Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Up the Academy (1980)

Directed by Robert Downey
Starring Stacey Nelkin, Ralph Macchio, Ron Liebman, Tom Poston
Rated R
Shop for this poster!

"You don't wet the bed, do you?"
"No, I generally just piss over the side."

Up the Academy opens with a punk song: the snotty, two-chord, teen-angst anthem 'Kicking up a Fuss' by LA snarl-poppers The Blow Up. That's entirely fitting, because everything about this film is pure safety pin-in-the-cheek, middle-finger-in-the-air punk rock, from its taboo-smashing sense of humor, to the public's outright rejection of it.

Spurned on by National Lampoon's runaway success with Animal House a year earlier, Mad Magazine, then a still-vital source of social satire in the US, sensibly figured they could earn a bundle with a chaos-in-the-classroom epic of their own. Even better, they snagged iconoclastic director Robert Downey Sr. (Putney Swope, 1969; Greaser's Palace, 1972) to direct it, adding an air of street-cred and subversive cool to the project. Furthermore, it's two writers, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, were both veterans of the Golden Globe-winning Bob Newhart Show, one of the funniest and most well-written television shows of the era. For all intents and purposes, Up the Academy should have been every bit as good, and every bit as successful, as Animal House.

It wasn't. Somewhere along the way from page to screen, things turned ugly. What was supposed to appear playful actually played out as moronic and ill-tempered. Mad Magazine's prime objective - to provoke the establishment and point out it's flaws - looked a lot more like rage-fueled adolescent flailing in the hands of Robert Downey.

Much raunchier than the magazine ever was, upon its release, Up the Academy was disowned and derided by its sponsors. It was destroyed by critics and ignored by audiences. And yet, its formula was rubber-stamped and reused dozens of times throughout the 80's, diluted and remixed and poured into kindler, gentler molds like The Breakfast Club just a handful of years later. Its reach has continued through the years, as well. Were it not for Up the Academy, with its nothing-is-sacred brand of hell's breath satire, would we have ever had pie fucking movies two decades later, or period-blood gags a decade after that? Perhaps Up the Academy lacks finesse, common sense, or real sense of purpose, but we could say the same about the Sex Pistols.

That's right. I'm saying that Up the Academy is the Sex Pistols of teen sex comedies*. So let us commence with the outrage.

Several teenage waste-cases from various points of the Earth are dispatched by parents and guardians who no longer want them to the Weinberg Military Academy. There's Ralph Macchio as Chooch, the wayward mobster-son; Ike ( Jimmy Walker-esque Wendell Brown), the slick young cocksman, cast out from his preacher father's home for having carnal relations with his own stepmother; Hash (Tommy Citera), the oil shiek's petty thief of a son, plucked from a tent in the desert and swept away on a private jet, Oliver (Hutch Parker), a Michigan mayor's son, courting scandal by getting his girlfriend Candy (Stacey Nelkin) pregnant, and Rodney (Harry Teinowitz) a portly teenage arson with a madman's giggle and self-professed 'emotional problems'.

All five of our rebellious young protagonists end up rooming together. After being terrorized by a blind barber and goosed by creepy, flouncing, Master-Sargeant Sisson (Tom Poston), they are introduced to their nemesis, Major Vaughn Liceman (Ron Leibman), a man so wicked that whenever he walks into a room, a sinister wind wooshes, and Gimme Danger by Iggy and the Stooges plays. A twitchy maniac, Liceman gives them a rambling monologue about Vietnam, threatens to rip their balls off if they misbehave, and then wishes them a pleasant evening. They do not have one. They do, however, have a decent first day in weapons-handling class, since it's conducted by Bond-babe Barbara Bach, who wears a half-opened top and strokes the ammunition shells suggestively.

There is a story here: Oliver's girlfriend Candy, having fully recovered from her mayor-enforced abortion, enrolls at the all-girl military academy across town. Obviously, the boys spend the rest of the film scheming on how to get to the girls. But the plot is incidental to the film's primary intent, to bash you over the head with jokes that are in such bad taste you'll literally choke on 'em. Take, for example, the bit where Hash, the supposedly Arab kid, prays to a stack of a Castrol GTX oil cans, or when Ike, the black kid, fails miserably at sports. "You are a disgrace to niggers everywhere!" screams his coach (Antonio 'Huggy Bear' Fargas), as he eats the dirt in a failed attempt to play soccer.
"For this I gave up being white," grouses coach, as he storms off the field.

