Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
By the late 1980s, there was certainly no secret about Michael J. Fox’s success. At the time of filming The Secret of My Success, he was coming off the back of box office wins with Back to the Future (1985), Teen Wolf (1985) and the still popular TV series Family Ties (1982-1989). Likewise, director Herbert Ross had been on a career ascension since his sole Oscar nomination for the The Turning Point (1977), but also with the now iconic Footloose (1984). Even co-writer Jack Epps Jr was making a name for himself with the screenplay for Top Gun (1986), rounding out the creative team for this business comedy about making it in the 1980s. Yet at its still beating heart, this is a screwball romance, a wonderfully anachronistic charmer that inhabits a bubble of time that never really existed.
After graduating college, Brantley Foster (Michael J. Fox) leaves his Kansas home and heads for New York, where he doesn’t plan on returning until he can fly home in a private jet. His initial job prospect falling through, he is repeatedly rejected for being under-experienced or overqualified for everything he applies for. He eventually takes a job in the mailroom in the huge company owned by his uncle Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan), but has his eyes on the top jobs, along with the sole female executive Christy Wills (Helen Slater). Seduced by Prescott’s wife Vera (Margaret Whitton), who is the real power behind the throne, Brantley spies a chance for change when he assumes the role of a faux executive, hoping to make it before anybody realises he faked it.
At the time of release, Roger Ebert commented that the film seemed to be “trapped in some kind of time warp, as if the screenplay had been in a drawer since the 1950s and nobody bothered to update it”. Yet it is hard to imagine a film more unabashedly 80s than The Secret of My Success (sometimes billed as The Secret of My Succe$s). Like many movies from the era, the film is build upon the premise that success can be measured in social status, and the pursuit of that reward occupies most of the film. Indeed, even the love story doesn’t result in the ultimate happy ending, but rather a corporate takeover and the ability to drive to the opera in a limo with other society types. Yet this was the perceived ideal, a stark contrast to the anti-1% films that now get labelled anti-corporate and leftist by conservative media. Curiously, this came out the same year as Wall Street (1987), a polemic about unrestrained corporate greed in the 1980s, and both before the Black Monday Wall Street crash of 19 October, 1987.
The affable Brantley Foster was not a stretch for Fox, playing a watered-down (by way of Marty McFly) version of Alex P. Keaton, his would-be tycoon from Family Ties. His natural charms are the secret to the success of this film, and makes a convincing romantic lead as well. Supergirl‘s (1984) Helen Slater, who looks to be modelled on the late Princess Diana of Wales, is also a likeable screen presence despite her underwritten part. The kissing scenes between her and Fox were allegedly adjusted due to the latter being much shorter than Slater! Yet it is Margaret Whitton, the very canny aunt with the mind of gold, that steals every scene she is in, in a completely over-the-top performance. Also look out for great small roles for Mad About You‘s John Pankow, and Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne.
The Secret of My Success is a delightful 1930s screwball comedy with an 80s spit-shine. There’s even a bedroom sequence that could have been lifted from a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn scenario. Filled with songs from the era, Night Ranger’s somewhat forgettable title song is no “Sister Christian”, but Pat Benetar’s toe-tapper “Sometimes the Good Guys Finish First” is joined by some Bananarama, and the almost obligatory inclusions of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves and “Oh Yeah” by Yello. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) has a lot to answer for. Pure lightweight fun.