Oscar Vault Monday – The Towering Inferno, 1974 (dir. John Guillermin)

Believe it or not, the Irwin Allen produced The Towering Inferno was not only nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won three of them. This star-studded ensemble disaster flick was not the first of its kind, but it is definitely one of the best. I remember when I first watched it, I was dubious of its merit and wondered about its Oscar pedigree, but in the end, I was sucked in by it and entertained from start to finish. If you look at a lot of the other Oscar nominated films from 1974 – and the 70s in general – The Towering Inferno is like a breath of fresh air made of pure entertainment. I hate the notion that Oscar nominated films need to be serious or arty or what have you. This is cinema in all its glory. The Towering Inferno’s Oscar nominations were as follows: Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Original Song (won), Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Supporting Actor Fred Astaire and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and winner The Godfather Part II.


In the decade leading up to this film, Irwin Allen was arguably the most successful sci-fi television show producer and was the man behind such popular shows as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964–1968), Lost in Space (1965–1968) and Land of the Giants (1968–1970). Allen actually won an Oscar in 1953 for the documentary The Sea Around Us. In 1972 he also produced The Poseidon Adventure. Director John Guillermin is actually still alive (he is 87 years old!) and is also the man responsible for the disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong.


The film is based on two books: 1973’s The Tower and 1974’s The Glass Inferno. I haven’t read either of them, so I can’t really comment on the film as an adaptation. If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll give you a basic premise. Basically, this building, known as the Glass Tower, is the world’s largest building with 138 stories. This is already kind of ridiculous, considering it is supposed to be in San Francisco. But that’s neither here nor there. Chaos ensues when we discover when it is discovered that the electrical engineer of the building cut corners while building it and eventually this happens:


It is pretty epic.


Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, the architect of the building. He is engaged to Faye Dunaway’s character and basically runs around the whole movie telling people they should have listened to him. Which, I mean, it’s Paul Newman, so you should probably always listen to him. Newman is one of the most Oscar-nominated actors in film history, though he was not nominated for his work in this film.


William Holden plays the James Duncan, owner of the building, who is hosting a party to celebrate its opening. Old Bill Holden is my favorite Bill Holden. He is quite great in this film, smug and authoritative at the same time. Holden won an Oscar for his work in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 and co-starred with Faye Dunaway a few years later in Sidney Lumet’s Network.


Oh, Faye Dunaway, you are so beautiful. Dunaway was a huge star in the late-60s through the 1970s and was in several Best Picture nominees, including 1974’s Chinatown, for which she was nominated for Best Actress and 1976’s Network, for which she won the award. Even after she goes through hell and fire in this movie, she is unbelievable beautiful. It’s the cheekbones.


Richard Chamberlain plays the electrical engineer who cut corners. He also happens to be Duncan’s son-in-law. There is some strife between him and his father-in-law and after this fuck-up of epic proportions, I think he is probably going to be cut out of the will. God, Chamberlain is so attractive  He wears some pretty great suits in this film and gets to be really smarmy and sleazy. You love to hate him.


Which brings us to Steve McQueen, the most badass badass to ever badass. He is the fire chief who comes to save the day. Much like Newman, he spends most of the movie telling people what to do and no one listens until a few people die and then, boy do they listen. If you ever thought it would be cool to have Newman and McQueen be badasses together, have no fear, Hollywood thought that too and they gave it to you in spades. McQueen was only nominated for an Oscar once, for 1966 Best Picture nominee The Sand Pebbles.


Everyone loves Fred Astaire, right?  In this film he plays a con-man who flirts with Jennifer Jones. It’s a departure from what most think of when they think about Astaire, as he isn’t that nice of a guy, really. Astaire was 75 years old when this film was released and for his performance he received the only Oscar nomination of his stellar career. He lost the award, however, to Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II.


This was Jennifer Jones’s final film. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her debut performance in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette. She went on to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1944’s Since You Went Away and three more Best Actress nominations for 1945’s Love Letters, 1946’s Duel in the Sun and 1955’s Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, the latter of which she co-starred with William Holden and the former three of which she co-starred with Joseph Cotten. Jones actually was paired with Cotten often and after marrying David O. Selznick, the three remained good friends throughout their lives.


Former fashion model Susan Blakely had her first major film role playing Holden’s daughter, who despite everything loves her husband. Blakely has had an active career over the last forty years, mostly in television. She also has really badass hair in this film.


I have a major thing for Robert Vaughn. He has one of my favorite voices. And he wears a ruffled shirt like none-other. Vaughn plays a senator attending the fancy party, who later becomes a leader when they must evacuate. Vaughn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 1959’s The Young Philadelphians, where he played opposite Paul Newman.


Robert Wagner plays the public relations man for the film, whose order to turn on all of the building’s exterior lights in order to make a big splash causes the building’s wiring to short and starts all of the film’s action in motion. He is not a bad guy, so when he gets one of the film’s most spectacular deaths, it is both bittersweet and awesome.


Same goes for Susan Flannery, who plays Wagner’s secretary/mistress. Actually, her death is pretty ridiculous. It’s one of those “don’t have sex or you will die a fiery death” type deaths.


Lastly, I just want to mention that O. J. Simpson saves Jennifer Jones’s cat. This later causes a pretty emotional moment for Fred Astaire’s character and also made for a pretty good moment in VH1’s I Love the 70s a few years ago.

Basically, this movie is pretty cool and you should definitely watch it. There’s a lot of great 70s dialogue that I didn’t even get in to and will make you afraid to go inside giant buildings for quite a while after it fades to black.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on January 28, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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