One night, the boys go over the wall to visit Candy. Hash has a Cadillac convertible stashed down the road, so they jump in and head out for the all-girl school ("Butch Academy", naturally). After a tussle with a couple of redneck gas station attendants ("So that's what they look like without their hoods," notes Ike), they reach their destination.
Oliver tosses a stone at a random window while David Johansen's 'Girls' blares on the soundtrack. The glass shatters, and an angry looking frump pokes her head out.
"Do you know where I can find Candy?" Oliver asks.
"Try the vending machine in the lobby," snorts the girl. "Now beat it, before I come down there and beat the shit out of you."
"Yes, sir," he says.
Oliver roams around some more. All the girls are either lifting weights or shaving their mustaches. He eventually finds Candy, and they make panicky love.

A word about Candy. Stacy Nelkin's film appearances are relatively sparse, and mostly in low-rent junk like this, but once you've seen her, she tends to linger in the memory. While still a teen, the burgeoning New York actress met Woody Allen and had a romantic fling with him; said fling inspired one of his greatest films, 1979's Manhattan. She tends to have that sort of affect on men. Her face is perfect, like a porcelain doll, her chest is heartbreakingly full, and her personality is playful and warm. An unforgettable presence in mostly forgettable films, she's probably best known for her co-starring role in the Michael Meyers-free Halloween III (1982), punk rock comedy Get Crazy (1983) and, um, Going Ape (1981) a monkey movie starring Tony Danza. Sadly, amidst all that z-movie craziness, she never revealed her bountiful charms, but at least she's in her bra for a couple of glorious minutes here.

Anyway, turns out that Liceman was tipped off by that pudgy ratfink Rodney, and took Polaroids of Oliver and Candy's illicit groping. He threatens to send them to Oliver's father unless Ollie sets him up on a sexual tryst with Candy. Sweet, under-aged, spoken-for Candy. Well, this outrage cannot stand, so Candy and the boys devise a clever plan to right all wrongs and royally fuck this Liceman scuzzball. And the hustle is on.

It should be obvious at this point that there is something very wrong with this Liceman character. I cannot think of a more venomous military officer in any movie save, perhaps, for Day of the Dead's lunatic Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), and that guy had an excuse - he was the last man with guns during a zombie apocalypse. Liceman, on the other hand, is just bug-fuck crazy. There's a mixer between the girls and boys' academies and Liceman spends it wandering around and making odd propositions to the girls. "You like getting tied up?" He asks one of them. "You know, with ropes?" And to another, the infamous line: "Tickle your ass with a feather?" I mean, what the fuck? Later on, Candy sets a velvet trap, donning a harem-girl outfit and enticing him to put on lingerie and whip her, so that Oliver can snap pictures of the event and cancel out his blackmail attempt. Liceman hovers over her on the bed in a sheer pink gown with a whip in his hand.
"You sure you don't want me to punch you a little bit first?" He asks.
There is nothing funny about this scene. It's actually pretty depressing.

Ron Leibman famously had his named removed from the credits before the film's release, and although modern standards have softened Liceman's blow over the decades, you can kinda-sorta see his point; his character is never really funny, but he is perverse, weird, and occasionally terrifying. With another actor in the role - Don Knotts or Tim Conway, perhaps - Liceman would have been the sweaty, prat-falling buffoon he's supposed to be, but Leibman plays him so straight that he becomes this bizarre, tragic, pathetic mess of a villain. Its quite a fuckin' sight. As Rodney says of him at one point, "He's not my kind of strange."

Up the Academy hit the theaters in 1980. As expected, Mad Magazine published a parody- "Thrown Up the Academy". Perhaps not so expected was their sudden decision to disown the film. Much like the misunderstood young lads at the academy, it was rejected and tossed aside by it's own creators, left for dead in drive-ins and dollar theaters. When it was later released on VHS and shown on late night cable, all references to Mad magazine, including a creepy intro with a guy in a (Rick Baker-designed) Alfred E Neuman mask, were chopped out. Mad later relented, and the DVD version is intact, but for years, many people had no idea the whole thing was Mad's idea in the first place.

