I don’t remember how we decided to see American Graffiti (1973). I suspect it was because our new favorite TV sitcom was Happy Days, an affectionate look back at the 1950s, and we thought Graffiti had been its inspiration. This turned out to be wrong but it’s easy to see why we thought so. Both starred Ron Howard. Both featured teenagers hanging at a drive in diner. And both had a streetwise tough: Fonzie in Happy Days/John Milner in Graffiti.
We drove downtown to the Plaza East twin screen theater. The first thing I remember about the theater was that we had a full house. Every seat taken. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with a full house. Graffiti was already a huge hit and some were seeing it again. The movie started and, just like Gatsby the night before, I found myself transported away but this time to a hot summer night in 1962 (and really was there much difference between the 1950s and 1962? The Beatles, JFK’s assassination, and Vietnam had yet to happen).
Like any kid I loved the notion of staying out all night and these characters got to do that. Of the four male leads , I was most drawn to Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), the reserved and bookish grad heading off to college the next day. In my heart of hearts though I knew I was Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the geek (or baby brother) who is always hanging around the group. Never quite accepted but never quite rejected either.
And I really related to Wolfman’s advice to Curt about life. It seemed he was speaking to me. Life was about hanging on and letting go. It was about dreams and having the courage to keep reaching out for them whatever it takes. And realizing that, most often, those women in the T-Birds follow close behind.
I liked how the closing title cards let us know what happened to the guys and brought the audience back down to earth. (And even then I thought it odd not to learn what happened to the girls). The movie seemed to perfectly capture that moment before life changed for both the characters and the country. When the end credits rolled, the audience hooted and applauded.
American Graffiti forever changed the use of music in film. It changed how stories were told (multiple storylines happening at once). When I watch it, It still takes me back to 1962 and that night I first saw it in 1974.
Years later when I wrote my first good screenplay, I based it on a special time in my own life (summer job between high school and college). I used period pop and rock tunes just like Graffiti. And I even called it American Kids in honor of both Graffiti and the John Mellencamp song, “Jack & Diane” (which I used in the script). Like Jack & Diane, the kids in Graffiti are just “American kids doing the best that they can.”
For me, it remains the Citizen Kane of the coming of age genre, and one of the Movies That Changed My Life.
NEXT THURSDAY: MY GREATEST MOVIE WEEKEND CONCLUDES
"Class of `57" by The Statler Brothers
Because it reminds me of Graffiti. Because it takes me back to my own high school class.