Amazon Prime’s description for Jaws is as follows, “a local sheriff hunts down a shark.” Jaws could even be described more as an experience than a movie. It is, however, exactly the kind of movie that should be nominated for Best Picture – it captured the public’s imagination and it stood the test of time.
The film that won that year, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was also generation-defining, but it really is frozen in the past in a way Jaws never was. I think that’s because Cuckoo’s Nest was a way of coming to terms with a dying movement, the end of an era. Jaws was never about that. It redefined the future of movies, perhaps, but it also adhered to the traditional elements of storytelling that will always work.
In its own way, Top Gun is much more like the original Jaws than it is the original Top Gun. It is entertaining, with likable characters, just enough danger, and a really satisfying ending. It isn’t exactly rocket science but there are a lot of ways to screw it up.
It wasn’t just that Jaws was the first blockbuster that forever changed Hollywood. It changed audiences. It changed our expectations for movies. From then on, we would need the high that came with extreme satisfaction. No one could deliver that high like Steven Spielberg. We would feel it again with Raiders of the Los Ark and again with E.T. There has never been any filmmaker better at giving those highs at the end of a movie.
I grew up in the 1970s, a time a lot like today. It was a messy pendulum shift from the JFK-defined late 60s, a counter-culture revolution that would ultimately define all areas of art, film, music, journalism, publishing, and science towards Ronald Reagan’s America from 1980 to 1992 – which was essentially my whole coming of age. Jaws would have probably played just as well in 1980, maybe in 1990. Now, in 2022, Jaws would not be made the same way so it’s hard to tell if it would play. Politics has mostly overtaken storytelling in all areas the Left now controls, which is essentially everything.
Jaws couldn’t afford to do that, though. Neither could Top Gun, come to that. They wanted a universal crowdpleaser and in a polarized country like ours is now, and like America was back in 1975, you have to find a way to talk to everyone. It is much harder than you think. Sooner or later something controversial bobs to the surface like a yellow barrel.
In Jaws, you can feel the two forces at play, it’s just that the movie only takes a side in a very subtle way. Mayor Vaughn represents the Conservative point of view – he’s the guy worried about Summer dollars. His problems are practical. For the other characters, their problems seem more existential. While not dying from a shark attack is practical, the shark in this film takes on much bigger significance. It is another worldly force, one they can’t really kill any of the ways they know. It’s then up to the New York cop to deal with it the New York City way, “smile you son of a bitch.”
History repeats, just not in the way you expect it to.
Back in the 1970s, we were coming out of a brutal, demoralizing, unending quagmire in Vietnam. There was a sudden spike in serial killers across the country. Roe v. Wade was now the law of the land. Nixon had already put in place the EPA. But he had resigned the year before, and Ford was our President for a time. A recession was declared. Gas prices were soaring.
Even in 1975, everyone knew that Jaws had changed everything. It was the first blockbuster. Unlike Spielberg’s Duel, Jaws wouldn’t end with a whimper, but with a BIG BANG. That ending scratched an itch that audiences didn’t even know they had. That feeling was winning.
It was justice finally being done. It was an outsider who was afraid of the water getting into the water and killing the shark, not with a traditional fisherman’s pole, not with a fancy antishark cage (“You go in the cage, cage goes in the water, Shark’s in the water. Our shark….Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”)
When you look at the movies Jaws was nominated with you can really see what defined the American Left in the 1970s:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Dog Day Afternoon
All four of these nominated films very much reflect the emotional ambiguity and disconnectedness of the time. Jaws stood out for that reason too. It had a point to it, and that point was solving a problem like a supernatural shark. That felt good. Audiences needed that. I know I needed that.
Back then, there weren’t many critics at all, not that could make or break a movie but it’s worth taking a look at the dynamic between critics and audiences. In Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s book Inside Oscar, the following:
Pauline Kael went ga-ga over this one, too: “There are parts of Jaws that suggest what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized himself out of reach.’ But to the New York Times, it was ‘nothing more than a creaky, old-fashioned monster picture reminiscent of Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Nobody paid any attention to the critics; there were lines at theaters even longer than the ones for The Exorcist and shark sightings rose at a hysterical rate. Jaws not only boosted the careers of stars Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, but made composer John Williams famous for his pounding shark theme music. The film’s logo – a woman swimming above an open-mouthed shark – showed up in some form in political cartoons practically every day. Steven Spielberg was pronounced a genius and Jaws became the most profitable Hollywood movie to date, topping The Godfather, Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music.
But Jaws didn’t really define the Oscars or Hollywood that year. With Jack Nicolson heading up Cuckoo’s Nest, that was the power seat. That was the focus. Nicholson defined the 1970s the way Tom Cruise defined the 1980s. It’s just that between 1975 and 1985 the pendulum swung from Left all the way over to the Right.
Everything has mostly flipped from where it was in 1975. Back then, Hollywood had been trapped under the Hays Code — the Christian Right — for decades. That all ended at the end of the 60s and into the 1970s. Art, music, journalism, and yes, movies were now free to go anywhere. The sexual revolution, feminism, free love, Black Power it all came from that era. They were pushing back against the rigidity that came before.
Now, strangely enough, that rigidity is on the Left, as a kind of Hays Code has returned only this time it’s not the Christian Right, it’s the “social justice left.” I’m not sure if they injected religion back in the films of the 1950s — I’m sure they did in much the same way. It didn’t really make an impact though because America, since its founding, has always been a heavily religious — Christian — nation. The new religion of the Left feels a lot more like the Communist ideology that true believers were trying to inject into messaging to change the minds of Americans. You know, the stuff that Joseph McCarthy was freaking out about. It’s hard to unsee it because it’s in everything Hollywood put out now. They have to make it obvious because they have to signal that they are fully on board with the new religion. But it’s quietly driving people more and more frustrated. They are turning away from Hollywood content more and more. You can already feel the backlash.
Where does all of it go from here? I don’t know. But there is something about Top Gun that reminds me of Jaws in 1975. There is something about how different it is from everything else, how satisfying it is, how successful it is. It has brought back the “summer movie” at a time when we all really needed it, just like we all really needed it in 1975.
I don’t think things are going to get much better in this country any time soon. By the looks of it, we’re headed for one kind of war or another. This is why we need our movies to not follow any religion but rather to remember that art, like information, like truth, wants to be free.
Hope all who celebrate the Fourth have a great weekend. I will be watching Jaws because I always do.
You can also watch my movie on Netflix, the Summer of the Shark, which is about my own coming of age in the Summer of ’75.