Why The 70's Were The Greatest Decade In America Cinema
American cinema has undergone numerous periods of dynamic change, from the advent of sound, to the implementation of color. With each obstacle, the industry has adapted and shifted with the changing attitudes of each generation. The language of cinema gained an important accent in the 1970's.
The `70's saw the emergence of a new American film. Behind this revolution was all the cynicism and mistrust towards authority which pervaded American culture. The 1960's upended all facets of American society; music, literature, politics, sex and race all experienced drastic change during the decade. American cinema adapted and reflected these changes in it’s own time. The studio system of the Golden Era of Hollywood was in it’s twilight. Even though many of the symbols of the old vanguard were still leaving, there was still a reluctance to take risks, or embrace the changing values of society.
American cinema in the 70’s had it’s roots in the ashes of Italy after World War II. New Hollywood was a combination of the cynicism of post-modern society with the sweeping romanticism of Pre-Cold War Hollywood. Both past and present became the source of inspiration for driving forward Hollywood’s future.
It’s 1945 and Europe has been devastated by war. The entire continent is basically one big block of rubble. This environment influenced a bleak, realistic and gritty type of film. These films were categorized by the use of non-professional actors, were filmed on location and often dealt with the difficult and bleak condition of post WWII life in Italy. The most notable example being The Bicycle Thief (1948).
The Neo-Realist’s were a wave of refreshment compared to their American counterparts. American films have had a long history of being obsessed with optimism and happy endings. The American Dream is the pervasive theme which runs through all American cinema. Even the bleakest American disaster film still ends with the hero somehow overcoming the odds and surviving. The good guy always wins and lives.
Contrast this with the ending of the The Bicycle Thief. Here’s some context, it’s the story of a father and a son. The Dad has a bike which he needs for his job so he can provide for his family. His bike is stolen early in the film. By the end of the film he resorts to becoming a thief himself, just so he can keep his job.
Father and son walk away into the sunset, defeated by the world with their heads hung low. Happy endings are something you will not find within this genre. Neo-Realist works spread across the world, especially in Europe were they would influence a new generation of filmmakers, leading to…
The French New Wave
The Neo-Realist style influenced an American director named Moris Engel who created the landmark film The Little Fugitive (1953). Like the Neo-Realist’s The Little Fugitive was shot on location, at Coney Island, using non-professional actors. Unlike the Neo-Realist’s, it ends on a warm hearted, light note (It is an American film). This will be an important thing to remember, and is something which separates the New Waves from the Neo-Realists.
A young French film critic by the name of François Truffaut was heavily influenced by the Little Fugitive and emulated the style heavily within his own films. Truffuat was also heavily inspired by Orson Welles classic film A Touch of Evil (1958).
Truffaut got to work and made The 400 Blows in 1959. The film is considered the first major success within The French New Wave.
A year later the equally influential Breathless written by Truffaut and directed by Jean-Loc Godard brought a distinct visual style.
Unlike American films or Neo-Realists; The French New Wave preferred moral ambiguity. Like the Neo-Realists these films were shot on location. However New Wave’s preferred a documentary style visually speaking. These films were noted for breaking just about every classical rule of visual continuity established by Hollywood. This included jump cuts and breaking the 180 degree rule.
Young American filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were watching these films in art cinemas during their formative years as filmmakers. These films gained an audience, especially with young people across the world for their bold and distinct style which separated them from the blasé form the medium had fallen into.
This period has been defined as “The Golden Age of Hollywood”. This era marked a heavy domination of the Hollywood studios who basically controlled everything about American cinema. The style of filmmaking was known for it’s smooth continuity and sound design. The editing was never supposed to call attention to itself. From 1927–48, the studios essentially owned every theater in the country as well. That’s right, the studio not only controlled the production of American Films but the venues they were distributed in as well. This led to an extreme domination for five hollywood studios, who made a killing off theater revenues because all the money was coming straight back to them. In 1948 a Supreme Court decision made the studios sell all the theaters they owned. This was a huge hit for the studios as this was a major source of revenue. No big deal right? Everyone still loves the movies. By the mid 50's though films had a new major competitor; television. With the rise of TV, studios needed new draws to help fill those seats in theaters and show why movies were still better than TV. The solution? 70mm/wider aspect ratios. This gave films the advantage of a ridiculously large aspect ratio. Giving many films from the 50's and 60's this look:
The downside? It was way more expensive to shoot on 70mm than it was on 35mm. Thus movies started getting more and more expensive to make. Films constantly needed to top themselves in terms of epicness and grandeur. As TV started getting better and better, less people were going to the movies.
