Nov 19, 2012

Ralph Macchio: Up the Academy

Born in 1961, the short, skinny Ralph Macchio had huge, remarkably soulful eyes that allowed him to feign childhood innocence well into the 1990s, when his fellow teen idols had long since grown into roles as beefcake heroes or disillusioned suburbanites.   He was hired while still in high school to provide a sarcastic voice to Up the Academy (1980) a teen nerd comedy about a Chachi clone named Chooch sent to the abusive Weinberg Military Academy, where he makes friends with three "inmates."  All of them displayed a heterosexual prowess so intense that it provoked anxiety in their fathers: muscular Oliver  (Hutch Parker) got his girlfriend pregnant and ruined his dad's political career; sex-crazed Ike (Wendell Brown) slept with his televangelist-father's girlfriend; and cleptomaniac Hash (Tommy Citera) slept with one of his Arab father's spare wives.

Though the boys take a weapons class in which teacher Miss Bliss (Barbara Bach) presses guns to her breasts, otherwise they are subject to constant adult attempts at “perversion.”  A lisping, mincing “cultural affairs” teacher named Sisson, e.g., Sissy (Tom Poston), accosts them in their dorm rooms, offers erotic tuck-ins, and, explaining that he’s collecting the laundry, drools “Why don’t you slip out of your little undershorts?”  They learn ballroom dance with male partners, but when a dance with real girls is held, an off-key acapella group called “The Landmines” drives everyone away.

The primary threat of “perversion” comes from macho teacher Vervegaert, who tells Hash that he will “rip his balls off” and then corners him in the lavatory in a parody of a male rape (“You want to be my friend, don’t you?”).  Vervegaert is unable to acquire girls on his own, so blackmails the boys into acquiring Oliver’s girlfriend for him. The boys get their revenge by photographing him in ladies’ lingerie and publishing the photos during the big game, thus labeling him a "fag" and forcing him to leave town in disgrace.

However, since the “fag” is exteriorized and far away, the boys are amazingly intimate with each other.  They spend most of the film naked.  Do military cadets really do their homework in their underwear, or sit together on their bunk with their legs pressed together?  Though they drool, groan, and kvetch over girls, their relationships with each other take obvious precedence. They go to great lengths to help their friends; Ike, in fact, gives up a date with Miss Bliss to help Oliver.

The teen magazines ignored his costars, but they loved Ralph Macchio, who was soon displaying his dreamy bod in pinups next to Scott Baio and Robby Benson.  Pulled in to provide additional cuteness to the last season of Eight is Enough, he became patriarch Dick Van Patten’s pet, even invited to appear with Dick and Timothy Van Patten in a nepotistic project called High Powder (1982).  But his big break came with a homoromantic buddy-bond with Matt Dillon in the classic Outsiders (1983), which led directly to the blockbuster Karate Kid (1984)