DISASTER MOVIE II: AIRPORT

Airport (1970) brought Arthur Hailey’s bestseller of 1966 to the big screen. Hailey’s 700-page saga followed a pattern set by his earlier novel, Hotel, in which the behind-the-scenes, inner-workings of a complex entity—like a hotel, airport or Detroit Auto maker—are laid forth through a series of disparate stories whose characters interact with said entity either as employees, owners, patrons, or malefactors. The genre is, needless to say, heavily dependent on exposition.

The cinematic equivalent of multiple-narrative structure was inaugurated with the movie Grand Hotel (1932), which simultaneously inaugurated another Hollywood genre, the all-star cast movie. Hailey wrote his novels with all-star cast treatments in mind. Buoyed by the success of Hotel, the studio lavishly invested in Airport, ultimately hiring a balance of major stars (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Jean Seberg), a colorful character actors (George Kennedy), classically-trained theatre actors for critical smaller parts (Maueen Stapleton), younger, up-and-coming stars (Jacqueline Bisset) and a veteran figure from Old Hollywood, who wins an Oscar for playing against character Helen Hayes).

What Hailey and director George Seaton didn’t know was that Airport would inaugurate the signature blockbuster of the early 1970s, the disaster movie. Despite the very well-paid all-star cast’s efforts, the real star of the movie is the Boeing 707 and the spectacle the catastrophic failure of modern technology is the plot line audiences couldn’t get enough of.

In 1970 it was still common to meet people who had never flown in an airplane and air travel in general still had a aura of sophistication and luxury. Airport offered a prolonged view of the the experience of the terminal, check-in and in-flight amenities (which were infinitely more civilized than the flying bus experience of today) as well as the allure of a European destination (Rome).

It also offered a view of the cabin of a jet flying at 550 mph at cruising altitude of 30,000 over the Atlantic ocean depressurizing in seconds, oxygen masks falling into passengers faces and everything not nailed down being sucked out of a gaping hole in the fuselage by hurricane-force air vacuum—a sequence that still has the power to unnerve even the most jaded of frequent flyers. The fact the disaster is caused by a suicide bomber is, unfortunately, more believable today than it was in 1970.

The latter part of the movie is rough going. After the plane stabilizes, the suspense hangs on whether or not cigar-chomping George Kennedy can rescue another 707 blocking the runway. The fate of an empty aircraft is less compelling than the disaster already survived, and when the stuck plane is saved by Kennedy we are expected to rejoice that an airline was spared the expense of a new jet.

Postscript:

Airport not only gave rise to the disaster movie, it spawned a series of sequels, each a disaster in its own way. The actual Boeing 707 leased by the studio for the exterior shots of the plane crashed on a runway in Brazil in 1989.

POPE JOHN PAUL I

Three popes occupied the throne of St Peter in the year 1978. After a 15-year papacy, Pope Paul VI died on 6 August 1978. Following a quick conclave, the College of Cardinals elected Albino Luciani, who became pope on 28 August 1978, taking the name John Paul I. Three weeks into his papacy, the new pope was found dead in his bed in the Apostolic Palace on 28 September 1978. After his funeral, a second conclave was held 14-16 October 1978, resulting in the election of Karol Józef Wojtyła, the first non-Italian pope in centuries, who chose the name John Paul II in deference to his predecessor. John Paul II was canonized on 27 April 2014.

STUDIO 54: DIVINE DECADANCE

From 1943 to 1976, the former opera house at 254 W 54Th Street was owned by CBS and used as a production studio for To Tell the Truth, Beat the Clock and Captain Kangaroo. When the network moved to the Ed Sullivan Theatre, they sold the W 54th St building in 1976 to Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who had the financial backing of Jack Dushey. In early 1977, Schrager and Rubell converted the the building into a nightclub/disco named for after the location’s previous use and street address. For the opening of Studio 54, a 4” layer of glitter was laid across the floors, which Schrager said was “like standing on stardust.” Weekend DJ Richie Kaczor, usually dressed in jeans and t-shirt, manned the turntables; he turned Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 b-side “I Will Survive” into a #1 single by championing the song at Studio 54. The minimally-clad bartenders and busboys ensured many open bar tabs.

