(If it can be difficult to remember who won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)
The Contender: Jaws (1975)
Number of Nominations: 4 - Picture, Sound (Robert L. Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery & John Carter), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Verna Fields)
Number of Wins: 3 (Sound, Original Score & Film Editing)
If you look over all the films that have ever been nominated for Best Picture, you’ll find at least one common thread. Every year, there’s at least one movie whose reputation has faded since its release, that’s been virtually forgotten, or simply wasn’t very good to begin with. Every year, that is, except one: 1975.
That year’s winner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, had to compete against some of the most acclaimed films and filmmakers of the 1970s: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Whether or not Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win is another debate. But if your knee-jerk response is of course it didn’t, you probably haven’t seen Cuckoo’s Nest recently.
Somehow, the Academy got it right in 1975. Since every one of these films is worthy of attention, I thought I’d spend the next four weeks looking at each one. And since it’s August, it seems appropriate to kick things off with the movie that changed summer blockbusters forever, Jaws.
Jaws was never supposed to be an Oscar nominated film. In fact, during the tumultuous making of the movie, many doubted it would even be watchable. Steven Spielberg was just in his late 20s when he was hired to direct the film. He came from television, where he’d helmed episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo as well as the acclaimed TV-movie Duel. His only theatrical film, the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express, had been positively received by critics but hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.
The screenplay was in a constant state of flux, even during shooting. Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, bowed out early on. Most of the shooting script was eventually written by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as the editor of the local newspaper) and John Milius, who did not receive screen credit for his work.
Considering the electricity generated by the three leads, it’s surprising to realize that not one of the actors was the first choice. Spielberg originally offered the role of Chief Brody to Robert Duvall, who passed on the project. Roy Scheider was interested but Spielberg had to be persuaded that he was right for the part. For Hooper, both Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges were considered. Richard Dreyfuss initially rejected the part but eventually changed his mind. Quint is today considered Robert Shaw’s most iconic role but Spielberg first pursued Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden for the part.
The production on Martha’s Vineyard went notoriously awry. The expensive mechanical sharks, dubbed “Bruce” by the crew, steadfastly refused to do what they were supposed to do. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Spielberg honed the script and rethought how to tell the story while waiting for the sharks to work. Eventually, the movie went over-budget and 100 days over schedule. By the time principal photography was over, Spielberg was convinced his career was finished before it had even begun.
But when Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it changed Hollywood forever. Until then, most films were given a platform release, slowly expanding into different markets and allowing word of mouth to build. Jaws opened wide, so to speak, following a previously unheard of promotional blitz. It became a nationwide phenomenon, becoming the first film in history to make over $100 million in domestic box office.
Despite its popular success and critical acclaim, Jaws was hardly a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. The Academy has never given genres like horror and science fiction much respect. The Exorcist had managed to finagle a Best Picture nomination a couple years earlier but it was a more serious-minded type of horror film. Jaws was considered a straight-up popcorn movie that just happened to catch on.
That didn’t stop Steven Spielberg from feeling bitterly disappointed when the nominations were announced and he discovered that while his movie was up for the big prize, he himself was not. While Kubrick, Lumet, Altman, and Milos Forman were all nominated for Best Director, the Academy decided to honor Federico Fellini for his work on Amarcord instead of the new kid. Even so, Jaws won three of the four categories it was up for and Spielberg himself would receive his first Best Director nomination just two years later for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Over 35 years later, Jaws remains one of the few films that’s as good today as it was at the time of its release. Almost all of this is due to the fact that things did not go as planned. Spielberg was forced to show his shark as little as possible due to the malfunctioning effects, making the impact of the shark’s on-screen appearances all the more potent.
But what really makes the film special is the work of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw. Spielberg excels at telling stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances and Jaws may be his crowning achievement in this realm. These three characters are vivid, well-rounded, and thoroughly believable. The chemistry between them is palpable. These three actors sell the story much more effectively than any mechanical shark ever could.
It’s little wonder that Jaws remains a touchstone film for movie fans of my generation. It’s scary, funny, breathlessly exciting, and entirely relatable. Despite almost four decades of pop culture ubiquity, including countless parodies and the transformation of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score from effective film music to iconic audio shorthand, it has yet to lose its power. Most movies that enter our pop culture subconscious become overly familiar. Jaws is somehow immune to that. Every time someone watches it for the first time, someone new thinks twice about going back in the water.