So is it really as awful as everyone's reaction to it? No. It's too off-putting and weird to be funny, but it is compulsively watchable, a derailed train that keeps trundling, crazily, down a steep embankment that it cannot steer away from. Why, for example, does Liceman feed his pet bulldog a condom? Why does Professor Bliss decide to risk her career to smoke a joint and make-out with teenage Ike? Why is a venerable character actor like Tom Poston reduced to wearing tiny shorts and mincing his way through a falsetto performance of the National Anthem? Everything about the film seems compulsive, like a cinematic Tourette's episode, like a desperate court jester with a blade to his gut, no longer sure what's funny, but forced to keep joking or die. At times, it is clearly a black comedy, coal-black and despairing; at others, a frothy gag-fest, the forebear of every dumb summer camp and ski-lodge teen-riot to follow in its wake. Up the Academy clearly does not land where it was meant to - to paraphrase Victor Hugo, whatever it is, it is not as it should be - but I will say this much for it: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to forget.

Director Downey peaked in the late 60's and early 1970's, when his subversive sense of humor and politics were better tolerated by a more open-minded culture. By the time he made this film, he was already slipping in stature. He did, however, sire a fine actor of a son, and still occasionally makes a nutty film, like 1997's Hugo Pool. By the way, legend has it that Downey Jr. makes a cameo appearance somewhere in the movie, but fucked if I could find him.
Up the Academy was Ralph Macchio's debut; lucky for him he weathered the storm and went on to become the Karate Kid, which is what he will continue to be in most people's eyes until long after he is deceased. The rest of the Up the Academy kids quit acting soon after, which is probably just as well. Ron Liebman rebounded from the Liceman incident and went on to steady acting work in film and television, most recently on the Sopranos. Tom Poston stayed awesome every day until he died in 2007.

Barbara Bach married Ringo Starr which pretty much negated the need to keep acting in B-movies. And Stacey Nelkin? Well, she recently co-authored a book on how to keep your marriage together. So that's good of her. She can also be found on the convention circuit whenever there's a Halloween III reunion. Ask her about Up the Academy if you ever run into her. Maybe she'll punch you, or something cool like that.

Availability: Up the Academy is available on a crisp but bare-bones DVD from Warner Home Video.
Buy Up the Academy at Amazon.

Link: The Blow Up have mp3's of Kicking Up a Fuss and groovy end-credit theme Beat the Devil available for free download on their website

Clip: Up the Academy trailer

Clip: Stacey Nelkin at 2008 Chiller Convention

*In case you're wondering if I plan on continuing with punk metaphors, H.O.T.S. is the Ramones of teen sex films. The Cheerleaders is the MC5. Etc.

-Ken McIntyre


  1. One fact/correction with worth noting.

    As detailed in the memoir "Good Days and Mad" by longtime MAD editor (and Match Game question writer) Dick DeBartolo, UP THE ACADEMY existed as its own film before Mad's involvement.

    Warner Brothers, in fact, had contracted to create THE MAD MOVIE, a KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE-style sketch comedy using MAD characters and features, some of which would be animated.

    After all, THE MAD SHOW had enjoyed a successful two-year Off-Broadway run in the 60s and, as you noted, NATIONAL LAMPOON had just proven that anything was possible at the box office.

    The studio's one caveat was that they wanted to test the power of the MAD name on a theatrical release before shooting anything.

    The title that got picked was UP THE ACADEMY.And you detailed exactly how the public reacted.

    Warners dropped THE MAD MOVIE, and William Gaines reportedly sank into a pitch-black depression.

    As an 11-year-old MAD worshipper, the fact that the movie was rated R really did hurt me.

    When a full-color ad ran in the comics section of the Sunday New York Daily News, the insult added to injury was as sure as the gap in Alfred E. Neuman's gumline.

    At 14, I caught up with the movie on video and was annoyed by its lack of nudity. If they had to rate it R, at least provide what, then, was the prerequisite of even a fair number of PG movies.

    A few years ago, I met Harry Teinowitz, who plays Rodney. He's now a successful afternoon sports talk radio host in Chicago, and a good friend of Mr. Skin.

    Harry signed my UP THE ACADEMY poster, but I couldn't get him drunk enough to do the laugh.

    Semi-related: I interviewed Larry Flynt in 1994, and he told me that a script had been written for HUSTLER: THE MOVIE which he said would have been "a hard R comedy."

    I asked if the failure of UP THE ACADEMY had anything to do with H:TM never getting made and he said he wasn't sure, but he remembered how bad it had bombed.

    As I worked at HUSTLER then, I spent the next year combing the office for the HUSTLER: THE MOVIE script. No luck finding it.

  2. ok, a friend of mine and i were talking about this movie just the other day, and he swears up and down that when he saw the movie back in '80, there was a nude sex scene featuring Stacey Nelkin. He has only seen the movie once, but that scene stayed with him because it was "memorable." he recently bought the dvd expecting to see that scene, but it wasn't there, much to his chagrin. any ideas???


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