What The Outsiders Means to Us
I was in AP English classes for all of my high school years. I read many, many books in the classic literature realm — most of which I found to be exceptionally boring. There are a few that still stand out in my memory, though, for various reasons. Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders are the ones that spring immediately to mind. Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies truly made me horrified to be a human for probably the first time in my life. The Outsiders, on the other hand, was just so tragically sad. “Stay gold, Ponyboy” still gets me. And I think this is one of those rare instances in which a movie captures the heart and soul of the book upon which it is based. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is a “Who’s Who” of 80s actors, and they aptly convey the despondency of being a poor kid from the wrong side of town. Some of it is a little cheesy and very much a reflection of its era, but it is a bittersweet movie to revisit every now and then.
Before filmgoers were treated with cinematic universes of oversized characters; before Steven Soderbergh graced us with his revival of a Ratpack in supplying a collection of the day’s leading stars in one place; before even John Hughes turned the Ratpack on its head with the Bratpack, Francis Ford Coppola gifted audiences The Outsiders. Perhaps the auteur of The Godfather did not realize at the time he was consolidating the heartthrob talents of the day for his adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel, but in hindsight he did just that. Though relative unknowns at the time of release, the likes of Swayze, Lowe, Cruise, Estevez, Dillon, Macchio—hell, even Diane Lane—make up the backbone of an extremely effective “Us vs. Them” tale that has not aged out of its time period like so many movies of any era tend to do.
I, like most people who’ve seen the movie at this point and moving forward, watched The Outsiders after its theatrical release. As a child I witnessed a throwback to the American 60s as told by the American 80s. I was encouraged to find a story of bravery, honor, and the strength of group friendship within the perpetual conflict of classism. All of it culminates in warfare outside the infrastructure that typically enables and propagates it. Watching the strength of a stoic greaser leader in Patrick Swayze’s Darrel, the eldest of a clan of downtrodden orphans, as he navigated his role of leadership and the duties that come with raising a family was just one of many things that renders The Outsiders a timeless classic. I can see and appreciate that aspect nowas I’ve grown older and find myself with my own responsibilities, and when I first saw the film I could appreciate (and still do) the rebellious nature of Matt Dillon’s Dallas that belies the extreme loyalty he demonstrates towards his friends. Such a dichotomy existswithin everyone, in any strata, and on any side of the law. There are virtues on display throughout the film that one can easily latch onto and find comforting, admirable, and even enviable.
I reckon The Outsiders will stick with me long after the power of its stars has faded. I also reckon some of that magic will be lost on the generations to come. But I have no doubt the themes and import of the film and the story itself will coast on for ages to come
When I was about 13, I joined my school’s tennis team. Tennis back then was still kind of an uppity sport. It wasn’t really for the poors. Of course, Jimmy Connors had done a lot to break down barriers and make the game accessible to a broader swath of American society, but these things don’t change overnight.
Anyway, on the way back from a tournament, the coach dropped a few of us who lived outside the city limits off before heading into town where most of the other kids would be picked up. As I exited the bus, an older kid (a kid I looked up to) said in a loud enough voice for the whole bus to hear “Welcome to another edition of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!”
Laughter erupted behind me.
It was a long walk up the gravel road to where my house sat nestled between cow pastures. The house was an old ranch house. No insulation. Windows painted shut. Gas stoves in the winter (I remember at Christmas sitting in my room and being able to see my breath it was so cold). And best of all, to get to the bathroom, you walked out onto the back porch. It was technically disconnected from the house. Which I guess sort of made it an outhouse.
So, yeah, man, that stung. And it probably would have stung less if it hadn’t come from a guy I respected. A guy who had always been pretty cool to me up to that day.
This guy lived on the right side of town. The part that had a country club with tennis courts, a golf course, and a pool. His house was brick. Mine was wood. He wore those v neck cable knit sweaters. I wore clothes from Weiner’s (are those still around?) I don’t know what his parents did, but mine were blue collar. Dad was a truck driver, mom cleaned houses.
Now, I’m not ashamed of where I come from. Fortunately, unlike Johnny in The Outsiders, whose parents didn’t seem to care about him at all, and the Curtis brothers, whose parents were dead, my parents gave me all the love I needed and I never went hungry or wanted for clothes or Christmas presents.
But that’s not the point. Watching The Outsiders as an adult hit different. That day, walking up the gravel road, I was suddenly aware of my place. I was different from my friends. Different from the other kids on the tennis team. Suddenly, the importance society places on material things, on the jobs your parents have, on your family name, swam clearly into view. I had never really been self conscious about my place in the social hierarchy. I never had any trouble making friends, and, technically, I guess you could say I was one of the popular boys in my grade.
Still, my family wasn’t from the area. We had moved there a few years before. We were not an established name. Our name itself stood out from the German/Czech surnames that dominated the area. I guess, in many ways, I was an outsider.
Somehow, though, The Outsiders never really resonated with me. Of course, I was only seven when the movie came out. Obviously, it wasn’t made for kids. Still, though, I have friends who quoted the movie all throughout our school years, but I never really got it.
But I guess age changes things. Time, experience, and perspective affect the way you see the world and even your own past. And it changes the way you experience art.
I had seen the Francis Ford Coppola movie a few times before I watched it a few nights ago in prep for this Canon post, but it had never really left much of an impression. I guess for me it kind of felt like an old movie for old people. It seemed like a black and white movie without actually being a black and white movie.
As a kid and adolescent watching the movie, I guess I focused in on the gang part, the fighting, the conflict. From that perspective, the Greasers are kind of cool. They wear jeans, drive hotrods, smoke cigarettes. Best of all, they win the rumble at the end of the movie. Spoil alert.