The most important innovation of the time occurred in the mid 50's with the emergence of Lee Strasberg and method acting. Marlon Brando’s performance in On The Waterfront is often cited as the birth of method acting. This brought a more nuanced, realistic, less theatrical acting style to America cinema. This would be influential in shaping the realistic style of American film in the 1970's.
1963's Cleopatra is often cited as an example of the overindulgence of the film’s of the era. It was the highest grossing film of the year yet lost millions due to it’s 44 million dollar budget. The film nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. At this point many of the heads of the studios began selling their assets and retiring. Jack Warner was one them. It would be Warner, an icon of the Old Hollywood who would jump start a revolution he knew nothing about.
Bonnie and Clyde
There’s an old story that like much from Hollywood, borders a strange realm between fact and legend. Back in the late 60's Warren Beatty was at Warner Bros trying to get the greenlight for Bonnie and Clyde. Jack Warner was not fond of Beatty, he found him to be loose and unpredictable. The story goes Beatty walked up to Mr Warner one day and got on his knees and began begging for Jack Warner to greenlight the Bonnie and Clyde project. Who knows whether this actually happened, but it’s symbolic nonetheless. Warner was on the verge of retirement, so what did he care. By the time the film was completed he was going to be out of the business anyways.
The weakening of the studios left executives with no options but to let young unproven talent have projects they normally would not. These projects were completed on bare budgets, but the directors had direct control over their projects. What did the studio care, they hadn’t thrown any money into the project anyway.
Fate also was on Beatty’s side. The Motion Picture Production Code which had been in place since the early 30's was a year from being abolished. The code had strictly forbidden the depiction of sex, drugs, anything anti American or anti religious. For most of the 60's though the enforcement of the code was waning. By 1967, the year of Bonnie and Clyde’s release, it had basically been abolished.
The film was influenced directly by the French New Wave, with the use of it’s editing style, it’s depiction of ambiguous morality and it’s startling shifts in tone.
The film was also noted for it’s frank portrayal of sexuality and violence. As Roger Ebert put in his review of the film:
“Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life.”
“ Years from now it is quite possible that “Bonnie and Clyde” will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor and unforgiving detail what one society had come to. The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us.”
Bonnie and Clyde was a massive hit. The film swept up young audiences, proving once again there was a market for movies about young people, for young people. An added bonus was the film grossed over 50 million dollars against it’s 2.5 million budget.
Peter Fonda, son of acting legend Henry Fonda had just recently starred in a film called Wild Angels(1966). The film like Bonnie and Clyde was completed on a next to nothing budget and was a huge hit with younger audiences. The film followed the exploits of a biker outlaw gang. The film was enough of a monetary success against it’s tiny budget that Fonda had the opportunity to do any project he wanted. He got the idea for a film about two guys who travel across the country on their motorcycles while trying to land the biggest score of their lives. Fonda came on as the producer and enlisted the help of his unpredictable friend Dennis Hopper.
The story of Easy Rider’s production and the unprecedented success it would bring is an encapsulation to a unique period in Hollywood’s history. Dennis Hopper, the film’s director was a fucking pyscho. He so much acid and coke in the 60's it’s a surprise he never wandered off into the desert, never to return. Peter Fonda assured everyone he could control Hopper and that everything would be fine.
So, in early 1968, Hopper, Fonda and a barebones crew set off with a $400,000 budget to make their film. Much of the film was ad-libbed. The production also brought on a young unknown actor named Jack Nicholson for a major supporting role. Nicholson would go on to become on the the preeminent actors of the era.
Easy Rider was noted for it’s frank . portrayal of not only sex, but drug use as well. The marijuana smoked in the film is actually weed. It makes watching those scenes alot funnier knowing these guys are actually stoned out of their minds’ and not acting.
Easy Rider was a smash hit. Grossing 60 million dollars against it’s $400,000 budget, that’s a ridiculous return percentage. At the Cannes Film Festival it won Best Film by A New Director. The film opened the floodgates for a new generation of young talent. Now executives were seeking out the next undiscovered filmmaker who would earn their studio’s acclaim and huge returns. In exchange, the directors would have creative freedom unprecedented within the history of American film.
