August 11, 1973—Before its release, hardly anyone would have thought that American Graffiti, a look at the nation in a more innocent time, about teens with not much more in mind than sleek cars and the opposite sex, would make such a splash in the film industry. Director George Lucas’ prior effort, THX 1138, had been more of a critical success and sci-fi cult favorite than a box-office smash. The film’s cast of unknowns (save for Ron Howard, who had endeared himself as tyke Opie on The Andy Griffith Show) held no box-office clout.
Yet the movie became a sleeper hit, being nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), reconfiguring the Hollywood landscape in a stroke:
*Its box-office success earned Lucas enough credibility with industry “suits” to get a more expensive project green-lighted: Star Wars;
*Like Diner and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it gave significant exposure to a constellation of actors whose careers were about to take flight: Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Suzanne Somers, Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, Bo Hopkins, Charles Martin Smith, Joe Spano, Paul Le Mat, and Kay Lenz;
*Instead of the specially composed music created by the likes of Max Steiner, Erich Maria Korngold and Bernard Herrmann, it relied on 41 past hits to signify themes in its soundtrack, a device also employed that year in a work by Lucas’ good friend Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets;
*It signaled the emergence of a “New Hollywood”—directors who, unlike the first generation of filmmakers, had been exposed to movies as children on TV and in theaters, then had often gone on to study the craft formally in film school: people such as Lucas, American Graffiti executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, and Scorsese. (Spielberg was rejected twice by USC’s Film School.)
All of this from a film in which its studio had so little faith in that it sat on it for six months after completion, only to dump it in late summer. (Legend has it that a Universal Studio rep, even after witnessing favorable audience reaction after a preview, persisted in calling the film “unreleasable.” It took an outraged Coppola to get the studio to reconsider by offering to buy it from them. Fifteen years later, when the Oscar-winning Coppola had developed a reputation for profligacy--and the two had had a temporary falling-out over who got to pay others involved in Graffiti-- Lucas was able to return the favor by producing Tucker: The Man and His Dream. )
In June, Spielberg and Lucas caused a number of heads to nod in agreement in Hollywood with the former’s suggestion that the recent spate of mega box office failures is a sign that the old business model might be about to experience an “implosion.” In one sense, fewer people were more responsible for the creation of that “model"—a summer season packed with action films appealing to teens—than Lucas with his Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.
But perhaps it might be better if a different model were adopted, one used by Lucas himself. American Graffiti might be his most personal film, not obviously commercial. But he was able to work fast, completing filming in a month and thus holding down expenses. Its low cost—only $777,000—along with its high sales (total domestic gross: $115 million), combined to make it one of the most profitable films made up to that time.
American Graffiti is about a watershed period between two eras, and, in a sense, the film’s release occurred in one, too. Its male characters are obsessed with cars, as if they can find in motion what they can’t discover otherwise in a 1962 America still under the sway of the Eisenhower era, not yet caught up in the vortex of the Sixties. (Just how convulsive the latest period was is conveyed just before the closing credits, when the fate of the film’s four male characters is quickly summarized. One dies in a car accident; a second, in Vietnam; a third, a draft dodger, is now a writer living in Canada; and the fourth is in the insurance business—probably a necessity, given what happened to the others.) It came out seven months after the announcement of the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, but two months before a different shock to the American way of life: an oil embargo by OPEC that rocked the foundations of the car culture celebrated in the film.
American Graffiti rode the wave of nostalgia for the Fifties, and, in turn, intensified that feeling. Two months after the release of the film, with Marilyn Monroe gracing the cover, Newsweek’s story “Yearning for the Fifties” examined the mood suddenly prevailing: “It was a simple decade, when hip was hep, good was boss.”
Not quite, of course—at least in this film, where restless yearning and shadows just offscreen always seem to lurk for characters on the brink of a troubled adulthood and a turbulent future for their country. But the entertainment industry chose to look at the superficial lessons of the box office for the Lucas film. Within a year, ABC was running the cheerful sitcom Happy Days, centering around Graffiti’s Ron Howard (for awhile, till the emergence of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie) as the main character. Later in the decade, Grease would reap even more significant gold—on Broadway, in theaters and in the record stores.