Saturday, May 25, 2019

YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR: ALIEN 40th ANNIVERSARY 1979

The sci-fi horror thriller Alien turned 40 this year. And in that timeprogressing from sleeper hit to franchise to authentic classicRidley Scott’s 2nd feature film has enjoyed a growth cycle arguably as swift and expansive as that of the titular xenomorph itself. As a rule, science fiction tends to rank somewhere beneath westerns, sports films, espionage thrillers, and war movies in my roster of least-favorite movie genres, but Alien is a different animal entirely. An ingenious and genuinely scary update of those '50s sci-fi Creature Feature programmers I recall from my youth; Alien is a solid suspense thriller that just happens to take place in outer space. I fell in love with it when I saw it on opening day in 1979, and after all these years, after seeing it countless times, Alien still rates a special place in my heart. Just as long as it's not in my chest.

On the occasion of Alien's 40th Anniversary, 
my electronic film diary memories of Alien's opening day, May 25, 1979. 

A Cruel Summer
Alien and a then-unknown Sigourney Weaver make the June 18, 1979 cover of Newsweek

Because movies aren't created in a vacuum, because successes can't be predicted, and because I'm forever fascinated by the almost alchemical selection process by which the public responds to one particular motion picture over another; allow me to take a moment to put the release of Alien in a bit of context by taking a look at what was hitting the theaters in the summer of 1979.

The year began with new releases from favorites Robert Altman (Quintet, A Perfect Couple), Woody Allen (Manhattan), & Milos Forman (Hair). And the fall promised an original musical from Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), a romantic comedy from Alan J. Pakula (Starting Over), and the film debut of Bette Midler (The Rose). But when I looked ahead to what the summer months promised in the way of film releases, the Summer of ’79 didn't appear to be shaping up to be much of a banner season at the movies.
For those who like their big-name stars served up with as few surprises as possible, there was Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz and Barbra Streisand reteaming with her What’s Up Doc? co-star Ryan O’Neal in The Main Event (getting a significant publicity boost from La Streisand’s late-to-the-party stab at disco with the film’s theme song). That summer also saw my beloved Audrey Hepburn and Ali MacGraw testing the limits of the adage ‘Everybody loves a comeback story’ by appearing in the high-profile miscalculations Bloodline and Players, respectively.
Photo: Gary McVey
On the topic of adages (or proverbs), no summer would be complete without echoing homage paid to: ‘If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.’ On that score, the Airport and James Bond franchises persisted with The Concorde… Airport ’79 and Roger Moore’s 4th go-round as 007 in the 11th Bond film Moonraker. Meanwhile, major industry money was riding on the sequels Rocky II and More American Graffiti (the former delivered, the latter, not so much) while somewhere in the distance Irwin Allen was squeezing the life out of the once vital disaster film genre with his unasked for Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

For those inclined to play it safe, there were limited-engagement 70mm rereleases of both Grease and The Exorcist. For the gamblers, the summer presented a roster of television personalities making a play for big-screen gold: Charlie’s Angels’ Farrah Fawcett appearing in SunburnThree Company’s John Ritter in Americathon, and SNL’s Bill Murray in Meatballs. And if those prospects weren’t scary enough, The Amityville HorrorProphecy, and Dracula hoped to add a few chills to the summer heat.

After enduring nearly four years of hype and controversy, the film I was most stoked to see was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. No one believed it was going to make its exclusive August 15th opening date.  

Which brings us to Alien. I wish I could say that the film that turned out to be my number one, absolute favorite movie of the summer was a film whose release I'd eagerly anticipated. That it was a film I'd read about, heard advance word about, and knew would be a hit. I wish I could. But the truth is, Alien was a movie woefully off my advance radar. Maybe it was due to other, more high-profile films hogging the publicity landscape at the time, but I have ZERO recollection of even being aware of the existence of Alien before teaser ads began to appear in the trade papers at the start of the year, and when intriguingly cryptic ads began airing on TV.
What really brought Alien to my attention was when posters for the film began to appear around town. They really grabbed me. I mean, after the PG-rated, retro earnestness of Star Wars and all that benevolent optimism in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here was an R-rated sci-fi monster movie that held the promise of a creature that wasn't so nice.
Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley
Tom Skerritt as Captain Arthur Dallas
John Hurt as Executive Officer Gilbert Kane
Veronica Cartwright as Navigator Joan Lambert
Yaphet Kotto as Chief Engineer Denis Parker
Harry Dean Stanton as Engineering Technician Samuel Brett
Ian Holm as Science Officer Ash the Android

