80s Movie Challenge Week 24: Big (1988)

Welcome back Kids of the 80s, and everyone else unfortunate enough to have not grown up in the decade. If you were expecting the brilliant Chris Warrington to present a look at Wall Street, never fear. Some technical difficulties with YouTube mean that this week’s #80sMC will have to be rescheduled but in the meantime, Paul does what he does best, rambling about nostalgia, as he unpacks some frankly disturbing issues in 1988’s body-swap rom-com, Big.

Seems like only yesterday I was watching Robocop, preparing to write the first instalment of our 80s extravaganza. A lot has changed since that week in early January. But listen to me, waxing nostalgic. It’s true – I’m a massive nostalgia fan. If you didn’t realise that, where have you been for the last 24 weeks? Twenty four? Can you believe it?

Anyway, while we’re talking about things that seem like no time ago, let me tell you about 2015 when I was a baby-faced 40-year-old. I had the good fortune to be gifted the holiday of a lifetime by my parents for my big birthday. Anywhere in the world, and they would pay for the flights and room. It was an easy decision. Ever since I was a kid I have ALWAYS wanted to go to New York City.

As the months before the holiday rushed past, my wife and I made all kinds of plans to do all kinds of things. A baseball game? Check! A Broadway show? Check! Brooklyn Bridge? Statue of Liberty? Central Park? Times Square? Check, check, check, check! These were all things I wanted to do, but they weren’t the main reason I had always dreamed of visiting there. What I really wanted was to visit the locations of some of my favourite films.

Among many other things, we dined in the cafe where civilians hide during the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers (Pershing Square – if you are ever in Manhattan I can highly recommend it for a spectacular breakfast), crossed the bridge where Will Smith fights the zombie dogs in I Am Legend, found Dana’s apartment, The Tavern on the Green and the Public Library from Ghostbusters (I was gutted that we didn’t find the time to head to the south of the island for the Hook & Ladder firehouse though – next time), watched the Staten Island Ferry depart, as featured in Working Girl (and Spider-Man: Homecoming, although that would not come out for two more years) and sat on a bench looking at Rockefeller Plaza, as Macaulay Culkin does in Home Alone 2.

And this bridge where Peter ugly-cries in Spider-Man 3 and where Connor McLeod meets Ric Griffin out of Holby City in our film from a few weeks ago, Highlander.

On our last full day in town, Mrs C wanted to go shopping on 5th Avenue. However, I surreptitiously slipped in a couple more movie locations. First off was Tiffany & Co’s (although there was no breakfast), and then, just up the street was the world-famous toy store, FAO Schwartz. That was where I came face to face with this fellow:

Now you may be thinking “But he doesn’t look like the chap from the movie. I imagine there is a good reason for that. Most likely that the one in the film is utterly terrifying. And putting it in a shop where the clientele is not long out of diapers is probably frowned upon.

But replica or no, it was still a Zoltar Speaks machine in FAO Schwartz, and that was incredibly cool.

Before you ask, yes OF COURSE I put a coin in. And OF COURSE, I wished to be not quite so big (a wish loaded with double meaning, as a reduction in the old waistline would have done just fine had I not been magicked back into a teenage boy). And OF COURSE, I got a card saying “Your Wish Has Been Granted”.

And OF COURSE, my wish didn’t come true. Sigh.

It’s a great shame because when we ventured to the upper floors and stumbled across the gigantic floor piano, as so memorably featured in the scene where Tom Hanks and Robbert Loggia play “Heart And Soul” and “Chopsticks”, there was a sign saying “You must be smaller than this sign to use the Big Piano”. I felt like Josh Baskin in reverse, getting knocked back at the fairground for being a shortarse.

Hanks and Loggia were also originally too big for the piano. When writer Anne Spielberg first saw it in the store and reported back to director Penny Marshall, they were disappointed to find that it was only six feet long and had just one playable octave – nowhere near wide enough to play the tune she wanted, let alone accommodate the two actors.

Marshall tracked down Remo Saraceni the engineer behind the “Walking Piano” and asked him to create a piano big enough to fit two grown men. The finished instrument was sixteen feet wide and had three octaves – more than enough for the sequence.

