1987 Week: Oh god, oh man, it’s the ‘Worst Line Reading Ever’

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

All throughout 1987 Week, Vanyaland film editor Nick Johnston will be looking back fondly at a year that happened three years before he was born, and taking a critical eye to some of the worst and best films of that year. Today we have a scene from ‘Tough Guys Don’t Dance’, a film that Nick’s never actually taken the time or had the curiosity to watch, and a brief discussion of ‘Robocop’, which is a film that Nick’s seen about a thousand times.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

I’ll freely admit that I’ve never seen Norman Mailer’s 1987 disasterpiece Tough Guys Don’t Dance (released by the Cannon Group!) all the way through, and it’ll probably take me years and years before I do get around to it, if ever. Somehow, that film’s touched my life in a lot of ways that I’m sure Mailer didn’t intend for it to, and I’ve only ever seen 30 seconds of it. You might have seen this video floating around the internet for a while now, and though its view count isn’t as impressive as say, “Gangnam Style,” it’s a true classic. The title of the video is “Worst Line Reading Ever,” and it’s a doozy.

Check it:

There’s so, so much to love about this 30 seconds: The swelling, hyper-dramatic music, the nakedly forced cinematic reasoning for having Ryan O’Neal open Isabella Rossellini’s letter in front of a beach vista, the garbled delivery that renders much of Rossellini’s letter completely inaudible (I only found out what she was actually saying while doing a bit of background research for this article), and, of course, O’Neal’s freakout and the first-person POV that accompanies it. It’s blissfully funny, even though it probably makes some sort of sense in the final cut and/or Mailer intended it to be that way in the first place, but for some reason it’s better without any sort of context: There’s no further plot to get in the way of that thirty seconds and that moment.

And again, I can’t speak to any of that on any meaningful level: I’m sure there are people out there in the world that love this movie. Well, maybe not Rip Torn.

Yet this one clip symbolizes how we deal with culture these days: It’s a lot like sampling, in its primal essence, finding that one particular note or expressing and stripmining it from the layers of context and semiotic coding that it’s been endowed with by its primary creator. The video itself attempts to angle it as a form of harsh criticism — “The Worst Line Reading Ever” is a pretty gauntlet-hurling title, especially in the context of all the small-town church Christmas plays that we’ll never get to see — but ultimately that excessive name is positioned as a provocation to watch, in an era just before the true rise of clickbait.

I’d argue, though that you can’t really call it that, as it rewards you within 30 seconds of clicking on the link, but that’s neither here nor there. This moment has been selected it as being a distinctly memorable moment in the history of cinema, regardless of its specific qualities, and was thusly made memorable. By doing this, this random YouTuber, a guy who probably had no idea what the hell he was doing, acted as a cultural curator and ensured that an otherwise forgettable Norman Mailer film became embedded in the internet’s rolodex and preserved for other audiences. I still show people this clip. Hell, I’m writing an article about it, so I guess it’s had a decent effect on me.

So, please, continue to enjoy this moment free of any and all context. It’s how we live now.


I’m going to keep this short, sweet and to the point: This is my personal favorite of any film released in ‘87, though I’m sure the Wim Wenders fans out there in the world are currently sharpening their knives in anger over my lack of acknowledgement for Wings of Desire (I swear, I swear! I love that movie too!). So, since this is a clip-based article that I’m working on today, I figured I’d refer you back to an article I wrote about Robocop and his appearances in overseas advertising this past year, and mention how sad we are that Miguel Ferrer (who you might know from Twin Peaks, but who was never more perfect than he was as the dickish OCP executive who winds up creating Robocop) passed earlier this year.

So I’d highly recommend you watch this movie again, as it’s only growing more relevant by the day, and we all could use a good shot of Maximum Verhoeven in our lives every once in awhile. See you back in here in three years for me freaking out about turning 30 by revisiting Total Recall, everybody. I can’t wait.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the Worst Movie of 1987. Prepare yourselves accordingly.