Never let a broken heart get you down, they say. There’s plenty of fish in the sea. But what if it’s a fish that does the breaking? That’s the dilemma Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) is facing. The girl he loves, the one he just met a few days ago–who was first discovered walking along Liberty Island without a shred of clothes–is not really a girl. Well, a girl in the sense that most girls are. She’s a little different. In fact a lot different. She’s a mermaid, and this is complicating things in ways Allen isn’t quite prepared for.
But it’s not the first time he’s seen a mermaid. Or even this mermaid. Matter-of-fact, he met Madison the Mermaid (Daryl Hannah) twenty years before while he was a kid vacationing in Cape Cod. Seeing some sparkly things in the water, he jumped off the side of a ferry boat because, well, isn’t that what any 8-year-old would do? I didn’t think so either, but there’s some mystical mermaid magic happening here and little Allen couldn’t help himself. So, under water, sinking, he meets a girl child swimming in front of him. Well, specifically, a child mermaid and right away there’s something special about these two. They lock fingers and BLAM, it’s love at first sight. Pulled from her tiny mermaid fingers by rescuers who apparently lack basic visual acuity, he is brought back aboard only to see her little mermaid tail fin break the surface as she says goodbye, weeping into the sea.
Years later, Allen can’t make any relationship work and is beginning to think there is no hope of finding anyone to make him feel like he did while he was with the fish girl. Luckily, that all changes when that girl, now grown up, finds him once more in the waters off Cape Cod. It doesn’t take much for him to be smitten again because, well, she looks like Daryl Hannah.
Directed by Ron Howard, this delightfully charming romantic comedy has its share of problems, but are mostly overlooked by a fun, youthful cast, engaging story, and one Eugene Levy, who absolutely steals every single scene he is in. While not the classic some remember it to be, and certainly not the kid’s movie it should have been with its mermaid nudity and nods to Penthouse and up-skirts, (even the poster says she has a great set of fins, wink, wink) it has a lot of laughs and good ol’ fashioned fantasy.
That Moment In: Splash
Scene Setup: Well, things have been going pretty darned well for Allen once Madison came along. In only three days, he’s straight up fallen head over heels. And why not? She’s everything he’s been waiting for in a girl. Funny, beautiful, playful, curious, and damn, she’s horny as all get out. The girl can’t get enough. Lucky Allen. One tiny snag though. And maybe it’s not important. She doesn’t seem to know a darned thing. She’s never seen TV before. Has no idea how clothes work. Hasn’t heard of ice. And worse, she won’t tell him anything about who she is or where she’s from. Frustrating. But he doesn’t care about all that. She’s the one. For sure. Three days is all he’s needed. So, he asks her to marry him. Should be cut and dry, but surprisingly, she says no. We know why, but poor Allen doesn’t.
Why it matters: Up ’til this point, Splash has been your basic by the numbers comedy. But that’s what it’s going for. Just look at the leads: Tom Hanks, John Candy, Eugene Levy. In 1984, these were some of the biggest names in funny. People aren’t not going to the movies to see something called Splash with that cast and expect to be doing a lot of heavy lifting, intellectually speaking. And for the most part, that’s what Splash promises, delivering the light romantic comedy in spades. Of course, what would a rom-com be without a little conflict? At least this film gives it a spin with a literal fish out of water tail (see what I did there?). Still, this sudden shift to seriousness is unexpected. Looking at it now, I can see the makings of what will be one of cinema’s finest actors revealing some of that great gift for drama. Hanks is particularly good at expressing internal pain, something he’s made famous in roles like Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, The Green Mile and so many more.
Ron Howard was still cutting his teeth in the movie business in 1984, having only directed one film prior, 1982’s Night Shift. That movie did fairly well, but with Splash, he had a monster hit on his hands. The story was something fresh, having even earned an Academy Award nomination, but there can be no doubt about why people flocked into theaters that early spring: a nude Daryl Hannah in a fish tail prostrate on a deserted beach. Once anyone saw the movie poster, no one cared about the story. Everyone wanted to see her. And who can blame ’em? Just look at that poster again. Okay, sure, it was probably more than that, but the image is iconic and like Superman before, people wanted to see something out of mythology come to life. The mermaid had to be done right and that is one element producers got exactly right. If they’d screwed up the mermaid, they’d screwed up the movie. Casting Daryl Hannah as the lovely mermaid is about as perfect a choice as one can make. She is wholly convincing as an otherworldly (undersea) being. And as much as we want to see even more of Daryl Hannah in her birthday suit and a big flipper, she is equally charming and interesting to watch as a fish pretending to be a human. On dry land, she plays it naive and overly curious, which works really well. As Madison, she’s loved Allen since he jumped in the water when he was eight. So it’s especially hard when he seems to turn on her now.
