Thursday, September 18, 2014

Survival of the All-Stars

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.


Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
I've been away too long! I had no idea you've added so many new entries! The Poseidon Adventure is a favorite of mine and mostly for all the reasons you state. The real-life, non-CGI stuff still holds up surprisingly well, and the performances, though often corny, are so earnest they're irresistible.
I have a particular soft spot for Stella Stevens and Ernest Borgnine in this. When I was young, her demise and Borgnine's defeated reaction (so well played) got to me more than even the highly sympathetic Shelly Winters. This was y first disaster film and i have nice memories of it. Thanks for jogging them so enjoyably!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken! Thanks for dropping by! I agree - the moment where Linda falls to her death just before they reach the engine room was so unexpected, and she was my favorite character--you know I love them brassy dames! Borgnine's ensuing meltdown is brilliant.
I wish Ms. Stevens would work more...she was fun as the creepy Minnie-like neighbor and real estate agent in the disappointing Rosemary's Baby rehash Blessed with Heather Graham...

William said...

I always liked Stella Stevens, too. An attractive blond who could act [not that there haven't been a few of those]. I have a DVD of her in "The Mad Room" and others. I'll have to find a copy of "Poseidon" one of these days as I haven't seen it in decades. I do remember Stevens not wanting to be caught behind the very portly Shelly Winters at one point.

angelman66 said...

Hi William - have always wanted to see The Mad Room--it was featured in one of my favorite books on horror films, but it never appears on TV. At least I know it is available on DVD--thanks for the tip!

Poseidon3 said...

I think it should be rather obvious that I adore this movie. Happy to see some love for it here. Sort of in tune to what was being discussed over at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For," my first exposure to TPA was a 1976-ish airing on primetime network TV, but as we'd recently been burglarized, we were viewing it on an old black & white set. I can't describe how bleak and harrowing it came off in this manner to a sensitive li'l 10-year-old tyke, though it seared a place in my mind and heart forever after. Getting to see it in high-def, widescreen glory is something I never dreamed of for so long, yet is now a reality! I always thought Ernie Borgnine's acting was underrated in this movie, particularly near the end as some of you have noted. TCM ran "The Mad Room" with Linda and Shelley several months ago. Keep your eyes peeled for a re-airing. Stella was just to-die-for beautiful in it, though it's a really weird movie. Beverly Garland also appears and has a bravura moment. Thanks!!

angelman66 said...

Hi Poseidon - thanks for stopping by! This is one of my all-time favorites, for the unforgettable performances, the unique story and the still-impressive special effects. These are also among the finest performances of Borgnine, Stevens and Winters. And yes, I must see Stella and Shelley in the creepy Mad Room!
Yours and Ken Anderson's blogs are two of the best movie blogs around. You inspire and nurture a continuing love of classic and retro entertainment!

Gill Jacob said...

Love this review Chris - I'd forgotten Leslie Neilsen was in it and that Hackman a man of God. Thanks for re-enlightening me with your fab post.