Friday, October 2, 2009

"Let's Get Ready to Rumble!"

At the height of the disaster movie craze in 1974, Universal Studios got in on the action with Earthquake, billed as “An Event…” The event in question was a fictional earthquake that nearly leveled the city of Los Angeles, all presented in the new gimmick called Sensurround. Sensurround involved booming speakers with vibrations that mirrored the action on screen, making it seem like audiences were really experiencing the tremors themselves. (The system was only used two more times, in Midway and Rollercoaster, before being retired.)

Far more electrifying than Sensurround, or than any other effect in the movie, is the performance of Miss Ava Gardner as Remy Graff! Gardner, who was in semi-retirement at the time, took the role merely because she felt like spending the season in L.A. However, if you think she phoned her performance in and grabbed the money, think again. She acts, ACTS, A-C-T-S in all of her too few scenes and every frame of her portrayal is jaw-droppingly mesmerizing.

She plays the melodramatic and suicidally-inclined wife of Charlton Heston who can’t seem to hold his attention unless she’s screaming “Godammit!” at him or otherwise grasping at him and trying to control his life. She affects a captivatingly bizarre accent, calling her father Lorne Greene (infamously only seven years her senior in real life) “Dodd” and “Fathah!” 52 years-old at the time of filming, the movie originally included a subplot about her having had an abortion the previous year and Heston’s outrage over it because she knew he wanted children! Um, do we think these roles were, perhaps, written with younger people in mind?! That scene was cut out completely and others were trimmed before release. Sadly, they have never turned up as extras on a DVD, nor were they inserted into the TV version (which was expanded with hideous, newly shot footage of Debralee Scott on a plane and Victoria Principal wandering around.) A lobby card does exist with Chuck, Ava and family doctor Lloyd Nolan in the midst of a discussion about the lost fetus.

Ava portrays here a popular type of the time that has since, unfortunately, fallen out of fashion. This would be the middle-aged, foul-mouthed, booze-loving shrew! I live for characters like this and learned all of my best cuss words from them. I’m talking about Stella Stevens in The Poseidon Adventure, Lee Grant in Airport ’77 and the delectably nasty Miss Gardner in this film. Some of her choice lines include, but are not in any way limited to: “Christ. If it wasn’t 7:30 in the morning, I’d have a drink!,” “BASTARD!!,” “You’re really going to see that Marshall BITCH aren’t you?” and “Laura, where’s my fathah? Laura! MY FATHAH?!”

Gardner stunned the director Mark Robson when she determined that she was not only going to personally film sequences that included heavy falling debris, but also take part in the dangerous, draining and uncomfortable flash flood sequences that mark the climax of the picture. She was quite the trooper here, throwing all vanity to the wind (though, perhaps, not quite as far as Miss Shelley Winters did when she shot the world an underwater glimpse of her drawers in The Poseidon Adventure!) Gardner barely has a word to say in the last third of the film, conveying most of her thoughts through facial expression. She also has one gloriously hysterical moment careening back and forth in a daze as an aftershock shoots through the underground (!) parking lot in which she’s taken shelter. These are the sort of film clips that need to be placed in a Hall of Fame. Take heed AFI, with your dreary lists!

Though this movie could hardly be described as “good,” it is mostly entertaining thanks to some interesting visual effects, some excellent, some not (the “not” including a truckload of plastic cows going over a bridge and an elevator crash that involves a blob of red paint coming over the screen!) This is a “box movie,” one of those 70s gems that features small headshots of the stars in a row of boxes at the bottom. George Kennedy (Heston’s buddy from Airport 1975, which was filming simultaneously with this) plays a cop who has a run-in with a car thief and winds up socking a fellow officer in the face in the front yard of a celebrity who would later go to jail herself for a similar offense – Zsa Zsa Gabor! (Miss Gabor is only mentioned, not shown.)

Lang, the producer of this film (which, by the way, was the fourth most successful film of its year despite an atrocious script – credited to Mario Puzo, but barely resembling what he wrote) had a wife name Monica Lewis. Lewis had been a singer and movie starlet in the 50s, but now, as the spouse of a high-ranking movie executive, was able to slither into roles in the films he was bankrolling. For about a dozen years, she did either bits or featured parts in movies of his (most preposterously in The Concorde: Airport ’79.) Here, she’s Greene’s loyal secretary who is on the receiving end of one of history’s greatest bits of dialogue as he barks, “Barbara, take off your pantyhose, damn it!” (He needs them to use as a makeshift safety belt on a makeshift chair lift in this makeshift movie!)

Another cast member of note is Victoria Principal as the big-busted sister of an entertainment promoter. In an effort to spread the word about her brother’s act (Richard Roundtree playing a motorcycle daredevil named Miles Quade), she wears a snug promotional t-shirt over her braless chest. For reasons that film historians are still delving into, she also has on a massive curly wig throughout the film that not even the earthquake can knock off. Perhaps that is what wig-wearing nutjob Marjoe Gortner sees in her as he plays a National Guardsman with a power trip kink.

Still one more prominent female cast member (you know, Poseidon is all about the ladies in films, unless there’s a hunk present, which, in this case, there really isn’t!) is Genevieve Bujold. An actress not expected to be found in a disaster movie, she did the film in order to avoid being sued for an uncompleted contract with Universal. She has a memorably suspenseful scene dangling from a collapsed bridge over a spillover drain as live electric wires dance menacingly. She has a son who, thankfully, avoids the usual trappings of being an obnoxious brat throughout because he’s mostly unconscious.

Disaster nut that I am, I attended the Earthquake attraction at Universal Studios in Florida and practically licked a framed 8 x 10 of Ava that was posted in the lobby area. They asked for volunteers to be part of the attraction and my hand was up before the announcement was even finished. I made my way to an escalator and feigned reaction to imaginary tremors while they projected falling debris around me on a monitor for others to see. Taking a page from Gardner’s book, I threw myself into it so much that I broke my sunglasses in half! However, for thirty seconds, I was the star of my own disaster flick!


Post a Comment