This is part eight of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.
READ HERE: PART 1-AMAZON AND NETFLIX
READ HERE: PART 2-THE DAYS BEFORE THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
READ HERE: PART 3-WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN IF NOT FOR JOE MCCARTHY
READ HERE: PART 4-FRENCH FILM
READ HERE: PART 5-SIX QUESTIONS WITH FILM PROFESSOR VINCENT BOHLINGER
READ HERE: PART 6-TINSELTOWN GET GOOD, FOR ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS
READ HERE: PART 7-WHAT THEY DID TO MARCIA LUCAS, EPISODE 1
If you have ever even casually perused the official production history and publicity materials related to a Star Wars film, you would know a story about George Lucas having a bona fide hit from the moment it left the post-production phase and was released in cinemas for summer 1977. In an objective sense, that could pass muster as technically true. But it obscures a lot of things that George Lucas wants people to forget for deeply personal and (in my judgement) very petty, sexist reasons.
By 1977, the cinematic landscape was being redefined by the Baby Boomer generation of film makers who had come to Hollywood via film school. Two years earlier, Steven Spielberg had flipped the entire distribution calendar upside down permanently when his rinky-dink maritime thriller, Jaws, had shown that summertime could be a goldmine for blockbusters rather than a dumping ground for Z-grade schlock. In hindsight this seems rather hard to imagine but, yes, up until Jaws summertime film releases were ignored and the season was seen by the industry as a lull time in terms of profit, storytelling, and public interest.
George Lucas had capitalized on the minor success of his earlier American Graffiti and leveraged that into a project that paid tribute to the old fashioned movie serials that were popular during the Great Depression and World War II. It is my contention that Lucas, per his political affinities (George gave a substantial amount of money to finance construction of the King monument on the Mall in DC), wanted to make a big, bold epic in the tradition of the Popular Front films John Ford and Frank Capra had made several decades prior.
The production of Star Wars was a bit of a fiasco, marked by scheduling delays, spending over budget, sandstorms at the Tunisian location where the production filmed the desert planet scenes, and testy relationships between an overly-intellectual director with some grandiose vision and an old-fashioned working class unionized movie crew schlepping away at Elstree Studios in England. Producer Gary Kurtz elaborates on just one of many problems that arose with the studio bosses. He told IGN magazine in 2002:
IGNFF: If there was criticism that Star Wars got from the studio during development, what was it?
KURTZ: It was too difficult to understand. I have to admit that the script was difficult, because you couldn’t see any of the visual effects; all you read were dialogue scenes, some of which seemed like gobbledygook. The talking robots and the giant wookiees; all of that kind of stuff that doesn’t read very well on the page. It’s a very visual experience; science fiction in general, and Star Wars in particular. Without being absorbed into that environment, it was very difficult to explain to someone what it was going to be like. Whereas some scripts read in a very literary way; they read like a Steinbeck novel. They read wonderfully. Doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be great on the screen, unfortunately, but a lot of them are. Some scripts just read better than others.
Then in a 2013 video interview, he offered the following insight:
And so when Lucas did his first preview screening for friends like Spielberg, Brian DePalma, and a few others from his film school days, he was heartbroken when they told him he had made a dud. DePalma was apparently so vociferous it seemed like he was on the verge of some kind of episode.
How did this happen? Putting it rather simply, Lucas had created a boring movie because of his awful editorial skills. It was a complete mess. This amazing video essay lays out just how badly things went and what was done to turn a crap waffle into what became one of the most successful films of all time.
For those of you who don’t have the time to watch that video now, here’s the gist of it. Marcia Lucas, George’s brilliant wife, along with two others that we brought in to help, Richard Chew and Paul Hirsch, effectively stripped the film down to the skeleton and reconstructed it almost from scratch. She excised idiotic chaff that George had thought was anything but a distraction, rewrote the famous opening title crawl so it was not like reading the thesis statement of a college term paper, added an important element of motivation to the final sequence of X-Wings attacking the Death Star, and totally reformulated the mechanics of that interstellar dogfight so it was thrilling rather than boring. For their hard work the three of them would win the 1977 Oscar for Best Editing, though it bears mentioning here that Marcia had previously gotten a nomination for the editorial work she did with Verna Fields on American Graffiti. Notably, George has never been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, something that will pop up again later.
At this point in her career, furthermore, she had been the cutter on three films by Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, and most notably Taxi Driver. For those who are unclear, that last one is probably one of the most complex films in terms of editorial logic made in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the hands of an average cutter, Taxi Driver would have been a bloated, overly-complicated mess that alienates everyone but the most voyeuristic, sadomasochistic film dweebs who revel in watching the trash they put onto Mystery Science Theater 3000. But because Scorsese hired Marcia Lucas, he ended up with one of the most disturbing psychological thrillers ever made, a movie that was so fucked up it inspired a deranged maniac to try and kill President Ronald Reagan.
And so it would seem that, with such a massive surprise success behind them, Mr. and Mrs. Lucas would have ridden triumphantly into the sunset.