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Monday, June 29, 2015

Steven Spielberg's Jaws

Remember, it's only a movie.

A poster designed to terrorize.
Anyone accustomed to reading my discourses on the filmmaker's art, knows that my favorite movie of all time is David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. Today, I'm going to put forth one of my least favorite movies of all time, Steven Spielberg's Jaws. It's not that I have anything against Spielberg. I've long been an admirer of his work. In fact I'd credit him as being the greatest movie director alive today. What I dislike intensely is what's come to be called the "thriller" movie genre. It's a personal thing--I hate being scared out of my wits. Despite all that, Jaws and GWTW have a lot in common. To begin, both were made from best-selling, blockbuster novels. Jaws was based upon a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. Both movies were considered by most of Hollywood in their time as "unfilmable." Both films departed drastically from their literary parents, both went WAY over budget, and both took far longer to film than intended. Both films made box office stars of their casts (except for Gable, who was already a star at the time). Both films set box office records (adjusted for inflation and since eclipsed by newer fare). And finally, both films had a profound effect on the art of moviemaking, changing the way we make, watch, and think about movies today.

A bigger boat, indeed...Robert Shaw, as Quint, is eaten alive.
Benchley wrote three versions of the
screenplay. None were used.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat." It's a classic bit of dialog instantly identifying the movie from which it came. It was also an ad-lib, not in the original script. That puts it right up there with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," (which was a rewrite by Selznick of Margaret Mitchell's "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn."). Jaws actor, Robert Shaw (above) as Quint, would tend to agree regarding the boat. Quite apart from memorable dialogue, the making of both Jaws and GWTW had yet one more thing in common. The script was written and rewritten again and again as the filming of each progressed. As Richard Dreyfus (Matt Hooper) recalled, "We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark."

"Bruce," the star of the film, this version designed for shots in
which the shark moved before the camera from right to left.
A young and inexperienced
Steven Spielberg, 1975.
Notice the "clapper."
The casting of Jaws took far less time than did GWTW, but it was difficult for largely the same reason. Spielberg did not want a big star headlining the ensemble he was putting together. Many possible leading roles were turned down by actors who were "afraid to go into the water." In any case, the star of the picture would be the mechanical shark (they called it "Bruce" after Spielberg's lawyer). The problem was, that Bruce was a rather inept actor. Actually there were three different Bruces. The main one was a "sea-sled shark", a full-body prop with its belly missing, towed with a 300-foot line. The other two were "platform sharks", one that moved from left to right (with its hidden left side exposing an array of pneumatic hoses), and its opposite with the right flank uncovered. Built in California and trucked to Martha's Vineyard, where most of the film was shot, they seldom worked as intended. Often they didn't work at all. Tested in a Universal City swimming pool, they were no match for the Atlantic Ocean. The film's shooting schedule was originally 55 days. The temperamental Bruce, combined with adverse weather and salt water, stretched that to 159 days. The $4-million budget ballooned to $9-million. Spielberg was sure he'd never work in films again.

Robert Shaw (Quint), Roy Scheider (Brody), and Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper)
Amity Police Chief, Roy Scheider
As with any good ensemble cast, when one member has difficulties, the others rise to the task of filling in, making the troubled member look good. The three male leads, Roy Scheider (Police Chief, Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (boat owner, Quint), and Richard Dreyfuss (marine biologist, Matt Hooper) turned in what some consider the best performances of their careers. Lorraine Gary, as Ellen Brody (Matt's wife and Murray Hamilton as Amity Mayor, Larry Vaughn, rounded out the supporting roles. However it was Spielberg himself who rose to the occasion most effectively, by minimizing visual appearances by his cantankerous (some would say fake-looking) shark in favor of Hitchcock-like suspense (what you can't see is more frightening than that which is obvious). Only near the end does the full impact of the Great White's power and deadly presence take center stage.

Quint's boat, the Orca, set against the backdrop of the Martha's
Vineyard fishing village of Menemsha.
In large part, Martha's Vineyard, standing in for the fictitious beach town of Amity Island, as well as the local residence of Martha's vineyard occupied the minor roles. When the script called for the tourists to panic, they did so with superb hysterics. There was even a part for the book's author, Peter Benchley, playing a TV news reporter (bottom). When the move went on to gross some $470-million, they were justly proud of their roles. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture. It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Spielberg was angered by the fact that he was not nominated for Best Director. However, Jaws did win three Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Dramatic Score for composer John Williams. Moreover, it was at the Oscar presentations that Jaws most noticeably parts company with GWTW. Selznick's efforts were nominated for thirteen Academy Awards. The movie won eight.

The police chief confronts the mayor--close the beach.

Jaws author, Peter Benchley in the movie role
of a TV news reporter.
Now this is more my kind of
"terror movie."

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