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Remember When… 'Crocodile Dundee' Made America Go Nuts for Australia?

Along with fluorescent-colored clothes and inexpensive cocaine, something that had been around forever but suddenly became trendy in America in the second half of the 1980s was Australia. Yes, the country. Previous exports from Down Under like Olivia Newton-John and Men at Work had laid the groundwork in the early part of the decade, but in 1986, Americans went crazy for Australia as if we’d never heard of the place before.

And whom do we have to thank for it? A fellow by the name of Crocodile Dundee, that’s whom. 

Released in the U.S. 30 years ago, on Sept. 26, 1986, Crocodile Dundee — or as it was officially known here, “Crocodile” Dundee, with the quotation marks, so we’d understand that Mr. Dundee’s parents had not actually named him “Crocodile” — was an instant smash. It opened in first place and stayed there for eight weeks, eventually earning $174.8 million in the United States alone — the equivalent of $400 million at 2016 ticket prices. It was the second-highest-grossing film of 1986, trailing Top Gun by less than $2 million. 

More than that, the film kicked off an American fondness for all things antipodean. Mark Jackson, aka Jacko, an Australian-rules football player, became the TV pitchman for Energizer batteries, shouting “Oi!” at people all day. Crocodile Dundee himself, Paul Hogan, started doing commercials for Foster’s, an Australian beer, and continued his pre-Dundee ads for the Australian Tourism Commission, which had Americans saying “g’day” and “shrimp on the barbie.”

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Products with Australian names hit American stores — Koala Springs Sparkling Water,  Aussie Mega Shampoo, Matilda Bay Wine Coolers, and so on. Australian bands INXS and Midnight Oil, though they’d been around since before the fad, had new hit songs. 

By 1988, we’d reached peak Australia. Kylie Minogue’s cover of “The Loco-Motion” was a worldwide hit. HBO was showing BMX Bandits (Nicole Kidman’s first movie!) just about every day. Aussie comedian Yahoo Serious made Young Einstein. Meryl Streep declared that a dingo ate her baby in Cry in the Dark. A Facts of Life TV movie where the girls visit Australia aired in February 1987, and the show’s next (and final) season featured an Australian exchange student, Pippa McKenna (Sherrie Krenn). Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under was midway through production, to be released in 1990. And of course there was Crocodile Dundee II, which was released in summer 1988 and made almost as much money as its predecessor.

The original Crocodile Dundee is an amusing artifact from our Australia phase, but to watch it now is to see how clearly it is a product of a bygone era. (As if to drive the point home, the very first shot is of the Twin Towers.) The plot, which has New York journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) traveling to Oz to profile a locally famous bushman who fought a crocodile, seems even more far-fetched in the Internet era, when Dundee’s exploits would be on YouTube — never mind the implausibility of a news outlet paying a writer’s expenses for such a frivolous feature story.

If the film were released today, viewers would no doubt bristle at how Sue is treated as a typical damsel in distress. When Mick Dundee dismisses her as a “sheila” who couldn’t survive five minutes in the outback without him, she’s offended and sets out on her own to prove him wrong … whereupon she is immediately attacked by a crocodile, is rescued by Dundee, and collapses weeping into his arms. Not very “woke,” as the kids say. (Note: just as a “shrimp on the barbie” reference indicates something is from the late ’80s, “woke” will someday be a signifier that something was written in 2016.) 

But the most cringe-inducing moment in the film is when Dundee is in a New York City bar and is being flirted with by Gwendoline, a biological man dressed as a woman. Here’s the scene. Note how it’s missing a line that is restored in the Blu-ray edition of the film: 

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Mick’s friend actually said: “That girl? She’s a guy! A man dressed up as a girl! A fag, for Christ’s sakes! I swear!” But even without the redacted line, it’s a pretty uncomfortable scene, culminating in the crotch-grab and the public humiliation of poor Gwendoline. Needless to say, if the film were made today, the situation would be handled (not a pun) differently. 

Like all fads, America’s Australia craze leveled off after a few years. Paul Hogan continued to act and do commercials, then revived the character for 2001’s Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, which did poorly. By then, the fictional Crocodile Dundee had been replaced in the public consciousness by an actual Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin … who probably owed his success to Aussie trailblazers like Paul Hogan. Crikey!

When Crocodile Dundee premiered, on Sept. 26, 1986…

– It was an easy, crowd-pleasing hit, landing in first place for the weekend with a box office haul three times the size of the second-place film’s. (That’d be Stand By Me, which had opened seven weeks earlier.) The rest of the multiplex was filled mostly with holdovers from the summer: Top Gun, The Boy Who Could Fly, The Karate Kid Part II, Ruthless People, The Fly, Nothing in Common, Aliens, and Back to School.

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– A little Chicago-based afternoon talk show called The Oprah Winfrey Show had premiered 18 days earlier. By the time it ended, 25 years later, every person in America had received a free car. 

– Another long-running show, The Phantom of the Opera, was set to premiere in London in two weeks. Thirty years later, it’s still running. They’ll catch that pesky Phantom someday!

– Among the new shows on TV that month: L.A. Law, ALF, Head of the Class, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Meanwhile, daytime game show Press Your Luck (“No whammies!”) had just been canceled after three years. 

– The baseball season was coming to an end, with the Red Sox and the Angels battling it out in the American League, the Mets and the Astros in the National. A few weeks later, the Mets would win the World Series thanks to a ground ball rolling through the legs of Boston’s Bill Buckner — an error so infamous even non-sports fans remember it. 

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– It was the 1980s, so the number one song in America was by Huey Lewis and the News — “Stuck with You,” specifically. Other big hits that week included “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin; “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” by Glass Tiger; “Friends and Lovers” by Carl Anderson; and “Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. 

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