I suppose I saw the differences, but I didn’t really understand what those differences really meant for people like them in that time period. It didn’t help that by the time the 80s rolled around, Greasers had climbed up the cultural hierarchy. When The Outsiders came out in ‘83, Greasers were synonymous with cool.
The Fonz from Happy Days was a greaser, the movie Grease had come out a few years before, and the television show Sha Na Na was still in syndication when The Outsiders hit theaters. Compared to The Outsiders, all of those depictions of Greasers vs Socs or Yuppies or whatever you want to call them were romanticized. Pop culture had fused greaser culture with cool cars, motorcycles, clothes, and music. But it also kind of sanitized it. In all of these depictions, Greasers were safe. No one was getting stabbed to death in Happy Days.
As blind to what the movie is actually about as I might have been as a kid, it’s not like it isn’t obvious. The main conflict of the movie is right there in the title.
The Outsiders’ protagonists, Pony Boy (C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (Ralph Macchio) and Dallas (Matt Dillon) and Two Bit (Emilio Estevez), exist outside regular, decent society. They are the undesirables. The film establishes this– and the conflict–within minutes of its start.
By chance, Pony Boy, Johnny, and Two Bit walk outside a drive-in movie theater with two Soc girls, Cherry and Marcia (Diane Lane and Michelle Meyrink) following a fight between Cherry and her boyfriend (played by former pop idol Leif Garrett). The girls end up in the cheap seats with the young Greasers. Like any good story, ours starts out with an event that is out of the ordinary. And the film makes it clear that these two groups usually have no reason or opportunity to mingle. Pony Boy and Johnny know exactly who the girls are because they are pretty and popular, but Cherry has no idea who the boys are.
As the two groups innocently walk and talk with each other, a group of male Socs (one of them Cherry’s boyfriend) pull up and begin harassing the boys. The Soc girls agree to go with the boys to defuse the conflict, but the Soc boys corner Pony Boy and Johnny in a playground late that night and begin drowning Pony Boy in a fountain. Johnny takes out his pocket knife (all of the Greasers have knives) and heads toward the fountain. It’s clear what he intends to do, but the movie spares us the gory details.
The two young greasers wake up on the lawn of the playground to find Cherry’s boyfriend lying dead in a pool of blood. Johnny stabbed him to death in order to save Pony Boy’s life. Before all of this transpires, the film lets us in on the fact that Johnny had been beaten pretty badly by Socs a few months before and is still in a state of nervous shock. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with PTSD.
Whether the Socs are actually going to kill Pony Boy or not is unclear. But from Johnny’s perspective, it’s clear that his friend is in mortal danger. From that perspective, he acts in defense of his friend’s life.
Everything that follows is driven by this conflict. Both groups are driven to “get even”. Even after Johnny is hospitalized after he and Pony Boy rush into a burning church to rescue small children the focus is on settling the score.
A rumble is set. The Greasers come out on top, and after hearing the news from Pony Boy, Johnny mumbles that none of it matters and dies.
Once upon a time, movies acted as pathways for emerging actors. Unknowns were cast in roles in films directed by bigshots like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorcese. The young actors were able to prove themselves and build a resume that could eventually lead to stardom or at least a successful acting career. Nearly all of the young actors cast in the film went on to successful acting careers in Hollywood.
The film’s lead, C. Thomas Howell, went on to appear in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Red Dawn, where he was reunited with his Outsiders costar, Patrick Swayze, who himself starred in such big hits as Dirty Dancing, Ghost, and Point Break. Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid himself) plays Johnny, Pony Boy’s best friend. Matt Dillon has had a prolific acting career, starring in Rumblefish, Drugstore Cowboy, and There’s Something About Mary. The film’s female lead, Diane Lane, starred in The Perfect Storm, Unfaithful, and Under the Tuscan Sun. The rest of the cast is comprised of names like Rob Lowe, Emilio Extevez, and Tom Cruise.
I’m not sure how these casting choices played out at the time. All of these actors were fixtures of 80s and 90s movies when I was growing up, so it’s hard to take that out of the equation watching it now. But I can imagine at the time, the cast was fresh, lending the story a bit of realism. I’m sure it wasn’t difficult to buy this cast of mostly unknowns as street toughs from the 1960s. Either way, it’s certainly not one of the film’s weaknesses.
Acting and Direction
A lot of modern reviewers have accused The Outsiders of being melodramatic. Maybe it is. I see it as sincere. And I think if you are going to do a picture like this, you have to be sincere. You can’t be cynical or it would just have come off as mean spirited and ugly. Despite the grim story, there’s a tenderness here between the boys, even between Pony Boy and one of the Socs. I don’t think any of that would have worked if the director hadn’t let the actors play these parts as raw and emotional.
The actors’ portrayals of these characters paint a picture of male bonding that is almost lost to history. I saw several misreadings of the relationships between these characters in several amateur reviews, and it made me think about masculinity and the way it’s portrayed and the way it’s treated in not only cinema but in western society. I don’t have the space to dissect that here, but I think it’s an interesting facet of the movie. I think the relationships between these characters serve as a sort of time capsule of a bygone way of being for men. Not all of it good, sure, but there’s more sensitivity and affection and emotion displayed among these so-called greasers than you would expect to find among a group of supposed street toughs. I guess to modern audiences, some of it comes off as corny or sexual, but I think that brings up some interesting questions about the parameters around male bonding.To the modern ear, some of the dialogue may seem clunky or wooden, some of the editing transitions abrupt and jarring, the performances not as slick as they would be if they were done today, the fights are less choreographed. But I think all of this lends the film a rough edge. It feels like a relic from another time, another decade. At times, The Outsiders almost feels like a play. And that’s not a bad thing in my mind. It may not be up there with Apocalypse Now or The Godfather, but it’s worthy of a place in our Canon.