So, really? What’s the deal with a mermaid? Is a mix of hottie and haddock that alluring? They’ve certainly been around long enough. They first pop up in ancient Greece, more than 3000 years ago with the goddess Atargatis throwing herself into the sea in hopes of becoming a fish after she accidentally kills a mortal man she’s kinda got a thing for. Alas, she’s far too beautiful–as goddesses are prone to be–for such a thing and ends up committing to only half of the plan, keeping the hot face (’cause who wants look like a carp, really?) and trading in the legs for some fine fins. From there, mermaids make appearances in folklore all over the world, often as harbingers of doom, famously called sirens as they lure sailors to their deaths. Now, they mostly lure addicts. But it’s a living.
In Splash, Madison is anything but deadly, though one might define her statuesque physique as such. She is far more innocent than horrible and despite her decidedly adult figure, is a lot like a child as she explores the world of humans. She looks upon the people and the city with wonder and soaks up experiences like a sponge, finding something new in every direction. Being human is a joy for her, and she thrives on learning as much as she can.
Except for sex. This seems to be the one area where our little mermaid is anything but innocent. A pro really. Experienced. Knows a thing or two. Been around the block (coral?). At least she starts with foreplay. That’s nice. On the beach after she rescues Allen, in the police station when he picks her up, in the elevator on the way up to his apartment . . . etc. . . the girl is all about the kissing (and oddly, almost always from the left).
But once that part is over, she puts them legs to use and (children, shield your ears) rides our dear hero for a good part of their first day together, and second, and most of the third. At one point, Allen even (playfully) begs her to stop, saying she’s going to put him in the hospital. That would be an interesting conversation in the emergency room:
Doctor: What seems to be the trouble?
Allen: I’m getting too much sex.
Doctor: Really, from whom?
Allen (pointing at Daryl Hannah): Her.
Doctor: You’re an idiot.
And this leads to the “Huh? Moments” of Splash, because let’s be honest and admit that while this movie really is fun to watch, its premise creates a tidal wave of problematic head-scratchers. And it must start with sex because, damnit, that’s how I’m rolling.
1) “I’ve made a terrible mistake!”
As a fish-mammal thingy, biologically speaking, I’ve got to wonder about her naughty parts. The top half is all girl! Which is awesome. Everything looks to be in order, and in spectacularly perky condition. I’m way good with that. In Allen’s position, I’m thinking all things are a go. We have lift off. But about her new legs, though, and the um, lady bits, within. How’s that work exactly? As a fish, does she have babies or does she spawn? But more importantly, at the end of the film, Allen actually decides to join her in her underwater kingdom, which she tells him is a forever choice, no turning back (mermaid magic makes him breath). You. Can. Never. Go. Home. But she’s a fish now. Them lady bits are all gone, lost along with the legs. Allen basically agreed to spend the rest of his life dating a halibut with a great rack. All that mind-blowing sex he had is a memory. He’s trapped, underwater, forever, with a sea nymph who can never again give it up. I give ’em a week before he’s swimming into the nearest boat propeller.
2) Darwin shrugs.
Speaking of the legs. So water is the trick, right? Legs get wet, presto, they’re a caudal fin. And vice-versa, except opposite: if the fin gets dry, boom, they’re a pair of legs. What happens if only ONE leg gets wet? Eeks.
3) Say what?
Madison has only 6 days on dry land and that’s it. No extension. Six days. She’s pretty clear about it. Then it’s back to the sea forever. Oh, and when the moon is full.
What does that even mean? Six days OR when the moon full? Whatever. Okay, fine, we’ll play along and believe that there is some crazy mermaid magic that works in tandem with the lunar cycle. Done. We’re sold. But Allen. Dear, sweet, stupid Allen. Yes, she’s hot. She’s Daryl Hannah. But when a woman tells you she’s leaving town in “six days and the moon is full,” you have GOT to take a step back and think about your priorities. To begin with, haven’t you even heard of werewolves?
