Movies exist at a certain moment in time, reflecting the attitudes and cultural zeitgeist of the moment no matter the story a filmmaker tries to tell. This can lead to valuable cultural documents such as Harmony Korine’s Kids which provides a complicated and intricate view of life on the fringes of 1990s America, or Nashville by Robert Altman which probed deep into the politics of the 1970s.
Conversely, however, similar films can work to reflect damaging stereotypes, translating the overt racism of the early 20th century or the underhand misogyny that has long pervaded Hollywood. Such films remain interesting cultural waypoints, showing how much society and popular culture has changed since these cinematic reflections of reality, though they present undeniably uncomfortable viewing for an ever-changing modern society.
Scouring the world of cinema, we have picked out ten classic films that are unquestionably uncomfortable in today’s society, ageing like a funky-smelling cheese or a Tupperware of couscous. Take a look at our list of classics, below, featuring films from directors such as Sam Mendes, Kevin Costner, John Hughes and Blake Edwards.
10 classic movies that have aged terribly:
American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
The irony of American Beauty is so gobsmackingly overt that it’s almost humorous, with the film following a sexually-frustrated father who has a sexual fascination with his daughter’s best friend, mirroring the illegal activity of the film’s star Kevin Spacey. With several sexual misconduct allegations against his name, including a case that involved a young boy, it is hard to watch the classic 1999 movie and not think of Spacey’s real-life crimes.
Considered a classic of the 1990s, the film won Best Picture in 1999, with Spacey taking home the Oscar statuette for Best Leading Actor the very same year.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)
The image of Audrey Hepburn seductively lying down whilst smoking from her elegant cigarette holder is one that has been indelibly burned into the identity of 20th century Hollywood, though if you dig any deeper you’ll find the film has a troubled soul. Whilst the romantic plot at the heart of the film is sweet enough, it’s truly difficult not to ignore the supporting performance of Mickey Rooney who imitates an Asian landlord named Mr. Yunioshi.
Of course, casting a white actor as an Asian character is considered racist, though the filmmakers made matters worse by giving Rooney a wig and buck teeth as part of a shocking stereotype.
Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997)
Taking heat at the time of the film’s release, Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy looks even worse by today’s standards. Following a comic book artist, Holden, who falls for a fellow worker of the trade named Alyssa, the story unravels when Holden finds out the object of his desire is a lesbian. This, however, does not stop him from pursuing her, convincing her to date him despite her sexuality.
To suggest that a man could turn a gay woman straight is problematic on several levels, displaying attitudes that are deeply sexist, arrogant and homophobic.
Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990)
The 1991 multi-Academy Award-winning film directed by Kevin Costner would not fly in today’s cinematic landscape, and rightfully so, with the film displaying some problematic representations of Native Americans. Criticised by Native American leaders for being a story that once again bolstered the ‘white saviour’ narrative, the film merely comes across as an ignorant and patriotically arrogant film.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the film also beat out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film that is today considered a modern classic of cinema.
Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989)
It’s no coincidence that three of the five films on this list so far have been Best Picture winners, with the Academy often awarding the coveted prize to films that they deem to be progressive both socially and politically. Driving Miss Daisy is no different, winning the award in 1989, despite its two-dimensional approach to race issues, with Morgan Freeman referring to the film as “a mistake” back in an interview in 2000.
To make matters even worse, Bruce Beresford’s film beat out Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing which continues to be considered a classic film that expertly discussed intricate conversations about contemporary race relations.
The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)
Tate Taylor’s Oscar-winning film is just over ten years old, though remains something of a historic film due to the way it approaches its subject matter and ‘white saviour’ subtext. Presenting overly simplistic solutions to race, in the years since its release, Viola Davis who starred in the film has expressed regret about appearing in the film, stating that the film was “created in the filter and the cesspool of systemic racism”.
In comparison to modern movies that dissect and explore race, The Help feels like an embarrassingly slim document.
Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988)
This one’s a peculiar case, with Rambo III showing up some text at the end of the film, that sees the iconic action star aid the Mujahideen in their fight against Soviet Russia, reading ‘This film is dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan. Fighting on the wrong side of history, the connotations of this film’s plot would detrimentally change shortly after its release, particularly following the tragic events of September 2001.
Rambo III wasn’t the only victim of this mistake, with the James Bond movie The Living Daylights also showing the hero fighting on the side of the Mujahideen.
Revenge of the Nerds (Jeff Kanew, 1984)
Disturbing and heavily problematic, it’s hard to believe the events of Jeff Kanew’s Revenge of the Nerds were ever acceptable, with the film following a group of outcasts who fight back for self-respect. The titular ‘nerds’ take this far too far, however, engaging in acts of sexual misconduct by installing surveillance cameras to spy on the naked sorority girls, as well as shockingly selling images of their fellow naked students.
To make matters even worse, one character even commits rape by impersonating a girl’s boyfriend and having sex with the character by deception. From start to finish, it’s uncomfortable viewing.
She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999)
Robert Iscove’s She’s All That isn’t the only culprit of this strange and disturbing Hollywood trend that saw stories about male jocks turning an ‘ugly student’ into the prom queen. In the 1999 film, the jock, Zack, is a bet that he can’t turn the geekiest girl in the school into the most popular, eventually succeeding by encouraging the girl in question to dump the spectacles for contacts and the overalls for a dress.
Condescending and completely sexist, the film seems to suggest that without possessing such typical standards of beauty, you can never reach success or popularity.
Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984)
High schools are often the breeding ground of unacceptable and hastily outdated values, with the coming of age movies of John Hughes presenting several moments that have aged badly, with Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles being particularly troublesome. Presenting a gross stereotype of Asian men, the character, played by the Japanese American actor Gedde Watanabe, was a needlessly foolish, constantly inappropriate figure.
Molly Ringwald, the iconic star of the 1984 film even admitted in 2018 that the character was a “grotesque stereotype”.