Friday, October 9, 2009

God, Grant Me the Lee to Survive.

Following the success of Airport 1975 (regardless of that film’s quality), Universal dove into the genre again with this follow-up. Speculation regarding The Bermuda Triangle was rampant in the mid-70s as several books were published on the subject and original ads and commercials for this film rode that wave to a point. In fact, the plot concerned a luxury airliner, filled with priceless art and social pillars, which was hijacked for its loot, but accidentally wrecked into the Atlantic Ocean. As you’ll see in the poster, it was yet another “box movie!”

The film was a success at the box office, though many scientific types decried the plot point that a jet could remain intact after crashing into the water and sinking below it. Rescue attempts used in the film were the same as those used for disabled submarines, so this lent a film a sort of Das Boot in high heels and hairspray quality (which, of course, I love!)

In a very surprising casting choice (as if Dean Martin in the first film wasn’t unusual enough), the pilot of the craft here is Jack Lemmon! Sporting a moustache, no less. He’s actually quite effective though he winds up as a bystander for about the third fourth of the film. Other notables in the cast include Brenda Vaccaro as his coworker and lover, Christopher Lee as a philanthropic food developer, Joseph Cotten and Olivia de Havilland as reunited lovers from the art world, Darren McGavin as a wise-cracking engineer and Jimmy Stewart as the wealthy owner of the plane whose daughter and grandson are on board. Pamela Bellwood plays his daughter and if you turn the volume up to 98, you can almost hear her dialogue. The ubiquitous George Kennedy is around, as always, to hold Stewart’s hand.

However, in Poseidon’s Underworld, the star of the film (and, in fact, she is second-billed despite only appearing in about twelve minutes of screen time in total!) is Lee Grant. As Lee’s bored, boozy, cursing, sarcastic wife, she has dialogue in the film so deliciously blunt and nasty that it has provided me with a lifetime of pleasure. She hasn’t even spoken yet when she shoots the blind piano player a sidelong glance of displeasure and wanders back to the cabin where her husband and his assistant Gil Gerard are planning a project.

Entering the cabin, she begins a scene of snotty condescension and baiting, which I have known by heart since the movie aired on television and which I still recite sometimes in the car on long trips by myself to pass the time. It seems she and Gerard have a bit of a past and she tries to blackmail him back into her bed. She also makes a not so veiled reference to her husband Lee’s anatomy. Then she flippantly heads back to the main lounge where she insults young Kathleen Quinlan for having the gall to listen to one of Lee’s pontifications about the world of deep-sea diving. Things don’t get any better after the crash as she continues to berate Lemmon and anyone else handy or otherwise gripe about the situation. She’s fascinatingly shrewy and bitter.

Grant was very frequently clothed by Burton Miller and is again here (despite the fact that Edith Head was in charge of this film.) Her get-up perfectly accents the bitch-goddess qualities she was going for here along with several obnoxious rings on her hands. Her hair is another mesmerizing accomplishment. A bouffant wig of light auburn that wondrously draws attention to her snarling and/or tormented features, it was a look that was almost completely her own until – for unknown reasons – Bridget Fonda used it in Point of No Return (see photo, which could easily be mistaken for Grant!)

Grant suffers a setback about halfway through the film that sends her into apoplectic spasms of agony and distress as the hapless passengers try to calm her with more booze. Eventually, she regains her composure long enough to attempt to leave (!) the plane while it is underwater, forcing Vaccaro to wrestle with her and eventually punch her out! It just doesn’t get any better than this.

After this, her contributions are next to nil, which is a shame because everything the woman does in the film is cinematic magic. If you think I didn’t splice together every one of her scenes into my own personal twelve-minute version of the film around 1991 and watch it constantly for its soaring entertainment value, you are mistaken. Every glance she makes, every twitch she gives and every consonant of dialogue that she utters amount to pure movie gold!

Believe it or not, the basic structure of the story in Airport ’77 is lifted from the wonderful adventure classic Flight of the Phoenix (which also starred Stewart, in a far more pivotal role, of course.) Initially, there was talk of Alfred Hitchcock directing this (!), but it didn’t come to pass. Also, Miss Joan Crawford was offered the role opposite Joseph Cotten. In a “this can only happen in Hollywood” type of scenario, the role was filled with Olivia De Havilland, who was Joan’s replacement in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, ALSO opposite Joseph Cotten! Liv’s dress was up for sale on eBay about 5 years or so ago. I really missed an opportunity to own a piece of disaster movie history, but it wasn’t cheap! Even now, she must lie awake at night asking herself how she could appear with wet permed hair (followed by frizzy, dry permed hair) in this film’s finale.

When the film was aired on TV, well over an hour of deleted footage (along with a tad of newly shot moments) was added in. These scenes consisted mostly of flashbacks from most of the key characters, prolonging the time that the passengers were underwater as each one paused to reflect on their life before the flight. Lee and Grant are shown in a flashback, but there is practically nothing of Grant’s time onboard the plane added in save a moment in which she slides a highball glass down the bar. God, how I prayed that some additional sequences of her lashing out at people would surface, but, no, it was all just a lot of filler concerning other characters.

This Airport sequel is different than the rest. The look of it is far more glamorous than any of the other sequels (though watching Monica Lewis put on that laser disc greeting from Stewart is a crackup and the décor is all late 70s brown.) The tone of it is far more serious than the other sequels as well and the body count in this one is more than all four Airport films combined. Though the original film is the best one, this is my favorite one.


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