One of my earliest memories involves standing on the sidewalk outside the Fox Theater in Long Beach and staring, slack-jawed, at the poster for the original Star Wars. Painted in a lushly pulpy, retro style, the poster featured the then-unfamiliar images of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, etc., all beneath a zippy, Flash Gordon-ish logo. But this poster, which was already enough to stop me in my tracks, had a strange, arty, postmodern touch that left me baffled: it was painted so that it resembled a faded, posted bill, with another bill beneath it featuring the movie's credits and rips along the left-hand side showing a plywood construction site wall underneath. This was obviously a brand-new movie, with ray guns and robots and weird little hooded guys with glowing eyes, yet the poster looked like a tattered relic from a bygone era. It was, in retrospect, absolutely the perfect poster for a movie that took elements from a lot of other, older movies and scrambled them together to create something new. But all I knew at that tender age was that this was a movie I had to see.
Even today, after all these years and those sad, wretched prequels, that poster (co-painted by noted poster illustrators Drew Struzan and Charles White III) still has the power to remind you of what you loved about the original Star Wars trilogy. This was an unforgettable poster in a decade of unforgettable posters. It was impossible not to feel a shiver of real fear when you first saw the poster for Jaws, with that nightmare shark approaching the unsuspecting swimmer from below, his monstrous head the size of a semi-truck and his mouth overflowing with a million dagger-sharp teeth. And who could resist the goofy charm of the original Bad News Bears poster, with telling caricatures of Walter Matthau and the rest of the cast provided by the great Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis? When I grew older, I also learned to appreciate the movie posters of earlier decades: the snazzy deco of the silent era; the biblical epics of the '50s, with their logos composed of stone letters 50 feet high; the towering, stone logos of the '50s biblical epics; the fluorescent, psychedelic insanity of the '60s.
But sometime in the late '80s, movie posters all started to look alike. It was one poster after another featuring blandly flattering photos of the stars, almost invariably looking straight at you and surrounded above and below by type. This look was employed for comedies, dramas, indie pictures, historical epics, whatever, and movie marketing people had a name for it that really said it all: Big Heads Floating in the Sky. The Big Heads poster evolved because of something called equal likeness, a newly developed contractual feature specifying that if one star appeared on a poster, his co-star (or co-stars) were guaranteed to appear on the poster atexactly the same size. The poster for 1992's A Few Good Men, for instance, features exactly half of Tom Cruise's face on the left-hand side and exactly half of Jack Nicholson's on the right, with the resulting design being as blandly symmetrical as a discount-brand package of frozen peas. The MPAA also began to wield increasing control over posters, arbitrarily vetoing anything they deemed objectionable. The original poster for Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, for instance, featured a spooky painting of the Headless Horseman carrying his own head; the MPAA rejected the image as "too graphic," so it was replaced with a forgettable poster featuring the Big Heads of Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci.
There were a few potent deviations from the artless norm, such as the wonderfully unnerving Silence of the Lambs poster that featured a death's head moth over Jodie Foster's mouth—a moth that, when you looked really closely, actually featured an image of seven naked ladies from Salvador Dali's painting Female Bodies as a Skull. But mostly it was all Big Heads, all the time. Pretty much the only thing you had to look forward to were the holidays, when those blandly flattering star photos suddenly sported ridiculous Santa hats for Christmas or party hats and noisemakers for New Year's Eve.
It's tempting to declare that the movie poster is a dead art, but in recent months there have been some encouraging developments. The poster for the indie picture A Good Woman features the kind of art deco illustration rarely seen since the days of Fred and Ginger, while the poster for the Bad News Bears remake was a clumsy but obviously heartfelt shout out to the Jack Davis original. Revenge of the Sithmay have disappointed on almost all counts, but at least its poster featured some strikingly old-fashioned design by none other than Drew Struzan.
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It's been a very long time since I stood outside a theater and stared, slack-jawed, at a movie poster. But if the movies have taught me anything, it's that no matter how bleak things look, there's always the chance for a happy ending.