Sometimes, you have to be careful which films you choose to watch over the course of the day.
Such as, last Friday night, I heard the news that Jill Clayburgh had died and I ended up watching An Unmarried Woman. This, along with the fact that I also watched the Black Swan trailer, led to me dancing around the house in my underwear, en pointe in bare feet, and doing a half-assed pirouette in the living room. And I felt pretty proud of myself until I woke up Saturday morning and my ankle (which I don’t think has ever properly healed from the day, seven years ago, that I fell down a flight of stairs and broke it in two places) literally felt like it was on fire. That was my body’s way of saying, “You ain’t living in a movie, bitch. Deal with it.”
So, come Sunday, I decided to play it safe by watching something that I was sure wouldn’t lead to any imitative behavior on my part. Since I had previously reviewed Earthquake on this site, I decided that I would devote some time to the movies that started the entire 1970s disaster movie genre — Airport. Watching Airport led to me watching Airport’s three sequels.
I was able to do this largely because I own the Airport Terminal Pack, a two-disk DVD collection that contains all four of the Airport films and nothing else. There’s no special features or commentary tracks. That’s probably a good thing because these films are so extremely mainstream that I doubt the commentary tracks would be all that interesting except to people who love “Me and Jennings Lang had the same lawyer…” style stories.
The movies are a mixed bag of ’70s sexism, mainstream greed, and casts that were described as being “all-star” despite the fact that they featured very few stars. They’re all worth watching as time capsules of a past time. Some of them are just more worthy than others.
Below are my thoughts on each individual film in the collection…
Airport (directed by George Seaton)
First released in 1970, Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including best picture), broke box office records, and started the whole 70s disaster movie trend. It also has to be one of the most boring, borderline unwatchable movies ever made. The fact that I managed to sit through the whole thing should be taken as proof that I’m either truly dedicated to watching movies or I’m just insane. Take your pick.
Anyway, the film is painstakingly detailed account of the every day operations of an airport. Yeah, sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Burt Lancaster runs the airport. His brother-in-law Dean Martin flies airplanes. Both of them have mistresses but we’re told that’s okay because Lancaster’s wife expects him to talk to her and Martin’s wife is cool with him fucking around as long as he comes home at night. I would be tempted to say that this is a result of the film having been made in 1969 and released in 1970 but actually, it’s just an introduction to the sexual politics of the typical disaster film. Men save the day while women get in the way. And if you think things have changed, I’d suggest you watch a little film calledf 2012…
The only interesting thing about the film is that Lancaster’s mistress is played by Jean Seberg who, ten years earlier, had helped change film history by co-starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless. Nine years later, after years of being hounded by the American press and the FBI for her radical politics, Seberg committed suicide.
Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight)
As opposed to its predecessor, Airport 1975 is actually a lot of fun in its campy, silly way. This is the one where a small private plane (flown by Dana Andrews, the star of the wonderful film noir Laura) collides with a commercial airliner. The entire flight crew is taken out and head stewardess Karen Black has to pilot the plane despite the fact that she’s obviously cross-eyed. Luckily, since Black is a stewardess, she has a pilot boyfriend who is played by Charlton Heston. Heston talks her through the entire flight despite the fact that she was earlier seen trying to pressure him into not treating her like an idiot. Anyway, Heston does his usual clench-jaw thing and if you need a drinking game to go with your bad movie, just take a shot every time Heston calls Black “honey.” You’ll be drunk before the plane lands.
There’s some other stuff going on in this movie (for instance, Gloria Swanson appears as “herself” and doesn’t mention Sunset Boulevard or Joseph Kennedy once!) but really, all you need to know is that this is the film where Karen Black acts up a storm and random characters keep saying, “The stewardess is flying the plane!?”
Odd trivia fact: Airport 1975 was released in 1974.
Airport ’77 (directed by Jerry Jameson)
In Airport ’77, a group of art thieves attempt to hijack an airplane which, of course, leads to the airplane crashing into the ocean and somehow sinking down to the ocean’s floor without splitting apart. The crash survivors have to try to figure out how to get to the surface of the water before they run out of oxygen.
In this case, our resident sexist pilot is Jack Lemmon who has a really ugly mustache. He wants to marry head stewardess Brenda Vaccarro. Vaccarro doesn’t understand why they have to get married to which Lemmon responds, “Because I want a wife and kids!” The film also gives us Lee Grant as a woman who is married to Christopher Lee but who is having an affair with another man. She also drinks a lot and dares to get angry when she realizes that the airplane is underwater. While this sort of behavior is acceptable from Dean Martin, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon, the film punishes Lee Grant by drowning her in the final minutes.
Technically, Airport ’77 is probably the best of the Airport films. The cast does a pretty good job with all the melodrama, the film doesn’t drag, and a few of the scenes manage to generate something resembling human emotion. (For instance, when the blind piano player died, I had a tear in one of my freaky, mismatched eyes.) Unfortunately, the movie’s almost too good. It’s not a lot of fun. Everyone plays their roles straight so the silly plot never quite descends into camp and the key to a good disaster film is always camp. This film also has the largest body count of the series, with most of the cast dead by the end of the movie. (And, incidentally, this film did nothing to help me with my fear of water…)
The Concorde: Airport ’79 (directed by David Lowell Rich)
The last Airport movie is also the strangest. Some people have claimed that this film was meant to be a satire of the previous Airport films. I can understand the argument because you look at film like Concorde and you say, “This must be a joke!” However, the problem with this theory is that there are moments of obvious “intentional” humor in this film (i.e., J.J. from Good Times smokes weed in the plane’s bathroom, another passenger has to go to the bathroom whenever she gets nervous) and none of them show any evidence of the type of wit and outlook necessary to come up with anything this silly on purpose. Add to that, the film’s story is credited to Jennings Lang, a studio executive. Studio execs do not take chances. (Plus, the actual script was written by Eric Roth, who went on to write the amazingly humorless The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
No, this film is meant to be taken seriously and oh my God, where do I start?
Our pilots are George Kennedy and Alain Delon. The head stewardess (and naturally, Delon’s girlfiend) is played by Sylvia “Emanuelle” Kristel who, at one point, says, “You pilots are such men!” “Hey, they don’t call it a cockpit for nothing, honey,” Kennedy replies.
Meanwhile, Robert Wagner is trying to destroy the Concorde because one of the passengers is his girlfriend who has proof that Wagner has been selling weapons to America’s enemies. So, he attempts to blow the plane up with a guided missile and when that fails, he sends a couple of fighter planes after them. Kennedy responds by opening up the cockpit window — while breaking the sound barrier mind you — and firing a flare gun at their pursuers.
After this, there’s stop over in Paris where Delon arranges for Kennedy to sleep with a prostitute who assures Kennedy that he made love “just like a happy fish.”
The next day, everyone returns to the exact same Concorde — despite the fact that just a day earlier they’d nearly been blown up by a squadron of fighter planes — and take off on the second leg of the flight. Let me repeat that just to make sure that we all understand what this film is asking us to believe. After nearly getting blown up by a mysterious squad of fighter planes, everybody shows up the next morning to get on the exact same plane.
Oh, and it never occurs to Wagner’s ex-girlfriend that Wagner might have something to do with all of this.
Now sad to say, Concorde is the one of those films that’s a lot more fun to talk about than to actually watch. It should be a lot more fun in its badness than it actually is. Still, the movie has just enough camp appeal to make it fun in a “what the fuck…” sorta way.
And that’s how the Airport series comes to an end.