The official poster for the 1978 movie The Betsy claims it’s “Sizzling with action… Spiced with Girls… Charged with Sex!” Although those (somewhat exaggerated) claims might be enough to entice most viewers, it was a different, potentially more exciting attraction that led me to dig up this long-Forgotten film. I was looking for vintage behind-the-scenes footage of American Motors Corporation. What I found was a sleazy 1970s movie that featured full-frontal nudity in the first 15 minutes and continued with blackmail, voyeurism, suicide, incest, and a disappointingly small number of AMCs.
I’d first heard about The Betsy while interviewing former American Motors employees for a documentary I’m producing. Vince Geraci, Bob Monacelli, and Susan Tassi all worked together in AMC’s design department during the late 70s and happily shared memories of when Hollywood came to Detroit.
The Betsy was an adaptation of a 1971 novel by the same name, featuring the dysfunctional family behind a failing automobile empire. When the movie’s producers wanted to film inside a real-life design studio and a working assembly plant, they turned to American Motors. Perhaps it was the temptation of free advertising or maybe it was AMC’s lack of bureaucratic red tape compared to its competitors, but for some reason the company decided to say yes.
“I don’t think GM or Ford or any of these other companies would have given them time of day to go into the studios and do this,” said Vince Geraci, former head of AMC interior design. “They came through my studio, and it stopped some things… It was a change of pace.”
Located in American Motors’ historic Plymouth Road facility in Detroit, the styling department where Geraci worked had served as the incubator for many famous AMC, Rambler, and Nash designs, as well as some Kelvinator appliances. During a week in 1977, a small army of movie-makers transformed it into the fictional Bethlehem Motor Company. Actors Tommy Lee Jones, Edward Herrmann, Roy Poole, and Kathleen Beller strutted about, discussing “the Betsy,” a secret new car design for which the movie was named.
“It was very exciting for us!” remembered Susan Tassi, who worked in color and fabric design. “We had to kind of be quiet and keep out of the way. But, just to see a movie star was a unique experience in your workplace.”
Nearly fifty years later, some of them still remain a little star-struck. “And of course, Tommy Lee Jones, that was one of his first movies!” Geraci told me excitedly. “Nobody knew that he was going to be a big deal in movies.”
Jones was around 30 years old at the time, and his career had just started to take off. The film’s biggest stars, Lawrence Olivier and Robert Duvall, didn’t have any scenes at this location, and none of the designers remembered seeing them on set. Instead, they had to settle for Ed Herrmann, who was just coming off a popular TV mini-series where he’d played Franklin Roosevelt.
“As I recall,” Tassi told me. “Jean Bollinger went out to dinner with Ed herrmann. [She] worked with me, so that was kind of a big deal!”
A handful of AMC employees made it into the movie as extras, working (or at least acting) in the background. Monacelli scored the most camera time of all, a whopping eight seconds.
“I was at my desk at the drawing board, and I developed the name “Betsy.” I had to draw the name Betsy, and that’s the only part of the film I was in.”
Monacelli is seen drawing—or more accurately, tracing—a giant “Betsy” logo for the fictional car with a permanent marker. As a fun aside, he used a similar-style marker to scribble out the iconic “basketry print” fabric pattern used on thousands of AMC Pacer seats.
“And Tommy Lee Jones was standing next to me and the girl was standing beside,” Monacelli said, “And I had a good time. It was fun! It took a long time to do that scene, but I think I had eight seconds on the film.”
Such is the process of making movies, where hours of footage can be cut to mere moments on screen. Geraci, a lifelong movie buff, wasn’t as lucky as his coworker.
“I said, ‘Do you mind, do you think you could get me into one of these shots or something?’ …So, they had me sit down and there’s a door trim panel… and Tommy Lee Jones is walking by me, and the only thing you can see of me is my fingers,” he chuckled. “That was my part in the movie! My fingers.” But as it turns out, more than just his fingers appeared. For a brief moment, you can see Geraci sitting in the background while Tommy Lee Jones and Ed Herrmann walk by. After four decades of thinking he didn’t make it into the film, he was elated when I sent him a screengrab of the shot:
I caught some other neat Easter eggs, too. The producers must have gotten sloppy in removing references to American Motors, (or perhaps they never expected an AMC nut to go through the scenes frame by frame), as one shot clearly shows an AMC Javelin sign stuck to the front of a desk.
