Airport (1970): An Imperfect Best Picture Nominee for Our Imperfect Times

Sung J. Woo
5 min readMar 9, 2023

The Academy Awards are around the corner, and no doubt the viewers at home are eagerly awaiting which of the presenters will be slapped across their face.

What occurred last year between the right palm of Will Smith and the left cheek of Chris Rock was indeed a tragedy (or twisted comedy?) of manners, but it was not a disaster. For that, we must turn to a film I recently screened in celebration for the upcoming Oscars, a best picture nominee that raked in some serious dough back in its day: Airport, released on March 5, 1970, the second-highest grossing film that year.

Universal Pictures

Some film critics have labeled it the worst movie ever nominated for Best Picture. Could it be that a movie about a disaster was itself a disaster?

After sitting through all two hours and seventeen minutes of Airport, absolutely, unequivocally not! In fact, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie as much as this one.

If a film can age like fine wine, we have attained peak vintage. And vintage is an apt adjective for this movie, as it is very much a product of its time. No woman is wearing pants; no businessman is without his briefcase. The two leads, Burt Lancaster’s Mel Bakersfeld and Dean Martin’s Vernon Demerest, are engaged in extramarital affairs, and what is more astounding than the societal acceptance of their flings is the acceptance by the women being flung. When it premiered, Airport must have been considered a dramatic procedural of the airline industry and all of its foibles; now, its retrograde world feels more fantastic than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Considering the continuing rift of our beloved country between states of blue and red and personages of liberal and conservative, I have little doubt Airport is the cinematic balm for our civil ills. Because those on the left will watch with hope as they see how far we’ve come from these patriarchal days, where the greatest gift a disloyal husband can give his mistresses is his promise that he’ll eat her breakfast (literally the line: “You’ve been bragging about your scrambled eggs. It’s time I found out just how good they really are.”). Meanwhile, those on the right will revel in our masculine past, so masculine that George Kennedy can hardly talk on the phone, for his girlfriend is too enraptured by his hunky lips (also literally the line he speaks to Lancaster: “Hold the whipped cream. I’ve just had dessert.”).

Universal Pictures

And if there’s something we can all agree on, it’s that it stinks to be in economy class. Guess what — there was no such thing back in 1970. First class, yes — but if not first, we would all be in tourist class. Doesn’t that sound grand? And the visual footage from the aisle of the featured Boeing 707 confirms there was grander leg room, too, and complimentary alcoholic drinks to boot. (Though be warned, the peanuts were less than stellar, according to one grumbling tourist classer: “$474, and they give you stale nuts.”)

Even though Airport is a work of heightened drama — after all, there’s the esteemed actor Van Heflin in the final role of his long career, sweating his way towards blowing up the plane with a homemade bomb triggered by, of all things, an old-fashioned mousetrap — it still attempts to tackle important topics such as noise pollution (“I’m not using noise abatement and I’m not cutting back on power over those houses.”), labor shortages (“I’m thinking of those pilots upstairs waiting to land…praying to God that some tired, overworked, underpaid controller in the tower doesn’t have another plane on the same course.”), and even abortion. Between Martin’s Captain Demerest and Jacqueline Bisset’s stewardess Gwen Meighen, in a quiet scene on the empty plane before departure, their dialogue runs the widest of gamuts, from pro-choice (“I’ll make sure you don’t go to some butcher two flights up over a drugstore. I hear Sweden’s the best place.”) to pro-life (“I don’t want to sound mystical or anything but I am carrying someone who’s part of us. I’m not so sure I want to lose it.”). The term post-traumatic stress disorder had not been coined as of Airport’s filming, and yet it is plainly the cause of the bomber’s psychosis (“Army hospital. He was sick. / Mental patient?”).

If what I have described so far doesn’t sound like a great time at the movies, that’s because I have yet to reveal the secret weapon of this film: Helen Hayes. Seventy years old at the movie’s release, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and won it. I’m so glad she did, as she plays what I call a leading supporting actor role, by which I mean it is definitely a minor role in both scope and screen time and yet when the movie is over, she remains the most memorable. Portraying a crafty stowaway, she is the thread that holds the entire movie together as she plays the airline system like a seasoned jazz musician, serving as both our guide and our comedienne. Here she is, after having outsmarted her naïve escort for a second time, sneaking out of the women’s restroom to use her charm to get onto the troubled flight and sit next to the bomber himself. Trans Global Airlines is lucky to have her, and so are we.

Universal Pictures

Perhaps the greatest gift of Airport is that it gave me a new appreciation for Airplane!, the relentless gags-galore spoof that came out ten years later. So much of its plot is driven by its spiritual predecessor that watching the comedy is like picking through the funniest basket of Easter eggs.

Before this Sunday’s Oscars, may I recommend a double feature of these two fine films of flight? They will ensure no one will ever slap each other again, because we’ll all be too busy laughing.

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Sung J. Woo

Novelist (Skin Deep, Love Love, Everything Asian), essayist (New York Times, Vox), occasional traveler. www.sungjwoo.com