Monday, January 30, 2012

“Hold On, We’re Goin’ for Broke!”

I watched the 1970 classic Airport for the first time this weekend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the granddaddy of all disaster movies, but think I got my money’s worth. The movie is over 40 years old, so reader beware... spoiler-iffic details to follow.

Taking place over a single night, Burt Lancaster’s Mel Bakersfeld is the manager of Lincoln International Airport outside of Chicago, trying to keep the airport open and functioning during a paralyzing snowstorm. He’s also in a loveless marriage and clearly taken with Trans Global Airlines’ PR agent, Jean Seberg’s Tanya Livingston.

Bakersfeld’s brother-in-law is Dean Martin’s TGA pilot Vern Demerest. Demerest is cheating on his wife (Bakersfeld’s sister) with head stewardess Gwen, played by a luminous Jacqueline Bisset. We find out Gwen is pregnant with Demerest’s child, and there is talk of how to deal with the situation, including adoption versus abortion – a pretty dicey topic in the pre-Roe v. Wade years.

So not only are the two main characters cheating on their wives – one in his heart and one literally – both end up with their mistresses in the final moments of the film’s happy ending.
The portrayal of Bakersfeld's wife justifies his ending up with Tanya, but you can’t help but feel bad for his sister. Demerest is cheating on her and leaves her for his pregnant girlfriend. That's just cold.

My ten-year-old son watched the movie with me. The abortion talk was subtle enough that it went over his head, but he was astounded that the two men ended up with different women at the end of the movie. Mel’s wife complains throughout that he’s married to his job and doesn’t make time for her (but it was pretty ridiculous for her to bitch about it on this particular night when there was an obvious environmental calamity and a terrorist threat on one of the flights that, as airport manager, he has to deal with). At the end of the movie, however, when Mel declines to deal with a new problem that’s come up at the airport and literally drives off into the sunrise with Tanya, the kiddo turned to me and said, “Why didn’t he do that with his wife? They’d probably still be together!”

There are a couple of passengers on the flight with Demerest and Gwen, originating at Lincoln International and heading to Rome, Italy, that play key roles in the film. Helen Hayes won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of elderly stowaway Ada Quonsett, and Van Heflin played bomber D.O. Guerrero. There was some nice comic relief with Hayes’ character, and a melodramatic-but-story-propelling turn by Heflin.

The all-star cast was awesome, and extended to the ever-reliable George Kennedy (the only actor to reprise his role through all four of the Airport
movies), Maureen Stapleton as Guerrero’s wife (whose performance is actually more deserving of the Supporting Actress Oscar nod than Hayes’ turn), Barbara Hale as Mel’s sister and Vern’s wife, a young Gary Collins as the second officer on the disaster plagued flight, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them uncredited appearances by Marion Ross and Christopher Lloyd.

Not only does the flick overflow with recognizable actors, it has an overabundance of story crammed in there! Along with the snowstorm, bomb threat, and romantic plot points, there are subplots involving picketers, airport noise pollution (while it may have provided some social commentary on the times, it falls flat), and a plane stuck in the snow on the airfield's longest runway.

Crazy to think that Airport started the disaster film craze of the ’70s. It was two hours and 16 minutes of slow burn story evolution that can easily veer into camp, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it... so much so that I've already moved on to the first sequel!

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