{Second Take} [1987] Moonstruck

Sometimes a song is just meant for the screen. Even without any visuals to accompany it, it’s cinematic on its own; it tells a story, conveys a meaning, and conjures a time and place. “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin was born for film, quite literally, in that it was commissioned specifically to be performed by Martin in 1953’s The Caddy, but it’s somehow more at home when soundtracking a montage of people on dates eating pasta. It almost does a filmmaker’s work for them, as when director Norman Jewison pairs it with glittering imagery of Brooklyn Heights and the Metropolitan Opera House in the opening sequence of Moonstruck. The audience knows exactly what will happen next: high passions, red wine, and Italian accents.

Few songs have had the reach “That’s Amore” has commanded over the decades, and despite its overtness and obviousness, we still associate it with success and accolades. It garnered an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Song upon its debut in The Caddy, losing to “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane as one might expect: serious fare often earns more respect than lighter material. Later, “That’s Amore” set the stage for Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and writer John Patrick Shanley to all win their sole Oscar awards. At a time when the movie-going public was buying up tickets to action movies and thrillers, the Academy slowed down, took a breath, and recognized the ambitious acting and crystal-clear characterization the cast of Moonstruck was able to deliver. In 1987, “That’s Amore” primed audiences for a comedically fraught romance with bombastic performances that mix Old World realism with stereotypes informed by the observational eye of a playwright, and they were ecstatic when that’s what they got.

Only a year after the debut of “That’s Amore,” Alfred Hitchcock borrowed it to great and jarring effect in Rear Window (also nominated for awards from the Academy). The song already had such immediacy and cultural weight that The Master of Suspense was able to subvert its romantic message by removing the lyrics and using it to score a scene where a man spies on a newlywed couple from his window through theirs. It’s impossible to avoid mentally singing the lyrics to yourself, crossing the signals in your brain between the romantic and the voyeuristic. You know intellectually that the newlyweds are in the throes of love like the song describes, but you’re not with them: you’re with the peeping tom. Hitchcock relied on the original music’s instant popularity and inherent romantic meaning to create an uncomfortable dissonance for his viewers to sit with. Continue reading

[1970] Airport

Not Airplane!

Though released only a decade apart, Airplane! and Airport can’t have had themes and motives further from each other. The former, having been released at the onset of the goofy 1980s (think leg warmers and neon) is a comedy of the lightest proportions. The jokes are gimmes and the acting is over but all on purpose and the viewer is supposed to be in on the joke. It’s a smart comedy that way. Airplane is a comedy of comedies, still cited today as a tongue-in-cheek pièce de résistance of modern comedic film. The says it all.

Airport, 1970’s understated drama about fateful night at an airport where everything that can go wrong does, stars an ensemble cast whose stories intertwine in a series of random and intersecting events, all of which seem unconnected but together they both create and solve the main conflict. D.O. Guerrero, played by Van Heflin, is mentally ill, out of work and luck and wants to provide for his wife via insurance fraud. In a laughable amalgam of anachronism he both buys insurance (presumably approved on-site) and boards the plane with his homemade bomb, as the staff are entangled in office politics, the man blows up the plane. These themes are almost too relevant post-9/11. There’s humor here but nothing to the effect of Airplane! Airport is a drama about people and has flown under the radar of modern classics, largely because 1970 was Patton‘s year.

Air travel in film emphasizes missed connections, something that connects Airplane! and Airport, even though all evidence points against it. The setting is normalized either around an airport or on a plane and drama is built-in via strict scheduling. Unlike other forms of transportation, once an airplane embarks, thirty-thousand feet separates two major settings – the eponymous airplane and airport. Luckily, we have communication systems to iterate between the two, but for intents and purposes, 1960s and 1970s air travel provides a ripe setting for this concept of missed connections; the plane being just full or just departed. Lovers can literally be star-crossed, seeing as one of the milieu is closer to the heavens. Both movies excel in this regard, but Airport sets itself apart because drama is so much more compelling than comedy within this environment.

Not that Airplane! is any less successful, but Airport excels because a plane crash has no proxy. Its beginnings, complicated, its climax, usually avoided, and its dénouement, often resolved, either for better or worse. Within Airport‘s context, the intertwining stories feel natural, if not too realistic, allowing an “in” for the average viewer: lots of people have a wacky grandmother or aunt, lots of people have unresolved love issues, lots of people have uncertainty in their job and people questioning their motives. All the time. Airport showcases all of these themes through deft acting and tight scriptwriting through the highly dramatized medium of the aviation industry.

Not only do the themes and settings provide for compelling story, the legendary execution rounds out the quality of Airport. Both Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin had had storied careers up to this point, during and afterward.  One could argue that, like the year 1970 in film, Airport provided an apex for the actors as well. Airport also provided a continued launching point for actress Jacqueline Bisset and legendary Helen Hayes with her second Acting Oscar, almost 40 years after her first. These performances alone earn Airport fair standing as a classic, but agglomerated, Airport becomes legendary.

Which is unfortunate that Patton saw release in the same year. I have argued before that 1970 and Patton in particular provided a massive turning point for how movies are made and viewed. The other movies released in 1970 (MASHFive Easy Pieces and Love Story) along with Airport are unfortunate remnants of one of the greatest movies ever made. That said, Airport (and to an extent Airplane!) has earned a spot in the lore of the modern filmmaking, within or without the tombs of The Academy.