Schubert. On Film.

KILLER 80’s 3-PEATS: Curtis Armstrong

Posted in Killer 80s 3-Peats by schubertonfilm on February 2, 2010

A candid moment with Curtis

In the “Killer 80’s 3-Peats” series, I examine 80’s actors that made three classic characters and/or movies in a row.

In the inaugural edition of Killer 80’s 3-Peats, we discuss the amazing three movie streak of Curtis Armstrong.  The casual movie viewer will know him, of course, as Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds series. But to the 80’s stalwart, he is a character actor on par with a Malkovich or a Tobolowsky. Armstrong has made a ton of movies and TV shows in his long and successful career, but in the early to mid 80’s he reached cult status when he made three classic teen comedies in a row: Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead.

Sometimes you just gotta say ‘What The Fuck’.

1983 – RISKY BUSINESS

Miles: Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, “What the fuck.” “What the fuck” gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.

Risky Business is an interesting creature. I did not see it until around 1998, when I was 14, and, even though I purchased it on VHS, I hated it. With a passion. 80’s teen movies were my main thing, but this was not an 80’s teen movie in my books. I had heard so much about this “classic sex comedy” but all I saw was a slow-moving, unfunny movie with a terrible synth score by Tangerine Dream. Then a strange thing happened. I gave it another chance and I liked it a little more. Then I watched it again and I liked it even more. Finally, on the fourth viewing, I realized how wrong I was. This movie is an absolute classic. It’s an adult teen movie; mature, observational and patient. This is not some stupid Porky’s-esque gross-out sex comedy where every possible joke is made in total disregard for plot. This is a clearly thought out story of one kid’s rebellion against the man and it took me four tries to be totally blown away by it. And funnily enough, I now count Tangerine Dream’s score as one of my favorite film scores of all time. It’s slow, it’s dreamy and it’s perfect.

The entire cast is great, from Tom Cruise to Rebecca De Mornay, Bronson Pinchot and the always-reliable Joe Pantoliano. But one character always sticks out in my mind: Cruise’s best friend Miles, played by Armstrong. It’s hard to believe this was Armstrong’s debut performance with the amount of comic-timing and confidence it contains. His point in the movie is to push Cruise to say “What the fuck?” and question society’s standards. All Cruise wants to do is get good grades and get into a good university. But Miles pushes on, urging him to order prostitutes and live life on the edge. Easier for him to say, Cruise tells him, he’s already on his way to Stanford. When we hear this line of dialogue, it’s laughable that someone as scrubby looking and rebellious as Miles would be accepted into any university, never mind Stanford. But Armstrong pulls it off and simultaneously makes the movie that much better. It’s the kind of sarcastic/sardonic character that gets me every time, usually played best by the likes of Bill Murray and Jason Lee.


Dudley “Booger” Dawson after the Belching Contest

1984 – REVENGE OF THE NERDS

Stan Gable: What are you looking at, nerd?
Booger: I thought I was looking at my mother’s old douche-bag, but that’s in Ohio.

I have never to this day met someone who said they didn’t like Revenge of the Nerds. Or if I have, I’ve intentionally forgot the fact so I don’t lose respect for the person who said it. With my brothers having taped it off Superchannel onto VHS in the mid eighties, Revenge of the Nerds is one my earliest cinematic memories. My introduction into the world of movies was through the eyes of Louis, Gilbert, Takashi, Poindexter, Wormser, Gay Lamar and, of course, Booger. I believe this was also the first time I ever saw a naked woman and, afterwards, even in the youngest and tenderest of years, became a booby junkie, ripping through Superchannel monthly guides like a methadone addict, looking for the coveted magic word “Nudity” under the film descriptions. But that’s a story for another time.

