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Show Business: A Nation Jawed

4 minute read

In a kind of black Disney fantasy, one can imagine out beyond the continental shelf, where the Gulf Stream rushes, a great white shark is sulking. If it is not Russian trawlers pursuing him, then it is sportsmen bristling with electronic equipment and harpoons. The couple of times he has made it to the beach there was no one to play with. People head out of the water at the mention of his name. Is this any way to treat a star?

The cramp in the apocryphal great white’s style is, of course, Jaws, the movie of shark menace now terrorizing audiences across the U.S. In its first month, Jaws has grossed an unprecedented $53 million and sent a delicious shiver along the nation’s beaches. Formerly bold swimmers now huddle in groups a few yards offshore, bathers stunned with sun hover nervously at water’s edge and at the hint of a dorsal fin retreat to the beach. “D’ya want to get jawed?” shouted one kid to another in the Santa Monica, Calif., surf. Even the lowly dogfish, the spaniel of the seas but a shark just the same, is suspected of homicidal intentions. “Kill it, kill it,” urged a Long Island angler to his companion dangling a 2-ft.-long, almost toothless fish from his rod, “before it grows up to kill us all.”

Floating Logs. Lifeguards spend too much of their time pointing out that floating logs are not sharks. “We get literally hundreds of inquiries about sharks each day,” reports a guard at Jones Beach, L.I. The guards themselves experience an ugly frisson of fear before the surf. “I had to force myself back in the water,” says Bob Burnside of the Los Angeles County department of beaches. “So have my lifeguards. It has affected them more because they know it can really happen.”

This is just the way Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown envisaged the movie’s impact. That is why they delayed its release until the beginning of the beach season. Says Zanuck: “There is no way that a bather who has seen or heard of the movie won’t think of a great white shark when he puts his toe in the ocean.” Vacationers are in fact flocking in ever greater numbers to the seashore. As for the jammed local moviehouses, they are treacherously playing on nerves. One Cape Cod theater runs a telephone tape that announces, “Jaws is playing. See it before you go swimming.” Shark jokes are all black; in an interview with “Hollywood’s No. 1 star” on the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked a foam rubber great white, “How do you keep your teeth clean?” Snapped the shark: “I swallow people with naturals.”

Small-Brained Beast. The predatory shark was easiest meat of all for editorial cartoonists. They soon drew great whites labeled inflation, Communism and energy crisis gobbling up wages, Portugal and motorcars. There was even a cartoon showing Gloria Steinem swimming down to bite a shark. Columnists too sought political parallels: the Washington Post’s George F. Will expressed amazement that in Washington, “where the Congress is regularly on view, people pay to see this movie about a small-brained beast that is all muscle and appetite.” Universal swiftly capitalized on all the attention, bringing out a full-page newspaper ad composed entirely of cartoons.

Editorial comments, terrified screams, practical jokes, even official concern do not disturb the jaws in Hollywood. They are too busy following the daily grosses and totting up their own profits. It now looks as if Jaws will outgross even The Godfather, which holds the record of $150 million. Before Jaws is released abroad next year, where it is expected to pick up 50% of its gross, the film should make $100 million. Ultimately, Universal may clear up to $60 million. Producers Zanuck and Brown, with 41¼% of the picture, could make as much as $20 million apiece. Author Peter Benchley’s 10% could ultimately yield him $10 million, while Director Steven Spielberg’s share of 2½% will make him a lesser millionaire. They are laughing their way to the nearest swimming pool.

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