Arts and Entertainment

The film industry is in crisis. It can learn a lot from the 1970s.

Hollywood has come back from the brink before, by daring to think beyond blockbusters and Raging Bulls.

Certain years leave a permanent imprint on your movie memories.

Fifty years ago, 10-year-old me was scheming my way into the R-rated, hippie counterculture documentary “Woodstock.” That winter, I would beg to see “Love Story,” a handsome, deliciously weepy romance featuring “Peyton Place” heartthrob Ryan O’Neal. Meanwhile, my Republican parents went to see “M*A*S*H” (shrug) and “Patton” (four stars, just like the general). And we all piled into the Ford Falcon to watch “Airport,” an overstuffed star vehicle (Burt Lancaster! Dean Martin! Jean Seberg! Helen Hayes!) that was part soap opera, part disaster-flick and all high-grade Hollywood cheese.

Those were some of the biggest hits of 1970, with “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” “Little Big Man,” “Catch-22” and “The Owl and the Pussycat” rounding out the Top 10. Largely thanks to a breakout performance from its leading actress, Ali MacGraw, “Love Story” would reign supreme as the biggest movie of the year. But asked recently to reflect on the film that made her a global phenomenon, MacGraw was less interested in “Love Story” than the company it kept — a remarkably pluralistic collection in style, spirit and intent.

“What I love about that list,” she said, “is that nothing has anything in common with the other nine.”

Reappraising 1970 isn’t just a matter of dewy-eyed nostalgia. The year — and the decade it launched — feels singularly germane to the present day.

Consider that a half a century ago, Hollywood was on the brink of potential extinction, brought on by stodgy, big-budget bombs, competition from television and a calcified production system unprepared to meet the expectations of a new, younger market. Thanks to sheer desperation and resourceful responses to it, the ensuing decade came to be known as one of the most creatively rich eras in American cinema.

Today, American cinema is again in rough waters. Audiences are staying away from theaters in droves while voracious streamers prey on weakened studios. The social change that has roiled a polarized country is reverberating in Hollywood, where the old ways no longer work, and traditional gatekeepers are being forced to hand over the keys.

As an industry and an art form struggle to adapt in the midst of a global pandemic, a technological revolution and calls for wider representation that have reached critical mass, the question is: Can the ’70s teach a new generation how to save the movies one more time?

“Easy Rider” with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969. (Columbia Pictures/MPTV Images)

‘Good junk’

The answer depends on what lessons we learn — and unlearn.

Thanks in part to Peter Biskind’s book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” a mythology has formed around the 1970s that has assumed liturgical infallibility: Thanks to renegades such as Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and their cohorts, the artistically audacious, sometimes self-destructive era produced an unprecedented canon of classics, many of them steeped in stick-it-to-the-Man eccentricity, wary paranoia, and subversive sexuality and violence. The ’70s, in this telling, lasted roughly from 1967 to 1975, when “Jaws” changed the game and turned Hollywood into a business more interested in selling toys and Happy Meals than making good movies.

That’s part of the picture. But pull back the lens and the ’70s are amazing not only because of the “movie brats” who briefly took control, but because of the period’s nearly infinite variety — in genre, tone, audience appeal and subject matter.

This was a time of “Mean Streets” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” “American Graffiti” and “Last Tango in Paris.” “Airport” sequels and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Edgy political thrillers, socially aware satires and mainstream melodramas managed to coexist with B-movies, porn and Warholian provocations. Regardless of their artistic aspirations, most were enormously entertaining.

“Some of it was the most remarkable movies ever made,” observes Lee Grant, who won an Oscar for her performance in “Shampoo,” one of the most famous films of the era. “And some of it was good junk.”

That eclecticism would help define the next 10 years, when movies as diverse as “Midnight Cowboy,” “The French Connection,” “The Last Picture Show” and “All the President’s Men” played alongside “Last Tango in Paris,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” midnight movies from John Waters and a clutch of Mel Brooks comedies. And that doesn’t include micro-budgeted indies — such as the 1970 gem-in-the-rough “Joe,” about a vigilante white supremacist — that became sleeper hits.

The fact that so many different kinds of movies managed to connect with audiences attests to the fact that instinct, taste and hard work were prized over formulas. “It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, wait till you see [‘Love Story’], it’s going to break all records,’ ” MacGraw recalls. Smart producers who were running the major movie companies, including her then-husband, Robert Evans, “took chances on people we’d never heard of, like me, and just made the best movie they could. And if it made a ton of money, everybody was ecstatic.”

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” in 1977. (Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Lucasfilm/Everett Collection)

Art and accessibility

Today, of course, “Love Story” would more likely be made by Netflix or the Hallmark Channel than a big studio. But at the height of the ’70s, prestige and profits weren’t mutually exclusive, and the idea of a “blockbuster” was far more expansive — and less infantilizing — than it was destined to become.

Peter Bart was a reporter for the New York Times when he was hired by Evans, who was running Paramount Pictures, with one elegantly simple mandate: “buy accessible books … and merge them with interesting young directors.”