An Alien Encounter
I saw Alien on the Friday evening of May 25, 1979. The date was the kickoff of a long Memorial Day weekend which also happened to be the 2nd Anniversary of the blockbuster release of Star Wars. The studio 20th Century-Fox (no doubt hoping that lightning would strike twice) marked the occasion by premiering Alien, its new sci-fi release, in 70mm and Dolby Stereo at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Not an official, invitation-only movie premiere, but an exclusive engagement that had Alien was screened for 48 continuous hours over that holiday weekend, its debut feted with searchlights, towering signs, giveaways, lobby displays of props and models, and a massive scale replica of the film’s “Space Jockey” in the theater’s courtyard (Space Jockey is a name that came to stick sometime later. Then, still in the flush of Star Wars mania, many referred to it as the “Star Pilot”).  
The line I stood in was an incredibly long one that stretched west from the theater’s massive curved marquee (George Hamilton’s Dracula spoof Love at First Bite—a holdover from April—was playing in the smaller Egyptian Theaters II and III) past the London Britches blue jeans store next door (in 1927 it was the Pig 'n' Whistle restaurant), beyond Jambi’s sandwich shop, down to the Pioneer Chicken take-out on the corner, winding around McCadden Place across from the Scientology building, all the way down to Selma Avenue.
Certainly, public interest was high for any all science fiction films released while awaiting the December premiere of Star Trek: The Movie, but a contributing factor to Alien's huge turnout had to be that it had the weekend virtually all to itself. Friday the 25th also saw Mann's Chinese Theater regretting booking Peter Sellers' The Prisoner of Zenda (a film I'd wager even his fans have forgotten), and further up the boulevard headed east, minimal competition was offered by the release of David Cronenberg's The Brood.
By 1986, the sequel to Alien would open in dozens of theaters throughout the Los Angeles area, but in 1979, I only recall Alien premiering at 2 locations: the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Avco Center Cinemas in Westwood (above). As you can see, the triplex also hosted Harrison Ford's WW II bomber bomb Hanover Street and The China Syndrome.

The buzz standing in line was tremendous because, like Star Wars, Alien was an “event” movie with nary a star in its cast and a film that no one knew anything about. It was a high-concept scary movie whose marketing seized the imagination by playing up the ambiguity. With a campaign and poster designed by the same team responsible for the groundbreaking marketing campaign for Rosemary’s Baby, everything from Alien’s trailer to TV ads were all about what you didn’t know and what you couldn’t see. Similarities to the iconic 1968 Rosemary’s Baby poster could be seen in Alien’s eerie green/black color scheme, its arrestingly simple typeface, the bold graphic of a scabrous egg emitting a green vapor from a glowing crack in its surface, and that irresistible, unforgettable (now classic) tagline: In space no one can hear you scream.
Philip Gips, Barbara Gips, Stephen Frankfurt, Paula Silver, Gina Stone, Belott-Wolfson photography

A significant part of my excitement that night was anticipation born of simply not knowing what I was in for. I didn't know anything about Ridley Scott or designer H.R. Giger, and I’d never heard of a Sigourney Weaver, much less knew how to pronounce it. Everyone else in the cast was familiar in a vague kind of way from TV episodics or small roles in films. Tom Skerritt I remembered from playing Shirley MacLaine’s husband in The Turning Point (1977), Yaphet Kotto as the bad guy in Live and Let Die (1973), John Hurt from when PBS aired The Naked Civil Servant back in 1976, and Harry Dean Stanton from appearing in practically every TV show on the air in the ‘60s. Curiously enough, Alien’s biggest star and primary draw for me was Veronica Cartwright, the versatile and underappreciated actress I’d fallen in love with after seeing her in Inserts (1975), Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), and nearly walking away with the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). 
Before Alien, sci-fi movies were a boys club genre where women were either ornamental or sat worrying on the sidelines. My initial disinterest in Alien was sparked by this teaser ad that appeared in the trade papers. It made the film look like another one of those snoozy sci-fi melodramas like Marooned or Capricorn One.

