Michael J. Fox got his big break on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, which cast him as Alex P. Keaton, a conservative foil to the show’s intented focus: the Keaton parents, a pair of aging hippies and true believers played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter. But the network soon discovered that no matter what Alex said or did, or how deplorably they portrayed his politics and attitudes, audiences loved the guy. Alex P. Keaton (you know you’ve created an iconic character when it seems vaguely disrespectful not to refer to him by his full name, WASP-y middle initial included) became the boyish, acceptable face of Young Republicans, a guy who might want to destroy the social safety net and ban abortion, but would look absolutely adorable in his suit-coat, tie, and jeans ensemble while doing it. Fox had a personal magnetism and innate charisma not even Michael Gross could match. As solid a sitcom as it was, Family Ties quickly became Michael J. Fox and a bunch of other people lucky to reside in the cool, calming shade of his fame.
Audiences didn’t just fall for the character. It was the actor himself, with his flair for physical comedy, his aw-shucks charm, and his impeccable comic timing. Fox was cute in a way men found non-threatening and endearing. He was so little, fans just wanted to pick him up and stick him in their pockets. Where Tom Cruise was the cocky alpha male of the 1980s, Fox was the plucky underdog, the little guy audiences rooted for.
Fox was so inherently appealing, he helped make Back To The Future—a Freudian dark comedy about a young man’s attempts to save his family and himself by resisting the sexual advances of his incredibly desirable mother—into a universally beloved slice of Americana and an all-time family classic. His charisma is bold enough to make a hit out of a sleepy but clever horror-comedy about a teenager who somehow becomes an unstoppable slam-dunking machine just because he’s a werewolf. Fox wasn’t merely a TV or movie star, he was a national treasure.
But perhaps the purest manifestation of the public’s passionate, unfortunately short-lived love affair with Michael J. Fox, movie star, is 1987’s The Secret Of My Success. Pencil Eric Stoltz, the original star of Back To The Future, in for the lead role, and this turkey never makes it out of rewrites. Sub in Michael J. Fox in a suit, and the film becomes the seventh highest-grossing film of 1987, a mammoth domestic hit that also cleaned up internationally and on home video.
Memory can be a great condenser. It boils down the impossibly vast data of our life experiences into the moments that feel most essential. Absolutely nothing in the initially champagne-fizzy, then champagne-flat The Secret Of My Success is remotely essential. So before I rewatched it, my memory had done the next best thing and reduced the film to the moments that are most representative, specifically three buzzing neon elements: Michael J. Fox changing in and out of suits in elevators, a clandestine endeavor that results in regular fits of semi-nudity; an upbeat montage set to Katrina And The Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine,” the official anthem of both the 1980s and the popular drug cocaine; and Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” the other official anthem of both the 1980s and the popular drug cocaine. These are the elements filled with what Malcolm Gladwell calls “stickiness.” They linger stubbornly in the mind and collectively create the misleading impression that the film has more to offer than just Michael J. Fox, which it really doesn’t.
Fox stars as Brantley Foster, a farm boy who leaves the Grant Wood world of his Kansas hometown to strike out on his own in the big city, with only a head full of dreams and exceedingly fuzzy, quasi-familial connections to Howard Prescott, a glowering titan of industry played by Richard Jordan. The farm boy from the Midwest hopping a bus to the big city is an archetype, and in the early going at least, the film is pitched broadly enough to be parodic. The Secret Of My Success posits its hero as a capitalist Clark Kent straight out of the heartland, who transforms into an economic Superman not through some strange trick of destiny, but through subterfuge and canny manipulation. Both Superman and Brantley Foster have double identities, but Brantley is mainly out to enrich himself, which represents an extremely 1980s, Ronald Reagan-inspired, Alex P. Keatonish conception of superheroism.
New York welcomes Brantley in the traditional fashion, by subjecting him to the requisite gauntlet of humiliations. In the film’s most inspired gag, Brantley, nestled snugly in a phone booth, manages to maintain a polite phone conversation with a relative in flyover country and assure her, in one of the film’s only clever lines, “New York is just like Kansas intensified.” Meanwhile, in the background, a simple robbery gradually escalates into a shoot-out, then a near-riot.
