Welcome to My First Time, a series where I review classic films (1930s -1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back weekly for new installments!
People often say that high school should count among the best years of our lives, and, in many ways, they can. Those years between 14 and 18 are the last years of our childhood before the full load of adult responsibilities set in. With football games, school dances, first dates, and all the small memories that come between those milestones, high school can be a warm, happy time.
However, as we grow older, it can be easy to forget that teenage years can be fraught with turmoil. During those years, the pressure to fit in and to be popular is strong. If one’s unfortunate enough to deviate from the norm, one can be vulnerable to attacks from others. As if that weren’t enough, our bodies choose that particular time to go CRAZY, bringing us wonders like the zit, changing voices, an outcropping of facial hair, and other changes. Such things can make teens feel more awkward than they already do. Then there’s the emotional changes, bringing stronger interest in the opposite sex and more intense feelings.
How can we adults stay in touch with those experiences and emotions? Well, movies can be an excellent way. In my opinion, the best teen movies are the ones that remind us of the challenges, experiences, sadness, and joys that every teenager faces, helping us to experience them again and, therefore, enabling us to empathize with others.
When it comes to great teen movies, John Hughes’s name usually comes up first. This is as it should be. Hughes’s magnificent run of teen-oriented films in the ’80s (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, among others) popularized the sub-genre, paving the way for good films like Three O’Clock High, Clueless, and Easy A.
However, while John Hughes was the one to popularize the modern teen movie, he wasn’t the one to invent it. One of the more popular pre-Hughes films is Tony Bill’s 1980 directorial debut, My Bodyguard!
Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace) lives in a posh suite in Chicago’s Ambassador East hotel with his dad (Martin Mull), the hotel’s manager, and his daffy grandma (Ruth Gordon). Clifford’s been attending an upscale private school, but this year – his sophomore year of high school – Clifford moves to a public school. On his first day, Clifford arrives in a hotel limousine, immediately setting him apart from his classmates.
Before the day is over, Clifford runs afoul of the school bully, Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon), and his gang. Moody corners Clifford in the bathroom and tries to extort Clifford’s daily lunch money. Moody tells Clifford this will serve as protection money; if Clifford pays, Moody will protect Clifford from Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a quiet outcast rumored to have raped teachers and killed people. Clifford refuses to give up his money. Angry at Clifford’s defiance, Moody and his gang begin terrorizing Clifford on a daily basis.
At the end of his rope, Clifford works up the courage to approach Ricky. Clifford asks Ricky to be his bodyguard. Ricky is initially reluctant, but takes on the job just for the money. What begins as a business transaction, however, turns into a friendship as Clifford and Ricky restore a motorcycle together.
Clifford comes to realize that Ricky isn’t the psychopath legend colors him to be; rather, Ricky is a shy teen who feels immense guilt over a childhood event. Together, Clifford and Ricky discover that they’re kindred spirits. Moody, however, isn’t going to take this bodyguard business lying down, and he’s plotting his revenge.
My Bodyguard is marked by great performances from top to bottom, but Adam Baldwin is especially great as Ricky, the bodyguard of the title. Baldwin carefully modulates his performance from scene to scene, moving from a silent supposed-psychopath to the sweet, damaged character we see at the end of the film. Baldwin displays a wide range of emotions, building from sullenness to a state of quiet happiness as he comes out of his shell, only to be reduced to tears as he’s overwhelmed by his guilt and fear, and, at the end, a sense of closure and renewed happiness. Baldwin’s performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s even more remarkable that it’s his screen debut!
Chris Makepeace is also great as Clifford. I think Makepeace was probably cast for his looks – he certainly fits the part of a sensitive, slightly well-to-do teen – but he also brings skill to the role. He seems to play the role almost effortlessly, trading witty barbs with characters and sharing caring words with others. Clifford is likable almost from the first minute we meet him, and Makepeace’s quiet skill makes it so!
The role of Moody isn’t as fleshed-out as Clifford or Ricky, but Matt Dillon makes a real impression as the bully. He’s relentless as he picks on Clifford and the other students, and Dillon really sells us on the idea that Moody enjoys being the bully.
Before we move on, I have to give major props to Joan Cusack’s work in a small but heartbreaking role, Ruth Gordon’s flawless comedic performance as Clifford’s eccentric grandmother, and Martin Mull as Clifford’s well-meaning but harried dad. Great work from everyone, as I said!
Of course, none of these actors could have done their work if it weren’t for Alan Ormsby’s script. My Bodyguard is an anomaly in Ormsby’s career, which primarily consists of horror movies. It’s a shame that he never returned to teen movies, because he has a real gift for the genre! It’s obvious that Ormsby was in touch with his teenage experiences, because watching the movie vividly brings back similar emotions in myself.
Anyone who’s been bullied remembers the feelings of being trapped in the situation, of the hopelessness. The bullying situations Ormsby places in the script brought those same feelings – emotions I hadn’t felt since middle school – back, helping me empathize with Clifford. I also had a chance to connect with Ricky as he breaks down and confesses the sense of guilt he always feels. As someone who struggles with anxiety and self-loathing, my heart went out to Ricky. I credit Ormsby’s script for helping me feel that way!
Working with his crew, director Tony Bill turned the script into a teen movie with a very unique look! It’s especially interesting to compare the look of My Bodyguard with that of John Hughes’s later films, since they all take place in Chicago and the surrounding area. Where Hughes’s movies paint Chicago as a slightly larger-than-life wonderland, My Bodyguard goes for a muted, realistic look that fits well with the tone of the script. You can see what I mean here!
If you watched the video, you also heard part of Dave Grusin’s lovely score. Grusin is primarily known as a virtuoso pianist, and his most famous scores (On Golden Pond, The Firm) rely heavily on that instrument. However, Grusin was also good when working with other instruments, and My Bodyguard‘s score is a prime example! The music manages to capture both a sense of wonder and a feeling of melancholy, which fits well with the overall tone of the film. The main theme is also wonderful to listen to on its own (which I’ve done often since seeing the movie)!
It’s important to grow more mature as we get older, but it’s also important never to forget the experiences and feelings that brought us to where we are. If we keep in touch with those emotions, we’ll find that it’ll make us better people, and we’ll also be able to help the next generation along as they strive for adulthood. Thoughtful, funny teen films like My Bodyguard can help us keep in touch with those youthful emotions. Nothing wrong with that!
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars