The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
In the 1949 thriller The Third Man, Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, one of the all-time great screen villains. Welles is barely in the movie. For most of the running time, he’s simply a whispered name—first a dead body, the center of a mystery, and then the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy that’s leaving Austrian children dead. Welles simply appears out of the mist, gives one chillingly callous monologue on a ferris wheel, and then dies. That’s it.
Welles doesn’t have to carry the movie. Harry Lime isn’t a big part. But he’s still the center of attention in The Third Man. Before he arrives, the other characters spend the entire film talking about Harry Lime—who he is, what happened to him, what he’s done. All Welles has to do is drop by, supply a few minutes of perfect malevolence, and then disappear. It’s perfect. Now everyone remembers The Third Man as an Orson Welles movie.
In 1975’s Jaws, the shark is Harry Lime. The shark wasn’t supposed to be Harry Lime. Three giant mechanical great whites had been constructed at, great expense, for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Peter Benchley book about a seaside community terrorized by a killer shark. Bob Mattey, who had built the amazing giant squid from the 1954 Disney flick 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, had designed these pneumatic models—intricate machines that took 14 people at once to operate. But Spielberg, just 28 and working with a real budget for the first time, insisted on shooting the underwater scenes in the ocean, something that had never been done before. He could’ve just used a water tank. It would’ve been fine. But Spielberg felt like he needed the ocean. He would regret it.
The set of Jaws, even more than the set of The Godfather a few years before it, was a notorious disaster. Spielberg spent more than twice his allotted budget. Production went months past deadline. (Universal had wanted to release Jaws in time for Christmas 1974, even though it’s such an obvious summer movie.) Robert Shaw, the great English actor who played the wild-eyed fisherman Quint, was in the process of drinking himself to death, and he’d get so hammered that he couldn’t remember his lines. Shaw and his co-star Richard Dreyfuss butted heads. The Orca, the boat where all the action of the movie’s final third takes place, once started to sink with the cast and crew on board. The salt water of the ocean destroyed the inner workings of those mechanical sharks. Members of the crew reportedly started referring to the movie as Flaws, which is just a good pun.
These days, Jaws is notorious for being the film that kicked off the summer-blockbuster era. It came out in June, during what was supposedly a dead period for the box office. It opened on more than 400 screens nationwide, back when the usual strategy was to open a big picture in a few big-city theaters and slowly roll it out to the rest of the country. Universal spent more than $700,000 on TV ads in a time when most movie studios generally regarded TV as the enemy. Within three months of that opening, Jaws was the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Jaws really did change the way movies are conceived, shot, marketed, and released. If you want to find a scapegoat for the rise of slick, spectacle-based cinema and for the end of the brief early-’70s “American new wave,” Jaws will do just fine. After Jaws, studios had different expectations for how much money a film might possibly make and different ideas about which kind of films might conceivably do it. We’ve been living with the after-effects of that for the last 44 years. But there was nothing slick about the way Jaws itself was made. It was a series of happy accidents.
Spielberg himself has said that Jaws wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, or as successful, if the mechanical sharks had worked. He and editor Verna Fields had to work around their absence, only showing the creature itself in the film’s final act. In keeping the shark hidden, they turned what might’ve been a monster movie into a work of Hitchcockian suspense. We see brief glimpses—a fin, a shadow, a quick flash of movement. We see potential victims from the shark’s point of view, a slasher-flick trick. And more importantly, we see the effect that the shark attacks have on the town of Amity.
The shark itself isn’t the villain of Jaws. The shark is an act of god, a manifestation of nature’s bloodlust. The villain is Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), the mayor who wants to keep Amity’s beaches open even when he knows there’s a killer shark out there. Vaughn, harried but friendly, isn’t a criminal mastermind. He wears tacky, Craig Sager-ass sport jackets, and he thinks he’s just protecting his town’s economic interests. But he’s driven by the same capitalistic indifference to life that had made Harry Lime so chilling. (Vaughn never gets his comeuppance, even after his inaction causes multiple deaths. As people on Twitter love to point out during election season, Vaughn is still the mayor in Jaws 2.)
In its way, then, Jaws builds on, rather than dismantles, the American new wave of the ’70s—at least as far as inherent distrust of authority is concerned. This wasn’t just a Hollywood thing. Jaws arrived less than a year after President Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, and less than two months after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Jaws was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, the same island where presumptive presidential frontrunner Ted Kennedy had swam to safety while the woman in the passenger seat of his car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. (The Jaws crew even reportedly filmed the shark moving through the same Chappaquiddick canal where Kopechne died.) Robert Benchley, the author of the airplane-bookstore novel on which Jaws was based, had worked as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson. But Spielberg himself wasn’t even remotely political. He cared much more about movies than he did about politics.
The shark can represent just about anything you want it to. It’s a blank slate, and its absence gives it power. In the film, moments of jarring violence, like the opening-scene killing on the beach, give way to total calm. The shark is an existential threat. In refusing to close the beaches, the mayor tells Chief Brody that he needs to “appreciate the gut reaction that people have to these things.” Jaws is all about that gut reaction. Spielberg has said that he felt like he was “directing the audience with a cattle prod.”
Ultimately, I think the overwhelming success of Jaws owes less to what was happening in the world in 1975 and more to Steven Spielberg’s incredible instincts as a filmmaker. The set itself might’ve been a total nightmare, but Spielberg and his collaborators took those slapdash raw materials and turned them into miracles. A scene like the one where the kid gets eaten while swimming at the beach — the tension, the glimpses of carnage, the mass panic—are about as good as filmmaking gets.
Spielberg knew what he was doing. He didn’t care about politics, but he knew that the audiences of 1975 loved watching men fighting against corrupt systems. (That year, the No. 2 highest-grossing movie at the box office, and the one that defeated Jaws for the Best Picture Oscar, was the definitive man-versus-system statement One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.) Spielberg also knew how to put together an effective scene: When the movie was otherwise finished, he spent a few thousand dollars of his own money on the scene where Dreyfuss pokes around Ben Gardner’s sunken boat, staging the discovery of the fisherman’s severed head in a friend’s swimming pool. And Spielberg understood when to turn his horror movie into a seafaring adventure.
His timing is just masterful. Think about the scene of the two bumbling fishermen on the dock, using a frozen turkey to lure the shark so that they can collect some reward money. Suddenly, the shark grabs the chain and pulls the dock into the water, sending one of the fishermen, thrashing, into the water. Then the shark turns around and swims back towards them. (Again, we don’t see the shark. We know where it’s going because it drags the dock with it.) The two schlubs somehow survive, and they end up in a panting heap on the dock. Then there’s a beat, and one of them whines, “Can we go home now?” Spielberg created this incredible tension, and then he defused it with a joke at the exact right moment.
The casting is perfect, too. Dreyfuss, young and shaggy and convincingly neurotic as the shark expert Hooper, delivers all of his exposition with a sense of passion and excitement. Shaw, grizzled and lightly terrifying, glowers and snarls and puts on a great show. And Roy Scheider, playing the put-upon everyman hero Brody, reacts with the same fear and disbelief that any of us would have. He’s a big-city cop who’s come to the peaceful island to give his family a better life; it’s almost as if he’s playing his French Connection character, attempting to recuperate from the time he had to deal with crazy Popeye Doyle as a partner. I love the moment where Hooper and Shaw gleefully compare scars and Brody pulls up his shirt, feels his own scar, and says nothing.
As he’s about to set sail to find the fish, Brody, in a moment of frustration, rants about all the awful things he’d seen in New York. And he pauses for a moment of idealism that probably sounded naïve to 1975 audiences and definitely sounds naïve now: “In Amity, one man can make a difference!” Later on, he proves it. With Quint dead and Hooper incapacitated, Brody is the one who kills the shark, getting off an ’80s action-hero-style one-liner in the process.
Jaws was not the perfect engine that some of its detractors made it out to be. Instead, it was a series of problems that Steven Spielberg needed to solve. He figured them out. There’s nothing cynical or assembly-line about the finished product. Spielberg proved himself to be a hell of a storyteller, something he’d continue to prove again and again in the decades ahead. (No director will appear in this column as often as Steven Spielberg.) Jaws is a great movie. Great movies have a way of changing things.
The contender: Jaws notwithstanding, 1975 was still near the peak of the Hollywood new wave, and plenty of shaggy, fascinating movies, like Shampoo and Three Days Of The Condor, were big hits. My favorite of them is, like Jaws, a beautifully constructed piece of mass genre entertainment that pits a beleaguered New Yorker against an uncaring system.
Dog Day Afternoon, the No. 4 film at the 1975 box office, is the movie where Al Pacino really stops being icy, controlled Michael Corleone and becomes something like the wild, over-the-top figure that we know and love today. He gets to be volcanic and euphoric and freaked-out and scared and deeply, ferociously charismatic. The story of the hopeless, in-over-his-head bank robber comes from real life, but it seems far-fetched. This guy manages to keep his trigger-happy accomplice from killing anyone and to get his hostages and a good chunk of the New York populace rooting for him. It’s absurd. Because it’s Pacino, we buy it.
Director Sidney Lumet makes the bank and its neighborhood seem real, and he dials up the tension between Pacino and the police expertly. I love just about every actor in the movie—John Cazale as the sweaty gunman, Chris Sarandon as the bewildered partner, Penelope Allen as the tough and empathetic bank teller, James Broderick and Lance Henriksen as the ice-blooded FBI agents. But the film belongs to Pacino, and it’s probably my favorite of his performances.
Next time: Rocky starts out as a grimy ’70s character study and ends as an underdog triumph, making a star out of Sylvester Stallone and helping usher in a new era of cinematic uplift.