The Film and the Performance:
Airport ’77 was one of the final gasps of air from a genre that was rapidly fading away: The disaster genre. The film industry of the 1970s had an initial success with the disaster film franchise, starting with Airport (1970), which was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Airport started a successful formula of a film attaining an all-star cast and placing them in a hazardous situation where one or more of them could perish. This elicited a differing film experience for moviegoers, who flocked to see such films with the excitement of witnessing what destruction would occur and who would ultimately survive. Films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or The Towering Inferno (1974) were box-office hits and somewhat revolutionized film. Unfortunately, the formula never evolved and that caused the latter disaster films of the decade to be blatantly flawed and superficial in content. Such films put more focus on spectacle than drama, thus minimizing the film’s potential and taking its audience for granted. Airport ’77 is one of these latter disaster films.
One of the worst flaws of Airport ’77 is its lack of authenticity, which makes the content of the film enter the territory of farce. Ironically, the film’s cloyingly simple plot is what makes such authenticity issues become more obvious. Airport ’77´is the second sequel to the original Airport movie and is centered on James Stewart (in his last film role), who stars as Philip Stevens, a millionaire who is flying a handful of elite guests to his estate on his luxurious Boeing 747-100. Along with his guests, the plane is also loaded with priceless artwork that is being transported to Stevens’ estate. Of course, in midflight the plane is hijacked by art thieves who knock out Captain Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) and a sleeping gas is released in the plane’s cabin that causes all the passengers to lose consciousness. The film then veers even more into farce territory when the hijacker flying the plane clips the plane’s wing on a offshore drilling platform derrick, causing the plane to crash into the Bermuda Triangle. The plane sinks underwater intact, still pressurized inside, just when the passengers awaken to realize the plane has sunk under the ocean. For the remainder of the film it is up to Don Gallagher to concoct a rescue plan before the plane, whose fuselage is becoming increasingly close to being crushed, which would kill everyone inside.
The obvious can be said: This movie is ridiculous. Even worse, this film is a inferior, embarrassing sequel to a classic film. What made the original Airport film such a tremendous achievement of film was that it took its time establishing the characters and especially the setting. The disaster component of the original Airport film was the added drama to an already melodramatic film. Airport’s characters are what led the film, not the disaster. Airport ’77, in contrast, lacked any definitive backstory and avoided any real exposition with any of the characters. Even worse, the actors who starred in this film were relegated to mere stock characters, who provided nothing more than being ‘that famous person doing that role.’ For the vast majority of the cast, their appearance in this film is an embarrassment.
Legendary actors such as Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten are reduced to superficial character-types, who either fain sadness or do the cliché “Listen!” when the possibility of rescue is near. The very talented Brenda Vaccaro is nothing short than the damsel-in-distress who trys to keep those around her calm. Iconic actor James Stewart spends the vast majority of the film saying close to nothing with a frightened expression on his face. It is somewhat upsetting to know that James Stewart, one of the greatest actors of all-time, concluded his film career in a movie that hardly utilized him.
However, the worst was Lee Grant. Grant, who was fresh off her Oscar win in 1975, is so awful in this film that it is remarkable her career managed to survive. Her character as the boozy wife of Christopher Lee is so overdone and so utterly ridiculous that she is unintentionally hilarious to watch. Her most unintentionally funny scene occurs when Grant’s character attempts to exit the plane by opening the door, to which Brenda Vaccaro’s character intervenes to stop her. In what was supposed to be a tense and frightening scene instead becomes a slow motion “fight” of Lee Grant pounding her fists into Brenda Vaccaro’s character’s chest and shoulders before she slaps Grant across the face in fast-motion. What truly brings out the laughs in this scene is the hilarious look on Lee Grant’s face as she contorts her body backwards and falls to the floor with her mouth gaping open. The scene is so ridiculous and campy that it’s actually hilarious. The 1980 film, Airplane!, even parodied the scene – Click HERE to see it.
Jack Lemmon later in his life credited Airport ’77 as one of the biggest mistakes of his career. When evaluating his career, there is no argument against that statement. Jack Lemmon’s performance was so unimportant and so lacking in character development that arguably any actor could have starred in the role. Jack Lemmon was a mere name put in association with a character. His Captain Don Gallagher is written and portrayed in the film as the film’s hero, which he is, but there is so little depth to the character that the moviegoer honestly doesn’t care whether he succeeds or not. It would be unfair to suggest that Jack Lemmon didn’t attempt to give the role something. Lemmon’s performance in Airport ’77 is more aggressively masculine in contrast to his usual acting style. However, while Lemmon’s performance commands the characters within the film, it isn’t a commanding performance. This is more of the fault of the writers and director of this film who minimized his performance to fit him within the all-star cast ensemble of the film. It is apparent that the real “star” of the film was the disaster and even that was done in a superficial and lazy manner.
Honestly said: Airport ’77 is an embarrassment of a film and its only real achievement was being a blemish to the careers of various Hollywood greats who fell victim to being part of the disaster film genre, which was already a disaster in itself. For a better understanding about the disaster film genre of the 1970s, please refer to my disaster genre feature HERE to get a better understanding of an era of filmmaking that is fascinating to learn about, to say the least.