80s america, adams college, alpha beta, animal house, anthony edwards, bernie casey, betty childs, booger, brian tochi, charles de mar, chris short, curtis armstrong, delta tau chi, donald gibb, dudley dawson, gilbert, john goodman, julie montgomery, king of the nerds, lamar latrell, lambda lambda lambda, larry b. scott, louis, michelle meyrink, nerds, ogre, omega mu, orson welles, reagan, revenge of the nerds, robert carradine, rock hudson, stan gable, tanner, ted mcginley, the bad news bears, tri lambs, u.n. washington, we've got bush, you mu's sure can party
After having revisited the 80s film classic Revenge of the Nerds this week, I couldn’t help but to think of Animal House. Made only 6 years after, it seems like generations away. Where Animal House is a nostalgic look back on the golden era of fraternities in the early 60s, Revenge of the Nerds is decidedly of its time, a time capsule complete with every stereotype imaginable in Reagan’s America. That said, I still find it an enjoyable and funny watch precisely because of it is such a relic.
The film captures the journey of two socially challenged teens, Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) and Louis (Robert Carradine), as they begin their college life at fictional Adams College. It takes about 10 minutes for them to be pegged as the one of the meathead football players, Ogre (Donald Gibb), in the coolest fraternity (Alpha Beta) on campus starts the all too familiar chant: “Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!” Knowing now that college will be no different than high school, Louis and Gilbert are determined to make sure the next four years aren’t hell.
When the Alpha Betas accidentally burn their house down, they take over the dorm (because they are mostly athletes and football players – one aspect of this film that still rings true to today) that Louis and Gilbert live in relegating them and their dormmates to living in the gymnasium. When they are among the few who weren’t accepted into any fraternities (much like freaks who are seated away from everyone at the initial Delta Tau Chi party in Animal House), they rehab a house so they can live out of the gym. When the Alpha Betas throw a rock through their window with the words, “Nerds get out!” painted on it, they try to get justice by going to the Greek Council, run conveniently by Stan Gale (Ted McGinley), president of the Alpha Betas, states that the council can’t hear their argument because they aren’t in a fraternity. This hilariously starts their search for a fraternity, which lands them with Lambda Lambda Lambda, a traditionally black fraternity.
With the Tri Lambs official, they go head-to-head with the Alpha Betas for supremacy of the campus and who heads up the Greek Council. Who do you think wins – a bunch of meathead jocks or determined nerds? Here is the performance that put the good guys over the top:
And here is Coach Harris’ (John Goodman in one of his first roles) response:
At the end, there is a nerd love-in that closes the film on a happy note, delivering a message that most people are put down or made fun of at some point in their lives and that essentially everyone is a nerd. Oh, 1980s movies, you sly devils – only you can take what amounts to a sex comedy and give it a moral twist at the end without making it look ridiculous…oh, wait.
As I mentioned above, the stereotypes of many different social groups abound in this film:
1) the righteous nerd – clueless, bespectacled pocket protector-wearing computer geniuses whose fashion sense is askew (to say the least) and who don’t conform to the general populace’s ideas about what is cool (drinking, partying, music).
2) The evil jock – the football players, drunken louts and womanizers, who are hell bent on destroying everything that doesn’t conform to general societal belief of what’s pretty, fun, or cool. Namely everything that the nerd represents.
3) sorority girls – girls who prance around their sorority house in various states of undress and are objectified by asshole men who use them for sex when they aren’t too busy working out or thinking about sports. Aside from the Omega Mus (who sure can party!), the sorority girls are skinny blondes and cheerleader types with as much venom for the nerds as their fraternity counterparts.
4) the effeminate gay man – Lamar LaTrell (Larry B. Scott) plays a gay male who does aerobics in spandex, throws the javelin with a limp-wrist, is able to score a date to a party when no one else is able to, good at party planning, etc, etc, etc. Rock Hudson was gay and more virile than plenty of straight guys I know. Why couldn’t they use that prototype? That Lamar is black is an interesting choice for a cast that is about 99.8% white. It’s almost as if the casting directors didn’t want to put a white face on homosexuality. Perhaps I’m reaching for straws for that one, but I do find it odd.
