By John H. Foote


When lecturing film history I always tell my students, ranging in age from 17-30, that American Graffiti may not seem terribly profound to them right now, but as the years slip past, they will begin to recognize elements of their own lives in the film, look at the screen and say “I knew that kid” or even “I was that kid”. The film is possessed by a nostalgic humor made terribly melancholic by the final shot in the film, as the plane carrying one of the young people we have met climbs higher into the sky, title cards appear telling us what happened to the kids with whom we have just spent two hours .

We discover John dies in a drunk driving accident, his greatest fear, while Curt moves to Canada (likely to avoid the draft). Terry ends up in Vietnam where he is reported Missing in Action, presumed dead. Steve and Laurie do indeed marry and do indeed divorce. What has been a joyous time at the movies is suddenly made terribly real, as life intervenes.

As we have aged, life has intervened so often with us, our path has been walked in blindsides and curves, never knowing what was around the corner. And so it is within the film.

George Lucas made a tremendously popular film about a group of teenagers spending Labor Day together in the summer of 1962, the last time they would be together and so innocent. The war in Vietnam was gaining speed, President Kennedy would be dead within a year, his assassin murdered on live television, the entire world was about to change. Here in Modesto, California, the kids were gearing up for their last night together, some going to the Hop to dance, others filling their flashy, gleaming cars with gas and cruising the streets, looking for friends, the head lights lighting the way through the dark. From the cars came the music of “The Wolfman Jack Show”, rock and roll, new and old, the soundtrack to the lives of these young people.

There was Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), a bright young guy heading off to college the next day with his friend Steve (Ron Howard), both thrilled to be getting out of the small town. Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) is the awkward guy of the group referring to himself as Terry the Tiger and fabricating stories to make him appear so much more than he is. Laurie (Cindy Williams) is Curt’s young sister, going steady with Steve, and John (Paul Le Mat) is the oldest of the group at 22, still hanging out with teenagers because they revere him. Debbie (Candy Clark) will be the beautiful blonde Terry picks up for the night, while John, the victim of a practical joke, will be saddled with Carol (McKenzie {Phillips), all of 14,  all night. So much happens in a single night, from dusk to dawn, entire lives seem to be lived, major decisions reversed, break ups, couples finding each other, reconciliations, love admitted, along with fights, a robbery, a visit to the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, and a drag race to determine the new King of the Road.

Gleaming, beautiful cars glide as though on rails through the brightly lit streets of the town, each loaded with kids looking for something. In many cases they have no clue what they might be looking for, and will not know until they find it.

Stuck with a 14-year old, John is at first aghast but as they spend more and more time together, he grows to like Carol and by the end of the film, realizes despite her age they might be soulmates. He knows he cannot act on his feelings but is aware of what he is feeling. She gets him, and he gets her. Meanwhile Steve and Laurie will fight, make up, fight again and make up again and finally break up for good, or so it seems. Curt spends the night following a girl who mouthed “I love you” to him in a white Thunderbird, but she proves elusive. Quite by accident he ends up riding around with the Pharaohs, a tough gang he is terrified of being with, but incredibly ends up one of them. Terry picks up Debbie, a party girl who likes him. She gets him to buy alcohol, they go make out near the lake, his car (really belonging to Steve) is stolen, he gets in a fight when they find the car, only to be bailed out by John who comes to his rescue, and his mountain of lies is exposed to Debbie, who does not care, she likes him anyway. Finally John is found by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) who wants to race him. Out to Paradise Road they go with apparently the whole town behind them to watch. Laurie has been picked up by Falfa and is in the car when it speeds offside with John. As Falfa is pulling away from John, he loses control of the car and rolls it into the embankment sending Laurie running off terrified. Steve goes to her and she spills out she loves him and cannot bear that he is leaving, begging him to stay, and he agrees to do so. John knows he was losing the race, but Toad convinces him he will always be the king, he us unbeatable.

The next day they gather to say goodbye to Curt, who never did find that elusive blonde in the T-bird but did meet Wolfman Jack who offered him good advice. As the plane climbs higher into the sky he sees that white T-bird heading to him, but he has left, leaving the small town behind for good, literally signifying the end of his teenage years. Then the film takes a rather shocking turn because as the plane climbs higher, a photo of the character is accompanied by a card telling us what happened to them. Instantly the film became melancholic, it was no longer a happy comedy about youth because we learned life intervened with the kids. It was a sobering moment for the audiences who had enjoyed the antics on film.

Though it was always said George Lucas was not much of an actor’s director, he did put together a first-rate cast who bonded on the location, having so much time together, and delivered superb performances.

As the ditsy blonde perhaps wise beyond her years Candy Clark was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, but in fairness three other actors deserved nominations too. Mackenzie Phillips was a delight as Carol, the young girl who falls for John without ever realizing what is going on between them. As John Milner, Paul LeMat was a revelation, capturing the sadness of a guy who was the king of the town in his teenage years and understands his time at the top is reaching its end. And Charlie Martin Smith is wonderful as Terry the Toad, the guy everyone picks on but that no one has a bad word to say about him. Small, nerdy he cannot believe his luck when Debbie gets in the car and orders him to “peel out”.

Ron Howard, who in 10 years would be among the most successful rising directors in Hollywood, was solid as Steve, while Cindy Williams was dreary and needy as Laurie, his deeply mixed up girlfriend, her immaturity showing. We cared about them, a little, but Williams became grating, rather quickly.

The film was a massive hit with audiences and critics, though initially Universal felt they had a bomb on their hands. Only when Francis Ford Coppola whipped out his check book in a dramatic move offering to buy the film from the studio did they relent and assumed if Coppola wanted it, they must have something. And did they. The film hit a chord with audiences. Some of whom were not so far removed from their teenage years or others who were teens in the sixties. I think people found whatever the year they were teens the film resonates with all youth. The soundtrack album, filled with hits from early rock in the fifties and sixties, was a huge success, going triple platinum, and the film ushered in a nostalgia craze that saw the clothing of the time re-introduced, and two hit TV series Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley which had long runs. It seemed to capture the last true year of innocence in America, the last time the youth truly trusted their government and held their elders in some esteem. After the killing of Kennedy and the rather obvious cover up, things were never again the same.

American Graffiti was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Film Editing and the aforementioned nod to Clark for Best Supporting Actress. It won the Top Male Star award for Paul LeMat at the Golden Globes and was awarded Best Screenplay by the National Society of Film Critics.

To this day American Graffiti remains one of the finest films to emerge from the United States in the seventies, a masterpiece about the changes coming for the youth of America.

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