Battle of the Departed Lover Movies: Always (1989) vs. Ghost (1990)

Here now is a comparison between two romantic ghost stories that came out within a year of each other. Both stories involve the dearly departed still present in a spiritual form to assist their still-earthbound sweetheart in the aftermath of their premature departure.

So, which is better? Let’s find out.

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Always (1989)

This film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a remake of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe. That movie dealt with a pilot named Pete (played by Spencer Tracy) who’s shot down in action during World War II. As that war had long ended by 1989, the setting for Always was changed so that Richard Dreyfuss (playing Tracy’s part) is now an aerial firefighter who’s known for taking risks on the job.

At the behest of both his girlfriend Dorina (Holly Hunter) and his BFF Al (John Goodman), Pete agrees to take a safer job as a trainer. But only after one last mission, in which Dorinda’s fears are realized when Pete’s plane blows up after he flies through a forest fire in order to save Al’s plane.

On the other side, Pete meets a lady named Hap (Audrey Hepburn) who informs him that he’s passed on. She also states that Pete must provide inspiration to those who are still alive. Months later, as Dorinda and Al are still mourning him, Pete is assigned to give guidance to a new firefighting pilot named Ted Baker (Brad Johnson).

Soon, however, Pete realizes that Ted is falling for Dorinda—and that she’s slowly but surely reciprocating. Pete tries to put a stop to this but Hap tells him that he must also let Dorinda go.

To that end, Pete gives Ted the guidance he needs to become a great firefighter himself. But Dorinda takes matters into her own hands when she personally commandeers a plane to stop a blaze so she doesn’t have to go through the pain of losing someone she loves again. Both Pete and Al unsuccessfully attempt to talk her down, but Pete manages to help her stop the fire, while telling her things that he didn’t when he was still alive.

Dorinda’s plane crash-lands in the water, but she sees Pete extending his hand, which she takes in order to swim to safety. Pete smiles as Dorinda and Ted embrace before he goes off.

Ghost (1990)

A long while ago, this site posted a detailed recap of this movie, so I’ll keep this one short. Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and his girlfriend Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) begin their lives anew when they move into a new Manhattan apartment. But their great life is shattered one night when a mugger named Willie Lopez (Rick Aviles) accosts them and fatally shoots Sam in the process.

As Molly mourns him, Sam himself is horrified to discover that he’s now a ghost. He can’t been seen or heard by anybody (except other ghosts, who he sees quite a lot of in this story) until he encounters a psychic named Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), who didn’t think she had psychic powers until she realizes that she can actually hear Sam. Through her, Sam attempts to tell Molly that Willie broke into their place to look for something, and only left because Sam was able to influence their cat into scaring Willie off. But Molly is skeptical, and this skepticism isn’t helped when, after she goes to the police with Willie’s address, Molly discovers that Oda Mae has an extensive police record for fraud.

At the same time, Sam is shocked to find out that Willie was sent by his friend and fellow banker Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn). This, along with Carl’s unsuccessful attempts to romance Molly, prompt Sam to seek out a pissed-off ghost he previously encountered on the subway (Vincent Schiavelli) in order to learn his technique of moving objects. Sam also convinces Oda Mae to go to his bank, using another name, in order to withdraw all the money he discovered Carl was laundering, so that his drug dealing bosses won’t get it. She’s subsequently pissed off when Sam forces her to give all that money ($4 million) to nearby nuns rather than pocketing it.

Carl practically pisses in his pants when he realizes all that money is gone now, but Molly later tells him that she briefly saw Oda Mae at the bank. He and Willie go to Oda Mae’s place, but Sam ensures that she’s safe before Willie is killed in the ensuing fight, and his ghost is dragged away screaming by shadowy forms.

But Carl escapes and Sam and Oda Mae go back to warn Molly, who’s finally convinced Sam is present when he levitates a penny into her hand. Carl breaks in and his attempts to take both Oda Mae and Molly hostage in order to get the money back are thwarted by Sam. When Carl attempts to escape, a hook he throws hits the window that he’s going through, causing a large shard to kill him. Carl’s ghost is quickly carried off by those shadows seen earlier.

Molly hears Sam when he asks if she and Oda Mae are okay. A bright light appears beckoning Sam, who goes into it after bidding both Molly and Oda Mae goodbye.

