I think every Jaws fanatic thinks Robert Shaw’s Quint is the finest supporting performance of the last 50 years. It is incredible that it went unmentioned at the Academy Awards, when looking at it through the prism of time it seems so clear that it was a game changer. The Indianapolis monologue itself would have been monumental but it is also surrounded by a dozen other scenes that are iconic. Shaw however was not the lead in Jaws. His character actually disappears for almost a hour after we first meet him. The movie has to survive on more than Quint’s ticks and grumbling the half seen shark. The unacknowledged backbone of the movie is the work of star Roy Scheider.
The steady presence of Chief Brody is the hook we can hang onto during the emotional upheaval and thrilling action that takes place in the story. He is our surrogate into the political, scientific and emotional stories that collide during the course of the movie. Brody is an average guy trying to do his best for his family and the town. Scheider gives a great conflicted performance on the ferry when the town elders confront him about closing the beaches. The expression on his face and the vocal tone when he pleads that he was just acting on what he had been told, mimics all of us when we have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. The whine of powerlessness is just below the surface and Scheider underplays it perfectly.
Whole essays and dissertations have been written about the theme of man’s inadequacy in the face of nature as evidenced by this film. The Brody character is the manifestation of this. He is at the beck and call of petty officials. Brody has to listen to complaints about the kids karating the picket fences, or the red zones in front of some store. Schieder shows the powerlessness in two great scenes, when he takes the slap from Mrs. Kintner and his shoulders and face collapse with guilt and remorse. Later at the council meeting, he can never be in the right spot. He gets pushed out of the center and shunted to the side as if he were a kid in his dad’s way. Those moments are in the script but it is the performance that makes them memorable. Here is an example of that real, physical , display of need and desire played out with the little boy who plays his youngest son. Everyone remembers the scene but don’t forget it is Schieder who sells the powerlessness so well that only the love and admiration of his child can begin to pull him out of the funk he is in. That’s the point at which he starts to fight back against those powers that overwhelm him. It’s when he is drunk and at his lowest that he says, “I’m the chief of police, I can do anything I want.”
Roy Schieder is also responsible for the most iconic line from the movie, a bit that he improvised and shows the terror he faced. Maybe I am over reacting but it simply seems to me that he has never been given full credit for the contribution that he made to the film. His part is to play the weak link in the chain. Hooper is smarter, Quint is tougher, and both in their own ways lord that over him. Schieder has to be believable, not as a loser, but as a man that has not yet faced up to the biggest challenges. He needs to prove himself to himself. Unless his performance is solid, his character will be swallowed up whole by the likes of Dreyfess and Shaw. The fact that we still root for him and are not ashamed to see ourselves in him is a tribute to the job he did as an actor. He may now need glasses, he may have to kowtow to local tyrants, he may sit in the car on the ferry back and forth to the mainland, but he still manages to be a hero. In a pissing contest over scars, he loses by an appendix, but in a battle to the death with nature, he manages to make a man out of the everyman in all of us.