While filming that scene Hanks noticed a pair of body doubles dressed like him and Loggia, ready to stand in were the actors unable to cope with the choreography required to play the tunes. Both actors vowed to learn the routine. FAO Schwartz’s  CEO Peter Harris was present during the filming of the scene and recalled:

“Tom and Robert were way better at it than the dance doubles we hired… They went ahead and did it and had so much fun with it and were so proud of themselves… What was captured on the screen was a sincere happiness.”

The struggling company moved to its new address on Fifth Avenue in 1985 and, looking to promote the store as an entertainment venue as much as it was a shopping destination, Harris began writing to film and TV production companies offering up the 40,000-square-foot space as a filming location. The Big team soon got in touch.

Having gained his first Oscar nomination for his role as the Boy-In-A-Man’s-Body, Josh Baskin, the film is very much Tom Hanks’ film, his boyish look and appeal fitting the role perfectly. He was indeed the first choice for the role but he initially turned it down due to a clash with his commitment to Dragnet and Punchline. This led to a spate of big-name actors being offered the part. These included Harrison Ford, Dennis Quaid, John Travolta and Robert De Niro.

For a while, until Hanks was able to juggle his diary and get back on board, De Niro became Josh. The young actor David Moscow had impressed at auditions but because he didn’t look like De Niro, he was given the role of Josh’s best friend Billy. When Hanks freed up some time, De Niro was out and Moscow was asked if he would swap roles to play young Josh instead, as he bore something of a resemblance to Hanks. Apart from having blond hair and the wrong colour eyes. While shooting, he wore coloured contact lenses and had his hair dyed dark-brown. Jared Rushton who then went on to score the role of Billy also had to dye his hair red for the role (and no, he’s not the same kid who plays John Connor’s friend in Terminator 2: Judgement Day – that was Danny Cooksey).

Rushton no longer acts, having turned his hand to music, performing with the bands Withdrawal and Deal By Dusk.

Aside from casting the male lead, the role of Josh’s adult love interest, Susan Lawrence was still unfilled. Marshall wanted Debra Winger for the part but when offered it she turned it down due to finding out that she had recently fallen pregnant. It was Winger who suggested the relative newcomer Elizabeth Perkins for the part, having enjoyed her debut performance in 1986’s About Last Night.

Now, in our intro, the mighty unseen WGN Big Boss (That’s me, Ed.) said I’m going to unpack some disturbing issues. And here they are:

Ah, don’t they make a lovely couple?


As I often say, one of the things we wanted to do with The Great Year Long Eighties Movie Challenge (to give #80sMC its full title) was to look at older movies through a modern lens. On the whole, Big is a fairly timeless fantasy adventure. It could take place in the 1950s or the 2010s and be pretty much the same.

Pretty much. Except for the creepy stuff.

Maybe it’s because I was exactly the same age as the young Baskin when Big came out and the idea of a sleepover with an attractive twenty-something lady is a thirteen-year-old boy’s dream come true, but it never bothered me. I never picked up on how disturbing the central romance is. But watching it again tonight, it made my skin crawl. I know the moment Josh loses his virginity to the blind-to-the-truth Susan is supposed to signify the passing of childhood and the loss of innocence, but there are so many other things Josh could have done instead which would have been far less icky. Learning to drive, perhaps. Or getting drunk.

And it’s a shame because if you can get the cradle-snatching-but-not-really-but-kind-of-is out of your head, Big is still a really enjoyable film. As I said before, Josh Basking was a role custom made for Hanks – and it served him extremely well. As the first of his Oscar nominations, it paved the way for his two wins in the mid-90s. His performance is utterly believable – Hanks is an incredible physical comedian and he picked up the awkward locomotions and mannerisms of a teenage boy perfectly (he studied many video tapes of David Moscow to get a feel for his movement).

Thanks to his winning performance Big, despite the issues, still works as a funny, yet poignant commentary on the end of innocence. However, to me, there is another message in the film – one I already try my best to practice.

If you like doing something, don’t let anyone else stop you or tell you that you’re wrong. If you like Lego, build it! If you like cartoons, watch as many as you can!

Just because you’re Big, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the magic.

Join us again next week for a trip back to the Cruel Summer of 1984, but don’t forget to brush up on your car-polishing, deck-sanding and fence-painting skills as Andee Dee fights to become the best around with The Karate Kid.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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