Martha Coolidge’s ‘Real Genius’ celebrates its 35th anniversary – and holds up better than many other ’80s movies

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Michelle Meyrink stars in “Real Genius.” [Sony Pictures photo]

On of my favorite movies of the 1980s turns 35 this month, and unlike many coming-of-age stories of its era, Martha Coolidge’s “Real Genius” is a quotable comedy that provides big laughs without the discomfort of wildly inappropriate material.

As I noted in my column for the film’s 30th anniversary, Coolidge’s film about two teenage science whizzes (Val Kilmer and Gabriel Jarret) who are tricked by their duplicitous professor (William Atherton) into building a laser for a top-secret military assassination program also illustrates how far we’ve come technologically – and how far we still have to go in terms of gender equality in the film industry.

Although she has shown a knack for helping discover and develop A-list talent — Kilmer in “Real Genius,” Nicolas Cage in “Valley Girl” (1983) and Laura Dern in “Rambling Rose” (1991) — Coolidge has never achieved the name recognition and acclaim of many of her male counterparts.

Her other feature films include “Lost in Yonkers “(1993), based on Neil Simon’s award-winning play; “Angie” (1994), a feminist film starring Geena Davis as a woman about to embark on single motherhood; “Out to Sea” (1997), a comedy starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon; “The Prince & Me” (2004), a Julia Stiles romantic comedy; and “Material Girls” (2006), a comedy starring sisters Hilary and Haylie Duff.

Dividing her time and talents between movies and television – she directed Halle Berry to both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the 1999 telefilm “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” – Coolidge was elected the first female president of the Directors Guild of America in 2002. She has helmed episodes of several TV series, including “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Weeds,” “The Unknown,” “Psych,” “Madam Secretary,” “Angie Tribeca” and “Siren.”

Coolidge became one of the few women ever to direct a teen movie with 1983’s “Valley Girl,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Two years later, she directed her first major Hollywood studio movie with “Real Genius.”

Although it isn’t as well remembered as other teen movies of its day, “Real Genius” is now one of the few ’80s teen movies I can sit down and watch with my own kids without cringing at sexually abusive – or even criminal – behavior against women being passed off as uproarious good fun made even more hilarious because it is perpetrated by nerds.

From the peeping Toms of Bob Clark’s “Porky’s” to the date rape of John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” to the sexual deception of Jeff Kanew’s “Revenge of the Nerds” – all played for laughs – it’s tough to watch many classic ’80s comedies without encountering a lot of cringe-worthy material about rape culture and consent.

In this subgenre, it’s not hard to spot that one of these things is not like the other. Although “Real Genius” has a few bawdy moments, the female helmer – who made her feature film directorial debut with 1975’s “Not a Pretty Picture,” a semiautobiographical film about date rape – created a film that holds up by largely staying away from objectifying, subjugating and sexually abusing women.

Following her indie breakout with “Valley Girl” and the commercial success of “Revenge of the Nerds,” producer Brian Grazer wanted Coolidge to helm “Real Genius,” but Mental Floss notes that she wasn’t interested based on the original script, which “had a lot of penis and scatological jokes.” So, Grazer recruited PJ Torokvei (“SCTV”) and the team of Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (“A League of Their Own,” “City Slickers”) to shape up the screenplay, and then gave Coolidge the chance to further polish up the project before filming started.

“Real Genius” also was unique for its time in including a female character that is admirable and desirable for her brains and personality rather than her beauty. Although the plot is dominated by male characters, “Real Genius” includes one of my favorite female characters of the ’80s in Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink), an upbeat, openhearted teen inventor with high-functioning attention-deficit disorder who is just as brilliant as the guys. Her romance with young hero and new kid at school Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is not only sweet and believable but also healthy and respectful.

According to Mental Floss, “Disney’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that Jordan’s character went on to inspire the animated series’ Gadget Hackwrench, a bright female rodent inventor.

“Brian’s original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes,” Coolidge said, per Mental Floss. “It was ahead of its time.”

Even 35 years later, that makes “Real Genuis” worth celebrating – and worth rewatching if you are in the mood for some ’80s teen movie nostalgia.



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