Another angle shows an AMC logo conspicuously in the background, and only true fanatics would catch the rare “Up With the Rebel Machine” sticker nearby, which was a promotional item for the limited-production 1970 AMC Rebel Machine muscle car. Perhaps I could have found even more details if the picture quality was better, but unfortunately Warner Brothers never bothered releasing an HD version of the film, so I was stuck watching a standard definition version. (Even this wasn’t a very good copy of the film, as it included multiple image and audio glitches that were burned into the digital file.)
Designers weren’t the only employees turned into movie stars, as the crew visited AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin factory as well. Ed Herrmann’s character drove a golf cart through the plant, giving Tommy Lee Jones a tour as 1978 models were assembled in the background. The most noticeable vehicles are the AMC Gremlin, which was in its final year, and the Concord, which was all-new for ’78. Workers were seen stamping panels, welding bodies, painting cars, installing engines and transmissions, attaching trim, installing windshields, painting pinstripes, and more. None of them had speaking parts, but they did get paid $5 for appearing on camera, and they got to meet the actors, too.
Aside from the obvious automotive connection, most AMC employees weren’t told exactly what the movie was about. All the dialogue-heavy scenes were shot elsewhere, and any lines the actors had at the factory or the design studios must not have been very important, as all that footage was edited into two music montages without any speaking. Eager to know more about the film, Monacelli asked the director for details.
It’s Not A Family-Friendly Film
“Bob had become a born again Christian at the time, and he was very very religious.” remembered Geraci. “And he went to the director, and I was there… And he said, ‘I just want you to know, I guess you’re going to be filming me and all that, and I hope the movie that you’re producing is something that families can see and a movie that I can be proud of.’”
The director assured that it would be a great movie that “many families would go see,” but unfortunately for Monacelli, he kind of bent the truth. Despite a huge cast of renowned names, The Betsy was far from high-brow entertainment. The original novel from which the film was based had been written by romance author Harold Robbins, who was once called “the dirty old man of American letters.” And boy, was The Betsy dirty. Before I watched it, Geraci warned me: “It’s got bare tops AND bottoms!”
Ostensibly, the story is about the Hardeman family’s power struggle over the faltering Bethlehem Motor Company. A radical new car, named after the founder’s great-granddaughter Betsy, is supposed to help save the company. But in actuality, the majority of the film focuses on three generations of men—all named Loren Hardeman—doing terrible things to each other and others.
Through a series of flashbacks between the 1970s and 1930s, Loren I, Loren II, and Loren III fight for control of BMC. In the present 1970s, family patriarch Loren I (played by Lawrence Olivier) has secretly hired Italian race car driver Angelo Perino (Tommy Lee Jones) to design a new car that uses a computer-controlled turbine engine to achieve an incredible 60 miles per gallon. The grandson, Loren III (played by Robert Duvall), seeks to follow in the footsteps of his dead father, Loren II, and close the company’s money-losing automobile division and diversify into profitable ventures like cheap imported appliances and real estate.
Laced throughout are scenes of murder, sex, and greed. Just 13 minutes in, Angelo creepily watches the young Betsy Hardeman completely undress to go swimming. From there, other highlights include:
– Loren I cheating on his wife with a maid while his daughter-in-law watches.
– Loren II cheating on his wife with a secret gay lover.
– Loren I watching intently as his daughter-in-law breastfeeds Loren III as an infant.
– Loren II’s secret lover threatening Loren I with blackmail, which causes Loren II to commit suicide in front of his young son, Loren III.
– Loren III finding his mother in bed with his grandfather, Loren I.
With all this philandering, clearly none of them had any time to do actual work, which is probably why the family business has gone downhill.
Violent antics include a chauffeur getting blasted with submachine guns, hired thugs throwing Loren II’s lover out of a window to his death, and an automotive journalist who gave the Betsy a negative review getting murdered by having his head rolled up into a car window. In short, this is not a family friendly movie, which I only point out because a major corporate would normally never want to be affiliated with such a film, but AMC was a special company.
Despite all the racing, sex, cars, and murder, the The Betsy still manages to be painfully uninteresting. The majority of it is spent in stuffy boardrooms, dining rooms, and hotel rooms, packed to the gills with chintzy 1970s “rich people” furniture. The plot wanders aimlessly as Laurence Olivier prattles on with a fake, nasally American accent, and Tommy Lee Jones replies in curt dialogue that alternates between wooden and deeply uncomfortable. One-dimensional women either throw themselves sexually at every male character, or suffer helplessly at their cruelty. Filled with flashbacks and awkward pauses, the story manages to simultaneously be confusing and boring.