By the very end of the 60's Hollywood had finally caught up with counter cultural revolution which had swept all the arts years before. It would be the 70's were American cinema would grow and prosper. The films would be a reflection of the times; gritty, downbeat, a celebration of the anti-hero as a protagonist. Watergate and Vietnam would be the two biggest influences on the 70's mentality. Film would keep the innovations of the 60's but abandon the youthful optimism that flowed through it. By 1970 a new wave of filmmakers were emerging onto the scene. Many of them were from film schools. This would represent the first generation of filmmakers with a formal education in cinema. By the end of the decade, two young directors would inadvertently revitalize The Hollywood system. Thus resurrecting, and in some ways inventing, the Hollywood blockbuster.
Francis Ford Coppola was the first in a generation which would ubiquitously be coined “The Film Brats”. A new wave of filmmakers were emerging from USC, UCLA and NYU. These directors would dominate the decade. By the end, most would never top what they had made in those short ten years. It would be a supernova of talent, exploding brilliantly before fading off into the stars.
Coppola gained noriety for writing Patton (1970). The film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Coppola was then attached to director the film adaptation for Mario Puzzo’s then unreleased novel The Godfather.
The film had a rough production. Coppola was constantly on the verge of getting fired. Through the chaos of the film’s production came a masterpiece of cinema. The film was would be hailed as the achievement of the decade. It was just a number of notable films to pervade across the Silver Screens from 1967–1980.
The era was marked by two different periods. The first half was full of countless period films which reflected upon a time which was lost. As the decade progressed current social issues became more entrenched into the theme and plot of the films.
In this era, the director gained unprecedented control of their films. The films were highly personal. Many of the barriers broken down during the 60's were finally explored in cinema. Language, drugs, sex and violence were explored in American film for essentially the first time.
American film was exploring it’s countercultural attitude, anti-authoritarianism was the pervading sentiment. Watergate furthered the fires of the fuck you attitude films had reached by the end of the decade. This scene from Dog Day Afternoon sums up the idea of the hero in American film during the 70's. The anti-hero was the new hero.
The decade continued, the films were becoming more and more nuanced and personal. By the summer of 1975, New Hollywood was at it’s peak. During that summer the signs of an end began to slowly leak through.
Jaws, Stars Wars and The End of New Hollywood
There’s a lot of great stories of people getting their foot in the door. People finding a way, meeting at the intersection of determination and luck. My favorite story is that of a young man taking a tour of the Universal backlot. The young man decided to sneak off and found an abandoned office. He took it up, acting like it was own. When he walked by the security guard, he waved to him like he knew him, and the guard accepted it. That young man was named Steven Spielberg. By the summer of 1974 the young filmmaker had gotten more than he bargained for as he was hanging onto the strings of his career.
George Lucas’s upbringing and philosophy couldn’t of been more opposite of Spielberg’s. He was raised in Northern California and attended USC in the late 60's for film. He gained notoriety for his short film THX 1138 which he created while in college. Lucas was adamantly against anyone touching or handling his work. He strove for independence from studio control. In many ways, Lucas’s early philosophy epitomized the spirit of New Hollywood. Lucas gained a major break with his direction of American Graffiti (1973). The film was a smash hit. The film cost less than 1 million dollars yet gained a whopping 140 million at the box office. George Lucas was on the map.
Steven Spielberg was adamant about shooting his new picture on the ocean. The studio had lobbied to film the dramatic finale of his new picture Jaws on the Universal backlot. Spielberg fought though, and amazingly the studio relented. It would be a huge mistake, filming on the ocean was a horrible idea. The cameras got waterlogged, the actor’s and crew were miserable and the mechanical shark barely worked. The shoot was miserable, by the time principal finally wrapped, Spielberg thought he was finished as a filmmaker. Instead the opposite was true. Jaws was an international sensation. The film cost more than a typical New Hollywood film at 8 million dollars but grossed nearly 500 million dollars. People were literally afraid to use their toilets because of this film. The film was also unique in that in had a wide opening with a large marketing campaign preceding it’s release. Many of the New Hollywood films had small releases in Los Angeles and New York and slowly spread inbetween.
