Friday, August 28, 2009

Now Arriving at Gate 7: Airport

Arthur Hailey wrote the sprawling and detailed best-selling novel Airport in 1968 and the film version, released in 1970, became a runaway hit. It cost $10 million to make and earned $100 million at the box office!

I came to this one backwards, having been only 3 when it was in theaters. My ex-stepmother counted this as her favorite movie and got me interested in checking in out. Seeing as it features virtually all of my cinematic obsessions (those being all star casts, disaster, glamour, bitchy repartee among others), I was instantly hooked myself.

Several plot points begin separately. A desperate man considers killing himself and others aboard a plane in order to collect the insurance money. An elderly stowaway is caught and reprimanded. A stewardess has to break it to her married lover that she is pregnant. The airport manager is under immense pressure over a troublesome runway as his harpy of a wife is close to leaving him. Finally, the area is hit with a powerful snowstorm that has helped block a key landing strip. All of these story threads converge at once into a suspenseful and entertaining climax.

The poster for Airport features boxes of all the main stars and set a trend that other films would copy, though later movies tended to align them at the bottom rather than surround the entire sign. Alfred Newman, an amazing and prolific film composer whose sons David and Thomas have followed the same career path, created the dazzling score just before dying. Edith Head whipped up the clean and chic costumes including the smart airline uniforms. She would later be asked to create actual stewardess uniforms for a major airline following this.

Though Burt Lancaster held contempt for the film and his role in it, he does a fine job as does Dean Martin, a casting surprise in his role as a pilot (since Dino was known for having a drink in his hand on most occasions, even if it was later revealed to be apple juice more often than not!) However, in my world, the film belongs to the ladies.

Notably tragic Jean Seberg (who disliked her costume and wig, though I live for them) is terrific as a savvy airline exec who attempts to one up the stowaway, but can never quite win. Jacqueline Bisset plays the chief stewardess and looks incredible. Her blue eyes jump off the screen. She has a delicious smackdown with the stowaway herself that is one of the highlights of the film (and of my life!) And who is playing this crafty little stowaway? Why Helen Hayes, of course, who took home an Oscar for her trouble! Ms. Hayes is shameless in her meticulously developed, scene-stealing performance in which every cell of her body is geared towards making sure every facet of her impish character comes across. It's an underrated piece of acting in that her detractors never seem to get just how marvelously she handles every nuance and bit of dialogue.

Also providing some stunning support is Maureen Stapleton as the doomed man's wife. Her heart-on-the-sleeve performance is almost uncomfortable at times, so desolate and sympathetic is she. On the flip side, there is selfish, brittle, demanding (and thus irresistible) Dana Wynter as Lancaster's social-climbing wife. Her first name, by the way, is pronounced "Donna" in case anyone gives a hoot. Her name is a variation of Lana, as in Lana Turner.

Some folks will find this film slow-going, especially at first, but if one is invested in the storylines, the way they are drawn together will be sure to enthrall towards the end. This type of stylish, formal air travel is gone forever. It's neat to take a step back and see the way things (sort of) were. (This is a Ross Hunter production, after all, so the gloss is ladled on far more heavily than real life could have accommodated.)

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