James Wolcott talks about Steven Spielberg and then reprints a piece of Tom Shone's book How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Loved The Summer.
What was so different about Jaws? In one sense, nothing at all. “This is Universal’s extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel....” intoned the trailers, with the sort of silver-platter flourish that now seems as quaint as three-colour disco lights: they thought Benchley was the attraction? The book? Benchley’s novel was that most curious of seventies artefacts: the misanthropic best-seller, full of such loathing for the common herd, you wonder why on earth the common herd bothered with the thing: “They had no body odour,” notes police chief Benchley of the bathers he watches over. “When they sweated, the girls smelled faintly of perfume; the boys smelled simply clean. None of which is to say that they were either stupid or evil...” Peter Benchley, please step forward and accept the 1975 People’s Friend award! Spielberg cut out the sourpuss posturings and gave the part of Brody to Roy Scheider, telling him “I don’t want to feel that you could ever kill that shark.” Charlton Heston had wanted the part, but as Spielberg’s screenwriter, Carl Gottleib pointed out, Heston had just saved a jetliner in Airport 75 and he was going to save Los Angeles in Earthquake, so “it just didn’t seem right for him to be wasting his time with a little New England community.” The blockbuster would eventually become synonymous with the effortless accomplishments of singular superheroes, but Jaws, from the outset, was an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the scruffy, low-slung heroism of ordinary men, and engaging in pitched battle with just a single shark, which kills only four people in the entire movie — and not at a single stroke, like an earthquake, but in four separate courses, from soup to nuts. It was, in other words, a repeat offender, in whom Spielberg had found a perfect reflection of his own restlessly kinetic instincts as a director. When the Orca is going at full throttle to catch up with the shark, Richard Dreyfuss’s admiring head shake of disbelief is entirely genuine: “fast fish!”
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