4) New York’s Hudson River is a tropical paradise.
Mere seconds after Madison escapes re-capture by what is clearly the entire United States armed forces, and Allen dives into the Hudson River in an attempt to either save her or distract her pursuers (after which the two out-fight five trained divers), they are in a coral-rich, cobalt blue ocean nirvana, commonly known as anything but the Hudson River. For those that say well, yes, but she used her magic to swim super fast away from the bad guys, above is a screen shot of said bad guys tangling with Allen just after jumping in the river.
So don’t get me wrong. I love Splash. What’s not to? And I haven’t even mentioned John Candy, playing Freddie, the perverted older brother who is also sex-crazed (He writes to Penthouse and tosses coins on the floor to try and look up women’s skirts). Sex seems to be a theme here. While he is not on screen for any real length of time, he’s memorable for being the “John Candy” character, which he played oh so often. Big, huggable, and goofy, here he is the older-but-not-quiet-responsible partner in the brother’s fruits and vegetables wholesale business, tending to gain clients through gambling debts and after-hour parties. Amazingly enough, he actually gets the brothers invited to see the president speak. The United States President that is. That’s pretty darned-exclusive. Of course, despite his outrageous behavior with women (he brought a date to his wedding), he reveals he’s not happy and that Allen is a fool for not taking love when it’s right in front of him. Even it is from a fish.
And finally, there is Eugene Levy, who is the film’s funniest character. As Doctor Walter Kornbluth, he’s pretty sure mermaids exist, conducting barely-funded secret research with two less than qualified moron twins. (“We aren’t twins.”) Spurred by stories from a mentor, he is persistent in his efforts until one day, on a whim, Madison swims right into him. Shocked, he drops his camera into the reef and can’t get a picture because . . . movie comedy physics. The encounter triggers crazy mode and once he sees the news about that naked woman walking along Liberty Island, he’s convinced they are one in the same. He spends the rest of the movie in dogged pursuit, trying to douse her in water so her legs will transform. Comedy ensues. And lots of bodily injuries.
It was a smart choice to make sure that Kornbluth had that underwater sighting, because it allows us to sympathize. While his shenanigans escalate to some horribly thought-out and executed plans, we know he is right and understand his plight. At the dinner for the president, he’s somehow able to get on the waitstaff of the dinner party and, even more amazing, enter the dining hall with two tanks of water and a spray gun strapped to his back, though to Secret Service agents it appears much more nefarious.
His plan is to expose Madison publicly and gain notoriety, and as he is scrambled out of the hall, tackled by agents, Madison and Allen suddenly decide to leave (a presidential dinner!) because it’s getting close to the end of the film and the writers needed a way to wrap it all up. Fumbling occurs, water is shot, and people get wet. One of them being Madison. Zoinks! She’s a fish! Chaos erupts. Welcome to the final act of Splash.
The practical effects used for making Daryl Hannah a mermaid are really effective. They didn’t use CGI back then. They strapped her into a fully functional body fin that actually propelled her faster than the crew could keep up. To the thanks of many in the audience, they also choose not to outfit her with a half-shell brassiere, deciding instead that a nude Daryl Hannah would be much more believable. That was surely the shortest meeting in Hollywood history.
Producer: Should we keep the mermaid naked for most of this movie?
Every single other person in the room: Yes!
Producer: Meeting adjourned.
Audiences everywhere: Applause.
Made on a small budget, starring a newcomer leading man, promised to be filmed quickly (as it was competing with another mermaid story, which eventually got shelved) Splash is a classic success story. It went on to make gobs of money and become one of the most profitable films of that year. The name Madison, which wasn’t really a girl’s name back then, skyrocketed in use, eventually becoming the 3rd most popular name in the United States by 2000. Hanks and Hannah became international superstars and their legacy in cinema well-secured.
As funny as the movie is, it has lost some of its appeal for me. Times change and movies have become a different art form. Still, watching Allen and Madison grow to love each other, eventually deciding that being together is more important than anything else, is always fun to watch. The movie is all about the fantasy and when they two swim into the distance, heading for the glimmering mermaid city under the sea, I just have to smile.
Brian Grazer (story), Bruce Jay Friedman (screen story)
Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, Eugene Levy