Which is better?

Ghost is certainly (if you’ll pardon the pun) the livelier of the two movies. It has a nice number of laughs, thanks mainly to Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her performance (the screenplay from Bruce Joel Rubin also got an Oscar). But both Swayze and Moore are good as well. Their love scene while Molly attempts to make a pot with the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” playing in the background quickly became one of the classic movie love scenes. Sam’s scenes with other ghosts are amusing, with Schiavelli stealing the show with his work, and the moments where Sam frantically tries to outmaneuver Carl and Willie are exciting, with the fact that the woman he loves can’t see or hear him adding to the tension. I’ve heard some say that the shadow ghosts quickly taking away the bad guys was cheesy, but it works in the context of this film.

One thing I disliked, though, was that Molly is not 100% convinced that Sam is with her until he basically performs a magic trick for her. It would’ve been more moving if she had been convinced via something more personal, especially since Oda Mae had previously revealed she knows that Sam responded to Molly saying she loved him with the word “ditto”. I would think that would’ve been enough to convince Molly. I’m also unsure of what to make of Sam screwing with Carl in his office by typing his name on his computer. Yes, I realize Sam wants to gloat that he screwed Carl over by getting that money away from him, and I certainly understand why Sam wants to keep an eye on him. But simply putting all his cards on the table like that was asking for trouble.

Still, Ghost works at being funny, touching, and even thrilling, so it’s not hard to see why this film became the biggest moneymaker of 1990, a year which I always felt was the year of the sleeper hits. This film wasn’t expected to be a smash when it first came out, as it wasn’t exactly a big-budget action movie. Other films released later that year, such as Home Alone and Dances With Wolves, were also not exactly highly anticipated. Yet all three of these became enormous successes (Home Alone became the biggest moneymaking comedy ever, and Dances With Wolves won seven Oscars, including the one for Best Picture), while other 1990 films that were expected to be huge hits such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Rocky V, and The Godfather Part III ended up being hugely disappointing.

But this isn’t to say Always is bad. On the contrary, it has some very nice moments. Like Ghost, it has an instantly likable protagonist (this film was Spielberg’s third with Dreyfuss, after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and a nice supporting cast. The moment when Dorinda sees Pete again is especially sweet. The best part, though, is seeing the legendary Audrey Hepburn in what would be her final film appearance. As this review perfectly said, she’s as close to an angel as a human being can get. I like to think that meeting lovely souls such as her is a given once we pass on.

Also, like Ghost, the movie nicely uses a classic song. In this case, it’s the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which Pete and Dorinda dance to early in the film, and which is played in the film’s closing credits.

These pluses are what help the viewer get through the movie’s slower moments, such as the moments when Al angrily tries to tell Dorinda that she shouldn’t let Pete’s death stop her from living her life (although I did crack up when Al slurps out the cream in Twinkies with a straw). Curiously, Spielberg’s next film Hook would also be hampered by moments that drag before he got back on track with Jurassic Park. It probably also didn’t help that this film was overshadowed by the enormous success of Spielberg’s previous film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which came out just a few months earlier. As it turns out, this was the first of a number of times he put out two movies in a single year.

On a dramatic level, Always doesn’t do anything A Guy Named Joe didn’t do better, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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  • maarvarq

    Did you consider making this a 3 way comparison with what is sort of the British version of Ghost, i.e. Truly, Madly, Deeply?

    • David Klopotoski

      Isn’t that a really bad Chris Cornell song?

      • Toby Clark

        Not that I’ve heard. It’s a pretty good Savage Garden one, though.

        • David Klopotoski

          Right… His band :P

          • Toby Clark

            You’ve confused Savage Garden with Soundgarden.

          • David Klopotoski

            Thank you kindly for explaining the joke -_-

  • Kradeiz

    I can see why people would think the shadows from ‘Ghost’ are cheesy but I can also see why the writers came up with them to deal with Willie and Carl. Especially Carl, it wouldn’t be out of character for him to cause trouble for Molly and Oda Mae out of revenge.

  • Kradeiz

    “Carl practically pisses in his pants when he realizes all that money is gone mpw”

    Unless MPW is an acronym I’m unaware of, I think you meant to type “now”.