When the Oscar nominations for 1970 were announced, there were two clear leaders, tied for 10 nominations apiece. One was from a genre familiar to Oscar watchers: the War film. Patton, the story of George S. Patton, garnered 10 nominations, including Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay. The movie which matched its total nominations, however, was from a genre that really didn’t have a name. It was a drama, but one which centered on the lives of men and women caught up in potential disasters both natural and manmade. The movie was Airport, (watch the trailer here) and its success would help kick off one of the biggest genre explosions in Hollywood history: the Disaster Film. Every studio wanted to get in on the action, and some of the resulting movies (The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and The Poseidon Adventure, for example), became successes both at the box office and in Oscar nominations. None, however, were able to match Airport’s total nominations. The Oscar nominations Airport received are: Best Picture; two for Best Supporting Actress; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Art Direction – Set Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score; Best Sound; Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography. Looking back at the history of Disaster Films in the Oscars, it becomes very obvious that this kind of reaction by the Academy is the exception rather than the rule. By 1975, disaster films, while still a potential moneymaker, lost their lustre with the Academy, and were usually relegated to the Special Effects/Costuming awards. That’s assuming they were nominated at all.
This is precisely the problem which Universal found themselves with when, in 1975, they started producing indirect sequels to Airport. Two of the movies released, Airport ’75 and The Concorde: Airport ’79, received zero nominations, and Airport ’77 received two: Best Set Design and Best Costume Design. Few can argue that, of the four Airport movies, Airport seems to be the most successful. And yet, as a fan with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but think that the Academy celebrated the wrong movie. Airport is a very watchable film, but I certainly don’t think it ranks as the best picture in the series, much less Best Picture in 1970. To me, the best movie in that series will always be Airport ’77. From plot to character to setting, I find it much more stimulating and immersive than Airport. So it makes me wonder what would have happened if, by some chance, Airport ’77 went up against Airport, movie. How would they fare? Let’s buckle up, and get ready for takeoff. And I warn that there are spoilers ahead.
Both Airport and Airport ’77 cast their movies in the same template: take several generations of actors and put them together. Both movies even shared one actor in common: George Kennedy, who played the same character in all four movies. Of both casts, only two people were nominated for Oscars, both from the original Airport. The first was Maureen Stapleton, who played
the distraught wife of bomber Van Heflin. The second nominee (and eventual Oscar winner) was Helen Hayes, who played elderly stowaway Ada Quonsett. Burt Lancaster played the Airport’s GM, and Dean Martin played Chief Pilot (and Lancaster’s brother-in-law). The movie focuses on the events of a single evening, as Airport GM Bakersfeld deals with a blizzard threatening his airport, and Chief Pilot Demerest has to deal with distraught bomber D.O. Guerrero, who plans to blow up the plane over the ocean so his wife could collect the insurance money. In Airport ’77, millionaire Philip Stevens (Jimmy Stewart) arranges for a large number of friends, family and acquaintances to be flown down to his estate in Florida on a state of the art 747, with Chief Pilot Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) and Chief Mechanic Stan Buchek (Darren McGavin). Along with the passengers, the plane also contains a cargo full of valuable art treasures, which the co-pilot (Robert Foxworth), and his fellow thieves plan to hijack.
Looking at the Oscar nominations, it’s hard not to appreciate Helen Hayes winning the award for Best Supporting Actress. Ada Quonsett is a lively, vivacious, elderly, fast-thinking con lady. This is, in some ways, her movie, and she is fun to watch at times. But, on the other hand, there were also times where she comes across as unlikable, which is a problem I had with a lot of the characters in Airport. I found Dean Martin’s Captain Demerest to be particularly unlikable. He was arrogant to the point of absurdity, making you wonder how he managed to remain a Captain. Constantly belittling his brother-in-law, he was also cheating on his wife with stewardess Jacqueline Bisset. When Ada’s discovered on board, he promptly ropes her into a poorly-executed plan to get the bomb away from Guerrero, which results in the bomb going off. Flying the plane back without a lavatory, he still demands he be cleared to land on the only closed runway at the airport. Despite all his mishandling, we’re expected to cheer for him at the end because: a) he got the stewardess pregnant, and she gets injured during the explosion; and b) he decides to abandon his wife for the stewardess. Bakersfeld gets a similar personal crisis, only his involves a cheating wife and a loveless marriage. Perhaps the only person I really cared for in this movie was Maureen Stapleton’s Inez Guerrero. She loves her husband, and when she discovers what he’s planning, she becomes distraught and begins to fall to pieces as she sees the end result of his actions. In the end, though, most of the characterisation in Airport seems one-dimensional. This leads me to the heart of my problems with Airport: for a character-driven movie like this, the characters should, at the very least, be interesting to watch.