While I’ve since matured (calcified?) into the kind of person who runs in the opposite direction at the mere sight of a line forming, back in May of 1979 when I was a 21-year-old with a far more gregarious nature, the idea of waiting in a line for two hours to see a film merely added to the overall excitement of the moviegoing experience. The evening the general atmosphere on the line was genial and full of anticipation, and with no cell phones to bury our heads in while waiting, many of us joined in conversation with the folks standing near us in line, each of us comparing notes about how much or how little we knew. And what with the aforementioned Jambi’s sandwich shop and Pioneer Chicken take-out doing land-office business with patrons sitting along the boulevard eating and drinking, waiting to see Alien also felt like an automobile-free tailgate party.

A funny thing about standing in line for a new film, especially on a street as heavily traveled by tourists as Hollywood Blvd, you can find yourself seized by this foolish, decidedly silly notion that you have suddenly become part of the city's attractions to gawking out-of-towners. Just standing there amongst the Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk and the beaming Klieg lights at the curb, you are no longer yourself, you are now "a huge line outside the Hollywood premiere of Alien" in somebody's vacation anecdote.
Photo: William Malone
Prop of the Alien Egg Chamber

Ever the eager-beaver when it came to movie opening nights, I was able to snag a primo bit of movie line real estate. A location very near the entrance to the theater’s courtyard which afforded a prolonged look at Alien’s posters and lobby cards, along with a sizable, unsettling 3-D promotional display/movie prop that at the time looked to me like rows of oozing, two-feet-tall Cadbury Crème Easter Eggs that had seen better days.

As the line progressed further into the theater’s then-roofed courtyard, things began to take on the feel of an amusement park. Following a barricaded path to the theater entrance, patrons were led through the dark, padded hallway of a spaceship when then opened out into a rather dazzling geometric room of tiny yellow lights and computer screens. This, of course, was the mainframe computer room of The Nostromo, but at the time I only had Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride as a point of reference, and that’s what it all reminded me of.
Photo: Lisa Morton
Photo: Alien Explorations
By this time I’d already begun to feel somewhat giddy with anticipation, but when the enclosed computer room opened out into the larger rear courtyard (near the Wishing Well of the Stars) I came face-to-face with a mind-bendingly bizarre structure that looked like the skeleton of an elephant fused into a chair and looking through a futuristic Planetarium projector…well, I was a goner. Neither I nor anyone else in line had any idea of what we were looking at (a ¾ scale prop of the Alien Space Jockey) but it struck me as being surreally grotesque, phallic, and utterly disturbing…in other words, absolutely gorgeous.
Photo: William Malone
At last, we were at the entrance to the theater. Regrettably, my awareness of the throngs of people waiting to get in, combined with my obsession with grabbing the ideal seat smack dab in the middle of the auditorium, prevented me from even noticing that there were more props and models from Alien on display in the lobby. I simply dashed to my seat, ignoring the snack bar and the very likely prospect of a souvenir program for sale (you can get a look at all the lobby props I personally missed at this blogger's account of the Alien premiere Here).

Upon entering the auditorium, early arrivals were given a free promotional pinback button. An item that triggered an ungrateful, inner “WTF?” response from me.
The reason is that the free souvenir button didn’t feature the film’s tagline, a picture one of those alien eggs, or even the film’s title. Any of which I’d have been happy to have. No, it was a black button approximately 2 ½ inches in diameter that simply had the words “You Are My Lucky Star” printed on a starry background. Hindsight plainly reveals this to be a very clever giveaway that patrons wouldn't appreciate until after they'd seen the film (Ripley sings the song to herself in the climactic scene as a means of calming her nerves) but at the time all I could think was what the hell did a tune from Broadway Melody of 1936 have to do with Alien
I still have my souvenir Alien button. 

These days, especially here in L.A., it’s not uncommon for movie theaters to display the props and costumes of films on exhibit in their lobbies. But back in 1979 such pomp and circumstance were largely the stuff of star-studded premieres and rarely available to the public. That novelty factor is perhaps why the Egyptian put faith in the honor system and left the safety of its display items in the hands of just a few strategically-placed “Please Do Not Touch the Display” signs. When I returned to the theater the following weekend to see Alien a second time, the props had all been removed due to someone having set the Space Jockey sculpture on fire. Imagine, an extraterrestrial fossil surviving all that time on a planetoid, only to be demolished in a matter of days when confronted with the boundless stupidity of what passes for "intelligent life" on this rock called earth. 
Strange Shapes
So, what was it like seeing Alien for the very first time with absolutely no foreknowledge of what I was getting myself into? Abso-fucking-lutely A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

What did I ultimately think of the film and what were my overall impressions?
That's for my next post. 