By the time of Jaws release in the summer of 1975, George Lucas was well under way into his space fantasy adventure Star Wars. Like The Godfather and Jaws the film had a rough shoot. Leading up to the release of Star Wars, nobody anticipated a hit. The film hung under the radar all the way until it’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on May 25th, 1977. Star Wars exploded into the pop culture like no film has before and probably none since.
The film grossed over $700 million worldwide and spawned a countless line of action figures, comics, t-shirts, books and cereal. Star Wars would forever change the connection between merchandising and films. In the process, the face of Hollywood changed overnight. No longer were gritty films with anti-heros considered profitable and appealing. Instead films reverted to an earlier time, where melodrama was the key power player of the story. Within 3 years, the New Hollywood Movement would be dead.
The Final Years
The final years of New Hollywood would give us two directors who were able to continue success well past the 70's. Most filmmakers who came through this era ended up fading off into obscurity or never topping the success they had in the 70's. Even Francis Ford Coppola was never able duplicate anything like The Godfather, The Conversation or Apocalypse Now. While Spielberg and Lucas were successful well past the 70's their films were a counterpoint to the style of most New Hollywood films.
Today the two directors who’s film quality have not waned over the years are the New York directors; Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.
The closest thing American cinema has to a true auteur is Woody Allen.
Since his directing debut in 1966, Allen has written and directed over 40 films. He has been one of the most prolific American filmmakers of the last 50 years. His films have covered a wide range of topics, mostly involving love, philosophy, death and above all else, comedy.
Allen is best remembered for two films made in the late 70's. Annie Hall and Manhattan. Both were romantic comedies set in New York City, but they achieved a critical success which few films in that genre find. Annie Hall beat out Star Wars to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1977. Although audiences tastes were starting to change, Hollywood’s critical establishment fully embraced the identity of New Hollywood.
Allen followed up Annie Hall with Manhattan in 1979. The film was a not only a love story, but a love letter to New York City.
On the opposite end of the New York spectrum was Martin Scorsese. While Allen’s films were restrained exercises of intellectualism, Scorsese’s were a burst of electrifying energy. His first major film Mean Streets (1973) was met with critical acclaim.
Scorsese’s films dealt with the dark and grittier side of New York City. The Neo-Realist’s were a major influence on Scorsese, more so than any other New Hollywood director. His darkest exploration of the streets of New York would come with Taxi Driver (1976).
Taxi Driver was met with critical acclaim as well, winning the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Scorsese was catapulted to fame. He developed a cocaine addiction while directing New York, New York. The film, like Scorsese’s career tanked. Young Martin thought his days of directing were over, he had hit rock bottom. Scorsese entered the production of Raging Bull with a kamikaze mentality. What it resulted in was one greatest American films ever made. The film explored the troubled life of boxer of Jake Lamotta.
Raging Bull came at the end of the New Hollywood era. It’s release coincided with the release of Heaven’s Gate which sent United Artist’s into bankruptcy. By 1980 though audience’s tastes had changed drastically. Since Star Wars release sci-fi and adventure blockbusters had become extremely popular. Throughout the 1980's and into the first half of the 90's this trend would continue. In many ways Hollywood reverted back to the classical system with the studio executives gaining the power again. Films were manufactured for mass appeal. The New Hollywood era was over.
The 1980's became the decade of the million dollar blockbuster. Countless franchises popped up, with success, a sequel was guaranteed. Films became formulaic, like Jaws they received a wide release with a heavy marketing campaign preceding it. Even Scorsese endured a slump for most of the 80's. Independent film had a hard going for quite some time. The turning point came in 1994 with the release of Pulp Fiction which gave a new life to independent cinema. Since then independent film and the spirit of New Hollywood have gained more and more of a foothold. With the advent of digital filmmaking, independent film now has a bigger market than ever before. Even Spielberg and Lucas think the blockbuster model needs to end, and considering the massive big budget flops in the last few years, that might just happen.
Who knows, we might end up seeing another New Hollywood movement very soon.
