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Thirty-five years after its initial cinematic release, The Goonies remains among my favorite movies of all time, and it’s certainly one of my very favorite movies of the ’80s (second only to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club). It’s also one of the few movies that I love as completely as I do. I love every line, every character, every performance, every action sequence, every imaginative twist and turn. For that reason, I never tire of watching it. I saw it at the cinema when it came out in 1985, when I was only 12, and I’ve watched it scores of times on video since then: as a teenager, as a young adult, and now as a middle-aged fanboy. Recently, I watched it at a drive-in theatre up in Maine, which got me thinking about the movie more deeply and made me want to write this post about it. The ’80s are long gone, but The Goonies hasn’t aged. The movie is a time machine that can whisk me right back to that time and place in a steadfast heartbeat.
The mid-’80s was the era of the fun book series called Choose Your Own Adventure, in which you made choices to determine the plot and then turned to the designated page. I owned and enjoyed several of those books as a kid, and The Goonies felt like a particularly well-crafted one. No teen movie from that decade is better cast, and I’m even tempted to say that no other ’80s teen adventure tale is better written. The Goonies isn’t perfect, but its imperfections are also part of its appeal. In spite of Steven Spielberg’s oversight as an executive producer, the movie at times retains the impish charm of semi-amateurism; it’s a film for younger fanboys made by grown-up fanboys, and this is the main reason why I still love the film and everything about it so much at age 46. The Goonies enjoys the kind of longevity that every other film of its kind that’s ever been made wishes it had. Lightning struck, and it stuck.
From the outset, the movie is crammed chock-full of campy archetypal villains: golf course developers in beige trenchcoats who are out to bulldoze homes in order to displace the Walsh family and others in their oceanside community of Astoria, Oregon; high school jocks who taunt and torture the Goonies for fun; and of course, the notoriously criminal (and fatherless) Fratelli clan, comprised of a wicked butch Mama (the late Anne Ramsey) and her two madcap sons (Joe Pantoliano and Robert Davi). The latter son even breaks out into singing opera numbers at comically inopportune or gleefully ominous moments, as if the members of the Fratelli family have wandered in from an entirely different film. The gimmick works, however, because the three actors are totally aware of just how misplaced their characters are in the movie’s script, so they just play right to that. I mean, Italian-American gangsters on the remote coast of Oregon? Go figure.
After the opening-credits jailbreak and ensuing getaway car chase scene, we meet the movie’s central heroes, the Goonies, through a long expository sequence that’s probably the most finely composed of its kind, at least as teen movies go. Ensemble films are hard to write because it’s really difficult to balance one’s attention amongst multiple characters evenly as a screenwriter. All of the characters need to be well-developed for the audience to find them believable and feel invested in the story, so that has to happen simultaneously for all of the characters through the dialogue itself. Actors can endow the characters with personality only through the right words, and screenwriter Chris Columbus (working from a story initially drafted by Spielberg) gave these young actors a hilarious, rapid-fire set of scenes filmed throughout the Walsh home, so that they all have ample time and space to establish their own stake in the narrative. Miraculously, every single one of the young actors absolutely nails each line and expression. I know guys from my generation who have every line of dialogue memorized from that entire early part of the film.
One thing that wasn’t as clear to me as a gay kid in Ohio that’s glaringly obvious when I re-watch those scenes of young guys joking around with each other now that I’m an adult gay man: the dialogue is fully loaded with tons of implications about masculinity and homosocial relations. Brand (Josh Brolin) — the athletic older brother of Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) — is the alpha-male of the bunch, as eager to preen and flaunt his physical prowess as he is to show that he genuinely cares for his younger brother and the other neighborhood kids. This role was all that Josh Brolin needed to demonstrate the qualities that would help him become one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. He definitely should have won an Oscar for his intense and demanding performance in No Country for Old Men, but that’s a story for another time.
Every exchange and detail of these scenes is focused on masculine posturing and boyish one-upmanship: Brand’s sweaty labor while lifting weights at his workout bench, Mikey’s tough-guy stance towards his own sadness about the impending loss of their family home out there in the “Goondocks,” and of course the brash entrance of Mouth (Corey Feldman), whose ebulliently pushy delivery of dialogue pretty much steals each of the scenes in which he speaks. Honestly, Corey Feldman’s genius as a comedic actor for me was wholly intact from this point onward in his career. Controversial though he may be, I still totally love everything about him even today. As evidenced by his omnipresent Purple Rain T-shirt, Mouth is also the coolest nerdy kid from any ’80s movie, and there were literally hundreds of those characters in mainstream films back then.
