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A Wipeout No More

Twenty years after it flopped, 'Big Wednesday' is now surfing a new wave of popularity.

June 18, 1998|JERRY DERLOSHON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty years ago, "Big Wednesday," the film tracing the surfing exploits of buddies Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt from the early '60s through the '70s, opened--and promptly flopped.

But since that time the movie has built an audience as a cult film--and one of the very few, surfing aficionados say, to really capture the surfing life.

The film's recent showings at the Newport Film Festival, for example, were sold out quickly, and the crush of attention lavished on the film's stars, who appeared at the screenings, surprised and delighted them.

Many of the young filmgoers, not even born when the film was originally released, hooted and yelled many of the film's lines along with the actors during the screening. Jeff Conner, executive director of the festival, said, " 'Big Wednesday' had an energy we don't normally see at the festival."

No one is more surprised or pleased by the ongoing adulation than the film's two creators--co-writer Denny Aaberg and writer-director John Milius ("Conan the Barbarian," "Red Dawn"). The two close friends grew up in the heyday of 1960s surfing at Malibu and set out to make a film that captured that time and place.

To those close to the surf scene, especially baby boomers who lived the era, it is the quintessential surf movie, carefully preserving experiences and gut-level emotions that are as real as anything else in their lives.

Aaberg, now 51 and still an avid surfer, says accolades from fellow surfers have continued over 20 years. "They call out to me in the water and say how much they like the movie, or they paddle by and simply say, 'Right on.' "

For Milius, 53, his "Big Wednesday" ride has been as unpredictable as the surf he chased in his youth. When the film came out, he thought it would be the kind of big box-office hit that his USC film school classmates Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were making. But when the film was released, it was soundly thrashed by critics and didn't catch on with the public. It cost about $6 million to make but only took in about $4.5 million at the box office.

In surfing parlance, Milius had wiped out. "I was criticized for what some called a flagrant sentimentality," says Milius. "It was an abject failure."

Milius recalled taking a long walk and deciding that the only truly honorable thing for him to do was join the French Foreign Legion. "Having settled that, I only needed to decide whether I was going to travel coach or first-class." Eventually, though, he realized that his disappointment was groundless, that he had never set out to make a blockbuster in the first place.

"I told myself, 'You're a fool. You didn't set out to make a big hit. You got off track somewhere. The final criterion was that you got paid what they agreed to pay you and that you did your best.' "

Over the years, Milius went on to write mega-moneymakers, including "The Hunt for Red October," "Clear and Present Danger" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance." But "Big Wednesday," which he also directed, remains one of his career's most gratifying experiences.

Recalls Milius: "It was important to get it the way it really was. When I saw it the other night, I was very proud of it because it's very uncompromising. The characters face real problems. They experience real emptiness and loss. And the film doesn't offer solutions. It expounds the glories of friendship, which is one of the best things you have in life."

Lee Purcell, 44, who played Jan-Michael Vincent's girlfriend, Peggy Gordon, agrees.

"The film is about loyalty and sticking by people when they're down," she said. "Surfing was the background, but it was only a background. The real story was about three men and two women and what happens to them when they grow and change."

Milius believes that the honest approach the film takes to friendship is the reason people connect with it--regardless of their age or where they live.

Jeff Bliss, 36, heads Pepperdine University's public relations department in Malibu. The Massachusetts native learned to surf when he was 12, living in Tustin in Southern California. He was 17 when he saw "Big Wednesday" and says the grace and style of the film's surfing sequences contribute to its lasting success. "There's a certain mystique associated with the long board or 'soul' surfing of the 1960s. A lot of young surfers today are riding long boards and re-creating the '60s style. It's become cool." But Bliss thinks the enduring appeal of "Big Wednesday" is its depiction of real people dealing with real issues, "as opposed to the early wave of beach blanket movies featuring teenage girls dancing in the sand all day long."

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