#62 : American Graffiti
By Kim Hollis
May 3, 2010
Despite the fact that they were young and relatively unseasoned (although Howard had made numerous appearances as a child actor in film and on TV), all of the performers brought something special to their roles. Dreyfuss is funny and charming in his neuroses, anxious to be liked and looking for adventure in odd places. Howard is (surprisingly) jerky, which is a bit refreshing given that he's generally cast as the "aw shucks" nice guy. Smith could have turned Toad into just a dull, nerdy guy whose awkward situations lead him to a series of uncomfortable events, but there's something more to Toad than that. He has a self-confidence about him that allows him to coax a pretty girl into hanging out with him even as he yearns for the approval of his peers. Le Mat is given the tough task of keeping the company of a teenage girl (Mackenzie Phillips) throughout the film, and their interplay is quite sparkling and believable.
Other supporting players have a lot to offer, too. Harrison Ford showed us flashes of the brilliance to come later with Han Solo and Indiana Jones with the arrogant Bob Falfa, while Cindy Williams, who would later appear in Laverne & Shirley in the half hour comedy stretch that followed Howard's Happy Days, played Steve's girlfriend. Suzanne Sommers is the beautiful and mysterious blonde in the T-Bird. And then there's Wolfman Jack, a cultural touchstone of radio, who plays himself and whose voice does much of the framing of the action and events.
In keeping with a radio voice providing the film some backbone, American Graffiti is also chock-full of great classic rock tunes. The album itself was certified triple platinum and has a lot of songs that probably are well-remembered as a result of being on this soundtrack. I have to think that American Graffiti, along with such movies as Easy Rider, The Graduate and Shaft, was one of the first films to really incorporate music as part of its story to a degree that the soundtrack became critical to the proceedings (not including musicals, of course).
When I pondered how it could be possible that I could enjoy a George Lucas film as much as this one and yet at the same time find Star Wars: A New Hope dull, the answer that emerged is that American Graffiti is a story from the writer/director's heart based upon real life experiences, while Star Wars is a colder, more clinical fantasy in space (some people might argue that point. I understand, and we'll just agree to disagree). The characters in American Graffiti are relatable. Most of us have been recent high school graduates, with all of the pressures and new horizons that come with the territory. All of us have wanted acceptance from our peers. It's a universal notion that fast, shiny cars are sort of nifty. And who wouldn't agree that music was as much a part of our formative years as any high school class? These are the things that resonate about American Graffiti. While I can't argue with Lucas about his later results - he's responsible for what might be the single most influential movie in terms of box office strategy, release and earning potential - I can't help but wonder what might have been had the director focused his efforts in a different direction, grounded more in reality. How different might our movie world be today?