MOVIES WITH ENDURING INFLUENCE: JAWS & SHAMPOO





This article is authored by WILLIAM BRADLEY at THE HUFFINGTON POST

Just over 35 years ago, 4th of July weekend moviegoers across America thrilled to the tale of how a huge shark cleared 4th of July weekend beaches faster than a huge oil spill.

What they didn’t know is that a motion picture that would fill a generation with an unrealistic fear of sharks was also changing the culture of movies, less than a decade after they had shifted in a dramatic new direction.

Another film which had its 35th anniversary earlier this year – SHAMPOO – captured much of what was best about the so called New Hollywood movement.

Provocative, funny, candid, incisive and satirical, WARREN BEATTY’S SHAMPOO, released in February, was a big hit too – the fourth biggest of 1975. But nowhere near the scale of JAWS.

JAWS, directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG, marked a pronounced change in the culture of movies, from New Hollywood to high concept blockbuster.

Considering that the New Hollywood era had dawned just eight years earlier with WARREN BEATTY’S BONNIE & CLYDE and that the blockbuster era is still very much with us, it was in hindsight a sudden and dramatic shift.

To consider what caused it, it’s important to take a closer look at both JAWS and SHAMPOO.

Both movies open with challenging erotic scenes. Like SHAMPOO, which featured two sexy blondes in its advertising along with Mr. Beatty, JAWS also has an alluring blonde woman in its central iconic image. But for an entirely different purpose.

When she steals away for a midnight tryst, opting for a swim before sex, she never gets a chance to swim back.

It’s a horrific sequence, heralded by our first hearing of JOHN WILLIAMS’ instantly recognizable two note theme (in the first of his scores that shot him to the top of the film music heap). I don’t know if the notion that people who steal off to have illicit sex are doomed was a trope in horror movies before this, but JAWS certainly cemented that horror movie premise.

Whereas in SHAMPOO, people who are bracingly sexual have…fun. Though it certainly doesn’t always end well.

Before I watched JAWS again, it had been years since I’d seen the movie. I’d run across it repeatedly on cable, catching snippets of it, usually the action sequences late in the movie.

I’d completely forgotten that the first half of the film plays like a blend of naturalism, Americana and Hitchcock. It’s actually somewhat New Hollywood itself, with a hip young protagonist, overlapping dialogue, some shocking gore, short sighted greed…and extended conversations.

Yes, extended conversation.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more conversation in STEVEN SPIELBERG’S 1975 shark flick. By present day action blockbuster movie standards, it’s downright talky. But all the talk and nonaction interaction between the characters makes the stakes much higher.

By getting to know the characters, you come to care about them and their concerns.

Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody, the landlubber ex New York cop ironically living and working on an island – the fictional Amity Island is really Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts – is a family man, still learning how to fit in in the clannish, slightly superior island culture.

Robert Shaw’s irascible, eccentric Quint, the shark hunter and ultimately the designated Captain Ahab of the piece, is more a seeming notion than a character. Until he reveals his history and motivation in a long (and quite famous) monologue that might well be cut today.

RICHARD DREYFUSS’ MATT HOOPER is the first of his two classic young smartass characters in back to back Spielberg blockbusters, the other being Roy Neary in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

Even though this particular character is something of a spoiled rich kid, he wins the audience over with humour, smarts, hard work, bravery and a good heart.

It was a star making performance…and rightfully so. He is perfect in this movie.

For all JAWS’ fame as an action/adventure classic, STEVEN SPIELBERG was probably very fortunate that Bruce the mechanical shark, named for his lawyer, didn’t work well at all. As a result, he had to hide the shark much of the time, building suspense and creating a sense of horror more from what the shark sees as it moves in and what happens to its victims after it strikes, than in the awesomeness of the effect.

By the time we really see the shark (in more than glimpses), we’ve bought into the film and are invested in its action.

I remember, not long after the movie came out, driving through an intersection and seeing one of those huge grilles of the cars of that era turning towards me and flashing on the shark from JAWS.

It gave me chills.

Today we have been so bombarded by spectacular and shocking images as to be nearly inured to such things. But at the time it was unique. And the fact that it plays so well even today is testament to Mr. Spielberg’s skill. And perhaps the restraint he had to employ due to that malfunctioning mechanical shark.

Now that he’s enshrined as the mega director, it’s easy to forget just how young and relatively inexperienced he was when he shot JAWS in 1974. He was only 27 when he started work on that film. Prior to that, his work was almost entirely in television. From there he did the highly regarded television movie Duel about a driver terrorized by a huge truck and a few other TV movies before directing a cult feature film called THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.

Then came JAWS.

The star of THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was GOLDIE HAWN, a former dancer/comedian on ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH IN who’d all ready nabbed an OSCAR for the comedy CACTUS FLOWER.

