Ghost was Jerry Zucker’s first and best film as a solo director. Before this, he’d teamed up with brother David Zucker and Jim Abrahams to direct a string of zany comedies – most iconically Airplane! and The Naked Gun. On the face of it, Ghost is a very different kind of film, but it benefits from his background in comedy, since it takes a certain taste for the absurd to fuse genres as extravagantly as Zucker does here. In a little over two hours, we experience every conceivable blockbuster beat– tragedy, melodrama, suspense, comedy – all linked by a queasy, precarious sentiment that’s always almost ridiculous, but never quite loses its way. In fact, Ghost demonstrates how hard it is to be sentimental without being saccharine, since Zucker tugs on the heartstrings at every opportunity without ever quite being mawkish either.
We start on the cusp of the 90s, with an upwardly mobile couple who have just purchased a SoHo loft together. Sam Wheat, a banker played by Patrick Swayze, is close to a major windfall at work, while Molly Jensen, played by Demi Moore, is a potter. Both characters seem somewhat dislocated by the move to SoHo, meaning that the past also feels especially present. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” recurs through the film, reminding us that “time goes by so slowly” – especially in the iconic scene where Sam and Molly caress a kiln, sculpting time together. However, the film takes a very abrupt turn when Sam is mugged, shot and turned into a ghost. At first, he simply watches over Molly, but then he learns that his murder was set up by his bank – and that he now needs to protect her from the same fate.
Before that all happens, though, Zucker, and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, spend some time mediating Sam and Molly’s romance through their new loft apartment. As the credits roll, Molly breaks into the loft, opening up space that Sam doesn’t quite understand: “It’ll leave us with all this space” “For what?” “Just space.” Later on, Zucker employs a Fellini-esque shot of a statue being hoisted up into the apartment, while frequently filming the enormous American flag that hangs vertically outside from a ninety-degree angle. All of this evokes vertiginous, cavernous, redundant space – as if to suggest that conspicuous consumption had, in the real estate market of the late 80s and early 90s, transformed into conspicuous space. The more empty space in a loft, the more room for upward mobility its owners must have.
At the same time, the cityscape is also entirely empty, brimming with space, but in a different way. The film takes place on the cusp of widespread Manhattan gentrification, so the streets here still feel like an urban jungle – a dangerous passage between the renovated apartment and Sam’s Wall Street offices. The only other place where we see people outdoors are in subway cars – conduits from one safe part of the city to another – and even then the subway stations are totally deserted. You sense an enormous class divide, and antagonism, between the new conspicuous space of yuppie living, and the urban wastelands that remain in decay.
When Sam turns into a ghost, he forms a bridge between these two forms of empty space – and the yuppie fears that they evoke. He can walk through glass, brick and metal, but has problems with doors, meaning that he’s housebound, forced to play the role of house-husband for the first few scenes. Worse, he’s forced to watch as a man employed by his banking firm enters the house, spies on Molly as she undresses, and then almost murders her. It feels pointed that this man is black, an emblem of the urban jungle, cementing Sam’s death as a kind of downward mobility, displacing him from his upwardly mobile yuppie trajectory.
Sure enough, when Sam follows this man, he takes the J/Z train back to Myrtle Avenue, where he lives in a graffiti-clad slum, scored to continuous boomboxes, which blast out an exotic cocktail of hip-hop and gospel music. This scene reminded me of the depictions of Cabrini Green in Candyman, released two years later. In both cases, black living conditions are so distant from the middle-class interloper – in this case a Wall Street banker, in that case a semiotics student – that they start to morph into a supernatural register. No surprise, then, that Sam’s journey ends with Oda Mae Brown, a spiritual medium played by Whoopi Goldberg, who lives in the same building, and mainly services black female clients, but makes an exception (grudgingly) to translate his thoughts, feelings and aspirations back to Molly.
