How GREASE 2 Screwed The Pooch

It seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? 

Grease is the second most popular movie musical of all time. Accounting for adjusted box office, it's the 26th most successful film ever. Its worldwide gross totals nearly $400 million. The movie was so successful that a four-film franchise with accompanying television series was proposed to Paramount, with Grease 2 kicking off the surefire money-maker. 

And then... that was that. Grease 2 bombed so spectacularly, with both critics and fans, that the franchise was scrapped entirely. Grease 2's all-time gross? $15 million. Critics called it "the pits," "dizzy and slight." "Hardly anything is happening socially or musically," said Variety

So what happened here? The sequel went into production only three years after the success of Grease. Maxwell Caulfield, hot off of Broadway and considered "the next Richard Gere or John Travolta" (according to Maxwell Caulfield, whose remarkably obnoxious 1982 interview with New York Magazine you must read), was cast as the male lead, our new Danny Zuko. An unknown named Michelle Pfeiffer starred as the female lead, our new Sandy. But here's the rub, and it's a smart approach: in Grease 2, Caulfield's Michael Carrington is the square, and Pfeiffer's Stephanie Zinone is the too-cool-for-school Pink Lady. In Grease 2, the guy must change his entire demeanor and appearance to win over the gal. Feminism!

But really, Grease 2 offers a far more progressive representation in Stephanie than offered by Olivia Newton-John's Sandy. Stephanie's tough, she's independent ("I'm free every day. It's in the Constitution"), she intends to change for no man. And Pfeiffer is, without a doubt, the best part of Grease 2, giving a sexy, sullen performance that anticipates her swift rise to fame, rocketed by her casting in the following year's Scarface. She gives off an irresistible Debbie Harry vibe, funnily enough, since Harry turned down the role, considering herself too old to play a high school student. And Caulfield's a charming foil to our beautiful toughie in her service station shirt - he's polite and stammery until he squirrels away a couple of bucks writing essays for the T-birds and uses the stash to transform himself into the Cool Rider of Pfeiffer's dreams. 

 

It makes a lot of sense that Grease 2 would offer a more feminist version of the makeover story we've been telling since the Greeks dreamt up Pygmalion. The film's directed by Patricia Birch, the choreographer from the first movie, and she does some great stuff with Grease 2. The songs are mostly catchy, "Reproduction" aside, and Birch's choreography is second only to Pfeiffer's performance when counting the film's strengths. Grease 2 had twice the budget of its predecessor, and we can see it in the costumes and set design and few action set pieces of the film, all of which are competently filmed. 

So why, then, is Grease 2 so unsuccessful? Simple. 

There was no script. Birch herself said that Ken Finkleman's script was unfinished by the time the film went into production, so she was forced to do the best she could. Why does Frenchy disappear halfway through the film? Why did Cher drop out after being cast as Paulette? Why does the final act dissolve into nonsensical chaos? All because Birch was forced to go into production with an unfinished script. 

It happens, and sometimes the result is still a relative triumph (Lawrence of ArabiaIron ManEdge of Tomorrow and Jaws being notable examples). But Grease 2 suffered from a problem that plagues most franchises these days: sequels to popular films are given hard and fast release dates before a writer is even hired. Didi Conn, the lamentable Frenchy who really gets the worst of it in Grease 2, said filming was "rushed, frantic and unorganized," and we feel it in the final product. Grease is no Shakespeare, but it has a deliberate narrative progression that serves its characters and story. Grease 2 is all over the place, padded with unnecessary musical numbers from characters we've scarcely met, riddled with plot inconsistencies and abruptly concluded at a luau. 

Save for Pfeiffer, the film did favors for nobody. Caulfield has said that after Grease 2, "no one would touch me." Birch never directed a feature film again. The Grease franchise was dead - but for those of us who grew up with Grease 2 airing on television incessantly during our formative years, we'll always have "A Girl For All Seasons" branded into our brains. It's no "Summer Lovin'," but the costumes are killer.

 

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