see himself on film – and then went directly to the office of his new boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg: “Sir, I know I’ve been on the job less than a week, and it’s highly unlikely that I would already find Disney’s first acquisition, but I really think you should look at ‘Boy Rents Girl’.” Jeffrey did; then called an emergency meeting with Michael Eisner and the heads of Marketing and Distribution. That same day, after screening the work print again, Disney made Apollo Pictures an offer they couldn’t refuse.”
A nice opening weekend verified Katzenberg had made the right call about acquiring “Boy Rents Girl”.
• Disney struggled to market the film at the time, but found somewhat of a saving grace in the film’s new title – chosen to coincide with one of the songs that had been picked up for the soundtrack. “After initial test screenings, they booked over a thousand screens and cut a trailer and TV ads for a national campaign”, Rash said. “And Michael Eisner bought “Can’t Buy Me Love” as a title song. By release day, it felt like a real movie was about to open, but Disney cautioned us: opening weekend of a no-name film would not be huge, but their audience research predicted that the movie might have “legs”. As it turned out, Can’t Buy Me Love came in #1 on opening weekend, and the movie had “LEGS”, too.”
• What most reviewers said at the time, and likely still would, is that much of “Can’t Buy Me Love” works because of Patrick Dempsey’s performance. He was an unknown at the time, and that, Rash believes, ultimately worked for the film (1987 was a strange, strange time). “If Ronald Miller is a star when you meet him on his lawnmower, you’ll never believe he is a nerd, so you’ll never care when he’s not a nerd. Jeri Henshaw (head of Apollo, now deceased) stood behind me and said, “OK, we’ll hire an unknown in the lead, which means we will not have a studio behind us, so we will distribute ourselves.” (Jeri had been head of casting at Fox, and he saw what I saw in Patrick Dempsey.)”
And I believe it goes the same for Amanda Peterson who, even to this day, isn’t a known commodity in Tinseltown (but should be!).
• On a personal level, I like “Can’t Buy Me Love” because it isn’t, like so many other comedies of the time, filled with naked flesh and crassness. But there was a time when it was headed down the “Porky’s Revenge” route – and you won’t believe some of the sick scenes that almost made it into the film. “By the time I first read it, Boy Rents Girl had been through five studio development rewrites and had devolved into an R-rated sexploitation movie with gags like a football player ejaculating in a teenage girl’s hair, which resurfaced a decade later in There’s Something About Mary – at least Mary wasn’t a teenager”, said Rash. “In the first meeting I told the producers, “Your story is for fifteen year-old girls and seventeen year-old boys. Why exclude your core audience with an R-rating?” They – again, Jeri Henshaw, God rest his soul – told me to collaborate with the writer and make it PG-13. So Michael Swerdlick and I spent six weeks, starting all over with his original spec script, and threw away all the R-stuff that had been added over the years. My most significant contribution was the Airplane Graveyard.”
• “Can’t Buy Me Love” introduced us to quite a few up-and-comers. Aside from Mr Dempsey, it features then-unknowns Seth Green (as Dempsey’s little brother), future filmmaker Dennis Dugan (“Jack & Jill”, “Grown Ups”) as Dempsey’s father, Courtney Gains (“The Burbs”) as the nerdy, neglected best friend and Micki Dolenz’s daughter, Ami. “Amy was scared to death but smart, focused and a quick study” recalls Rash. “Also cute as a button and prone to giggle when she made a mistake. So I tried to help her be comfortable with mistakes, “Everything in God’s creation is perfect, Amy, except us. Be human; embrace mistakes, they make you believable, and if the audience believes, your job is done.””
• A remake of the movie, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” was released in 2003. Featuring a mostly African-American cast, the dismal retread flopped at the box office in the states, ultimately ending up a bargain basement DVD premiere in most territories. To this day, we wonder, if anyone even knows there’s a remake…
• Though most people remember the scene featuring the ‘boots’, ‘cowboy hat’ and ‘lawnmower’, “Can’t Buy Me Love” is also fondly remembered for that ‘African tribal dance’ sequence at the prom. It’s a scene that nearly ended up on the cutting room floor, too – had it not been for a then unknown choreographer (and soon to be pop star) named Paula Abdul.
“I hated the whole idea in the script”, Rash said. “It scared me to death. That fake “cultural” dance could so easily be perceived as racist or stupid. Either would have been fatal to the movie. So I worked harder on that joke than any other in my creative life. I auditioned every great choreographer in NY and LA, but no one came up with an idea that could ride that fine line between funny and stupid. Until Paula Abdul, who was at the time dancing and choreographing the Laker Girls dance team. She conceived the African Anteater Ritual and then came to location in Tucson to coach a gymnasium full of teenagers. I owe my creative life to Paula. Little did I know how great she would turn out to be.”
• “Can’t Buy Me Love” has gone onto become, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Say Anything…”, one of the most beloved teenage comedies of all time and more predominantly, seemingly a part of pop-culture. The film was visually referenced in the recent Emma Stone vehicle “Easy A”.
Emma Stone tells me that she was a big fan of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and sat through it multiple times in the lead-up to shooting Will Gluck’s hit comedy. “Multiple times! It was so nice to be able to reference all those movies. So many times movies try and pretend they’re set in ‘Movie Land’ whereas in this we recognize the fact that these movies have existed… they lived them, just as we did.”
That we did.
And that’s why we believe Ronald and Cindi lived happily ever after….