The arrival of Chunk (Jeff Cohen), their pudgy and unfailingly hilarious Jewish neighbor who can gain entrance to the Walsh household only by lifting up his shirt to jiggle his belly in what’s known as the infamous “Truffle Shuffle,” easily signals that he’s the beta-male character of the group and will remain so throughout the remainder of the film. He even misses out on much of the long central adventure-based portion of the movie due to his own skittish fears and apprehensions, though he winds up enduring far worse scenarios than the other Goonies for exactly the same reason, even if it all turns out just fine in the end. His relationship (and yes, it’s actually a full-on relationship) with Sloth (the late John Matuszak), the outcast and grotesquely deformed younger brother of the Fratelli clan, is what redeems Chunk from the eternal underdog status to which he’s relegated in the film. More on the Chunk & Sloth subplot later in my post.
Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), the Goonies’ sole member of color, flies his way into the story, crashing through the Walshes’ screen door when he rides a self-designed zipline over from his own house. He’s a child inventor, and an especially innovative and fearless one, too. His makeshift toolbelt and trenchcoat contain a multitude of handmade devices and experimental gizmos that will later save himself and the other Goonies from all forms of danger and treachery, while occasionally making their escapades even more treacherous whenever his inventions frequently misfire or malfunction. Nevertheless, he’s the mastermind of the group, and one who’s sorely needed, which does help to balance out his ideological function as the “token Asian character” in the story as well. When Data’s reunited with his father in the film’s final scenes, his true place in the tale and its larger community is finally brought full circle.
A pivotal moment comes when Data’s aerial landing in the Walsh home ends up breaking the penis off of their mother’s statuette of Michelangelo’s David. It’s one of a few key penis jokes that crop up in these scenes and deserve some attention here. Mikey has asthma, and he goes quite swiftly from holding the statue’s broken-off penis to sticking his inhaler into his mouth when his mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) walks through their front door with their new Hispanic housekeeper, Rosalita (the wonderful late actress Lupe Onteveros), who’ll be helping them pack for their possible upcoming move if their house gets foreclosed on by the golf course developers. Chunk, of all characters, glues David’s penis back on upside-down, so that it looks like fit young David is sporting an erection, though it really doesn’t seem to faze most of the other boys all that much. “If God made you do it that way, you’d all be pissing in your faces,” exclaims a flustered Brand to the other kids, to which Chunk calmly responds, “It looks fine to me.”
And it’s at this point, ironically, that the film’s narrative achieves liftoff. Because the Walsh family's dad (Keith Walker) is a museum curator, the boys decide to explore the attic of their family’s house to find a map that will lead them on an adventure-filled search for the legendary hidden treasure of an ancient pirate known as One-Eyed Willy, hoping to locate the bounty in order to have the money necessary to save their home from the golf course developers. You don’t have to think too hard (wink-wink) about One-Eyed Willy’s name to get the film’s most shameless inside joke. That’s right: the Goonies will spend the rest of the movie pursuing a very wealthy older man who shares his name with a nickname for one’s penis. The fun comes in when the Goonies learn that One-Eyed Willy hasn’t made it easy for them at all. Ingenious Rube Goldberg-like booby traps will hinder their progress every step of the way, keeping them constantly on their toes and proving that One-Eyed Willy is a wily force to be reckoned with.
To keep the gender dynamic more interesting (and also less homosocial), two female Goonies do join the group as well, just as their adventures get underway: high school cheerleader Andy (Kerri Green) and bespectacled tomboy Stef (Martha Plimpton). They’re equally well-drawn and fully inhabited characters, unlike in most ’80s teen movies that simply made young women second-tier characters or objectified them. Andy and Stef, while not immune to the effects of the frightful scenarios they encounter as the film goes spelunking through underground caves and grottoes, are spunky, driven, and self-aware young women with plenty of willpower and minds of their own to boot; Green and Plimpton, both ahead of their time, knowingly and winningly portray them that way. Of course, Andy also happens to be dating Brand, because a teen movie with no heterosexual romance or build-up of sexual tension wouldn’t be a full-fledged teen movie.
The film’s real wildcard female character, however, with some hints at transgender energy, is Mama Fratelli. Anne Ramsey, at this late point in her career (she acted in her first movie at age 42 in 1971 and died in 1988), was known mostly as a character actress, so the role of Mama Fratelli was a goldmine for her, as was her Oscar-nominated turn as the raucous title character of 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train, another movie that I loved and watched many times throughout my youth. Whenever I consider these two roles in tandem, I think no other actor’s pair of crowning ’80s film roles could be as potent. Through those two campy characters and her distinctive and exacting take on them, Ramsey single-handedly shaped the youths and childhood fears of millions of young people worldwide. Nobody else even came close to accomplishing that in the ’80s, not even someone like Vincent Price, as hard as he may have tried to achieve it. Ramsey’s sly command of camp in these performances to some degree overrode and exceeded camp itself, so that she achieved a truly rare combination of the comical, realistic, and visceral.