5) scary African-American men – the final scene when the Tri Lamb alumni come to the aid of the nerds at the pep rally: see the look of horror and fear on the faces of the all-white football team?
6) the photo-snapping Asian – Toshiro Takashi (Brian Tochi) has trouble saying his Ls (“robster craws”), wears a samurai headband and like Wang (Dr. Dow) from Caddyshack, snaps pictures of plenty of his surroundings, most notably “hair pie.”
So all of these stereotypes are boiled together to give us a picture of American youth in the 80s. Despite only 6 years separating their production times, Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, while depicting completely separate eras, look pretty much the same. The only difference is the appearance of a gay character and an Asian character. Had America really only come this far in the 20+ years that elapsed in film time between the two films? The sad thing is, yes. While even the appearance of these two characters in particular is a striking difference, they are there to be ridiculed, even though we as the viewers are asked to sympathize with the nerds’ plight as a whole. The film doesn’t outwardly criticize them or demean them – there is no Tanner (Chris Short) moment like in The Bad News Bears – but they are two of the characters who aren’t actually redeemed in any way. The others pair off and get ladies, but there is hardly any footage of Lamar with his date at the party (or with any other men he might be remotely interested in) and Takashi is a smiling, bumbling caricature of a Japanese person throughout the film. At least Lamar gets to rap during the musical number, something that is at least positively related to African-American culture. Takashi is saddled with dressing like another particularly reviled, often caricatured race in this country – the Native American, fresh with war paint and headdress. I guess it’s good that Mickey Rooney or the like didn’t play Takashi, though.
The one saving grace to this film is Dudley Dawson aka Booger, played so artfully (okay, maybe that’s a stretch) by Curtis Armstrong, who also played one of my all-time favorite movie characters, Charles De Mar in Better Off Dead.
He is offensive, but at least he owns up to it. Does he deserve to be lumped with the rest of the nerds? Perhaps, perhaps not. But alas he makes the most of it. He gives us the only truly funny parts of the movie, from picking his nose (why he got his name) to win his arm-wrestling match to his famous line delivered to Stan Gable who asked him what he was looking at:
Armstrong and fellow castmate Robert Carradine, having carried on the tradition of this film in three other sequels, have even come up with a nerd-themed reality show, King of the Nerds. Strike while the iron is hot, I suppose.
Women take it particularly tough in this film as they are objectified by everyone with exception of Gilbert, who in Judy (Michelle Meyrink) he finds a soul-mate, not just someone he wants to bang. The panty raid scene and its aftermath are as reminiscent of the antics in Animal House as any in the film other than the similarities of the initiation rights of the Alpha Betas to those of the Omega Theta Pis. The bodies of the girls of Pi (appropriately named) are literally scrutinized via hidden cameras in close-up – “We’ve got bush. Ahhh, hair pie.” Shy of Judy, there really are no memorable female characters except Betty (Julie Montgomery), the Pi sister who dated Stan Gable and helped him in his nerd ridicule.
However, she is turned to the nerdside when Louis has sex with her believing he is really Stan. After he does things to her never been done before and Louis reveals himself, she is only too happy to remain with him and dump the jock. So only through sex does she see the errors of her way. Not exactly the most flattering portrayal, is it?
So as I said before, this film is what it is (a phrase I actually hate to use): a time capsule of the early 80s, freezing on celluloid the attitudes and frame of mind of Reagan-era America which was actually a really fucking scary place. For those of you who missed, be happy you did. I will admit that I still laugh at this film and sometimes even with it.
Here’s the trailer, which is narrated by Orson Welles (holy shit!):
P.S. This is funny clip from American Splendor. Nerds of the world unite!