GOLDIE was also one of the stars of SHAMPOO, a film very different from JAWS.

This seeming sex comedy of manners is also a seething sociopolitical satire. Set in November 1968, in the few days right before and right after the election of Richard Nixon, it’s a film about the end of the 60s.

SHAMPOO is a period piece, set not quite five years after the end of MAD MEN’S most recent season, with a similar attention to detail in design and style. (Comparing the two, the difference is rather mindblowing.)

WARREN BEATTY, in full control freak mode as producer with final cut and coscreenwriter with ROBERT TOWNE (who the year before had another great L.A. period piece picture in CHINATOWN), for which they won the Writers Guild award, stars as a wildly charismatic Beverly Hills hairdresser.

GOLDIE HAWN plays his ostensible girlfriend Jill, whose close confidante Jackie is portrayed by JULIE CHRISTIE, who’s become the mistress of Lester, the shady uber rich businessperson and Nixon fundraiser (who at one point we see in passing divvying up offshore oil leases in the year before the Santa Barbara oil spill) played by the always good, late and lamented JACK WARDEN.

Lester thinks it’s a nifty idea to have WARREN’S character George, whom he fatefully assumes to be gay, escort Jackie to his election night soiree at the Bistro, while he pretends to tend to his wife Felicia, sharply played by LEE GRANT, who won an OSCAR for the role.

What the very knowing Lester is unaware of is that his dissatisfied wife has been sleeping with her hairdresser. And that his mistress was George’s girlfriend. (Just as in real life, JULIE CHRISTIE, ACADEMY AWARD winner for DARLING and icon of the Swinging London of that period, was WARREN’S long time love.)

Bookended by THE BEACH BOYS’ paean to idealistic pleasure WOULDN’T IT BE NICE, not only Lester, but all the principals learn a lot about themselves over the course of the movie.

The characters register but mostly pay little heed to the chronic snippets of TV newscasts showing the native Californian Nixon’s impending election and the impending shift of America from liberal to conservative.

So intent are most of the characters on their pleasures that they don’t see that the liberal culture that gave rise to them is on the verge of shriveling and passing away. Only Lester, the Republican businessperson and fundraiser who’s acquired Jackie’s affections is fully plugged in to the coming shift change. He has his doubts about Nixon.

But in the end he’s going to make a lot of money.

Too late, George snaps out of his hedonistic haze to discover what and who he really wants, only to watch it slowly and inexorably disappear in the distance.

SHAMPOO, accented with well chosen, aptly placed rock and pop music – including THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, JIMI HENDRIX and a few helpings from THE BEATLES’ SGT. PEPPER – is a work of sharp social criticism as well as entertainment. Pretty much everyone in the movie is skewered, not the least of them WARREN’S own protagonist.

Ironically, SHAMPOO was also shot in 1974, as the Nixon era whose ascendancy it mirrored was on the verge of shattering in the crucible of Watergate. It was released in February 1975, barely two months before the fall of Saigon marked the definitive end to the Vietnam War.

Perhaps Vietnam helps explain why the New Hollywood era came to give way to the high concept blockbuster.

Generally speaking, blockbuster movies are upbeat. New Hollywood films are darker in nature.

The downbeat, the scathing, the candid, the antiheroic films of the New Hollywood reflected the pessimism of Vietnam. But once Vietnam was actually lost, many looked again for the up ending.

In BONNIE & CLYDE, WARREN BEATTY’S and FAYE DUNAWAY’S characters are betrayed and cut to ribbons in a slow motion ballet of death. In SHAMPOO, the protagonist is left bereft, still standing when the game of musical chairs comes to an end.

But in JAWS, the shark is killed and the heroes survive. So too with virtually all the subsequent blockbusters, from STEVEN SPIELBERG’S friend GEORGE LUCAS’ STAR WARS, which arrived two years later.

Big movies became much more comforting. In the 80s, movies could metaphorically refight the Vietnam War. This time we got to win.

Which is not to say that JAWS, which is a very fine motion picture – so good that it surprised me after having not seen it in its entirety for decades – stopped New Hollywood films from being produced.

Many challenging movies of great significance continued to be made. But they were not the fashion they had been in the New Hollywood heyday and were largely pulled to the side by the blockbuster phenomenon.

Did Spielberg and company know what they were about to do from a cultural standpoint? Perhaps not. From the documentary materials it seems they were happy to actually finish making the movie.

Is it a bad things that JAWS was made, launching the high concept blockbuster phenomenon that dominates today?

Of course not.

It’s an excellent film as well as a crowd pleaser. It was probably inevitable that America would turn to the upbeat after all the chaos, tumult and tragedy of the 60s and early 70s.

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