The Mystery of Popularity and Ubiquity
As one of the centerpieces of Monkey March, I am going to watch and write about Clint Eastwood’s towering twin masterpieces of simian cinema, 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose and 1980’s Any Which Way You Can, something that I have semi-inexplicably never done during my forty one years on the planet as an unabashed lover of terrible shit and my twenty-one years of writing about the selfsame drivel professionally.
As someone who loves Clint Eastwood, and monkeys, and monkey movies, and 1970s cinema, and things that are widely celebrated/condemned for being the worst, you’d imagine I’d see these movies early as a crucial, even essential component of my cinematic education. Yet for some reason it’s taken a theme month like Monkey March to finally force me to watch two blockbusters pairing the Oscar-winning screen icon with monkey actors portraying the role of Clyde the Orangutan.
This is even more bewildering considering how obscenely popular these films were at the time of their release. How popular was Every Which Way But Loose? It finished fourth in terms of box-office for 1978, behind Grease, Superman and Animal House. Grease obviously was a huge pop culture phenomenon. The soundtrack exploded. People saw the movie over and over again. To this day, people love and revere Grease even though it’s mostly garbage.
I don’t need to tell you how big or important to pop culture and superhero films Superman was. Animal House changed comedy forever and kicked off a massive wave of teen, high school and college sex comedies. And Every Which Way But Loose was a modestly budgeted film about an asshole who hangs out with a orangutan and punches bad guys who all look like stuntmen in their mid-fifties who were kicked out of the business for being too drunk and out of shape.
I wrote a whole column on movies that made a fortune but have faded with time called Forgotbusters for The Dissolve and I was always fascinated by movies that seized the zeitgeist and made what analysts refer to as "a fuck ton of money", only to be ignored by subsequent generations.
The ultimate example of this is Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack, which came out of nowhere and were so unbelievably successful that they forever changed the way movies were marketed and distributed, only to fade almost into invisibility with time. Then again, on a storytelling, thematic and ideological level Avatar is suspiciously similar to Billy Jack and at one point that was the single most commercially successful movie ever made.
I guess I’m fascinated by Every Which Way But Loose’s obscene box-office take becomes it seems like such an anomaly. We know why Superman was huge. And Grease. And Animal House. And I guess it’s ultimately not too much of a mystery as to why Every Which Way But Loose made boffo box-office. Clint Eastwood is a huge movie star. People enjoy watching an orangutan drink beer. Every Which Way But Loose very prominently involves Clint Eastwood and an orangutan drinking beer.
Beyond that, the film benefitted from a weird tidal wave of Southern-fried masculinity in the late 1970s that made the trucker movie a thing and helped catapult Burt Reynolds to new heights of gum-smacking, stoic, mustachioed super-stardom. In fact, just below Every Which Way But Loose on the 1978 yearly box office tally is Burt Reynolds’ Hooper, which I wrote about for Forgotbusters.
It’s easy to see why history did not ultimately remember Hooper. It’s goofy and inconsequential, the kind of thing that’s meant to be enjoyed rather than analyzed. But it’s also easy to see why it did so well. It’s a whole lot of fun, and Burt Reynolds was a very big star at the time.
In the end, I guess I’m happy that a weird anomaly like Every Which Way But Loose proved to be such a box-office champion. It’s refreshing when anything that doesn’t fit the mold does well, even if it’s a proudly idiotic comedy where a dude breaks into a zoo to get his best buddy orangutan pal laid. We don’t necessarily need more Every Which Way But Looses. One was more than enough, but we could always use more curveballs and surprises when it comes to the dispiritingly predictable game of ascertaining what will do well with a mass audience both domestic and abroad.
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