When I watch a movie like Airport—producer Ross “I gave the public what they wanted” Hunter’s arthritically old-fashioned, $10 million, all-star, big screen adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s ubiquitous 1968 bestseller—I’m reminded once again why the late '60s and '70s represent my absolute favorite era in American filmmaking.
The diversity of what was hitting the theaters was astounding! In 1970 alone we saw the release of complex, arty films like Puzzle of a Downfall Child , Nicolas Roeg’s experimental Performance, the underground films of Andy Warhol (Trash), big-budget acts of desperation like Myra Breckinridge,mainstream documentaries (Woodstock), the explosion in black cinema represented by Cotton Comes to Harlem, overblown musicals (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), the ground-breaking subject-matter of The Boys in the Band, the sexually subversive comedies Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Something for Everyone, important foreign entries like Le Boucher and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, forgotten oddities of the Dinah East stripe, Disney’s stick-in-a-time-warp family films (The Boatniks), and breakout independents like John Avildsen’s Joe. And in the middle of all this, a big, glossy, old-Hollywood gasbag melodrama in the tradition of Grand Hotel meets The V.I.Ps…all in the same year!
|"What a dramatic airport!" - Mel Brooks "High Anxiety" (1977)|
What I'm hoping to achieve in detailing this brief and shining Camelot-esque moment in cinema history, is the granting of a kind of artistic clemency for myself. A nostalgic leniency, if you will, which begs one to take into account how, in my growing up in an atmosphere of democratic tolerance for films of all kinds, I was able to reconcile the glaring inconsistency—not to mention lapse in taste—behind being 12-years-old and having as my absolute top, top, favorite movies: Rosemary’s Baby, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Midnight Cowboy, …and Airport.
|Burt Lancaster as Mel Bakersfeld|
|Jean Seberg as Tanya Livingston|
|Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest|
|Jacqueline Bisset as Gwen Meighen|
|Miss Helen Hays as Ada Quonsett|
|George Kennedy as Joe Patroni|
|Maureen Stapleton as Inez Guerrero|
|Van Heflin as D.O Guerrero|
|Dana Wynter as Cindy Bakersfeld|
Nevertheless, Airport was THE film to see in 1970, and when I did, I went positively dotty over it. I thought it was one of those most exciting, action-packed, tension-filled movies I'd ever seen. I returned to the theater several times during its run to rewatch and relive it. I borrowed my mom's Reader's Digest "condensed" version of the novel (what was that condensed book thing all about, anyway), then, convinced the abridged version had cut out a lot of then-sought-after smut, I checked out the complete novel from the library and re-read it. I even went out and purchased the soundtrack album...my first!...and wore it out (don't get me started on how off the geek Richter scale it is for a 12-year-old's first LP purchase to be Alfred Newman's by-turns spectacularly overcaffeinated/easy listening score for Airport). More frightening still, I played Airport with my toy model of a 747 Delta Airlines passenger jet by cramming a firecracker into a hole I'd dug into its side and lighting it. Yikes!
I'm not going to say Airport isn't still one of my favorite films, for I watch it often. But my enjoyment of it these days is strictly on par with why I repeatedly watch Valley of the Dolls, or The Oscar; which is to say I can never get my fill when it comes to overripe Hollywood cheese. Airport was a huge boxoffice hit and even garnered a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, but honestly, watching it today, I don't think there are even five consecutive minutes of Airport that don't reduce me to paroxysms of laughter. And try as I might to access the me who once watched this movie unironically, I swear, it feels as if I'm hijacking someone else's memories
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As both the first and least cartoonish of the four airport-themed films in Universal’s franchise, and the film which more or less kicked off the '70s “disaster film” craze; Airport looks, by way of comparison to the atrocities that followed, much better than it actually is. It’s plot: seven, count ‘em, seven romantic and dramatic entanglements duke it out over a seven-hour period at a busy Midwestern airport plagued by blizzards, airport noise bellyachers, and bombers.
At this particular airport, dramatic tension and impending disaster is love’s co-pilot (infidelity—both real and the “lusting in my heart” variety—is practically a job requirement), while domestic discord and personal tragedy have to ride coach when compared to the hand-wringing first-class priority this airport gives to trying to make customers happy. This latter point is perhaps the one element that dates Airport the most.
I’ve seen Airport far too many times to be able to ascertain whether or not it still holds up as a viable suspense melodrama, but I can attest to it being a near non-stop parade of ugly, stiff-looking fashions culled from acres of drab polyblend synthetics; static, rigidly blocked scenes (the camera must have been nailed to the floor) with actors giving TV movie-level performances, and truly terrible dialogue. For example, old-school he-man Joe Patroni still refers to women as “broads” and “dames.” And while preferable to today’s infatuation with the word “bitch,” I kinda thought that in the '70s atmosphere of Diary of a Mad Housewife, terms like broad and dame—the Rat Pack notwithstanding—had gone out with Ocean's Eleven. Also, another thing which places Airport squarely in another time and place is, in stark contrast to today’s films, Airport displays a rather quaint interest in the lives of the middle-aged.
