American cinema has never had a star quite like Patrick Swayze, who now seems like a bridge between eras, redefining masculinity after an 80s dominated by brute-force heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and, to a much lesser extent, Chuck Norris. Jean-Claude Van Damme had some of his velvet-hammer appeal – the romantic coupling in Bloodsport was about showing off his body, not his girlfriend’s – but Swayze’s gentle, zen-like self-assurance was much rangier, unlimited to any one genre. It was not just the Catskills that were scandalized by his sexuality in Dirty Dancing, but the culture at large, and it kept slipping through even in male-oriented, adrenalized action fare like Roadhouse and Point Break.
The notion of a star like Swayze paying attention to women and serving their fantasies is more radical than it seemed, especially at the time of his ascendence, but it does a lot to account for the success of Ghost, which barreled through mostly dismissive reviews to become the biggest hit of 1990. The money scene of a shirtless Swayze sidling up to Demi Moore at the pottery wheel, shaping wet clay from vase to phallus as the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody plays in the background, was perhaps something only he could pull off. Director Jerry Zucker, better known at the time as one-third of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof squad behind Airplane!, was aware enough that he was pushing the edge of parody; in fact, only a year later, “the brother of the director of Ghost”, David Zucker, referenced the scene in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear.
And yet Ghost is nothing if not absolutely earnest and resolutely unhip, to the point where the “A Jerry Zucker Film” credit still merits a double take. Thirty years later, Ghost is remembered as a unicorn of sorts, exactly the type of film that Hollywood has no interest in making any more: an original, modestly budgeted love story with spiritual underpinnings. Yet that still doesn’t account for how thoroughly it defied any formula for box-office success and how surprised industry-watchers were about how quickly it seized the cultural imagination. Swayze had done it before with Dirty Dancing, the slow-burn smash that put him on the map, but Ghost was a more full-service phenomenon, a romance that doubled as an affirmation of faith. It’s bathed in a heavenly light, even before it happens literally.
The driving creative force behind Ghost was writer Bruce Joel Rubin, who would win the Oscar for best original screenplay and spend the next few years toggling between domestic thrillers such as Deceived and Sleeping with the Enemy (uncredited), sentimental dramas about death like My Life, and Jacob’s Ladder, which is a mishmash of the two with a horror bent. The trick of Ghost is that it has something for everybody: it’s a love story that brushes with the transcendent. It’s a comedy about a put-upon spiritual adviser. It’s a white-knuckle thriller about unmasking a deadly conspiracy. And it’s a simple and only vaguely religious divining of the righteous and the damned. God has a plan for all of us, Rubin implies, and the good guys and the bad guys are going to get sorted out just as plainly as his screenplay defines them.
The thriller elements of Ghost are the most dominant, and by far the least interesting. Eagle-eyed viewers will know whodunnit just by picking up on the words “Tony Goldwyn” in the opening credits, and slower ones won’t be far behind. In the early going, Goldwyn’s Carl plays third wheel to Sam Wheat (Swayze), his best friend and fellow Wall Street banker, and Sam’s girlfriend Molly (Moore), an artist who’s deep into remodeling their new apartment. Shortly after Sam notices multimillion-dollar discrepancies in various accounts that Carl had accessed, he winds up dead in what seems like a common street mugging gone wrong. But Sam passes on his ticket to heaven for the time being and lingers in New York like one of the angels in Wings of Desire, a sympathetic observer to the living.
Things change once Sam picks up on foul play and enlists the help of Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a storefront psychic who’s shocked to discover she can actually hear a spirit after years of bilking widows out of money. She’s ultimately a Magical Black Person archetype, fated to serve a white guy in need, but Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her performance, has wonderful chemistry with Swayze in the getting-to-know-you phase, when she’s swatting him away like a gnat buzzing in her ear. Oda Mae’s insistence on doing her own ghost translation led to a meme (“Molly, you in danger girl”) that’s grown so common that the younger generations are probably more familiar with that line than the pottery sequence.
The business with Carl – and of Molly being in danger, girl – takes up the bulk of Ghost, and the supernatural twist only goes so far in redeeming what would otherwise function as a stock straight-to-video thriller of that era. Goldwyn’s entertaining oiliness as Carl tends to get overlooked; his attempt to dazzle Molly by deliberately spilling coffee on his dress shirt so he remove it is a defining move, straight out of the junior varsity bachelor playbook. The nerve-racking game of telephone that needs to take place between Sam and Oda Mae, who needs a ton of persuasion to believe that she’s actually talking to a ghost, and Oda Mae and Molly, who also needs a ton of persuasion that her husband’s ghost is communicating through a medium, becomes its own excruciating form of suspense.
Eventually, Ghost arrives at a form of Tinseltown spirituality, unobjectionable and nondenominational. Rubin and Zucker are dealing strictly in moral absolutes when it comes to good and evil, with Sam’s ticket to heaven already punched and Carl and his sleazy cohort destined to get dragged to hell. “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside … you take it with you,” Sam tells her before boarding the escalator up, and it’s the type of feelgood ending that no conventional romance could possibly achieve. Ghost turns a happily ever after ending into a happily ever after eternity, confirming that heaven exists, love lasts forever and the people we care most about will be waiting on the other side. Small wonder it was a commercial juggernaut.