Part of me wondered if this type of movie making was simply a relic of the era, before viewers were constantly distracted by smartphones, and we didn’t need superheroes to recap the plot every 20 minutes to keep us interested. But, having just watched the cinematic masterpiece that is The Godfather just a week prior, it’s almost unbelievable that these two movies came from the same decade. (And that Robert Duvall starred in both.)
The funny thing is, the majority of the star-studded cast and crew were already successful or would eventually become so. Between actors Laurence Olivier, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Katherine Ross, Jane Alexander, Lesley-Anne Down, and Edward Herrmann, plus director Daniel Petrie and composer John Barry (of James Bond fame), the group had nearly two dozen Oscar, Emmy, BAFTA, and Tony awards and nominations among them. However, the sum of the movie falls far below its parts.
To make matters worse, the viewer can’t exactly figure out which character to root for. Loren III (Duvall) is originally painted as the villain, due to his opposition to the Betsy project, but you learn he’s been abused his whole life and just wants the company to be profitable. Loren I (Olivier), wants to build the car of the future, but he’s is also a perverted old man who has people murdered. Angelo (Jones) is supposedly the protagonist, but he sleeps with his boss’ mistress before dumping her for the boss’s daughter (Kathleen Beller), and then he hires assassins to kill a car reviewer.
All of the characters are bad, but few of them are interesting.
The biggest disappointment of all is that only two minutes of the two hour film actually feature AMC-related content. All it shows is a quick split-screen montage of the design studio and the factory, and later we see designers create a clay model of the Betsy car. When the characters do drive around in “company” cars, none of the Bethlehem Motor Company vehicles are actually based on AMCs. They’re just lazily disguised Fords and Mercedes, with only very minor tweaks to the grills and trim pieces. All the original badges are replaced with giant “BMC” logos. (Although, I guess it’s better than giant “BM” logos.) The only fully assembled AMC in the entire movie is a Pacer seen randomly in a parking lot.
Interestingly, the actual Betsy car prototype was built around a heavily-modified Lancia Beta, and it manages to look at least somewhat believable onscreen as a late-70s futuristic interpretation of a compact car. It’s small and sporty-ish, but for being the supposed car of the future, it’s still pretty bland looking.
As an automotive history nerd, one thing I can give The Betsy credit for is that it actually paints a semi-realistic portrait of a struggling car company during the 1970s. According to an article from the time, the producers did spend a few days visiting various AMC facilities and talking to employees to learn more about the ins and outs of the auto industry.
Much like the U.S. at the time, car buyers in the film are turning against big American gas guzzlers, including those made by BMC. As company chairman, Loren I desperately wants to build a new “people’s car.” As company president, Loren III hates the risk involved with any new design, which leads Loren I and Angelo to develop the project in secret. Listing his aspirations, Loren I says: “No one has come up with a car that’s small, cheap, economical to run, pollution-free, and safe.”
“You think you have?” asks Angelo.
“I know damn well I have!” Loren I replies. (Oscar-worthy dialogue, I know.)
He mentions that every company is working on some kind of engine, whether diesel, electric, gas turbine, or steam, but nobody can come up with something better than gasoline internal combustion. This was at least, somewhat accurate, as during the 60s and 70s American automakers experimented with all kinds of new powertrains. Chrysler built its famous Turbine Car. AMC created two EV concepts called the Amitron and the Electron (which were actually the same car, just repainted). GM engineered the infamous Oldsmobile diesel V8, as well as a rotary engine that never made it into production (which inadvertently caused the death of the AMC Pacer, but that’s another story.)
The weird powertrains weren’t limited to mainline manufacturers, either. Fueled in part by rising inflation and the 1973 oil crisis, all kinds of urban legends arose around genius inventors who claimed to have developed 200 mpg carburetors in their garages, only to be silenced by greedy oil companies. Whether realistic or not, people believed a transportation breakthrough was on the way. But, improved efficiency didn’t come from a new fuel source or some miraculous invention; the far less exciting solution to high gas prices came from the cumulative effect of many minor efficiency gains as a result of reducing vehicle weight, improving aerodynamics, adding more gears to transmissions, and replacing carburetors with fuel-injection.
