1975 was a pivotal year in Hollywood history for two reasons. First, it just about marks the end of the post-Production Code boom of auteur-driven cinema. Studio releases from the ensuing period included The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Chinatown, Barry Lyndon — to name a few. Directors had license to indulge. The stories were sophisticated (think David S. Ward’s twist ending in The Sting). The studios made money — never big bucks — however, critics and audiences worshipped these ‘gritty’ films. It was a glory and guts kind of era, not one characterized by bean-counting profiteers.
The second reason is largely responsible for the first. In the summer of 1975, an unknown auteur had a chance to launch his directorial career. It seems ridiculous now, but he had very little confidence then. In fact, he thought his career was over before it began. Production was hell. Crew members didn’t take his cues seriously. But at 27 years old, somehow, someway, Steven Spielberg pulled off a miracle and forever changed Hollywood filmmaking.
Prior to Jaws, studios dumped their B-list fare into the summer junkyard, saving the fall and winter for the big-budget, star-studded prestige releases. But Jaws was unique, deliberately crafted and marketed for a season, and thus Spielberg and Universal Studios established the summer “blockbuster.” Jaws was purposefully released nationwide in half the number of theaters usually allotted for a studio film. In cities, Americans waited hours on lines circling around whole blocks. The hype — and fear — ballooned. TV advertising, as opposed to print reviews, continually touted the film with “saturation booking.” Jaws also marks the point at which studios sought “high-concept” ideas — easy to pitch, easy to market — that prompted a string of ’80s box-office hits. Legend has it, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon pitched Alien as “Jaws in space.”
There’s the artistry and pluck, too. Unlike most summer blockbusters made today (Christopher Nolan’s movies are the exception, not the rule) Jaws is every bit as dramatic and compelling as the best Oscar-bait. Brody, Quint, and Hooper — all three idiosyncratic to the core — share a rich dynamic. Filming on boats with a mechanical shark was an unprecedented technical crucible. The cinematography, editing, John Williams score, and Spielberg’s direction built tension and suspense much like a Hitchcockian thriller. Not to mention, the script is chock full of classic lines such as “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”; “Smile, you son of a b****”; and “This shark, swallow you whole.”
So if you need a rewarding — albeit terrifying — distraction from 2020 this Fourth of July weekend, crush a Narragansett beer Quint-style and enjoy one of the greatest cinematic feats in Hollywood history before some woke imbecile pulls it from streaming platforms. But a caveat to parents with young kids. I watched Jaws in second grade. For years afterward, I couldn’t jump into a pool, let alone an ocean, without thinking about a Great White shredding my legs — or worse yet, swallowing me whole.