That bit would feel just at home in a classic studio comedy: The rube gets off the bus from the heartland, and instantly walks into a war zone. It plays into the enduring fear among heartlanders that people who dare to go to New York or Los Angeles will probably get mugged, assaulted, kidnapped, or defenestrated within minutes of leaving the bus, and that’s if they’re lucky.
Director Herbert Ross and his cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, nicely choreograph the interplay between the furious background action and the increasingly desperate attempts to maintain the illusion of normalcy in the foreground conversation. The sequence plays beautifully to Fox’s gifts as a physical and verbal comedian. In moments like this, The Secret Of My Success feels like a can’t-miss proposition: Simply plug lovable Michael J. Fox into a greased-up, highly caffeinated Horatio Alger tale and watch him go.
It doesn’t take long for the film’s breezy, cornball charm to dissipate, however, and for the groaning machinery of the plot to lumber into action. Brantley applies for many jobs, but he doesn’t have the advantage of being a woman or a historically oppressed minority, so doors are constantly being shut in his face. (He could help level the playing field by donning blackface, but that already provided the premise of Soul Man a year earlier.) Brantley eventually stumbles upon a troubling reality of the 1980s: It’s impossible for good-looking, college-educated, charming young men from the heartland to make an honest living in the business world of New York. So while he would like more than anything to stay on the straight and narrow, Brantley eventually resorts to the minor sin of nepotism and secures a job working in the mailroom of a vast corporation headed by big shot Prescott, a man who is sorta, kinda, almost his uncle.
As a put-upon worker bee, Brantley falls hopelessly in love with hard-charging executive Christy Wills (Helen Slater) before speaking so much as a single word to her. He is utterly transfixed by what the film seems to imagine are her beauty and charm, and vows to do whatever it takes to win her heart. There is a problem, however: Christy is having an affair with the married Prescott, and despite the film’s comically overreaching attempts to establish Christy as the ultimate Reagan-era dream girl, she’s more of a nightmare. Slater’s character suffers from a condition I call “Sexy Lisa Syndrome,” after the female protagonist/succubus of The Room, whom the film repeatedly claims is a woman of rare and extraordinary beauty who looks absolutely stunning in a red dress, when she’s actually a reasonably attractive woman cruelly handicapped by a viciously unflattering wardrobe and hairstyle.
To sum up “Sexy Lisa Syndrome”: The more attractive characters are, the less screenplays need to assert their attractiveness. Conversely, the less attractive characters are, physically or otherwise, the more screenplays need to assert their attractiveness. And the more desperately a screenplay asserts someone’s appeal, the more glaring and conspicuous that character’s failings become. This in turn increases the likelihood that audiences will rebel against this attempt at forced indoctrination and ascertain that not only are said characters not the living embodiment of luscious sexuality, they aren’t even particularly attractive to begin with.
Accordingly, the screenplay for The Secret Of My Success repeatedly features characters marveling that someone as smart as Christy could also be so staggeringly gorgeous. But this idealization isn’t just verbal. The film also repeatedly cuts to Fox gazing adoringly at Slater in a state of profound erotic intoxication. The filmmakers labor under the delusion that the image of Slater taking a sip from a water fountain in slow-motion against the heavenly backdrop of “Oh Yeah” is a tableau as irresistibly carnal as Marilyn Monroe on a steam grate in Seven Year Itch.
As written, Slater’s character is a fairly terrible human being. She has sex with her married boss, whose idea of flirtation is to ask his mistress, in a crowded eatery, “Do you think this restaurant has an upstairs with beds in it?” She’s condescending and mean to Fox upon meeting him. When a financial crisis arises, she proposes laying off workers in the Midwest. And when Prescott asks her to, she spies on the hero. So the film needs an actress so charming and utterly irresistible, viewers will still root for her to end up with the hero. In other words, it needs a co-star as appealing as Michael J. Fox, and there aren’t many.