The clientele was a blend of A-list celebrities and beautiful, exhibitionist unknowns. The exclusivity of Studio 54 allowed celebrities to let loose without worries about paparazzi, prying fans or law enforcement. The club quickly became a second home for the likes of Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Halston, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, Calvin Klein, Elton John, Tina Turner, Divine, Margaret Trudeau, Sylvia Miles, Francesco Scavullo, Truman Capote, Margaux Hemingway, Janice Dickinson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diana Ross, Cher, Salvador Dali, Diana Vreeland, John Travolta, Jacqueline Onassis, Brooke Shields and Martha Graham.

In December 1978, the coke-addled Rubell was quoted in the New York newspapers saying Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year and that “only the Mafia made more money.” Shortly thereafter the nightclub was raided and Rubell and Schrager were arrested and subsequently charged with tax evasion; it was later revealed that they had failed to report over $2.5 million in revenue. They were the first people to be convicted of tax evasion for a single year.

On 4 February 1980, with a guest list that included  Ryan O’Neal, Mariel Hemingway, Jocelyn Wildenstein, Richard Gere, Gia Carangi, Jack Nicholson, Reggie Jackson, and Sylvester Stallone celebrated their last night before entering prison where they each served 13-month sentences. Upon release, Schrager and Rubell sold the building, leased it back from the new owners and on 12 September 1981, re-opened the club with Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Cary Grant, Lauren Hutton, Gloria Vanderbilt and Brooke Shields in attendance. Although the club was popular in the early 1980s, the backlash against disco and the new conservatism took its toll and the velvet rope policy had to be considerably relaxed to keep the club full, which drove the glamorous and the famous to other venues like Danceteria, Area, The Church and Nell’s.

WRAP YOUR ASS IN FIBERGLASS: CORVETTE STINGRAY 

Images from Chevrolet promotional brochures for the Corvette Stingray, 1970-79.

When it first debuted in 1953, the Corvette was meant to compete with small European sports cars like Porsche and Alfa Romeo, both on and off the race track. With the 1963 body redesign, the car achieved parity with Aston-Martin, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz in terms of looks.

By 1968, the American domestic market, awash in cheap gasoline and unfettered by environmental regulations, had come to interpret high-performance less as precision engineering and more as raw power, giving rise to muscle cars like the Dodge Charger, Pontiac GTO and Chevy’s own highly-successful Camaro. The V-8 Stingray was built to occupy the high-end of that niche. The design elements taken from European sports and race cars, like the buttressed rear window, aerodynamically-sculpted hood and fenders, spoiler fin, windscoop and mag wheels were pumped up and the famous fiberglass shell tricked out in eye-popping orange and yellow or dark metallic flake paint, giving the car an irresistible low-slung, slightly vulgar, hormonal appeal. There was no chance of mistaking it for a Ferrari.

Unfortunately, that was also the case with performance. While they looked great, the Corvettes of the later 1970s, like the other muscle cars, were hobbled by emissions regulations and the need for greater fuel efficiency. The 1975 Stingray had only 165 horsepower, the same as the original 1953 model, and a dramatic falling off from the benchmark 430 hp delivered by the 1967 big-block engine. Power steering, automatic transmissions and cruise control reflected the fact that few owners of the expensive Corvette drove the car any differently than they would a Monte Carlo.

Over the 14 years it was in production, the Stingray, or C3, Corvette saw few changes in its overall appearance. The rear fin and window buttresses were dropped in favor of a fastback that became a hatchback in 1978. The convertible option and the “Stingray” name were dropped after the 1976 model. 

For the 25th Anniversary, when comparisons to previous models were inevitable, an effort was made to repair the Corvette’s performance and racing image, and a silver 1978 became the first Corvette pace car at the Indy 500. 

Despite the diminished performance, the Stingray generation of ‘vettes had the highest production runs the car has seen to date, with 1.5 million units manufactured between 1968 and 1982. The 1979 benchmark of 53,000 units sold has not come close to being surpassed. While the C5s have restored the the car’s performance credentials at Le Mans, the Stingray remains the iconic Corvette.