Revenge of the Nerds’ plot is nothing more than a university-set David vs. Goliath  story. It’s the characters and the writing that make it what it is. They are believable, intelligent and relatable. You never laugh at them without affection. This movie wouldn’t be made the same today. That fucknut McG attempted to remake it a couple years ago, but thankfully, it fell apart. I already know what it would have been like had it been made: a laughfest at the expense of the nerds. Probably not even likable nerds, either. I’m damn sure they wouldn’t hire real actors like Robert Carradine or Anthony Edwards to play the nerds. They would get Jon Heder to reanimate Napoleon Dynamite or the asian guy from Mad TV and the movie would be Youtube references and the nerds would be unrealistically high-tech.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. Those 1984 nerds were high-tech alright. Gilbert making computer animated characters hold hands and dance around. Gilbert and Lewis building intelligent robots. Manufacturing javelin spears specially designed for Lamar’s limp-wristed throwing style. All those nerds had technical/mathematical talents. All except one: Booger. He didn’t know about science or technology and didn’t assume to. He cared about three things: beer, pussy and wonder joints. He’s the heart of the fraternity. The Ringo Starr of Lambda Lambda Lambda. He showed those other nerds what they really wanted to do: party. And he always came through.

When those Delta Pi bitches didn’t show up to the Lambda house party, Booger got the Omega Mu’s to take their place. When the party started floundering, Booger got it going with “wonder joints”. And at the end, in the Greek Games, Booger beats universal favorite Ogre to win the belching contest for the Lambs. And who can forget Booger Presley on the mean guitar?

Booger is, and will always be, the ultimate dirtbag. In the hands of any other actor he would probably come off as obnoxious, but Armstrong makes him the most lovable and funny character in the movie. It’s an especially good performance when you consider interviews with Armstrong prove he is absolutely nothing like Booger in real life. He created a legendary character that will survive the test of time, if only for his retort to Anthony Edwards when told Edwards’ love interest isn’t the type of girl to have sex on the first date: “Why? Does she have a penis?”

The K-12 dude. You make a gnarly run like that and girls will get sterile just looking at you.

1985 – BETTER OFF DEAD

Charles De Mar: This is pure snow! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?

To round out the 3-peat, we have “Better Off Dead”, Savage Steve Holland’s meditation on the pitfalls and promise of teen romance. Charles De Mar is John Cusack’s only friend. He wears a top hat and snorts snow off the top of mountains because their town is so small he can’t import any real drugs.  I’ve never really been sure what or who De Mar was meant to be when originally envisioned by Holland. He’s not given any depth or backstory. He’s not even a particularly loyal friend to Cusack. All we know of him is that he snorts jell-o in his high school cafeteria and shouldn’t really still be in high school because his character is in his twenties. He’s just there, randomly entering scenes and consequently stealing every one he’s in.

There are people who don’t enjoy Better Off Dead and it’s understandable. It’s a  love it or hate it-type movie. It’s pretty cheesie and it appeals to a specific sense of humor. I feel lucky to share this sense of humor. I think it’s a great 80’s teen movie and handily beats The Grifters and High Fidelity for the honor of best performance by John Cusack. But, again, it’s Curtis who comes flying off the screen. Charles De Mar is so strange. He doesn’t have any defining characteristics other than complete and utter madness. Holland probably let Armstrong roam free and do whatever crazy idea he came up with and it worked; manic energy creating comedic gold.

It’s sad to me that Armstrong has not had a lot of choice parts since these films. Other than his role on the long-running TV series Moonlighting or his turn as Ahmet Ertegun in Ray, he has mostly appeared in throw-away sitcoms and made for video movies, which is sad because he’s not just an 80’s teen movie joker but an extraordinary character actor, underused and typecasted. But the good news is that to many film fans like myself, the characters of Miles, Booger and Charles De Mar will live on forever and few actors in Hollywood can barely even lay claim to having played one character with cult classic status, nevermind the three Armstrong effortlessly brought to life.

Even with the wise words of Miles and the immortality of a dirtbag like Booger, Charles De Mar is my favorite Curtis Armstrong creation. And in 2009, while shamefully working in the production department of American Pie: Book of Love, I got to meet Mr. Armstrong in person. I had a choice to make. A hard choice. Which VHS do I get Armstrong to sign?

Yeaah I’m a fuckin’ nerd. What the fuck are you gonna do about it?

The choice was easy.

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One Response

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  1. Jonny Shizzbang said, on March 18, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Nice work.

    Was trying to think of other ones. Anthony Michael Hall could get a four-peat for Vacation-Sixteen Candles-Breakfast Club-Weird Science. And you could say how you met him too and show your signed VHS for him as well.


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