Slater’s performance not only doesn’t solve the fatal problems with Christy’s conception, it actively makes them worse. She has exactly two states: haughty and robotic. It doesn’t help that in her first full scene with Brantley, the screenplay burdens Slater with one-liners like—remarking on a brown suit—“I like your suit. It goes nicely with your nose.” That line is supposed to have the bracing bite of sexy banter, but it instead feels like Fox is being insulted by a mean, creepy lady android. Brantley’s lust for Christy is supposed to be one of the primary engines driving the plot, but there’s a yawning void where Slater’s charisma and romantic chemistry with Fox should be.
Christy isn’t the only one with an older paramour. Brantley unwittingly hooks up with Vera Prescott (Margaret Whitton), Howard’s hot-to-trot, criminally neglected trophy wife. The seduction begins with a trip to the country accompanied by the slinky, seductive strains of Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” a sequence that represents the apex of the film’s cheeseball 1980s charm. I know I’m using the descriptor “1980s” a lot here, but The Secret Of My Success is pretty much The 1980s: The Movie. It makes sense that it was written by the men who wrote Top Gun, perhaps its primary competition for the title of ultimate 1980s flick.
In this scene and elsewhere, Whitton is fantastic, a gifted, fearless physical comic actress who gives her character an unabashed vulgarity and sexual rapaciousness that’s strangely charming. She’s free and uninhibited in a way seemingly no one else in the film is, and owns that freedom in a really fun, empowering way. It helps that Whitton and Fox make such an incongruous yet strangely complementary physical pair, with Whitton the taller aggressor, and Fox the diminutive prey. Fox is so tiny and unassuming that when Whitton is chasing her, and he says, “I don’t want to get rough with you, but I’ll belt you around if I have to,” it sounds adorable rather than threatening.
Being the kinda-nephew of the boss only takes Brantley so far, so he decides to fill a vacuum in leadership by inventing a second identity: financial whiz kid Carlton Whitfield. Over the course of a montage set to“Walking On Sunshine,” Carlton rockets up the corporate ladder and looks primed to take a seat at the table with the big boys (and also that horrible woman Christy Wills), while his working-class doppelgänger Brantley continues to work in the mailroom. This requires lots of frenzied changing in and out of suits on elevators, and similarly desperate sitcom-style shenanigans.
Ross piles on the montages as a way of conveying the hectic pace of life in the go-go 1980s, but also as a means of speeding up a narrative that understandably seems to bore him to tears. The Secret Of My Success simultaneously panders to the money-mania and repellent materialism of the Reagan era and whitewashes it completely. It would be tempting to call this movie The Lamb Of Wall Street, after its hero’s ingratiating yet implausible meekness, but The Secret Of My Success doesn’t take place on Wall Street so much in the generic world of “business.” Ross’ PG-13 conception of the hard-charging business world of the 1980s involves zero cocaine, though the theme song by Night Ranger does ominously boast of “living 25 hours a day,” covertly referencing a little-known 25th hour of the day reachable only to those in a state of profound cocaine dementia.
The profound moral and spiritual emptiness at the core of The Secret Of My Success keeps it from being the dumb fun promised by its premise, title, and extensive use of Yello. The film never bothers to consider why Fox is in such a huge hurry to make it in business, or why the audience should be so invested in his professional success. Instead, it just assumes that everyone is out to make their fortune, get the girl, and come out on top at the end. The film consequently feels like a souped-up Rube Goldberg contraption in a furious hurry to get nowhere in particular.
The Secret Of My Success was a hit, but its success ultimately proved just as empty and meaningless as that of its sketchily written, lovably played protagonist. The film won the box-office battle back in 1987, but history has not been kind to it. Even as 1980s nostalgia-porn, it’s strangely dull. Fox’s charisma ultimately cut both ways: It made this flimsy piece of formula a big hit, but it also highlighted the need for roles that did justice to his extraordinary talent, instead of coasting on it.
Next: Days Of Thunder