When I was 16, I got my first job, as an usher at the local movie theater. My plan was simple: exploit my position and the modest $5.15 minimum wage salary to both pad my budding DVD collection (DVDs were new in 1998), and see as many new movies as possible for free. Mission accomplished. More than half my life later I have a very respectable collection, and STILL get in for free occasionally at that theater. I can honestly estimate that I’ve seen hundreds of movies in the theater. All those experiences were great… well, no… there was Wild Wild West.
But they all pale in comparison to 7:00 pm Sunday night, when I got to sit and watch Jaws on the big screen with my family, and hundreds of adoring fans. The screening was part of the recently announced 40th anniversary screenings.
For those living under a rock for nearly half a century, Jaws, which debuted in theaters 40 years ago Sunday, was the original summer blockbuster, becoming the highest grossing film of all time (until Star Wars in 1977). It was based on Peter Benchley’s best seller about a killer great white shark stalking bathers off the coast of Amity Island, a small Martha’s Vineyard style resort island dependent on its summer tourist economy.
The first half of the film is a morality play between corporate greed and good intentions. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is alerted to a possible shark attack, but the Mayor and other town bigwigs convince him to keep it down, and not shoo away the money bringing tourists. After the shark ravages the beaches, Brody, along with oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled shark fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw), must sail out in pursuit of the great fish.
To write a movie review of a film that is universally praised as one of the greatest films of all time, and that launched the career of arguably the greatest living director, Steven Spielberg, would be silly. Instead, I’m simply going to discuss my favorite moments of watching one of my favorite films in theaters for the first time. First and the foremost, the crowd. I’ve gone to see many classic films put back into theaters, but this felt different. The theater was PACKED! In fact, of the two Manhattan theaters it was playing in, one was sold out and the other (on Times Square, on Father’s Day night) was loaded with hundreds of adoring fans. My son and I both wore JAWS t-shirts, and we were not alone.
Who was in this crowd? Everyone! There were representatives ranging from senior citizens to young kids. My son Brandon is 11, and he was NOT the youngest person there. The Jaws crowd was excited, cheered aloud for their favorite characters, lines of dialogue, and even sang along to the crazy drinking songs that take place on Captain Quint’s vessel, The Orca.
Was it still scary? Are you kidding me? My son had his head buried in the shoulders of my wife and me, constantly asking, “Is this part scary?” I leaned over and whispered, “If you’re asking, the answer is yes.” Even people who have seen the film countless times jumped at some of the classic scares: Ben Gardner’s lifeless body scaring the tooth out of Hooper’s hands; the great white surprising Hooper in the cage; the opening scene, of course. Seeing it live and watching the reactions warmed my heart.
I also realized some things I never noticed. For one, the movie is hilarious. Sure it’ll be classified as horror/thriller or even an action movie in stores and online, but that movie is FUNNY! Richard Dreyfuss’s deadpan deliveries to the blue collar sailors are lines out of the sarcasm Hall of Fame. Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody’s handling of a fresh bottle of wine had people hysterical. Robert Shaw (who was drinking most of the film) is hilarious in his contempt of the other two leads. And of course, the focus of the film (not the shark), is the interaction between the three leads on The Orca. Arguably the most famous part of a film about a killer shark, is three drunk men comparing scars and singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
Jaws is another film that impacts me differently now that I’m a father. The scenes involving Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fiero) are heartbreaking. The famous scene where Brody sits solemnly with his youngest son (Jay Mello) imitating his every move is heartwarming. Maybe it’s those things more than the shark that contributed to the movie becoming the then highest grossing film ever. Maybe it was those subtleties that made it so classic.
The funny thing is, in all Spielberg blockbusters, it’s those little things. As amazing as the dinosaurs were in Jurassic Park, the quirky dialogue of the characters and interactions with the kids are the parts we remember just as much as the T-Rex. Jaws isn’t a shark movie with people. It’s a movie about people, who happen to be dealing with a great white shark. My son walked out after the 2-hours and started asking questions. “Was that story Quint tells real?” “Why did that woman slap him?” But it was his last comment leaving the theater that made me the happiest… “I don’t really like the ocean anyway.” Another generation scared out of the water.
The 40th anniversary of Jaws, brought to you by TCM and Fathom Events, will be playing one more time this Wednesday night, June 24th. Check out Fandango or Fathom Events for showtimes in your area.