Airport (1970): Worst Movie Ever-Nominated for Best Picture Oscar?

Airport_helen_hayes_4After a decade of no adventures competing for Best Picture, the 1970s brought a new cycle of action-adventures, labeled as “disaster movies,” because they depicted all kinds of catastrophes, man and nature-made.

Most of these pictures were trashy potboilers, set on earth (Earthquake, 1974), in the air (Airport, 1970 and its many sequels), on the sea (Jaws, 1975 and its sequels) as well as under the sea (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972).

This genre exploited its narrative possibilities in a few years, saturating the market so fast that it resulted in a hilarious send-up, Airplane (1980) of the various “airport” movies.

The “disaster” adventures were packaged, calculated entertainment, each with an all-star cast, rather than made movies. Most of them proved to be extremely popular with the large public, at once cashing in and promoting collective fears of the most ordinary behaviors, such as flying (Airport), swimming on Long Island’s beaches (Jaws), and working in a high-rising building (The Towering Inferno). The pattern of these blockbusters, as far as the Academy was concern, was to receive a large number of nominations, in recognition of their technical aspects and commercial appeal, but few awards.

The “disaster” adventures provided employment to many actors, some in forced retirement, but they were not very generous to them, with each actor getting at best one good scene. Which explains the large number of technical and the paucity of acting nominations, though the latter usually singled out elderly performers for sentimental reasons.

Based on Arthur Hailey’s popular novel of the same title, the ludicrous scenario was penned by George Seaton, who also directed, though Henry Hathaway shot some additional sequences.

With a considerbale budget of $10 million (bigger than the budget of The French Connection in 1971 and The Godfather in 1972, producer Ross Hunter cast the film with an all-star cast, including Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, and made  a glossy if silly and hollow picture, which benefited from the cinematography of Ernest Laszlo and music of Alfred Newman, who composed his very last score.

The primary thrust of the plot is a bomb in the briefcase of  a mad , troubled man, threatening to blow up the aircraft mid-air, but the trashy tale is more concerned with the intertwined stories of the colorful passengers, the crew members, and the airport personnel.

The female ensemble includes vet and prestige actresses, such as Helen Hayes and Maureen Stapleton, as well as mediocre if beautiful femmes, including Dana Wynter, Jean Seberg, and Jacqueline Bisset.

Reviews were mixed, but the movie became a blockbuster, grossing more than $100 million at the box-office, thus becoming one of Universal’s most profitable pictures.

As a result of the film’s commercial success, the studio made sveral sequels and there were countless imitations.

Detailed Plot

Airport_helen_hayes_3Van Hefflin (in his last screen role) plays demolition expert Guerrero, a loser with mental issues, who plans to commit suicide by blowing up a Rome-bound Boeing 707 jet, flying from a snowbound Chicago airport. He plans to set off a bomb in his attaché case so that his wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton), can collect the insurance money of $225,000.

Once the crew becomes aware of Guerrero’s madness, Captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), a pilot who’s there to evaluate Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson), he tries to persuade Guerrero not to trigger the bomb, telling him his insurance policy had been cancelled. Meanwhile, airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) deals with weather, runway and stowaway problems.

Confronted by Demerest, Guerrero considers giving the attaché when a passenger yells about the bomb. Guerrero runs into the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft and triggers the bomb. The detonation blows out a hole in the wall and Guerrero with it. As a result, Chief Stewardess Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), who is having illicit affair with Demerest and is pregnant, is injured in the explosion.

Airport_helen_hayes_2Due to the weather, the surrounding airports are shut down, and so the plane returns to Lincoln International for emergency landing, though another airliner stuck in snow has closed the primary runway. TWA chief mechanic at Lincoln Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is enlisted by Bakersfeld to move the stuck aircraft, another Boeing 707, which belongs to a different airline, TGA (the parent company of the film’s Golden Argosy jet). Patroni frees the stuck jet, allowing the primary runway to be reopened just in time to permit the crippled aircraft to land.

Oscar Alert


The movie was nominated for 10 awards, including Best Picture.

Helen Hayes won her second (Supporting) Oscar, for portraying a cute, eccentric and compulsive stowaway in Airport, who upon being caught, says: “I don’t think it would be very good public relations to prosecute a little lady for visiting her daughter.”

In his review of the film, Canby wrote that Helen Hayes plays “with such outrageous abandon you believe she must have honestly thought it would be her last performance,” which it was not, but maybe the Academy thought so.

The Academy nominated another supporting actress: Maureen Stapleton, as the slow-witted, distraught wife of a mad bomber (played by Van Heflin in his final film role).