Of course, having characters test how much metal you can shave off a part before it breaks isn’t exactly thrilling, so the Betsy in The Betsy gets its efficiency boost from a bang-whiz turbine engine that supposedly produces 60 mpg. The characters explain it away with some technical mumbo-jumbo about exhaust probes and computer controlled fuel lines, leading to an engineer who boasts a “90% increase in thermal efficiency.” (I’m no engineer, but I don’t think that’s how that works…) However, they do get extra points for using realistic-sounding turbine noises when the car is driven on screen.
Meanwhile, when the Hardemans aren’t looking at turbine engines or having extra-marital affairs, they’re complaining about Ralph Nader. The famous lawyer and consumer advocate gets name-dropped multiple times, as executives argue that government safety and emissions regulations will raise the price of cars, which will reduce demand, which will result in layoffs and unemployment, which threatens free enterprise, which will destroy the very essence of the American way of life.
It’s an argument that automakers have used for decades, and the movie copies the talking points almost word for word. Loren III’s disdain for the whole thing has led him to continue his dead father, Loren II’s, plan of diversification, which involves selling appliances, sporting goods, and menswear, all manufactured overseas at discount prices. Once again, this reflected actual industry trends, as many American automakers expanded into other businesses after WWII. Home appliances were a particularly common venture, as GM owned Frigidaire, Ford purchased Philco, Nash/AMC owned Kelvinator, and Studebaker diversified into all kinds of products, including lawn mowers, generators, appliances, floor waxers, and oil additives. Eventually, Studebaker quit automobile production altogether and disappeared in a series of corporate mergers. No doubt, Loren III wanted to follow a similar plan.
Of course, as interesting as all these esoteric details are to a car history buff, they can’t make up for The Betsy‘s train wreck of a plot. The story comes to a climax, not at a racetrack, assembly line, or design studio, but in a quiet boardroom. While the family patriarchs were busy arguing with each other, the suave Angelo effortlessly convinced the Hardemen women to cede their control of Bethlehem Motor Company stock to him. With 51% of the shares, Angelo makes himself CEO and guarantees that the Betsy car will be made. As a consolation prize, he lets Loren III stay on to manage the company’s other activities.
And that’s it! No big twist, dramatic shootout, high-speed car chase, or rousing speech about the power of American innovation. Even Betsy Hardeman herself doesn’t appear in the final scene with Angelo. What could have been a relevant and scathing critique of the power and corruption within the American auto industry instead comes off as lackadaisical romance film with random nudity.
As Bob Monacelli said, “It’s not a very good movie.”
Movie critics at the time agreed, lambasting it both as trashy and boring. With a chuckle, Monacelli admitted to me that he only watched it once and didn’t bother to finish it. However, he did enjoy being a part of the production with his coworkers. “Of course we had to all go see the movie!” said Susan Tassi. “It wasn’t the greatest movie, but we had to see it because our studio was in there… So that was our little brush with Hollywood.”
Incredibly, the movie was released on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, and even CED video, followed by DVD in the late 90s. A second DVD release tried to reframe it as a racing movie, which is laughable, seeing as there are only a few minutes of racing in the entire film. Currently the film is available for rent or purchase on a bunch of streaming services, but I don’t recommend watching it.
While The Betsy failed to make an impact, for a few days back in 1977 it provided an exciting distraction for the employees of American Motors, made possible by a sleazy novel and open-minded company willing to sacrifice a few days’ work. As a token of appreciation, Tommy Lee Jones gave VP of Design Richard Teague a set of cufflinks.
Of course, I find the true history of AMC to be far more interesting than any fictional account of the auto industry. It’s a story filled with unique cars, brilliant engineering, bold leadership, and thousands of hard working men and women who changed the automotive world through the vehicles they built. Which is why I quit my job to produce a six-part series on the history of American Motors for public television. We’ve already interviewed over 25 AMC employees, from the guy who installed hubcaps on the assembly line, all the way up to two former CEOs. You can see the trailer above.
While I don’t expect to unearth any bizarre sex scandals or murdered automotive journalists, AMC’s past still involved plenty of strong personalities, brilliant innovations, corporate intrigue, and at least one assassination. Plus, the cars were a lot cooler that disguised Ford LTDs.