Film Discussion

Splash (1984) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

It’s strange to think of Splash as a Disney movie, something we were reminded of this past year when the movie was made available to audiences via Disney+. Of course, that inclusion came with a little controversy, because to keep the film family-friendly, a nude shot of Daryl Hannah from behind had been altered somewhat with the inclusion of CGI hair.

Of course, Splash didn’t come with the Disney castle logo in front of it, even though a film about a mermaid seems like a good fit for the House of Mouse, and indeed five years after its release, the studio would give audiences an animated film featuring The Little Mermaid.

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It’s easy to forget, but the studio had fears about films with a PG rating or higher during the 80s, and it was because of that conservative trepidation that the studio created Touchstone Pictures, now long gone, but which allowed the studio to pursue more mature and adult fare or even PG-rated films that maybe stretched the limits of the rating a little bit more.

A plethora of 80s and 90s comedies and thrillers came with the famous Touchstone lighting logo and theme music, not least the likes of Three Fugitives, the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, and the Bette Middler/Barbara Hersh weepie Beaches. By the 90s it was an outlet for Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson to produce films (although they sometimes did so through the similarly Disney owned Hollywood Pictures, also now long gone).

It’s our first hello to Touchstone Pictures in Rom-Com Rewind, but it’s also where we first say hello to Tom Hanks, who’ll become a regular feature in some of the most famous and iconic romantic comedies of the 90s. Essentially a modern-day Jimmy Stewart, and perennial Oscar favourite thanks to superlative work in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 (where he would reunite with Splash director Ron Howard), it’s easy to forget that like Stewart before him he became famous for more challenging fare. Hanks also was a popular comedy star of in the early stages of his career, more famous for light-hearted fare.

His big break came in 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies, as well as a guest-starring role on Happy Days, but his big movie break came with Splash, and barring one or two not so great comedies during this period (I’m looking at you Bachelor Party), he solidified himself as a comedy star before making the move to more challenging material such as Philadelphia.

Those early comedic roles sometimes feel like the work of a different actor, not the one who would become a near father-like figure to a world craving some sort of liberal guidance in our media, and in the world as it turned more towards conservative populism in the last four years. It also gets at the heart of why he is such a gifted actor, and why he can go from challenging all-American roles such as Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, to the reluctant romantic lead for Ron Howard here, and later Nora Ephron, both of whom knew how to tap into many facets of the Hanks personality.

In lesser hands, Splash could so easily have been an R-rated sex comedy like Bachelor Party, but Howard has always had a knack, like Hanks, of being expansive with tone. While Howard has perhaps never quite earned the acclaim of many other directors over the years, the fact that he can go from something as silly as this to more dramatic works such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind that can wow award voters, to pulpier blockbuster adaptations such as the Robert Langdon series (also starring Hanks as Dan Brown’s perennial favourite symbologist, a series that earns big box office while gaining disdainful reviews from critics) is perhaps indicative of why the two have always gone well together from project to project. They are a safe pair of hands, but they can also twist or subvert expectations of the type of material that is expected of them, while having got their big-breaks making frivolous fare throughout the 80s before growing up and expanding into more mature content in the 90s.

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On the face of it, Splash is the type of high-concept 80s comedy that were a dime a dozen throughout the decade, and maybe some of it feels of its time. There is a leery quality to how Daryl Hannah’s naked body is filmed that recalls many sex comedies of the era, but unlike say Bachelor Party or Porky’s, the script stays the right side of charming when it comes to the central romance.

A lot of that is down to great work from Hanks and Hannah. Yes, the film could easily play as a male fantasy of a guy falling in love with a semi-naked fish woman, but this being Hanks and Howard means that the weirder, fetishistic elements that might have come from anyone else are at bay, and placed aside in favour of an edgier version of a family-friendly comedy. Yes, the 80s were a different decade of sorts where family-friendly movies usually meant having that one thing that was woefully inappropriate in them; a few years later Hanks would star in Big, a wonderful film with a great concept but with some dubious sexual politics in it when one looks back on it, and so it is with Splash.

This might have been the first Touchstone Pictures film out of the gate, but it was still a PG rating and would remain the type of film that would air on British television during a mid-evening time slot when kids could watch, even though – on top of Daryl Hannah being naked – it also featured a subplot involving John Candy’s character trying to get a letter published in Penthouse magazine.

What keeps things afloat (no pun intended) is how Howard and the screenplay by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz keep things on the right side of fairytale-like, not to mention ending on a note of bigger world-building that feels like the type of sequel-hunting exit that was all the rage back in the 80s. A sequel would follow, but a cheaply made for television one that featured none of the main cast and which was a straight to video release in the UK.

In the midst of it all is Hannah’s performance as Madison. A star-making one after wowing audiences with a supporting role in Blade Runner as Pris, this should have launched her into bigger and better things, but she was to be somewhat pigeon-holed as girlfriends to male leads in so many films that followed, not least the similarly comedically high concept Memoirs of an Invisible Man starring Chevy Chase, as well as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

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The combination of her chemistry with Hanks here is wonderful, and it gives the film a cheery and lovely vibe that is truly irresistible. It also gives the film a somewhat poignantly bitter edge. While Hanks has deservedly gone on to become one of our favourite actors and personalities, Hannah got type-cast and eventually had her career derailed due to rampant toxic misogyny that was front and centre of so much of the business in Hollywood.

Her villainous role as Elle Driver in Kill Bill should have been a comeback on the level that Tarantino had worked with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but her account of sexual harassment at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, unfortunately, revealed that what should have been a triumphant return was derailed by one of Hollywood’s worst monsters.

For a film that gave us one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, the trajectories that the careers of its two leads and director ended up going on also, regrettably, gets at the heart of just how horrible and horrifying the film business can be.

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