Working on a film project required me to revisit a few, college-themed movies of yesteryear. Among them is the 1986 blockbuster hit Back to School, starring Rodney Dangerfield as Thornton Melon.
I first watched Back to School in my freshman year of college, as part of a binge into teen-comedy classics from before my time. As a 19-year-old, I viewed Back to School as a pretty standard, 1980s comedy: silly, unrealistic, but ultimately entertaining. And it maintains those core qualities upon rewatch.
However, my revisit also brought me to the realization Thornton Melon is the movie villain most indicative of 1980s cultural failings. Dangerfield’s second-most iconic role couches the callous greed Oliver Stone reflected through Gordon Gekko in the palatable veneer of memorable one-liners.
EVERYONE HAS A PRICE
I find ’80s culture fascinating, in part because of the wide divide in perception. There are those who to this day tout the decade as a time of great prosperity for all Americans, yet the ’80s experienced some of the most turbulent economic periods since the Great Depression and before the Great Recession. Income disparities between the top percentage of the population and the middle class widened dramatically.
This duality is reflected in pop culture of the time. Corporate titans both fictional and not were lionized, whether it be Thornton Melon in Back to School, or the myth-making that laid the foundation for our current president. But ’80s entertainment also gave us villains like the aforementioned Gekko, and the quintessential late ’80s WWF heel wrestler, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase.
The bad guy DiBiase drew the ire of audiences for flaunting his money and using it to get his way, most notably purchasing the services of an evil referee and the WWF Championship itself from Andre The Giant in 1987.
DiBiase’s catchphrase — “Everyone has a price” — functioned as both a cynical worldview, and as a declaration of superiority. In Back to School, Thornton Melon exudes the same mentality.
• He bribes a police officer after trespassing into a sorority house upon his arrival on the Grand Lakes University campus.
• During an argument with a professor, he cites his many kick-backs to local politicians as a necessary business expense.
• It’s heavily implied his son, Jason Melon, is only welcomed onto the Grand Lakes diving team because of Thornton’s influence.
• Melon cuts a hefty check to the university for a new business school, in exchange for his admission as a freshman.
Thornton Melon’s payouts are conveyed as expressions of generosity — which, in some scenes, it’s true. But there’s also an undeniable undercurrent of Million Dollar Man-like cynicism about our society.
For example, outstanding comedic character actor Ned Beatty portrays GLU Dean David Martin as a groveling sycophant, willing to admit Melon into the university despite falling woefully short of standards and motivated by the promise of donations. Martin later grants Melon special consideration after allegations of academic fraud; consideration that I can assure no undergraduate accused of cheating in the real world would receive.
Martin’s behavior could, and in some ways does, work as commentary on higher education’s tendency toward hypocrisy. This doesn’t inherently make Thornton Melon a protagonist, however, particularly when the character sneeringly tells antagonist Dr. Barbay, “While you were tucked away up here working on your ethics, I was out there busting my hump in the REAL world. And the reason guys like you got a place to teach is ’cause guys like me donate buildings.”
For a film built on the central premise a man without an education is nothing, this air of superiority expressed by the protagonist certainly looks down on educators.
Referring again to Ted DiBiase, the soul of a memorable pro wrestling angle exists in a great Good vs. Evil conflict. While DiBiase arrogantly declared everyone has a price, his good-guy opponents virtuously held firm to their principles.
The primary conflict of Back to School flips this dynamic, with business professor Dr. Phillip Barbay portrayed as villainous for touting ethics and virtue against Thornton Melon’s unscrupulous practices and academic fraud.
Barbay’s obviously intended to be an antagonist in the vein of Judge Smails, Ted Knight’s unforgettable villain from Rodney Dangerfield’s most-beloved film, Caddyshack. Ironically, Judge Smails functioned as an avatar for wealthy individuals who believed their money entitled them to undue influence. What’s more, Judge Smails was shown to be an immoral character.
The Back to School audience is expected to root against Dr. Barbay for the sin of…teaching business ethics? Upholding Grand Lakes University’s admissions standards? Expecting a freshman to be held accountable for academic fraud? None of these are bad qualities!
Their conflict extends beyond the classroom, with Melon wooing English professor Dr. Diane Turner away from Dr. Barbay. Barbay and Turner have an awkward relationship, so the Sally Kellerman-portrayed character seeking more romance stands to reason. But Melon selfishly and immediately trivializes his own relationship with Turner, first with his creepy behavior toward coeds 40 years his junior at a party (one of the best party scenes from the 1980s, thanks to Oingo Boingo’s musical performance); then cheating on his coursework.
And yet, Melon faces no real repercussions for either. His “punishment” is having to study. Again, why is he the hero of the film? Answer: He’s not.
Pursuing women already in relationships is a recurring theme of Back to School. Jason Melon’s love interest, Vanessa, is dating Chas Osbourne. Osbourne is the prototypical Billy Zabka character, meaning he’s a bit of a bully and whiner, so there’s a much stronger good guy-bad guy dynamic at play between these two. In fact, Jason’s the closest thing to an actual protagonist in the film.
He serves as its conscience, imploring his dad to study and not be the obnoxious loudmouth who argues with the professor (we all had at least one during our time in college, right?). He wants to prove himself worthy of the dive team rather than rely on his father’s clout. If there’s a face to be found in Back to School, this is it — it’s definitely not Derek Lutz.
Lutz, played by Robert Downey Jr., is actually a pretty funny take on the pseudo-intellectual outsider archetype. Again, we all had at least one we knew in college, yes? The memorable bar-fight scene puts Lutz and Thornton Melon’s confidant, Lou, firmly on the antagonistic side.
The Grand Lakes football team seeks retribution from Lutz after Downey’s character set off a paint bomb (unprovoked) during a pep rally. They have reason to be angry! The lead football player even attempts to de-escalate the situation when Thornton Melon — in a very heelish move — summons Lou to fight for him.
Again, not a protagonist’s actions.
Viewed from this perspective, Thornton Melon becomes less of the lovable underdog trope that was standard in 1980s comedies, and works more like Patrick Bateman. Bateman’s the main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, published just five years after Back to School was released, and intended to satirize 1980s greed and vacuous culture.
Consider that parallel as I posit to you this question: Is Back to School a prototypical raunchy ’80s teen comedy, intended as crowd-pleasing junk-food cinema? Or is it a nihilistic, satirical commentary on our society’s self-defeating embrace of egomaniacal corporate giants during the latter half of the 1980s?
Before you answer, I offer one final piece of evidence proving the theory Thornton Melon is truly Back to School‘s villain: The character’s young version is played by Jason Hervey.