In Memoriam: Ivan Reitman (1946-2022)

By: Shawn McKee

Each year brings the inevitable loss of another cultural icon. It seems this has been happening a lot lately, especially for those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The recent passing of Ivan Reitman at 75 is another reminder of irreplaceable talent in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. Reitman was one of the most reliably talented in his field. As the director, producer, and/or writer of countless seminal classics, his work behind the camera helped define the essence of modern American comedy. His films launched the careers of several comedic legends throughout the ‘80s, while reveling in absurd, wildly original concepts that always delivered.

Reitman’s strength lied in his dedication to offbeat premises and the realism necessary to keep them grounded. His track record wasn’t perfect, but there’s a reason his films remain so beloved today. He respected audiences and sought primarily to entertain. But none of that would have been possible without an adept storytelling methodology and greater understanding of the comedy formula overall.

Reitman was born in the Slovakian town of Komárom in 1946 to parents who were both Holocaust survivors. His family later immigrated to Canada, where Reitman studied music and directed several short films. After years of TV and stage production gigs, his first professional foray into film production began with two films from Canadian horror legend David Cronenberg, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).

Soon after, he found early success as producer behind the anarchic comedy hit Animal House (1978), notable for its memorable ensemble cast, including the great John Belushi. Reitman’s directorial debut Meatballs (1979) gave Bill Murray his first starring role as a clownish camp counselor. This was followed by another Reitman-directed comedy hit Stripes (1981), starring Murray and Harold Ramis, who sadly passed away in 2010.

Stripes further set the tone of the anti-establishment comedy prevalent during that time and featured Murray and Ramis as two aimless slackers who join the Army on a whim. Reitman seemed to have a knack for cultivating comic talent in what critics deemed the “slob genre,” mainstreamed by movies like Caddyshack (1980). But nothing could contend with the multi-million dollar cultural phenomenon that followed.

Ghostbusters exploded into cinemas in 1984 and quickly became the highest grossing comedy of its time. The supernatural special effects extravaganza was scripted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, introducing a group of eccentric scientists who start their own ghost-catching business. Everything about the film has become a mainstay in our culture. The ubiquitous Ray Paker Jr. song and merchandise that followed continue the endearing legacy of a cherished film and its subsequent franchise.

As director, Reitman was primarily responsible for establishing a realistic backdrop to make the story more believable, and thus, more effective. Aykroyd initially envisioned the Ghostbusters battling supernatural entities in space. After several rewrites with Ramis and additional guidance from Reitman, the story was set in its now iconic location in the heart of New York City. Reitman hired effects wizard Richard Edlund and his company to deliver the groundbreaking special effects, including the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s downtown rampage. Reitman knew that for the film to work, everything needed to be convincing. He also expertly merged comedy, suspense, and horror into the proceedings. The results are pure movie magic and a testament to his directorial abilities.

Reitman followed his biggest hit with the moderately successful comedy drama Legal Eagles (1986), starring Robert Redford, Debra Winger, and Daryl Hannah. The idea stemmed from Reitman to emulate the sophisticated legal thrillers of the 1940s. But its impact paled in comparison to his next comedy, Twins (1988), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first comedic role) and Danny De Vito as two “twins” reunited after being separated at birth. By this period, Reitman displayed a mastery of the form and once again delivered a fantastical premise with heart, suspense, comedy, and broad appeal.

Ghostbusters II (1989) was released during a summer of blockbusters that included Batman, Back to the Future Part II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It held its own and successfully brought back the original cast for more supernatural adventures in NYC. As a child, Ghostbusters II was the first film of the franchise I saw in theaters. It left me enthralled, even rivaling Batman as my favorite movie of the year. Today, the film holds up just as well as the original, despite what the naysayers say. Reitman’s direction remains reliably solid, utilizing the effective chemistry of the film’s key players and equally impressive special effects.

Kindergarten Cop (1990) saw Reitman once again team up with Schwarzenegger to deliver a raucous comedy blockbuster based on an improbable concept turned real. In this case, Schwarzenegger’s hard-edged detective character goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher to catch a bad guy. The movie was criticized as being too intense for children, which speaks to Reitman’s knack of fusing several genre elements together. Reitman was still at the top of his game, delivering the comedy hit Dave in 1993, the successful but embarrassing Junior (1994), and his welcomed return to science fiction comedy with Evolution in 2001.