Happy Birthday, Alien!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. Ah, the summer of 1979! When I first began actively going to movie theaters on my own, rather than going every now and then with my family and/or friends on birthdays, etc.

    1979 was the year I became a true "cineaste." By the late 1970s, I had "graduated" from Disney and other G-rated movies. I was starting to watch some of the classic '70s American films on TV, beginning to be intrigued by European art films, and checking out books about cinema from the library.

    The middle of 1979 saw me seeing Manhattan, A Little Romance, the national reissue of Jaws, Alien, Moonraker, Breaking Away and The Life of Brian. (Apocalypse Now was my most anticipated movie as well, but it didn't open in Seattle until the latter part of autumn and, it being a "heavy" R-rated film, I didn't get the nerve to brazenly walk up to the box office and buy a ticket until the beginning of 1980. (Amusingly, I went with a friend of mine who was two years younger than me - 13 to my 15 - and he told me the surefire way of getting in is if he told the ticket seller that he was my younger brother. I doubted that that was a good plan, yet when we were asked our ages, we both blurted out different things: I mumbled that I left my I.D. at home, and my buddy said that I was his older brother - and we were let in!! His plan amazingly worked!

    Alien is a film that I appreciate more than love. It's very well-made, contains a great music score, and was really something quite different at the time and very influential, but, for all that, I'm not a keen sf buff. I certainly like it though. (Another hard R film. Another friend of mine and I went with his "cool" aunt, who was amused that I momentarily hid my eyes at the scene of John Hurt's, uh, stomach discomfort.

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  2. The recounting of your emergence as a solo-flight cineaste is full of funny anecdotes, vivid detail, and relatable nostalgia. I especially like the sure-fire gambit you and your friend adopted to gain entrance to R-rated movies! The year 1979 was a transitional one in a lot of ways, and it’s great that for you it was the beginning of a deeper and more personal appreciation of film. The summer was a bit of a mixed bag for me, but there were lots of Spring and Fall releases that were terrific (the titles you named along with All That Jazz, Being There, Starting Over, The Rose). And though “Alien” isn’t a favorite of yours, how terrific that your friend’s “cool aunt” afforded you the opportunity to experience John Hurt’s digestive episode before it became parodied into overfamiliarity.
    Thank you for reading this sharing your 1979 memories!

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    1. "All That Jazz" is another massive favorite of mine. It opened in Seattle in February 1980 and I went to see it in April. By then, I was confidently marching into R-rated movies on my own, lol. (There was only one time I didn't get admission during my pre-17 years old cinema excursions: A showing of "Halloween" near Halloween itself in 1980 when I, at 16, was not allowed in, but my 17 year old friend was. Awkwardness ensued!)

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    2. That's hilarious! (Not that you didn't get in, but that after making it into far more mature films THAT was the one someone put their foot down about.) I'm sometimes surprised when certain R-rated films adhere to the whole "no one under 17 admitted" (like HALLOWEEN) because in my mind they seem so specifically targeted to teens. One of the few marketing bombs of 1979 was when Christmas came around and Kenner toys marketed a rather frightening ALIEN toy. First off, virtually no one in the age demographic it was targeted to was old enough to see the movie, secondly, it was so scary parents complained and the TV ads had to cease.

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  3. When I saw the title of your post, my mind went automatically to that Newsweek cover with a frightened Sigourney Weaver pictured. (I think it may have been the first Newsweek article I ever read). I was in my early teens and remember well when Alien came out. Not that I would ever have gone to see it. There was no way my parents would have allowed me to and I was far too cowardly anyway. But such films still held a fascination for me. So much so that when I came across a photobook of Alien in a bookstore, I immediately started perusing the pictures. My instincts were correct. The picture of the alien bursting from John Hurt's chest absolutely traumatized me (in a good way). To have seen it up on screen would have been more than my tender teen-aged mind could have borne. (If you haven't you should really check out the Mel Brooks' comedy Spaceballs. It has a hilarious send up of that scene...with John Hurt!) Of course, I did eventually see Alien and it really is one of the best (dare I see THE best?) science-fiction horror movies ever made.

