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.