Saturday, June 17, 2017

More Than Meets the Eye

In the early 1970s, there was probably no more popular work of fiction than "Jaws."

Nearly everybody read it, and then it was made into what was probably the first true summer blockbuster.

Author Peter Benchley's next novel, "The Deep," was also successful, and the movie it inspired, which premiered on this day in 1977, was one of the top moneymakers in the United States — a considerable feat when you think of the movies that premiered in 1977, movies like "Star Wars," "Smokey and the Bandit," "Close Encounters," "Annie Hall" and "Saturday Night Fever" to name a few.

But neither the book nor the movie did nearly as well as "Jaws."

In its own way, though, I thought the story was just as suspenseful — although it got overshadowed by off–screen controversy about something minor that was on the screen. Jacqueline Bisset played one–half of a vacationing couple (Nick Nolte was the other half) who discovered sunken treasure while diving on the reefs of Bermuda. In the diving sequences, Bisset could be seen in a rather revealing T–shirt.

It is still an iconic image. Ask someone who is over a certain age what comes to mind when Bisset's name is mentioned, and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the answer will be her wet T–shirt in "The Deep."

Given that Bisset has been in several dozen movies, that doesn't seem fair, and it almost certainly would not raise any eyebrows today, but remember this was 40 years ago.

It is also important to remember that "The Deep" was made when Bisset was 32 and still getting movie roles primarily because of her youthful beauty. Still beautiful but no longer young, she has continued to make movies into her 70s, proving that looks may change but talent never does.

There can be no denying the boost those shots gave the movie at the box office. Even its producer believed they made him a wealthy man, but the story was enough to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

The divers found all kinds of treasure — the old–fashioned kind (jewelry and the like) and the new kind (ampules of morphine from a ship that sank during World War II).

And therein lay the plot of the movie. In the grand tradition of shallow summer escapism, the movie had nothing remarkable to say. It was just a good movie to watch on a summer afternoon or evening.

In 1977 that sort of thing was believed to be behind us. It was practically an article of faith that escapism movies would dwindle in the years ahead and deeper and more complex topics were the new order. But the summer of 1977 was loaded with escapism.

So much for that theory.

What made "The Deep" work for audiences, I suppose, was the fact that it was plausible escapism.

"Jaws" wasn't really plausible. It was inspired, as I understand it, by a real event — but the very rarity of that event (a great white shark in the North Atlantic) is what makes it implausible. Like most horror stories, believable implausibility made "Jaws" work.

The story of Nolte and Bisset was the kind of thing that, seemingly, could happen to anyone.

Benchley, of course, is not remembered for "The Deep." He is remembered for writing "Jaws" and the series of movies it inspired.

Ironically, I guess, two members of the cast of "The Deep" appeared in the "Jaws" movies — Robert Shaw played the shark hunter in the original, then played a treasure hunter in "The Deep" and Louis Gossett Jr. was a drug kingpin in "The Deep," and then played a SeaWorld park owner in one of the "Jaws" sequels.