Is the Mayor of Amity the Unsung Villain of "Jaws"?
Updated: Jul 27
“Tomorrow’s the 4th of July! This is going to be one of the best summers we’ve ever had. Now you do whatever you have to to make those beaches safe, but those beaches will be open for this weekend!”
These are words that, in any normal year, wouldn’t cause much of a controversy.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to kick back, cook up a burger or two, go surfing, shoot off some fireworks, and play some Cornhole in the sand with their friends and family on the 4th of July? Sounds good to me, and I’d normally be all about enjoying my beautiful, brown-water SoCal beaches this weekend.
But 2020 hasn’t exactly been a normal year has it?
Spoken in in 1975 by a fictional glad-handing, crowd-pleasing politician in a powder-blue suit, these words set the stage for some pretty entertaining conflict and a rather bloody two hours of cinema.
Said in 2020 as we all strive to keep our heads above water (no pun intended) in the midst of an ongoing pandemic while everyone is on edge across the country, and we’ve arrived at yet another troubling debate.
When is it safe to go back in the water? Or in today’s terms, when is it safe to actually reopen our beaches and public places?
Also, who has the ultimate power to decide when it’s safe (or allowable) to go back to the beach, back to school, back to church, back to work, and back to some semblance of the life we once knew?
And who is really responsible for protecting the health, safety, and freedom of the American people, and by what means are they called to do so?
And this is where my normal 4th of July viewing of the founding father of summer blockbusters has added a little perspective. Here’s a story question I’ve been wrestling with this summer.
Is Larry Vaughn, the Mayor of Amity Island, who is played to political perfection by Murray Hamilton, the unsung villain of Jaws?
In Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Larry Vaughn is the primary force fighting to keep the beaches of Amity open, even after the film’s primary antagonist, the twenty-five-foot man-eating shark, has already devoured two people, including a little boy.
With crowds of tourists flocking to Amity for the 4th of July weekend, and a very hungry shark still lurking offshore, you would think Chief Brody’s plea to close the beaches, backed by Matt Hooper’s oceanographic expertise, would be backed by the city’s mayor.
Instead, Mayor Vaughn stubbornly exercises his political power, declaring, “those beaches will be open for this weekend!” This leaves Brody and Hooper in a full summer scramble.
Is Mayor Vaughn a lunatic? Is he in denial? Is he genuinely invested in the well-being of Amity’s citizens? Or is he just another corrupt, political slime ball flexing his political muscles to further some hidden political agenda?
Villain? Imbecile? Corrupt politician? Or naïve, misguided public servant? Which is it?
To be clear, I’m not drawing comparisons to our current situation as a means of attacking or even defending of any of our elected leaders. Jaws is a movie! What happens in our day to day lives doesn't always adhere to the same three act structure, nor are our challenges wrapped up nicely in two hours. Our leaders have tough choices to make everyday, none of which are going to be popular with everyone.
Beaches open? Beaches closed? There are many competing concerns, costs, and consequences that have to be weighed against each other that most of us in the general public aren't aware of. I get that.
But there is also a difference between a popular decision and the right decision. Yes, hindsight is always 20/20, and when the dust settles, we'll know which responses in times of crisis were ultimately effective and which ones were not.
But how a leader chooses to use (or abuse) their political power says a lot about their character, leadership, and intentions. Leaders don't get a free pass for choosing power, self-interest, PR, and personal ideology over the well-being and freedom of the people they are called to serve either.
However, not all politicians are that insidious or conniving. Let's be fair. Sometimes their decisions are well-meaning but maybe just short-sighted or naive. Sadly, those are often the ones that still cause damage. As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with the best intentions.”
Incompetence is deadly, and in the matter of Jaws, a hungry twenty-five foot shark doesn't care why people are in the water. A meal is a meal, and he'll take it however he can get it.
So what is Mayor Vaughn’s motivation in keeping the beaches open in Jaws? Stupid or sordid? And does this make him a secondary villain of this story?
In the book, Peter Benchley introduces a subplot of Vaughn trying to keep the beaches open to preserve a shady business deal he has with out-of-town real estate brokers run by the mob. I kid you not. That’s the angle Benchley took with the character, which clearly makes Mayor Vaughn Amity’s biggest a**hole and political crony. And if you’ve read the book, you’d know that other characters, even the good guys, aren’t much better. Thank God Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb took a different approach.
In their adaptation, Mayor Vaughn is far less insidious or corrupt. He challenges Brody’s immediate reaction to close the beaches when he learns that the first victim, Chrissy Watkins, was killed by a shark, which, by the way, was listed as the initial cause of death by the medical examiner, who later flip flops on his report. Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar.
So from book to film, we see two completely different motivations pushing Larry Vaughn. One is far more corrupt than the other. But let's focus on the movie version.
In the movie, as Vaughn reminds Brody, “it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everyone says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, and we have a panic on our hands on the fourth of July.”