Cutely maniacal Joe Pantoliano and calmly menacing Robert Davi also made a permanent mark on the culture as the bumbling Fratelli brothers. In their slip-sliding and head-bonking antics, they were drawing on a rich film tradition from the Marx Brothers to Laurel & Hardy, while giving it some contemporary spins and updated innovations of their own. I doubt that anybody else in the movie had as much fun with their roles, and it shows in their pair of performances on camera. It’s a very tricky line to walk, one that requires the audience (particularly much younger viewers) to be scared of the villainous Fratelli brothers while also being able to laugh out loud at them and their ongoing rounds of cutting up and sparring with one another out of sibling rivalry. The brothers hamper the Fratelli clan’s pursuit of the Goonies but hope that they’ll catch up with the youngsters and be able to swipe One-Eyed Willy’s bounty for themselves. I have a feeling that Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern must have been drawing directly on these two performances for inspiration when they acted as a similar bad-guy duo in Home Alone just a few years later.
As memorable as its stellar performances make The Goonies, the inventive action sequences are really what drive the film the most, as well as the element that persuades frequent viewers to return to the movie. From suspended falling boulders to deep pits with tall spikes sticking straight up from the bottom, One-Eyed Willy has secured his treasure for centuries by making it almost impossible for outsiders to locate. We hear early in the film about how older adventurers like Chester Copperpot tried and failed to find the bounty, which is gruesomely confirmed when the kids stumble upon his skeleton at the very first round of booby traps in One-Eyed Willy’s labyrinthine underground lair. By the time the Goonies have outwitted several more of Willy’s traps, we arrive at the steepest challenge, which fans refer to as “playing the bones,” a skeletal piano that Andy has to rely on her childhood piano lessons to play, as she decodes the chords hand-written in ancient notes on the backside of the map of Willy’s lair. With each wrong note, a segment of the rock platform on which the Goonies are standing collapses into a bottomless pit, providing the movie with its most memorable and suspenseful images in a film that’s absolutely brimming with them. Andy succeeds, culminating in a group waterslide ride with a rewarding splashdown into a glowing blue-green lagoon, right beside One-Eyed Willy’s huge pirate ship.
Chunk, who’d opted out of the kids’ adventures to fetch adult assistance, only to get re-captured by the Fratelli clan, again escapes from the bad apples of the Fratelli family with the help of their younger and painfully neglected son Sloth, unforgettably portrayed with fearsome and infinite heart by former National Football League player John Matuszak. Chunk and Sloth, both outcasts, form an immediate and nearly intimate sort of bond that keeps them close on the heels of the other Goonies throughout the film. By the time they finally catch up with them, Sloth, with his combination of physical strength and emotional bravery, has been well-primed to become the movie’s ultimate hero. Matuszak’s performance is the most demanding one in the film, mainly because he has to emote through many layers of make-up, latex, and electronic prosthetics. In doing so, he also becomes the movie’s most loveable character, the antithesis of when Chunk first discovers him loudly howling while chained to a wall in the Fratelli family’s basement.
The movie’s true emotional center of gravity, however, is Sean Astin’s Mikey Walsh. Quite young and seemingly fragile, he’s also the Goonies’ finest and most persistent schemer, keeping all of them on a steady path throughout the duration of the film, arguing for the importance of their mission of saving their homes from foreclosure whenever the other Goonies are too afraid or ready to give up. Astin delivers numerous moving monologues — in the Walsh family’s attic, then surrounded by the underground waterfalls of their town’s old wishing well, and finally alone at One-Eyed Willy’s table full of treasures — with the expertise, timing, and maturity of actors four or five times his own age at the time. He’s the son of actress Patty Duke, and watching those touching scenes again always makes me wonder what in his childhood gave him access to that kind of resonant emotional depth. Because of it, he was able to craft a childhood film performance that will continue to live on for many more decades, and probably well beyond his own lifetime.
Without giving too much else away (for those who may not yet have seen the film), I’m happy to say that everything else in the movie works out just fine for the Goonies, as well it should, of course. It’s a fantasy, after all, one in which the greedy and inhumane golf course developers get duped by a group of determined kids and wind up with the short end of the deal, never the way things work out in the everyday world, where we seem to suffer small or substantial losses more or less continually and often struggle to survive. That makes the breathtaking final sight of One-Eyed Willy’s grand sea-vessel sailing from its crumbling hidden cavern at long last and out onto the open ocean all the more gratifying to behold. As the Goonies and their families stand on the beach together to cheer on the great ship and their own victory over their mindless enemies, so do we.