' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Airport (1970)

Friday, May 08, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Airport (1970)

Released in 1970 at the dawn of so-called New Hollywood, “Airport” was generally viewed as something of a dinosaur, a holdover from the stuffiness of studio overlords, a Cecil B. DeMille film if it used the text of Arthur Hailey rather than Scripture. It got nominated for a bunch of Oscars, sure, and even won one, but that, it’s easy to suspect, was on account of the Academy’s good ol’ boys rather than any kind of true merit. It was, after all, a “ridiculous” movie, as the esteemed Roger Ebert noted in his review, a review of disagreeableness. And yet he writes: “on some dumb fundamental level, ‘Airport’ kept me interested for a couple of hours.” The film hit theaters in March but that’s merely because this was before “Jaws” changed the landscape of summer movie release schedules. Today, “Airport” would have dropped in mid-May, right between superhero epics. It would be called “cornball” and “cliched”. These labels would not be incorrect. Still, on some dumb fundamental level, it keeps you interested, and isn’t “dumb” and “fundamental” the level where we want most of our summer blockbusters to play?


What draws you in is not the mega-deluxe spectacle but the situation, and the people subsequently involved in it. Granted, none of these people are particularly interesting in any insightful ways, but in these sort of movies, melodrama, not insight, is the prime requirement. And melodrama is achieved with a score that bounces scene to scene, second to second, from obviously ominous to ridiculously romantic. Plus, since it’s 1970, important conversations take place in wood paneled rooms rather than bland white offices and everyone can smoke, in the airport and in the airplanes, and important conversations always look better in front of wood panels with cigarettes.

Set primarily at a fictional Chicagoland airport on an incessantly snowy night, the film, directed by George Seaton, encompasses a swath of stories so wide it constantly resorts to split screens (and occasionally, split screens within split screens) to account for all its characters and their places and plights. For most of the film, our surrogate is Mel Bakersfield, airport manager, played, crucially, by a member of Tinseltown’s old guard, Burt Lancaster, with a tousled head of hair harmonizing with his burned-out face. His marriage is requisitely on the rocks and about to come to head, of course, on the exact same dadgum night as “the worst storm in six years.” Wouldn’t ya know it?! That storm has caused a jetliner to become stranded on the airport's most vital runway, clogging the arteries of the flight schedules, and he has to find a way to un-bury it from the snow all while dueling with the airport’s board of directors who want to shut the whole place down because of complaints lodged by neighbors. Thank God he has Tanya Livingston, the Trans Global Airlines Passenger Agent (Jean Seberg) with whom he’s having an affair! Without her arms to nefariously fall into, whatever would he do?!

“Airport”, it must be said, is not merely regressive in its filmmaking and storytelling techniques but in its sexual attitudes. It seems not only apologetic toward but encouraging of affairs in the workplace. It’s not just Mel, it’s Captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who might be married but is having an affair with a stewardess, Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), who is, as she must be, pregnant with his child. Their last scene in the film, in fact, finds Demerest literally turning his back on his wife and to stay by Gwen’s side, and this is intended as loving and heroic. Yikes. Hell, the only man who truly seems faithful to his spouse is Guerrero (Van Heflin), and he’s the villain, boarding a plane captained by Demerest bound for Rome with a bomb in his briefcase, ready to blow it sky high to collect insurance for the wife he’s failed. “It’ll be like it used to be,” he tells Inez (Maureen Stapleton) which can only mean that it will never be like it used to be.


Guerrero’s smuggling of the bomb onboard, harkening back to those wistful days when you didn’t have to take off your shoes at security and when you could saunter onto a 707 with explosives, is meant to lend the crucial layer of gravitas, to make this all count for something. Really, though, a kind of gravitas is added by Guerrero’s seatmate, Ada Quonsett, a chronic stowaway, played by Helen Hayes in a performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She won that Oscar over Karen Black for “Five Easy Pieces” which…uh…well…yeah…maybe not so much. Though that’s no knock on Ms. Hayes, clearly best in show, playing the part like a devotee of airport rack novels who has decided to insinuate herself as a character in one. In a way, she emerges as the film’s true hero, standing up, sort of, not only to the bomber but to the dastardly airlines, charging so much and putting people through so many hoops and getting even rather than getting mad.

Her tangential wrap-up certainly is more satisfying than the film’s. “Airport” works best as set-up and it sets things up for, like, 115 minutes. It’s pretty impressive. But once the bomb goes off and a hole gets blown in the plane and Dean Martin, acting so laconic that the whole performance comes across like a sly rejection of “stakes”, is forced to blindly land the plane, well, the film just sort of sinks into the marshes if only because I viewed “Airport” through the prism of time and, frankly, “Airplane!” did this ending better.

1 comment:

joel65913 said...

I chuckled through your review but I have to admit I love Airport in all its big clunky absurdity and enormous star power. But then I'm a huge disaster movie fan with this, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure my favorite films in this genre. That still of Burt and Dana Wynter is from one of my favorite scenes, where they both come to the realization that they've come to the end of the road marriage wise and they both play it well. Helen Hayes is enchanting in her vaudeville turn as Ada Quonsett but to me the best performance comes from Maureen Stapleton as Inez. Her shell shocked reaction at the ticket counter when she realizes her husband is on that plane is a study in restraint. And how chic and beautiful is Jacqueline Bisset in this movie.