When not directing, he produced dozens of notable films throughout the ‘90s and 2000s. He never stopped working, even producing the latest incarnation of the Ghostbusting franchise, Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), directed by his son, Jason. For someone beholden to comedy, it’s evident by the sheer quality of his work that he took his profession and work seriously.

The passing of a film director may not have the same impact as an actor, musician, athlete, or noted celebrity. The same could be said for scientists, authors, physicians, or anyone whose grand achievements occur outside of the limelight. We only know what we see. To me, a director’s work represents one piece of their catalog. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but I always look for the stylistic similarities.

I remember seeing the Twins trailer in the coming attractions before The Land Before Time (1988). It showed two newborn babies crying, still in the hands of doctors, with caption across both infants that read, “Danny De Vito” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I was intrigued, especially when Reitman’s name was listed in the credits. I recognized his name from the sleeve of my worn-out VHS copy of Ghostbusters. Today, I remain grateful for his work. He gave us with laughter, excitement, and a love for the memorable characters and situations that will live on for generations to come.

Retrospective: 30 Years Since ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ By Jesse Striewski

In the summer of 1991, there was one film causing massive worldwide hype that seemed like everyone on the planet was buzzing over; the Arnold Schwarzenegger-driven blockbuster sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Once again directed by James Cameron and co-starring Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner (with Earl Boen also briefly returning from the first film as Dr. Silberman) along with newcomer Edward Furlong as John Conner, T2 featured breakthrough technology in movie special effects, including computer graphic imaging unlike anything else that had been seen on the big screen up to that time.

When originally released on July 3, 1991 (after premiering in L.A. on July 1), I was still just a ten-year-old kid just as excited as anyone else about the film at the time. Having already seen the first film previously at a friend’s house on a rickety old blank VHS tape (which also included the original A Nightmare on Elm Street on it), I instantly fell in love with it’s mix of action and Sci Fi/borderline horror, and still regard it as my favorite film in the franchise (it might just be me, but I preferred Arnold much more as the ‘bad guy’). But alas, when it came time for T2, I could not find anyone willing to take me to see it in the theater, even though I had the NES game, trading cards, and numerous action figures from the film, many of which I still have to this day.

In the sequel, Schwarzenegger returns as the Model 101 Terminator sent back in time, only this time around he’s there to actually protect John Conner, rather than eliminate his existence like in the first film. Robert Patrick is brought on as the new, advanced terminator sent to kill John, the T-1000. After realizing he’s a target, John entrusts the help of the Model 101 to break his mother Sarah (Hamilton) out of the mental institution she has been incarcerated in since some time after the events of the first film. The result becomes one of the most enthralling and immersive cat-and-mouse chases ever captured in cinema history.

Also notable is the the appearance of the hit Guns N’ Roses track “You Could Be Mine” in the film from the band’s then-upcoming Use Your Illusion II album. Like the movie, the song was hard-hitting, and featured an explosive music video that also saw Arnold himself briefly appear. The video helped propel the song’s success, and my want to see the film even more, and I have long since attributed it as the catalyst to my eventual love of hard rock and heavy metal music.

Actor Danny Cooksey, who played John’s equally rebellious friend Tim in the film, offered Rewind It Magazine some insight on how the song ended up being included in the film in a 2019 phone interview; “When we were in the early stages of filming, I was given a cassette of the music that was going to be used in the scene. Originally it was going to be two songs, and I believe they were “Higher Ground” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones, which were, you know, both fine. But at some point I got handed another cassette, and it was an advanced copy of “You Could Be Mine,” in which case I thought I was just the coolest person on the planet since the record wasn’t even out yet!”

In the same interview, Cooksey went on to explain what it was like actually meeting Schwarzenegger on the set for the first time, in this previously-unpublished quote; “I remember somebody taking me to his trailer to meet him, and he was already dressed up in all his gear, so it was definitely a bit intimating. He was such a cool guy though, and it was such an awesome experience to be a part of it at that age.”

T2 went on to gross well over $500 million before it’s run in theaters was over, and helped define the summer ‘blockbuster’ from then on out. It would not be until 2003 before I would finally see Arnold on the big screen for the first time as the Model 101, when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was released almost twelve years later to the date after it’s predecessor. Three more films and a short-lived TV series would also follow, all with varying results. But nothing that has come since has been remotely able to match the undeniable juggernaut that was T2. In the immortal words of Arnold himself, “Hasta la vista, baby!”