Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for Ghost, a film that came out 30 years ago.
The supernatural fantasy romance film Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore put on the Righteous Brothers and sex-demolish some pottery, snuck up on audiences in 1990 like a horny poltergeist. Made on a slim budget by a director primarily known for screwball comedies in which Leslie Nielsen bumbles his way through a series of international incidents, the movie was a surprise hit, and even that phrase isn’t quite strong enough. Ghost made over a half-billion dollars to become the third highest-grossing movie of all time (at that time), and absolutely no one saw it coming. It was a cultural phenomenon nearly identical to the impact James Cameron’s Titanic would have 7 years later. Interestingly, both Ghost and Titanic are extremely similar movies, so it’s weird Hollywood hasn’t been churning out a genre-bending romance film every few years to try and rebottle that particular brand of lightning.
If you haven’t seen Ghost, I highly recommend that you watch it. (Considering it just had a features-laden 30th anniversary Blu-ray drop this week, including a brand-new retrospective from director Jerry Zucker, there’s never been a better time to do so.) There’s a reason it was such an enormous hit, and that’s because it’s a pretty good movie! Weirdly, that is not always the case, as Michael Bay’s Transformers films can attest. In Ghost, Swayze plays Sam, a man who is murdered in a robbery gone wrong but decides to stay on earth and sexily haunt his girlfriend Molly (Moore) with the help of an extremely reluctant psychic (Whoopi Goldberg). Tony Goldwyn plays the bumbling best friend-turned villain Carl, and he spends the final 20 minutes of the film drenched in more sweat than has ever covered any human being. It’s a straightforward and relatively simple plot that hits huge emotional notes and features a truly great performance by Goldberg. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts, and the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Screenplay, winning the latter. Swayze was also nominated for Boo-st Ass by everyone who saw the movie, but lost to Denzel Washington in Heart Condition.
Ghost, like Titanic, is a tragic romance wrapped up in a genre film – Ghost is a supernatural fantasy, and Titanic is an action disaster movie. Neither film was expected to be a big hit. In fact, due to its production delays, ballooning budget, and three-hour runtime, people were anticipating Titanic to be a bigger catastrophe than the actual sinking of the ship. Similar doubt was cast on Ghost, a relatively low-budget film from a director who’d previously only made broad comedies like Airplane and The Naked Gun. The idea that a drama directed by the Kentucky Fried Movie guy and written by a screenwriter who at the time only had two obscure genre pictures under his belt was going to become a money-printing phenomenon was on exactly zero minds. Incidentally, Bruce Joel Rubin also wrote the cult hit psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder, which came out just a few months after Ghost. 1990 was a big year for him.
Both Ghost and Titanic were instant hits that dominated the box office for unfair lengths of time. Ghost stayed in the top ten for six months, and Titanic was the #1 movie in the country for a staggering 15 consecutive weeks. In addition, both movies featured iconic scenes that permeated the zeitgeist for several years afterward. The pottery scene and the reviving of “Unchained Melody” from Ghost were lampooned on roughly every sketch comedy show of the early 90s, with Zucker’s brother David even spoofing it in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear. Meanwhile, try to escape “I’m the king of the world!” and “My Heart Will Go On” at any point between 1998 and like 2003, I fucking dare you.
There’s also the content of the movies. I’ve mentioned that both are tragic romances, specifically about two people getting separated by forces beyond their control. Both feature antagonists in the form of romantic rivals, and weirdly, both of these romantic rivals have a murderous henchman in their employ. It makes more sense in Ghost, because Carl is a criminal engaged in Serious Criminal Shit™, so of course he would hire an enforcer to help him get said Serious Criminal Shit™ done. But Titanic’s chief villain Cal (Billy Zane) takes his violence butler with him on a romantic cruise with his fiancé and her mother. Don’t get me wrong, David Warner plays an excellently menacing Pinkerton stooge, but why bring that guy with you on your Carnival vacation? Come on, Cal. On a related note, both Ghost and Titanic feature spicy scenes of hip-smashing ass destruction involving simple machines. It is impossible to say that those scenes didn’t meaningfully contribute to the films’ success.
Ghost and Titanic were each nominated for several Oscars, with Titanic receiving an absolutely wild 14 nominations (1950’s All About Eve is the only other film to score that many noms). The movie won 11 of them, including Best Director, which Cameron accepted by shouting “I’m the king of the world!” He has not won the award since, because the Academy is extremely petty and holds grudges like a pirate curse. However, the ultimate revelation made by both films is that strange hybrid genre movies aimed at adults (and, let’s be honest, horny teens as well) can be powerhouse hits that eclipse formulaic blockbusters.
This isn’t a new idea. Before Jaws and the idea of summer blockbusters, the biggest movies of the year were pretty varied. It wasn’t uncommon to have romances or adult dramas be the highest grossers. Although none of them reached the stratospheric heights of Ghost and Titanic, movies like Rocky, Love Story, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Godfather, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were among the most successful movies in their respective years of release. Nary a Jedi nor a transformer nor a superhero in sight, although I’m not suggesting that Kramer vs Kramer couldn’t have benefited from a Decepticon. And even in the Spielberg-and-Lucas-dominated 1980s, we still got years where some of the biggest movies were Fatal Attraction, Rain Man, and Beverly Hills Cop.
The point is, not only was Ghost a massive unexpected phenomenon, it was also kind of a shot-in-the-arm reminder that stories geared more towards adults can still be huge hits. It was the first major blockbuster of the 1990s, and it was absolutely everywhere. Seriously, I was 7 years old at the time, and I knew everything about the movie before I even saw it. But it didn’t last, because for the next seven years the box office was once again dominated by robots, dinosaurs, and aliens (and a lion king) until Titanic came along. It’s truly baffling to me why studios don’t pursue more inventive adult-oriented projects, because while Titanic was definitely a massive risk, Ghost absolutely wasn’t, and look at how that turned out. That said, Michael Bay did try to apply the tragic genre romance formula to Pearl Harbor only to have it backfire spectacularly, because to Michael Bay romance is a bikini-clad woman getting sprayed with a hose in a Lamborghini.