Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Ronny Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark), Best Director (George Lucas), Best Original Screenplay (George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck), Best Film Editing (Verna Fields, Marcia Lucas)
SUMMARY: The night before they are to leave to go to college on the opposite coast, friends Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ronny Howard) meet up with two other friends, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith) at Mel’s Drive-In in the early evening. Steve gives Curt a $2000 scholarship from the local Moose lodge, but is surprised to hear that Curt is having second thoughts about going to college so far fro home. Before heading out on the town for the evening, Steve lends Toad, an underclassman, his car until Christmas. Toad is thrilled by the gift and immediately begins cruising through downtown, trying to pick up girls. Unfortunately, his nerdy appearance means that he doesn’t have much luck. Meanwhile, Steve has met up with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) — who is also Curt’s sister — and puts forth the idea of seeing other people while he is away at college. He tries to phrase this as a way to fortify their own relationship, but Laurie sees through it. Despite this, she still decides to go with him to the Back to School dance at the high school, along with Curt. Curt sees a beautiful girl in a white T-bird on the drive, and believes that she mouths the words “I love you” to him. He begs Steve to follow the car, but Steve laughs him off. Curt quickly grows tired of the dance, but a full-fledged fight breaks out between Steve and Laurie, who is irate at the way Steve is handling things. Curt leaves and wanders around town, finally ending up in front of a television store. Meanwhile, John has been cruising around town in his car, with which he has won a number of races. He attempts to pick up a girl in another car, but ends up with the girl’s younger sister, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in the car with him. Carol is in her early teenage years, and is thrilled to be riding around with John. When she realizes that John does not share her enthusiasm, she begins teasing and annoying him. John has also heard that another guy is looking for him, wanting to race, but figures that the guy will find him if this is true. Toad has finally managed to pick up a girl, Debbie (Candy Clark), whom he quickly learns is not as wholesome as her appearance suggests: she quickly asks him to get some beer. Toad, who has told Debbie his nickname is Tiger, does manage to convince a guy to buy him some beer, and heads out to a secluded spot with Debbie. They leave the car to go down by the water, but sometime later find that the car has been stolen.
Back in town, Curt has been surrounded by several guys who are members of the Pharaohs gang. The gang forces Curt to ride around with them, but after he gets them out of trouble at an arcade, they warm up and decide to initiate him into the gang. Curt succeeds, but is still preoccupied with the blonde in the T-bird. He finally manages to get away from the gang (now friendly), and heads to the radio station where famed DJ Wolfman Jack is supposed to wor, but inside he finds only a regular DJ. Curt dejectedly hands over the dedication he wanted to have the Wolfman read on air, and spends some time talking to the DJ. As he is leaving, he hears the Wolfman’s voice, and turns to see the DJ recording another tape — the DJ really is the Wolfman. Not long after this, the Wolfman reads Curt’s dedication on air, asking the blonde to either meet or call him. Toad and Debbie have walked back to town, and miraculously found the car — which has apparently been stolen by several burly men. Toad and Debbie reclaim the car, only to have Steve appear and suddenly take it back (he has heard that Laurie is with another guy). After dropping Carol off at her house, John has finally run into Bob Falfa, the guy who wants to race him. To John’s surprise, Laurie is in the car with Bob, and intends to stay there during the race. Only a few seconds into the race Bob loses control of the car, which careens into a ditch. Bob and Laurie get out safely, and Steve rushes down to Laurie. She angrily demands that he not leave her, and Steve tells her that he’s decided to stay in town. Curt has fallen asleep in his car, but is awakened by the ringing of a nearby phone booth; when he picks up, the blonde is on the phone. She refuses to tell him her identity, but tells him that he can meet her that night. Curt regretfully tells her that he is leaving town that very morning, then heads for the airport. He says goodbye to his family and friends, including Steve, who states that he will follow the next year (after Laurie graduates). Curt has a window seat on the plane, and as it takes off he sees a white T-bird on the ground. An epilogue notes that John was killed by a drunk driver in 1964; Toad went MIA in An Loc, Vietnam in 1965; Steve became an insurance salesman in California, and Curt became a write living in Canada.
MY TAKE: This film made me nostalgic, and I wasn’t even alive during that time period. It’s based on actual events that happened to writer/director George Lucas, and is one of the first coming-of-age stories with a great soundtrack that became popular afterwards. The plot isn’t anything special — nothing monumental happens, but it is entertaining to watch the various exploits of the characters as they enjoy their last night together. And the music really is tremendous. The film is also kind of a before-they-were-famous montage, because almost everybody involved became well-known for something they did after this movie. Producer Francis Ford Coppola would go on to make the Godfather movies; George Lucas would make Star Wars; Richard Dreyfuss would do Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among many, many others; “Ronny” Howard would star in Happy Days, start going by “Ron”, and get into directing; Cindy Williams would also have a part in Happy Days before landing a starring role (Shirley) in the spinoff Laverne and Shirley; Mackenzie Phillips would get a starring role in One Day at a Time and develop a famed drug addiction; Harrison Ford (who plays Bob Falfa) would make the Star Wars movies, among others, and Suzanne Somers, who has a bit part as the blonde in the T-bird, would be cast as a lead in the show Three’s Company. It’s a good thing they made this movie before all these things happened, because I don’t think they would have had the budget to do it afterward. As I said, nothing really spectacular happens in the movie — frankly, I don’t see how it was nominated for Best Picture — but it is entertaining and just plain fun.