AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)

  • Director: George Lucas
  • Writers: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck
  • Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, and Harrison Ford
  • Accolades: 2012 AFI Top 100 list (#62), 5 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – George Lucas, Best Supporting Actress – Candy Clark, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Rent or buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Before he made Star Wars, George Lucas was considered a very promising young filmmaker on the level of his contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. In 1973, he made American Graffiti with no stars, on a shoestring budget. It became a huge hit, and percentages-wise one of the most profitable movies ever. It also got Lucas a blank check from the studio for his next movie, which turned out to be Star Wars. After that, he didn’t direct another movie for decades, instead concentrating on writing and producing until he made the Star Wars prequels starting in 1999. American Graffiti remains the last non-Star Wars movie Lucas ever directed.

American Graffiti feels more like an Altman movie than a big blockbuster. The movie follows several teenagers over the course of the “last night of summer” in 1962 Modesto, California, before some of the main characters are set to go off to college. Lucas grew up in Modesto and wanted to provide a record of a youth culture of “cruising” that was already basically gone by the time Lucas made this movie in 1973. American Graffiti is credited with reviving nostalgia for the 50s/early 60s, and with directly inspiring the TV sitcom Happy Days (in which Ron Howard would also star). It is also the direct ancestor of various later teen movies set over the course of one night, from House Party to Can’t Hardly Wait to Booksmart.

The story moves between several characters and is hard to summarize. Young Richard Dreyfuss plays a local kid who is about to go off East to college on a “Moose Lodge Scholarship,” but isn’t sure he wants to leave town, especially after being tempted by a mysterious blond in a Thunderbird (a young Suzanne Somers). Howard is the prom king who initially derides Dreyfuss’ doubts but ends up staying himself to be with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). Paul Le Mat plays a street racer in a bright yellow coupe who accidentally picks up a much younger girl (Mackenzie Phillips) and ends up racing a cocky rival from a nearby town (young Harrison Ford, in a cowboy hat because he refused to shave his head for the role the way Lucas wanted). And the nerdy Terry (Charles Martin Smith), who feels like McLovin from Superbad’s dad, tries to pick up a cute blonde (Candy Clark) after Ron Howard lets him use his car, but gets more than he bargained for. The characters cruise down the streets of downtown Modesto, boys and girls calling to each other from car windows, all to the constant underlying soundtrack of real-life DJ Wolfman Jack. The Wolfman really did broadcast from a massive radio station just over the border in Mexico, and could supposedly be heard anywhere in America. He plays himself in the movie.

I think that American Graffiti is just about the best movie that could possibly be made about this subject matter, and as we’ve discussed before in this space I don’t want to start rating some subject matter as “more serious” than others. Comedies can be great movies just as much as dramas. The performances are universally great, and I have a weakness for movies like this, that stick themselves into a world and follow a bunch of different characters. Those who deride Lucas’ work on the Star Wars prequels will likely be surprised by how well he manages to bring humanity to so many different characters here. One wonders if this is because so much of American Graffiti comes from Lucas’ own experiences. Lucas actually did drag race cars in high school in Modesto, and got into a huge crash during a race just before leaving for college in which his car flipped several times, just as Ford’s character does in this movie.

American Graffiti was a huge hit that altered the careers of all of its main stars, though none moreso than Lucas himself. Without Graffiti, of course, he likely would not have gotten a studio to let him make Star Wars, and he also met Harrison Ford on the this movie. Before this movie Ford was “taking a break from acting to concentrate on being a carpenter.” We all know how that went. Cindy Williams also auditioned the part of Princess Leia, but Lucas chose Carrie Fisher. You can certainly see her doing well in the role after this movie. Instead, she went on to be most famous for playing Shirley in Laverne and Shirley. Richard Dreyfuss somehow played his character in Jaws, who is believably a scientist, just two years after believably playing a teenager here. And Mackenzie Phillips went on to fame as a member of the cast of the sitcom One Day at a Time, though she would eventually be written off the show after overdosing, not once, but three times on cocaine (she was still a teenager at the time). She has since appeared on Celebrity Rehab.

Ironically, two of the cast members of this movie went on to direct more movies in their careers than Lucas has. Ron Howard would direct his first movie, Grand Theft Auto (no relation to the video game series), a few years later, and eventually quit Happy Days to concentrate on directing. In 2001 he won a Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, something George Lucas never managed. It is less well known that Charles Martin Smith moved on from acting to directing, as well. He seems to have been pigeon-holed over the past several years as a director of movies prominently featuring animal actors. His films include Air Bud, Dolphin Tale (not to mention Dolphin Tale 2) and last year’s A Dog’s Way Home.

So, I enjoyed American Graffiti, but does it belong on a list like the AFI Top 100, over so many movies that aren’t? Well, your mileage may vary. But I will say that movies about American teenagers are a significant part of movie history, and this is one of the better and more influential movies made about them. If it has a major flaw, it’s that it offers a rosy, nostalgic view of a “good old days” that has also had an outsized influence. This is probably not fair to Lucas (who campaigned for Hillary Clinton), but when Donald Trump talks about making America great again, this is the “great” time he’s talking about. Uncoincidentally, it’s an America basically free of minorities. I’m 95% sure there are no Black people in this entire movie. One character tosses off that her mother won’t let her listen to Wolfman Jack at home “because he’s a negro.” He isn’t. That’s the only time race is  mentioned in the movie. And though the women in the movie are refreshingly presented as complex characters, they are left out of the card at the end that tells us the fates of the various male characters. When you think about it, the guys get arcs about whether to leave town or not, but there is never any consideration that any of the girls are going to leave. They are stuck there. No wonder Cindy Williams gets so mad at Ron Howard for saying they should “see other people.” He’s going to meet other people. She isn’t.

By the same token, American Graffiti is, perhaps as much or moreso than, say, Saving Private Ryan, a first-hand historical document of an extremely specific time and place. It is, more than most fictional media, what historians would call a “first-person” account of teenagers in Modesto in 1962. A modern viewer will immediately notice, for example, that there are no parents here whatsoever (we only see one set of parents, when Dreyfuss’ show up at the very end to drop him off at the airport). All of these kids are literally out all night (the final drag race takes place as it starts to get light out), a couple of them get in a massive car crash, and one gets the feeling that none of the parents of those involved were any the wiser. Girls walking down the street blithely jump into the cars of guys they don’t know without a second thought. The movie was set only 11 years before it was released, but even then it felt like an entirely different world, and world before the Kennedy Assassination, before Vietnam, and before Watergate. But is this world actually better? Discuss.

A brief word on the title, which everyone kept trying to get Lucas to change. At one point, they wanted to call the movie Another Quiet Night in Modesto, which is probably a much better title. After all, there is no graffiti in the movie at all, not being done, not in the background, not anywhere. I am unclear what the title actually means. Somewhat bizarrely from a modern perspective, the studio’s problem was that they worried no one would know what the word “graffiti” meant, because it “sounded foreign.” That, at least, is no longer the case today. Before we go, I have to at least tell you one other thing, which is that Harrison Ford got kicked out of the Holiday Inn during filming for getting into a fistfight.

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