This leads on to the middle part of the film, when Sam and Molly communicate with each other through Oda Mae. During these scenes, Sam acclimatises to the redundant space of the loft with a series of splendidly redundant postures – Swayze-as-object – adapting a mannerist body language that encapsulates the yuppie male’s fear of being sidelined, decentred, othered. It’s an especially stark contrast to Road House, his second last film (and his last blockbuster), where he was in continuous, hyperbolic motion. In the process, he is both overidentified with, and dissociated from, the presumed gaze of the film. Only we can see exactly where he is at any one moment (Oda Mae can only hear him), but he’s rarely the sole focus of any one scene. At other times, we don’t see him at all, making it difficult to discern whether he’s watching somewhere offscreen, or if we’re seeing things from his perspective.
The result is a bit like free indirect discourse, as Zucker positions Sam somewhere between a first-person and third-person narrator. This disembodies his whiteness, and turns it into a concept, rather than just a skin colour, especially when Oda Mae translates his thoughts into her own black lexicon. You sense he’s on the other end of the spectrum of visibility from black women, since the moment he disappears, black women become visible, while only a black woman can fully testify to his radical invisibility. In order to survive this deracination, Sam and Molly have to share the burden of white yuppie roles in a more distributed way. Moore, in her most boyish role, becomes a kind of surrogate male lead (Molly proposes to Sam just before he is murdered). Conversely, since Sam can’t act, he takes on some of the burden conventionally placed on the female lead – to be purely reactive, emotive and melodramatic.
Yet while Sam fights against his invisibility, there’s a certain liberation in it too. Being displaced allows him to see the system more clearly, in a “tasteful” counterpart to John Carpenter’s They Live, released two years earlier. He’s shocked to discover that the mugging wasn’t simply a result of urban blight, but was elaborately staged by his colleage Carl Bruner, played by Tony Goldwyn, to gain sole access to a wealthy account. Worse still, Carl is now romancing Molly, but also seems like he might kill her as well. Sam, and then Molly, come to realise that the real threat isn’t the mean streets of New York City, but other upwardly mobile WASPs. They are their own enemy, which perhaps explains why the film never brings Sam back from the dead, but also why no other viable romantic option for Molly emerges, not even at the end.
In order to at least achieve justice, Sam comes up with two different ways of resetting the balance of power in the financial sphere – his own supernatural agency, and the agency of black women, which is so alien to Wall Street, especially in this film, that it might as well be supernatural. This would be pretty on the nose were it not for Whoopi’s wonderfully picaresque performance of blackface in sacrosanct white spaces. She really nails the heightened black deference and diffidence needed in so-called colorblind white institutions, inserting herself into the world of banking as comically as she would insert herself into the nunnery in Sister Act. In fact, I wondered whether the idea for Sister Act stemmed from Ghost – Whoopi’s character is also fleeing organised criminals here and, at one, point, has a comic encounter with two nuns, after Sam persuades her to give them a four million dollar cheque.
The ending is also less on the nose than it might have been. In the climactic scene, Oda Mae allows Sam to enter her body, so that he can kiss Molly one last time. When Molly kisses Sam, she sees Sam, but in reality she’s also kissing Oda Mae as well. After the kiss, she retains some trace of Oda Mae, since she can now hear Sam as well, while Sam is utterly exhausted after inhabiting the body of a black woman for even a second, viscerally aware of how her passage through the world differs from his own. In other words, Oda Mae doesn’t mediate Molly and Sam in a clean way – both of them bear traces of her body, and both of them remain somewhat inextricable from her body, evoking a broader social horizon for all three of them.
This scene also takes place in the upper part of the loft – the literal pinnacle of yuppie aspiration – where Molly and Oda Mae kill Carl, Sam’s nemesis, with the glass and crane that Molly has been using to gentrify the loft. Sam leaves for another realm, but Molly has also entered another realm too, since she’s now using gentrification against itself, destroying her apartment so that the Wall Street apparatus that once fuelled it can also be defeated. And the film ends there, in that lurid moment – a beat further and it could have slipped into self-parody, but as it stands, one of the high watermarks of 1990, a lesson in total tonal control.