The movie JAWS turned 40 years old last week and I find that almost incomprehensible. Twenty years old maybe or 25 but certainly not 40. When my parents took us to see GONE WITH THE WIND back in 1969, that movie was 30 years old and even then GWTW, brilliant though it is, felt like something from a bygone era. But not JAWS.
Like most of us alive in the 1970s, our first exposure to JAWS was through the novel and not the movie. Peter Benchley’s debut book was everywhere in the summer of 1974 and selling like crazy. It was the HARRY POTTER and THE DA VINCI CODE of its year. I suspect it had something to do with that cover. Not the hard copy cover but the paperback one where the obviously naked woman swims along and the shark closes up from below. My 12 year old adolescent self was intrigued the moment I saw it. I suspect I was not alone.
Despite repeated asking, my mother would not let me buy it. After all, it had THAT cover. So I did the next best thing: every time my parents made a shopping trip to Heck’s (the West Virginia K-mart of the 1970s), I went off on my own to the book section and I literally read JAWS a chapter or two each visit over the summer. Sure, I could have checked it out of the library but 1) I would have had to wait months because of the number of requests, and 2) it would have been the hardcover edition which did not have the same cover as the paperback. Hmmm, maybe my mother WAS smarter than I thought……
It came as no surprise when Universal announced JAWS was going to become a movie. What did surprise me was that I recognized the name of the director, Steven Spielberg, when it seemed that nobody else did. Four years earlier, I had watched the premiere of his first TV movie DUEL starring Dennis Weaver about a man traveling cross country pursued by a trucker bent on killing him. It had blown me away with its suspense and danger. It was also the first time I understood how a director was using the camera to accomplish this through shots, camera movement, and editing. To hear he was making JAWS made me even more eager to see it.
Flash forward to the summer of 1975. Gerald Ford was in the White House. My sister Pam was on her way to college in the fall. And you couldn’t have the radio on for five minutes without hearing one of three songs played over and over in heavy rotation: Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”, Paperlace’s one hit wonder “The Night Chicago Died”, and Paul McCartney and Wings' “Listen To What The Man Said.” (I was also suffering my first celebrity crush with Annette Funicello but that is a subject for another post). JAWS was coming into theaters. There was no way to escape the commercials on TV. And, no, I could not wait for it to open at the Capitol Theater in Charleston.
Unfortunately, to avoid a possible R rating, Universal Pictures released it as PG with the disclaimer “May Be Too Intense For Younger Children.” Well, that disclaimer was all my mother needed to decide that I was one of those “younger children” and I was forbidden to see JAWS. My father did not feel compelled to use one of his few yearly vetoes to override her. And so while JAWS broke box office records worldwide and went on to become the #1 hit of all time, I was on the outside looking in. My sisters went to see it. My cousins went to see it. But I had to stay home.
How scary and terrifying was JAWS?
A fellow classmate confessed to me that he and his buddies always went swimming at night when they vacationed at Myrtle Beach. They stopped doing that after JAWS.
One afternoon, my cousins and I went over to a friend’s house to swim in their pool and my cousin refused to go in the pool. She was too scared from JAWS.
While on vacation in Indiana, we all went over to the beach at Indiana Dunes. It was a glorious afternoon but nobody was going in the water. We were at Indiana Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, people!!! Nobody going in. All because of a movie.
Four years later, Universal re-released JAWS into theaters for one week only. We were in Michigan by then and I was regularly driving myself to the movies. So I announced to Mom that I was going to see JAWS. She didn’t say a thing. I went over to the Keego Theater in Keego Harbor, sat in the theater which was about a third full, and enjoyed myself completely. I was ready to love it but it was even better than I had expected. I knew then without a doubt that Spielberg was brilliant. And this shark movie would remain one of my all time favorite films.
FYI, I currently own: 2 VHS copies of the movie, 3 laser disc copies, 2 DVD copies, 1 copy of the novel (paperback, of course), 1 CD soundtrack, 1 LP soundtrack, 3 books on the making of the film, and 2 books on Spielberg’s career.
Two weeks ago, JAWS returned to theaters for the first time since 1979. My family and I went to see it. The audience screamed in all the same places. They laughed at all the same jokes (it is amazing how funny the movie is). Spielberg’s directing is even more incredible up on the big screen. John Williams’ classic score sounds really good coming out of those speakers. But the first indicators that JAWS probably is 40 years old came from my 18 year old son:
He fell asleep in the movie. He said he liked it but thought it was “a bit too slow”.
Sigh. OK, everybody, “do The Hustle!”