Warning to the award-winning actors performing in all-star disaster epics: Your Oscars and box office mojo do not necessarily guarantee your survival. But if your character does happen to bite the dust before the final reel, you may get nominated again, and prolong your career longevity in the process.
The success of Ross Hunter’s lavish productions of Arthur Hailey’s novels Hotel in 1967 and Airport in 1970 revitalized the tradition of the all-star ensemble that had begun with MGM’s Grand Hotel in 1932 and continued through film fare as varied as The Ten Commandments, Judgement at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Ship of Fools. (Later, the all-star concept became a TV staple, with shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote consistently topping the Nielsen charts.) But it was Airport that offered an exciting new wrinkle--put your stars in peril amid some disastrous occurrence to heighten the drama--spawning the age of the 1970s disaster movie. Throughout the decade, a surprising number of disaster flicks were released, with varying degrees of artistic merit and box-office success, including Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, Airports ’75, ’77 and ’79 (aka The Concorde). But The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is arguably the best of the bunch.
Literate, thought-provoking and entertaining, The Poseidon Adventure boasts a compelling theme, a cogent through-line, spectacular special effects and notable performances by a group of talented and award-winning actors--it’s an old-fashioned, story-driven crowd-pleaser.
The special effects were groundbreaking for their time and created the appropriate suspension of disbelief necessary to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Even today, they’re impressive--especially film’s the iconic set piece as the ship capsizes and overturns amid a New Year’s Eve celebration. To achieve the realistically terrifying topsy-turvy effect, producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame rigged the vast dining room set to revolve 180 degrees to literally tumble and scatter dozens of actors and extras, a feat never before attempted on film up to that time. (Perhaps they were inspired by Fred Astaire’s famous dancing on the ceiling moment from Royal Wedding, but that was a much smaller room and only involved one actor). It’s an action-packed ride.
|Gene Hackman as Reverend Scott|
But unlike many of today’s big-budget films, the pyrotechnics do not detract from the strong performances of the seasoned actors with whom we take this harrowing journey. The actors and the effects both serve the story--a rollicking, well-plotted adventure interwoven with the universal themes of triumph over adversity, determination and courage.
|Ernest Borgnine as Rogo|
|Red Buttons as Mr. Martin|
Consistent with the values embraced in what was soon to be dubbed “the Me Decade,” the film’s chief protagonist, a radical and rogue man of the cloth, preaches a libertarian gospel of self-determination and survival of the fittest. Foreshadowing the concepts of today’s New Age philosophies, Reverend Scott asks his followers to depend on the god force within rather than looking to an external father figure in the sky. Follow your own instincts, he advises, rather than relying on groupthink (or faith or prayer, for that matter) to solve problems. But, in this film as in real life, there are no guarantees. Only the strong survive--and even then, not always.
|Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo|
Waiting for “the authorities” to arrive and save them, the vast majority of the passengers are lost. But those aboard the Poseidon with the sharpest survival instincts are a diverse and motley crew--from an elderly Jewish grandmother to an unusually bright 10-year-old child. One by one, many of these characters lose their lives in pursuit of freedom, often right after helping others to safety or having given their own lives to save others.
|Roddy McDowall as Akers|
This unforgettable ensemble of stars--Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, Jack Albertson, Carol Lynley, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman, joined by young newcomers Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin (who later gained TV fame on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and Dynasty)--make this a film worth watching over and over. The chemistry among all of them is strong; this must have been a difficult shoot, obviously involving some potentially dangerous stunt work, and there is a familial feel among the group and an underlying strain of dark humor throughout that enhance the audience’s experience.
|Eric Shea as Robin|
|Pamela Sue Martin as Susan|
Of course, as in almost all adventure films, the he-men of the group are its leaders--Hackman and Borgnine vie for the alpha male position, while lonely bachelor Red Buttons (is this character gay, I wonder?) lends support to the group with compassion and common sense. Both Borgnine and Buttons enjoyed long lives and careers--Borgnine lived into his mid-90s and Buttons into his late 80s. Prior to this film, both had won Oscars, Borgnine for Marty in 1955 and Buttons for Sayonara in 1957.
|The great Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen|
Gene Hackman dominates the film as the maverick Reverend Scott. Hackman had just won the Best Actor Oscar for The French Connection, after nominations for Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father. Of all the surviving stars of The Poseidon Adventure (basically now just Stevens, Lynley, Shea and Martin), Hackman is the only one still working steadily in Hollywood.
Carol Lynley has little to do but whimper and cry when she’s not lip-synching to Maureen McGovern’s Oscar-winning rendition of “The Morning After,” but brassy Stella Stevens has her all-time best film role as the former prostitute now married to a gruff cop (Borgnine), who gamely slips out of her skirt to climb to safety in nothing but panties and gold-toned high heels.
McDowall must have enjoyed the break from donning the ape makeup of his Planet of the Apes epics to join the adventure, taking on a charming Scottish brogue as Akers the waiter, but his character is one of the first to perish and his screen time is all too brief. A former child star (Lassie Come Home) who became one of the most reliable of supporting actors, it’s a shame he was never even nominated for one Academy Award in his long career. He died in 1998.
Veteran scene-stealing Method actress Shelley Winters, already the recipient of two Best Supporting Actress Oscars (for Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue) earned another nod for her portrayal of the brave (if a bit kvetchy) Belle Rosen, who saves Reverend Scott from a gruesome underwater death before expiring herself. Once a svelte blond sex symbol, Winters gained respect as an actress as her weight ballooned--but she lived to be 85, obesity be damned.
A big box office hit when it was first released, Poseidon’s popularity has only grown through the years, attaining cult status for its spectacle, its star performances and its sheer audacity. Its early special effects must have inspired James Cameron’s vision for his own epic masterpiece, 1997’s Titanic. Its camp value, underlined by the ballsy performances of actors Winters and Stevens, the wooden delivery of other actors including a humorless Leslie Nielsen, and the high-’70s production design (I personally dig the “groovy” gyrations of the black-tie New Year’s revelers on the dance floor) make it a beloved staple in the film collections of anyone with a gay sensibility. It’s a well-made film with something for just about anyone, and holds up well.
For a delicious video overview of this film from a gay standpoint, visit classic movie “vlogger” Steve Hayes here.