Friday, 25 February 2011

Flashback: Airport

Thanks to Walter for tacitly encouraging me to revisit Airport with his Casting Coup dedicated to recasting the 1970 blockbuster (Tilda, Rosamund and Melissa Leo casted to perfection – that’s a remake I’d be on board with). I’ve heard more than a few people call out the ridiculousness of an Academy where something as trifling as Airport earned 12 nominations, but you have to admit that it’s not exactly devoid of technical innovation and it’s important to examine these multiple nominees in context of the offerings of films that year. It’s often so deprecatingly referred to as the “disaster” movie and the spoof Airplane! doesn’t exactly help it’s cause, but it’s a bit unfair to think of Airport against those publically conscious films of its era like Taxi Drive or All the President’s Men. You can’t conceivably expect every film to have a grand message to offer, and it’s even disingenuous to think lesser of a film that doesn’t.
It would probably go without saying that Airport doesn’t examine all the facets of the novel – but I do think that it’s one of the smartest adaptations of the genre. Hailey’s original novel is permeated with such an air of confusion – it’s one of those “big” novels where every character that appears on the page has something important to say. Cinematic entities don’t have that luxury and though George Seaton doesn’t thrive on the movement between characters like Altman or even Soderbergh, he deserves credit. Airport has a number of good – occasionally great – performances, but it’s a director’s movie. One of those films, like Avatar (if you will) that sort of encapsulate the fact that cinema’s a visual medium. I’m especially glad that got notices for its editing and sound, the latter of which is the more obvious nomination but the former being just as good. It doesn’t strike that veritable chord of “prestige” flick – it’s probably more of a Bourne Identity than a United 93 if we’re using Greengrass as a model.

And, yet, in the space of that Airport has those performances on its side. More than just good performances, it’s the good female performances that always jump out at me. I’ll come out and say that I think Jean Seberg (offensive wig, aside) is great as Tanya. Truth is, I’d swap her for one of the actual supporting actress nominees from the film, but more on that soon. She and Lancaster have the perfect rapport to ground the film against all the madness going on. I always feel badly that she never managed to turn into a bigger actress – she gives me a Marlene Dietrich vibe, and that’s never a bad thing. I’d not have given Helen Hayes that Oscar, and I won’t have nominated her either. I won’t deny that she’s fine in her role and absolutely hilarious but in the face of the vastly superior Stapleton (who at the time had yet to win her Oscar) it’s a shame she took home the Oscar. Jacqueline Bisset is another rarely remembered performance who’s quite good. The role has more significance in the novel, and Bisset plays it with a profundity that’s unexpected.

Like any good disaster movie you know that whatever the catastrophe, the most significant characters need not fear much – and it’s not an indication of Airport’s faults. Fun would be the wrong word to call it, but it sure is an entertaining one. I’m neither here nor there on it gargantuan Oscar success (nomination wise, at least) but that doesn’t really matter. It would be a bit insular, even for me, to think of it only in relation to its worth in the Oscar catalogue. Airport’s a good one.
Have you seen Seaton’s flick? Stapleton or Hayes for the win? Any fans of Seberg?


TomS said...

Sure I've seen this! It figured heavily in my recent re-visit of Oscar 40 years ago. Check it out... Airport was great fun, and filled with cast and crew from Hollywood's Golden Age. It had no real chance to win Best Picture in spite of its 10 nominations. I think Stapleton gives the film's best performance.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

One thing that surprises me is how large the character of the customs agent is in the film. I remember him serving a purpose and then disappearing in the novel, but Seaton makes him quite chummy with Burt Lancaster. I love the way Seaton builds up to the passenger who ruins everything, introducing him with a complaint on the airport bus, then whining that the nuts are stale. Really, there is an attention to character and detail that shouldn't be overlooked, and I'm glad to see that there are other fans.

Dan said...

I was fascinated by the Airport films as a kid. I'm not sure why, but my Mum was a fan. I remember one of the sequels - the one where the little plane hits the 747 causing a big hole to appear in the cockpit being my favourite. The first one was the best though. I suspose the Academy hasn't stopped its love of the disaster flick - Titanic won a lot of recognition after all.