While Airport had a lack of interesting characters, Airport ’77 abounds with them, starting with Captain Gallagher. As a captain, he was everything Demerest was not: charming, smart, brave and resourceful. His confidence is quite evident from the start: if there’s ever a disaster anywhere, he’s the man you’d want to follow. Here’s a scene featuring Captain Gallagher going for help. Another very enjoyable performance (and likely the one I’d nominate to have won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) was Olivia de Havilland as Emily Livingston, friend of Philip Stevens and patron of the arts. The minute she steps onboard the plane, she lights up the screen. She plays her role with lots of fun, and we care about her. Her travelling companions are her friend Dorothy (wonderfully played by Maidie Norman) and, once onboard, an old friend of hers, Nicholas St Downs III (Joseph Cotten). We aren’t privy to all of their stories, but a good movie doesn’t have to tell us everything. Movies can be springboards to our imagination, and for me, the story of Emily Livingston does just that. The rest of the cast is similarly sprinkled with untold stories, and that makes these people engaging to watch. To me, this kind of engagement is crucial in a drama, especially a disaster film. If you don’t care about the characters, then what’s the point? This leads me to my next point: the realism of the films.
Movies have always had a certain license to depart from reality, and this is completely understandable: they are entertainment, after all. But when dealing with the real world in films, some sense of reality should be inherent in them. In Airport, we’re watching men and women deal with a blizzard and a wounded aircraft needing to land. This is a disaster that, if not handled properly, could result in hundreds of deaths. And yet, here’s who Airport offers us as potential heroes: an Airport GM who plays by his own rules; an airline pilot who plays by his own rules; and a chief mechanic who plays by his own rules. In the real world, this has all the earmarks of a rescue gone horribly wrong. By the end of Airport, though, everything goes smoothly, and the only life lost is that of the bomber. Everyone goes their merry ways, and we’re given a happy ending. But is it truly a happy ending? It certainly isn’t for Inez Guerrero, who is heartbroken at what her husband has done. And not only that, her husband’s carefully thought out plan for his wife to receive insurance money will likely never happen. He lied to her about where he was going, and she was able to find out his true destination. Certainly it stands to reason that an insurance company will be able to discover it too. When they do, she loses everything. This, to me, is the only dose of reality Airport has, but it gets overshadowed by the lives of one-dimensional characters we’re supposed to cheer for. Happy endings are all well and good, but if there’s no emotional connection to the events, it feels rather hollow. And one of the most basic of emotional connections is sadness for loss of life. This is something the producers of Airport ’77 understand.
Airport ’77 is a fantasy, but it is absolutely grounded in reality. From the moment the plane is hijacked, we are seeing events that could possibly happen. They may be in the realm of implausibility, but not improbability. Planes have been hijacked for political purposes; why not criminal? A fog could easily come up, hiding potential dangers from the pilot until it’s too late. The plane could crash down on water; safety instructions onboard show what to do. It could start sinking, trapping people below the surface with limited air. And any of these situations could lead to loss of life; together, they almost certainly would. In Airport ’77, death is almost certain, but it’s not gratuitous. Is it perfect? No. But it gives us a more real feel for the people caught up in the situation. But with the presence of death, there’s also the presence of hope. They know what they need to do to help themselves, and they are willing to risk it all to do it. The same can also be said of the rescuers, once they learn of the plane’s location. The producers make it clear at the end that the rescue techniques employed by the Coast Guard in Airport ’77 are very real, and then we’re treated to a happy ending that feels truly deserved. Though not all of them made it back, we’re happy for the ones who did. That, to me, is a truly satisfying ending, and makes the whole movie, if not best picture, certainly the better one.
Guest post by Greg McCambley (@GregMcCambley)
I am honored to feature Greg’s entry on this site, his submission to the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, an event I am proud to co-host from my classic movie blog, Once Upon a Screen, with social media notables, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. The event coincides with the month-long Oscars celebration on Turner Classic Movies.
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