Last week I found myself on the beach pondering my next Movie Crush column when I thought of the perfect topic: grunion. Specifically, watching the little fishies make little fishy babies during high tide on the California shore. After watching the 1991 cult comedy Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead many a time in my youth, I'd always dreamed of seeing the grunion run -- preferably under gorgeous moonlight, of course, and with Josh Charles at my side.
You see, for me, grunion and Josh Charles are eternally intertwined. And for a teenager in the '90s, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead was a cornucopia of wish-fulfillment in which a girl could have just about anything -- fashion, success, romance -- all before the age of 18.
As the 17-year-old Sue Ellen Crandall, Christina Applegate had it all (or at least as much as was possible in a crowded house with no parental unit around for three months): beauty, brains, her mom's car, a career she'd fudged her way into, and as much petty cash as a teenage girl supporting her rowdy siblings could spend. In the wake of old Mrs. Sturak's untimely death, Sue Ellen had risen to the occasion and become a budding fashion professional while all her friends were off vacationing in Europe. More importantly, even after her lies brought everything crashing down around her, she still had Bryan (Josh Charles), the earnest, adorable delivery boy she met while scrubbing grease at Clown Dog.
Fans with good memories remember Josh Charles popping up in Hairspray (1988) and Dead Poets Society (1989), but his turn in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead remains my favorite. It was only his fourth screen role, but at just 19 years old, Charles was perfectly fresh-faced for the role of Sue Ellen's naïve teenage boyfriend, whose down-to-earth goodness offered a welcome change from the David Duchovnys and John Getzes of the skeevy grown-up world.
Even dressed almost exclusively in his Clown Dog hat and bow tie, Charles's Bryan was a keeper. Who encouraged the miserable Sue Ellen to quit Clown Dog, spurring her on to that plum gig at GAW? Who rescued all five Crandall kids like a clown truck-driving white knight when their wheels were stolen by drag queens? And who totally forgave her lies when he showed up to her house to find a giant fashion show going on in the backyard? Bryan, Bryan, and Bryan. And yet, despite Bryan's saintly heroics and quickness to forgive, Sue Ellen wielded the power in their relationship. He may have brought home the hot dogs, but she was ambitious, capable, and mature -- at least, until Mom came home from Australia.
But back to that grunion run. Bryan and Sue Ellen agree to a first date on the beach, where the oceanography enthusiast nerds on and on about female and male grunion mating rituals. They find they have something in common -- uncertainty about the future, whether in fashion or oceanography -- and share an adorably awkward first kiss. Technically, they're too busy first-kissing to even notice the grunion flopping around in the sand at their feet. But who really needs to watch fish laying eggs when Josh Charles is getting his mack on with "I Only Have Eyes For You" playing in the background?
I kept my eye on Charles in the years that followed Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, but the remainder of the '90s yielded a string of mostly forgettable films; Threesome was an exception, while another great project saw Charles as sportcaster Dan Rydell on Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night." Supporting roles in indie flicks and bigger ones alike followed (including SWAT, Four Brothers, and The Ex), but Charles seems to have found juicier bits on recent television shows like "In Treatment" and "The Good Wife." (If you're watching "The Good Wife," you've gotten a taste of Josh Charles back in leading man territory.) Here's to hoping he returns to playing romantic feature film roles in the near future.
But if not, we'll always have the grunion.
(Grunion run at 4:11!)