While Jaws might not qualify as art, Steven Spielberg's suspenseful adaptation of the Peter Benchley best seller is a superior commercial entertainment. Spielberg was only 26 at the time he was hired to direct this modestly budgeted film ($12 million) but he was no novice. In fact, he had already created quite a buzz within the industry thanks to his work on two technically sophisticated and visually dynamic action thrillers - Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974).
The casting of Jaws was a crucial factor in its success. Robert Shaw initially thought the script was terrible and didn't want to be upstaged by a mechanical shark. But Shaw's wife recognized the potential in the script and encouraged the reluctant actor to play Quint, the tough-as-nails sea captain. Richard Dreyfuss, who was just beginning to attract favorable critical notices for his performances in American Graffiti (1973) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) accepted the role of Matt Hooper, the marine biologist, even though he suspected that Jaws would be "the turkey of the year." Roy Scheider, an Oscar nominee for his performance in The French Connection (1971), played sheriff Martin Brody, and would be the only actor in the trio to repeat his characterization in the sequel, Jaws 2 (1978). By the way, look close and you'll spot author Peter Benchley in a cameo as a reporter.
For the filming of Jaws, Spielberg insisted on realism, which meant shooting on location in Martha's Vineyard (identified as Amity Island in the film) as opposed to filming in a studio tank. Although the residents of Martha's Vineyard were not so happy about the idea of a Hollywood movie crew disturbing their privacy, their objections were soon silenced by MONEY.
The other main obstacle was finding a trained 20 foot great white shark. Eventually, Spielberg hired special effects wizard Robert A. Mattey (His claim to fame is the giant squid in Walt Disney's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1954) to create the title menace and Mattey came up with three hydraulically operated creatures which were nicknamed "Bruce." Weighing over a ton each and requiring at least thirteen scuba-geared technicians to manipulate them, these shark stand-ins were occasionally camera-shy, breaking down at inopportune moments. But Spielberg prevailed and the final result had people hiding their eyes and screaming in unison in movie theatres across the country, particularly during the ship-smashing climax. Jaws also set off a wave of shark hysteria in which countless sightings of the telltale fin were reported all along the East and West coasts.
At the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony, Jaws was in the running for four Oscars including Best Picture and won three of those - Best Editing (by Verna Fields), Best Sound, and Best Music Score. Verna Fields had previously worked with Spielberg on The Sugarland Express as well as several of his talented peers like Peter Bogdanovich on What's Up, Doc? (1972) and George Lucas on American Graffiti (1973). Strangely enough, Jaws would be her final editing assignment. (She died in 1982).
For composer John Williams, Jaws marked a major turning point in a film career that already included one Oscar for the orchestration of Fiddler on the Roof (1971). His collaborations with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on future projects like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) would make him the most famous and sought-after composer in Hollywood.
Producer: David Brown; Richard D. Zanuck
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Production Design: Joseph Alves Jr.
Cinematography: Bill Butler, Rexford Metz
Film Editing: Verna Fields
Original Music: John Williams
Cast: Roy Scheider (Chief Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Mayor Larry Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (Ben Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (Deputy Hendricks).
by Jeff Stafford