|Actress Virginia Grey (Ross Hunter's "lucky charm") appears as the mother of wisenheimer teen, Lou Wagner. Her skeptical-looking husband is played by Dick Weston|
Perhaps this is a by-product of the assembly-line professionalism of Airport's trained-in-the-studio-system production team; there's scarcely a soul involved in the making of this film younger than 50. Director/screenwriter George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, Teacher's Pet) genuinely fashions a pretty solid (and silly) entertainment from this faithful adaptation of Hailey's exhaustively researched novel, the laughs arising chiefly out of the drop-dead serious manner in which all this nonsense is delivered.
|Lloyd Nolan as Head of US Customs, Harry Standish waxes philosophically on the art of fraud detection: "First I look in their eyes...then the luggage." Kill me now.|
Not counting her dubbed walk-on as Miss Goodthighs in Casino Royale (1967), Airport was my first Jacqueline Bisset movie. And along with being bowled over by her beauty and "Pip pip, cheerio!" British accent, I remember being quite taken with the strength of her character. Gwen Meighen is no Ellen Ripley (Alien), but she was as close as one got to a liberated heroine in those days. Not only does she decide for herself what to do about her unplanned pregnancy, but she's so fearless and take-charge under pressure.
This movie may have been made by a bunch of old men, but they are light years ahead of the curve in giving us a female character who "acts" in the face of danger, rather than shriek and collapse into hysterics. Universal contract player Katherine Ross was the original choice for the role and was subsequently put on suspension for turning it down (this she turns down, and says yes to The Swarm?). Bisset, having earlier stepped into the Mia Farrow role in Frank Sinatra's The Detective at the last minute, was used to being second-string.
While Bisset continues to dominate the film for me (she's practically the baby in the cast), over the years I've come to grow ever fonder of the laid-back performance of Dean Martin. His popular variety show was still on the air when Airport came out, but I honestly didn't care for him much as a kid. These days I rank him as my all-time favorite male vocalist (my iPod is overflowing with his mellow crooning) and his screen appearances, which I once dismissed as being so casual as to be lazy, have actually aged rather well; coming across as appealingly natural and underplayed compared to the stiff formality of actors like Burt Lancaster.
In a film of questionable performances, it's odd that Helen Hayes' (sorry, Miss Helen Hayes') Oscar-winning turn as Ada Quonsett (described in the movie's trailer as "The mind-boggling, huggable perpetual stowaway!" ) is the one character I can barely abide (Kennedy's Joe Patroni runs a close second). Afflicted with a terminal case of the cutes and employing every little old lady cliche devised since the beginning of time, Hayes' is a hammy, vaudeville turn more in tune with a knee-slapping episode of The Andy Griffith Show than a major motion picture. But it's the kind of performance that wins Oscars (see: Margaret Rutherford in 1963s The V.I.Ps). While I like her very much in her scenes with Bisset (she gets slapped, after all), I really wouldn't have minded too much had her character been one of the airline's casualties. Oh, and in addition, I have to race for the mute button every time she appears onscreen accompanied by her "adorable" cartoon-appropriate theme music. Both Shirley Booth and Claudette Colbert were originally considered for the role but spared themselves the schtick.
|OK, the look she's giving this self-medicating nun (character actress Mary Jackson) is pretty hilarious.|
Perhaps this reveals me to be the terrible person I probably am, but next to Bisset's stewardess (I know, I know...flight-attendant) my favorite character in Airport is actually Dana Wynter as Mel's fed-up, socialite wife, Cindy. Even if it's only for the reason that she is so unrelentingly one-note and perpetually pissed-off , I find her character to be an absolute hoot! Not only does she begin every conversation at full-throttle harpy, but here's a woman who braves the city's worst blizzard in 30 years (in mink, yet) just to rip her husband a new asshole. She really should have been running that airport.
|Wives don't fare too well in Airport. Perry Mason's Barbara Hale plays Sarah Demerest, the good-natured but long-suffering wife of philandering pilot, Dean Martin, and sister to Burt Lancaster.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The passing of time and post-9/11 changes in airline travel have contributed to Airport acquiring a layer of historical entertainment value it didn't have in 1970. Given that Airport has about the same fantasy-to-reality ratio of any glamorous Ross Hunter production, it's doubtful that the commercial airline experience was ever as stylish as presented here. But seeing as the screenplay follows Arthur Hailey's dedication to airline operation accuracy to an almost Dragnet-degree of tedious recitation of just the facts, ma'am; I think it gives a fairly close approximation of flying in the days when one could effortlessly sneak in and off of planes carrying homemade bombs and boarding passes in lieu of tickets.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In all likelihood, my fascination with Airport was at least in part due to my taking my very first plane trip just a year before, in 1969. It was a flight from San Francisco to Maryland to visit my grandmother. I don't recall much about the flight itself other than the in-flight movie was Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, the whole experience was heady and thrilling, and that the stewardess gave me a tiny pair of wings to pin to my sweater and a booklet of color-and-tear postcards which I've somehow managed to hold onto for all these years.
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
|"They don't call it the cockpit for nothing, honey!" - an actual line of dialogue from Airport '79|
Gary Collins (c.) and Barry Nelson (r.) play second and first officers Cy Jordan and Anson Harris, respectively
An in-depth, lavishly-illustrated article about Edith Head and the costume designs (and hairstyles, aka wigs) in Airport can be found at one my favorite movie blogs, Poseidon's Underworld
|"Remind me to send a thank you note to Mr. Boeing"|