Beetlejuice Convincingly Explores the Specter of Impending Adulthood, 35 Years Later

Movies Features Tim Burton
Beetlejuice Convincingly Explores the Specter of Impending Adulthood, 35 Years Later

Comedy writer Jesse McLaren once summarized the arc of Tim Burton’s filmography with a single tweet:The first half of Tim Burton’s career are movies that shouldn’t work but do and the second half of Tim Burton’s career are movies that should work but don’t.” This assertion remains an apt critical perspective, but it also identifies the engine which emboldens Burton’s storytelling. His mode of filmmaking thrives under the framework of the underdog. For better or worse, he is always retreating to the outlook he adopted in the early stage of his career, shrinking into the outcast teenager living in the plasticized, pastel-drenched suburbs of California. 

Unfortunately, this mode of understanding the world has a shelf life. Burton’s preoccupation with the outsider has diminishing returns, especially for a now-established industry figure, who has to overcome a shrinking set of hurdles for each new project. Beetlejuice remains the best, most complete distillation of Burton’s ideology, a perfect overlap of artistic impulse and cultural context, the kind of circumstances that propels a career forward for decades to come. 

In March of 1988, cinema was largely populated by recycled material. Biloxi Blues—one of Mike Nichols’ stage to screen adaptations, rightly consigned to the annals of history—had come out the week before Beetlejuice, as had Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach. The Beetlejuice script was handed to Burton in the wake of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and in the leadup to Batman, a genuinely weird mashup of Burton’s preoccupation with death and his distaste for the invasiveness of suburban neighborhoods. But as with all Burton projects, the practical effects uphold a very simple worldview: To be young and precocious in the terrain of adult responsibilities is to be different, and to be different is to be special.

Part of Beetlejuice’s magic trick is achieved in the casting of its Burton analogue. Molly Ringwald, Drew Barrymore and dozens of other famous actresses auditioned for the black tulle-clad protagonist, Lydia Deetz. Instead, Burton went with Winona Ryder, a relative newcomer to the industry whose own experience growing up in California—on the deserted outskirts of Hollywood, carried by the dissonance between a passion for film and an overwhelming shyness—mirrored his own. Burton’s outlook and Ryder’s acting prowess aligned with the only moment in time when they could both reasonably be considered industry outsiders.

Ryder’s trick as a performer is how she wields an eternal youthfulness, contained within her big eyes and slight frame, to undercut the viewer, disarming them with anger and eeriness. As Lydia, she is possessed by a simmering frustration at being stuck in the body of a child, her sense of doom softened by her youth and perpetually misunderstood. She remains desperate for her macabre senses to be taken seriously before latching onto the Maitlands (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) out of a twisted sense of necessity. They see her as valuable in her difference, uniquely positioned to help them, and in turn she finally gets to negotiate the terms of being needed. Much of the humor of Beetlejuice is born of Lydia’s mannered confidence and the Maitlands’ age-appropriate wariness. Upon first meeting, Lydia identifies them and, in response to their astonishment, she leans against the banister, projecting an unassuming air: “It says, ‘Live people ignore the strange and unusual.’ I myself am strange and unusual.”

Behind the gloss of confidence is someone who longs to be accepted and misplaces her faith in the freedom accessed in maturity. Even before Barbara and Adam Maitland die, their life is characterized by a comfortable monotony—their lives are settled and are only further solidified in death. Adult responsibilities are unshakeable, with an eternal hold over its victims. Burton locks Lydia in a dark, internal logic, painting the afterlife with the visual signifiers of adulthood: Lydia longs to grow up only to one day find herself trapped in a maze of shuffled papers and crowded desks.

Barbara and Adam are the film’s throughline, but once Lydia is introduced, the story is filtered through her vision. The iconic “Banana Boat” sequence (which would have gone viral in 1988 had its teenagers been equipped with social media), is from Lydia’s vantage point in the corner. Lydia is the character built to sustain the bulk of Burton’s preoccupations, a misunderstood loner who believes that a symptom of living is succumbing to normalcy. This worldview can only be understood through someone so young—innately, it isn’t built to last. Such disregard for age-defined wisdom is somewhat soured by the shift in cultural tides. People’s tolerance for men determined to contextualize their childhood through art has dropped in the last few decades. Burton’s distaste for communal modes of belonging feels especially embarrassing considering his frequent collaborators. The band of (now) Hollywood insiders he’s assembled are bizarrely united by their love for the outsider.

This ironic phenomenon is best understood through his longest, most formative creative partnership with Johnny Depp. Depp’s Edward Scissorhands performance was not his star-making turn, but it did argue for the actor’s refreshing lack of self-awareness. Late into his collaboration with the director, this lack of self-awareness has been molded into a brand, one now trite in its popularity. The mannerisms which crowd his performance of the Burton-esque outsider are embarrassing to reanimate so late in his career (not to mention the complication of his persona after a messy, public, abuse-filled divorce and defamation case). Watching such a figure still reach for childishness feels dishonest; performance in the most grotesque mask. Depp and Burton’s relationship keeps them locked in stale predictability, but Ryder and Burton’s partnership in Beetlejuice remains a perfect alignment of burgeoning star persona and artistic outlook. As a performer, her cool modern distance from the public and her adoption of more mature roles contradicts Depp’s stale rockstar persona. Ryder’s arc in Hollywood has retroactively affirmed her place in Burton’s canon.

The shape of Burton’s career, however lackluster, only cements Beetlejuice as the purest distillation of his artistic outlook. His overwhelming desire to be taken seriously and his complete disregard for the ritual and requirement of adult responsibility remains solidified in the film’s plot and design. Following Burton’s recent career has only plunged viewers headfirst into the uncanny valley, but revisiting Beetlejuice will remind you that this arc isn’t a case of waning talent. Rather, it’s a matter of sacrificing any lasting message to serve the style of his brand. Unfortunately, this brand is a ghostly reminder of his once-exciting vision, now rendered dishonest and only lingering around long enough to haunt the director and his audience.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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