Notable Films of New Hollywood
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Dir: Arthur Penn
The Graduate (1967) Dir: Mike Nichols
Easy Rider (1969) Dir: Dennis Hopper
M*A*S*H (1970) Dir: Robert Altman
The Last Picture Show (1971) Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
The French Connection (1971) Dir: William Friedkin
Harold and Maude (1971) Dir: Hal Ashby
The Godfather Part I & II (1972)&(1974) Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
American Graffiti (1973) Dir: George Lucas
Mean Streets (1973) Dir: Martin Scorsese
The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin
Chinatown (1974) Dir: Roman Polanski
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Dir: Sydney Lumet
Jaws (1975) Dir: Steven Spielberg
Nashville (1975) Dir: Robert Altman
All The President’s Men (1976) Dir: Alan J. Pakula
Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese
Annie Hall (1977) Dir: Woody Allen
Star Wars (1977) Dir: George Lucas
The Deer Hunter (1978) Dir: Michael Cimino
Apocalypse Now (1979) Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Manhattan (1979) Dir: Woody Allen
Raging Bull (1980) Dir: Martin Scorsese
Reds (1981) Dir: Warren Beatty
Notable Figures of New Hollywood
Modern American film criticism begins and ends with Pauline Kael. Kael was noted for her witty, opinionated unflinching writing style. As the film critic for The New Yorker she would serve as an important voice and give life to many of the small films coming out of the city.
Beatty was a star well before he produced Bonnie and Clyde and he would remain a star long after. Beatty remained a paramount figure for New Hollywood even after Bonnie and Clyde. His hugely successfully Reds earned him an Oscar for directing. Though his career has slowed down considerably in the last 15 years.
Robert Evans was the single most important producer during the 1970's. As the Head of Production at Paramount, Evans oversaw the completion of Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, The Godfather Part I and The Conversation. Evans was your typical Hollywood producer. In fact Bob Odenkirk says he based his character Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad primarily on Evans.
One of the most eccentric filmmakers to emerge during the 70's. Ashby is practically forgotten today, but during the 70's was a prolific filmmaker. From his directional debut with Harold and Maude Ashby went on to direct The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory and Being There. Ashby was disposed of by Hollywood at the end of the 70's. He died in 1988 while on the verge of a comeback.
Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola was the wunderkind of New Hollywood. He was only 33 when he directed The Godfather a film considered one of the greatest ever, even at the time of it’s release. Coppola followed with the Godfather Part II considered by many to be superior to the original and The Conversation. He finished the decade out with the dark thriller Apocalypse Now. Coppola continued a long and prosperous career after the decade ended. However he could never top the string of successes he created before he was even 40.
Martin Scorsese is the most successful filmmaker in the history of modern American cinema. No filmmaker has been able to produce a consistent string of such outstanding quality. Scorsese had a string of films flying under the radar during the 80's. In 1990 he directed Goodfellas, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of the 90's. Scorsese again flew under the radar during the late 90's but has had a string of success since 2002. He finally earned a long overdue Best Picture Oscar in 2006 for The Departed. Even at the age 70 Scorsese is still seeing Oscar nominations coming his way.
If you’re an actress and are seeking an Oscar, Woody Allen is your best bet. Allen’s films have won 8 Oscars for acting, 7 of those were for female characters. Allen continued his success throughout the 80's and 90's. He produces films at such a high volume though that he can usually come back from a flop. Unfortunately his personal life has caused him to become a polarizing figure. Regardless the films he created in the 70's are some of the finest romantic dramedies ever produced.
In terms of box office success, Steven Spielberg is the most successful filmmaker of all time. Some may considered his films to be overly-sentimential but there is no other director who has inspired as many young aspiring filmmakers. Spielberg continued his successes in the 70's with The Indiana Jones Trilogy and E.T.; his most personal film to date. Spielberg finally nabbed an Oscar in 1993 with his direction of Schindler’s List. Spielberg has had a successful career not only as a director, but as a producer too. Spielberg’s imagery has become ingrained into American culture like no filmmaker since Hitchcock.
His experience directing Star Wars was so miserable he would not direct another film for over 20 years. He produced the Indiana Jones series during the 80's. In many ways Star Wars consumed Lucas and stopped him from doing other projects he may have done. However it’s hard to deny the influence for better or worse Star Wars has had on filmmaking. An industry was turned on it’s head over-night thanks to the film’s success. Special effects gained new ground thanks to Star Wars. The force, lightsabers, deathstars and tie-fighters became ingrained into pop culture. Lucas sold his holdings including Lucasfilm and Star Wars to Disney in 2012.
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