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    1. "There was no way my parents would have allowed me to and I was far too cowardly anyway." - That's great! My teenage self relates to your aversion to and simultaneous curiosity about movie horror. When I was young, after being traumatized by an TV broadcast of PSYCHO ( I never made it past the shower scene), I still nevertheless found myself drawn to my older sisters copy of a photo book abut the making of the film. Every time I came to photos even approaching that scene, I'd slam the book shut and put it back on the shelf. I repeated this ritual several times.
      You were smart not to subject yourself to ALIEN too soon. It sounds as though you saw it at the perfect time and appreciated it.
      Oh, and I have seen SPACEBALLS, and you're right, that scene is a terrific sendup! I didn't see it in a theater, but I can only imagine how it must have went over. Glad my post included that Newsweek cover you remembered! Thanks for sharing your ALIEN experience with us here.

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  4. You really bring it all back. I think Alien and The Exorcist are the only two movies I waited in line for. I guess that’s because I didn’t see Star Wars until months after it opened. I don’t even remember seeing Star Wars. But Alien. So exciting—especially when they finally let people in and that mad rush to get a good seat. And I remember exactly where my friends and I were in the massive theater in Dallas. And the green shirt I was wearing. And the giggles in the lobby afterwards.

    I wonder why certain movies trigger that memory? I remember where I sat during Bonnie and Clyde, 2001, The Shakiest Gun in the West, Play it as Lays, The Owl and the Pussycat, Secret Ceremony, and Doctor Zhivago to name a few. And the awful Green Berets! Even into the 80s, I remember the aisle seat in a sold-old NY theater for Dressed to Kill and front row (empty) balcony for Grease 2. Yet, some of my favorite movies of all time don’t trigger that.

    Are there other movies for you that take you back to that certain seat in a certain theater?

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    1. Hi Max! Your level of recall is enviable! And what a terrific list of films you cite--Play It As It Lays is a big favorite I haven’t seen in years (The Green Berets...ugh! What crap!).

      And while waiting is line for a movie is not many people's idea of fun, it was indeed pretty exciting racing for your seats and responding to ALIEN with a startled, unsuspecting crowd. And you're right, it was one of those movies that made being scared feel like a lot of fun, so afterward there WAS much gasping and giggling in the lobby.
      But without exactly knowing why, I know exactly what you mean about some films triggering crystal clear memories of the circumstances surrounding our seeing them, while others draw a blank.
      I don't think I ever remember what I was wearing when I saw a film, but when I think all the way back to the first times Rosemary's Baby, Tommy, and for some reason COMA, I can remember clearly where I was sitting.
      I remember vividly where I sat in the Paramount Theater in Hollywood when I saw "Can't Stop The Music" not only because I sat through the film twice, but because I sat behind a guy who'd I'd swear was David Copperfield and his male date. I could have been wrong, but I've been waiting for him to come out ever since!
      Thanks for reading this post and adding you experiences to this chronicle of ALIEN memories!

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  5. "Veronica Cartwright, the versatile and underappreciated actress"

    Preach. As an '80s kid I was introduced to her in The Witches of Eastwick, where she stole the show from the powerhouse lead quartet. She's never less than amazing.

    I appreciate film lovers' personal recollections of moviegoing and yours are the best. Stellar job with this movie - I feel like I was alongside you in that queue wrapping around the block (despite being five years old when Alien was released).

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    1. The Witches of Eastwick! I haven't seen that one since it first came out, but I remember feeling as you do about Cartwright's performance. In fact, it's her character and performance that comes back to me the strongest as I write this.
      Though I had to choke back the news that you were just five years old when ALIEN was released (my inner self still thinks he's 21), it pleased me to read that this piece gave you a little taste of what that evening in 1979 felt like. That was my aim.
      Thank you for sharing your appreciation of Veronica Cartwright and for reading this post and commenting in such a kind manner. Hope you eventually got see ALIEN at an appropriate age and that you enjoyed it. It's perhaps my favorite sci-fi horror film.

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