He clearly understands something about public panic, which he would be wise to try and mitigate. The "how" is where things get interesting.
Maybe we can chalk Vaughn’s initial downplay of the situation up to healthy skepticism and general desire to avoid public panic. Maybe. Perhaps a more thorough investigation is required before closing the beaches and destroying Amity’s entire summer income and the livelihood of its citizens in the process. That would make sense, and I could see a situation where that response would be justified. And as Ben Meadows, the town journalist, argues, “we’ve never had that kind of trouble in these waters.” That’s also true. So if the death of Chrissy Watkins wasn’t the confirmed result of a shark attack, closing the beaches would be a response that could ultimately hurt the people of Amity more than help.
But then we arrive at the death of little Alex Kintner. There’s no denying it now. Brody saw it with his own eyes, as did an entire crowd of beachgoers. Amity has a shark problem, and Vaughn knows it too.
So what does he do?
In the city council meeting, Vaughn reluctantly agrees to allow Brody to close the beaches… “but only twenty-four hours.”
Is that enough time? Probably not. Maybe he hopes someone will catch and kill the shark on Mrs. Kintner’s $3000 bounty. But that’s a pretty passive gamble that lacks an assertive response, especially when he could have immediately hired Quint to kill the “bad fish.”
As Hooper says later in the film, “there are two ways of handling this problem. You either kill this creature or you cut off its food supply.” Vaughn doesn't really do either.
Despite the proven threat, Vaughn still wants to maintain the public perception of Amity being a pristine, clean, and safe beach for people to visit. Why?
Well, he knows that if the beaches of Amity close for the summer, especially the fourth of July weekend, Amity has no summer income. The tourists go somewhere else. And without those “summer dollars”, most of the businesses of Amity won’t survive the winter. Neither will its citizens. And if the people can’t pay rent or support their businesses, they’ll be forced to leave. Amity as a community will dry up or simply die.
Guess what? Mayor Vaughn isn’t wrong in trying to prevent that outcome. That's his job as the mayor. He has identified a real threat to his community and believes he is “acting in the town’s best interest” by keeping Amity’s biggest business, the beaches, open for the summer. And people wanting to run their businesses so they can make money to feed their families isn't selfish or evil.
The problem is, Vaughn is motivated by a justifiable long-term goal that has to be weighed against a more immediate threat. Unfortunately, his solution to trying to avoid one problem, involves ignoring or downplaying another. So maybe his biggest flaw isn’t selfishness or greed, but rather, misaligned priorities.
Remember also that a group of fishermen do end up killing a shark, which convinces the residents of Amity, Mayor Vaughn included, that the man-eating monster has been caught, the threat has been neutralized, and things can go back to normal. What reason would anyone have to think otherwise and close the beaches? The shark is dead. Right?
Matt Hooper, however, has another hypothesis, and believes that the real, much bigger shark, could still be out there.
So what does Vaughn do? He obviously wants to protect the people of Amity and believes that the shark threat has been taken care of. He also wants to ensure their long-term well-being by allowing the family-owned businesses of Amity to operate during its peak season.
Does he take the word of a young, arrogant, out-of-town oceanographer with inconclusive evidence, or does he stick to his gut and make a judgment call?
Mayor Vaughn decides to keep the beaches open.
He isn’t convinced that the shark problem is bigger than the economic downfall of Amity, and because he downplays or disregards the more immediate threat, he doesn't inform the beachgoers of Amity of the dangers of going swimming. Rather, he encourages people to go in the water.
Mistake? Probably. And that’s confirmed by the third death.
So what causes Vaughn to finally realize his error and work to correct it? Four things.
A massive shift in public perception, and
His kids witnessing the whole thing.
That last one hits him hard. As is often the case, the threat becomes much more real the moment things begin to affect him personally.
Following the third attack, Mayor Vaughn ponies up, hires Quint to kill the shark, and does what needs to be done to protect Amity from present and future danger. It just took three deaths to get there, four if you count Ben Gardner.
So is Mayor Vaughn the unsung villain of Jaws? To be fair. No. He may be an optimistic and naive politician, but in the end, there’s only one villain of this story, and that’s the merciless, man eating great white shark.
Well-intentioned, naïve, short-sighted, stubborn, and often foolish, but never malicious or evil. Larry Vaughn does care about his community and does what he believes is in the best interest of his people. Elected to protect the health, safety, and freedom of his town, he has to live with the consequences of his decisions, both good and bad. Sadly, in the summer of 75, the bad outweighed the good.
Anyway, these are just a few new perspectives on a character I’ve never liked and never admired but now understand a little better.
That being said, I hope you enjoyed a safe, shark free 4th of July with your family and friends. Thank you so much for stopping by Perspectives off the Page for another love letter to one of my favorite movies. If you liked this post, feel free to chomp the heart button below, subscribe, or pass this content along to any Jaws fan you know.
Until it’s safe to go back in the water…