The art-plus-accessibility recipe met with smashing success during his tenure at Paramount, which essentially became a “director’s company,” according to Bart. Some of the movies he would help put together included “Chinatown," “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Downhill Racer,” “Harold and Maude” and “Rosemary’s Baby” — a horror film that gimmick-meister William Castle was intending to make when Bart suggested an emerging Polish auteur named Roman Polanski. At the time, Coppola was making “lightweight” movies like the coming-of-age comedy “You’re a Big Boy Now.” “What would happen,” Bart recalls asking himself, “if he was doing something more consequential?”

What happened was “The Godfather,” a project Bart and Evans purchased as a 60-page manuscript from Mario Puzo. A sprawling gangland saga about fathers, sons, mobsters and postwar America, “The Godfather” started as something of a flier, matching Coppola to a property he was initially skeptical about, and casting the legendary Marlon Brando opposite a relative rookie named Al Pacino. The film turned out to be an enormous success — like “Love Story,” in large part thanks to clever cross-promotion with the best-selling book that Evans and Bart commissioned from Puzo’s outline.

“The Godfather” still held pride of place as the era’s biggest blockbuster three years later, when “Jaws” quickly out-earned it, eventually making more than $100 million at the box office. In 1977, “Star Wars” would up that ante even more, solidifying Hollywood’s addiction to summer “tentpoles,” metastasizing budgets and merchandise as the key to billion-dollar paydays.

But what succeeding generations of studio executives failed to grasp — and what has resulted in today’s bloated, hopelessly bifurcated movie culture — is what defines our cultural touchstones. The reason people went to “Jaws” in 1975 might have been to see a monster movie; the reason they went back — and the reason we still love it in 2020 — is that it was less about the shark than the guys in the boat. The visuals and childlike nostalgia in “Star Wars” might have been fun, but its lasting appeal is in its memorable characters and traditional storytelling.

That fateful misunderstanding raises a question for the ages: What might American film culture look like if the lesson learned by Hollywood in the 1970s wasn’t that surefire success was dependent on Spandex and spectacle, but on richly detailed, character-driven storytelling about adults doing recognizably human things on planet Earth?

“The thing that ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Godfather’ have in common,” Bart observes, “is that both were conceived as rather low-budget experimental movies.”

Richard Roundtree in 1971's “Shaft.” (Everett Collection)

Beyond Easy Riders and Raging Bulls

Here’s the thing about Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: There’s usually precious little room for women, on the bike or in the ring.

The prevailing narrative notwithstanding, women did make movies in the 1970s: Joan Micklin Silver directed “Hester Street” and “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” and Elaine May’s oeuvre of the period — “A New Leaf,” “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Mikey and Nicky” — has recently been rediscovered, as has Barbara Loden’s lost 1970 classic “Wanda.”

It was easier for women to find purchase in documentary filmmaking, where artists including Madeline Anderson, Barbara Kopple, Charlotte Zwerin and Claudia Weill were coming into their own as nonfiction directors. In 1975, Weill had just made a documentary about China with Shirley MacLaine when she received a grant from the American Film Institute to make a short film. She hired Vicki Polon to write a script “about the friendship between two women and what happens when one of them gets married,” a story featuring “someone who was not usually a protagonist, someone who was offbeat, game, Jewish and not conventionally pretty.”

In the resulting film, “Girlfriends,” Melanie Mayron delivers a wryly amusing performance as a struggling photographer navigating rejection and romance in New York. The film was a hit at festivals in Rotterdam and Cannes in 1978, and did modestly well when it opened in theaters. It continues to be rediscovered, most recently by such latter-day fans as Nicole Holofcener, Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig, who praised it last year as crucial to her development as a writer-director. “I’d never seen someone take female friendship seriously like that,” Gerwig said of “Girlfriends.” “She showed something I knew and said it’s worth making a movie about.”

The trajectory of “Girlfriends” reflects another forgotten truth about the 1970s, which is that it was a strong decade for female-centered movies — including Jane Fonda starring in “Klute,” “Coming Home” and “The China Syndrome,” and hits such as “Annie Hall,” “The Turning Point” and “An Unmarried Woman.”

“Claudine,” starring Diahann Carroll as the single mother of six kids being wooed by a sanitation worker played by James Earl Jones, is another forgotten gem of the era, a warm comedy-drama from 1974 that bursts with humor, struggle, tough love and middle-aged romance. The emotional milieu was instantly recognizable to Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, who played the title character’s eldest son and who, like his character, grew up in New York as part of a large working-class family. “Claudine” was a hit, Jacobs says, but it was swamped by movies such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Shaft.”

“Too often, those movies didn’t get the attention they deserved,” Jacobs says about mainstream movies about black life, “because blaxploitation films could be made quicker and they made money faster.”

James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll in “Claudine” in 1974. (20th Century Fox/Everett Collection)

Sophisticated rebels

The long-term result is that “Claudine” gets left out of the ’70s canon, while the blaxploitation aesthetic — tawdry, hyper-sexualized, extravagantly violent — continues to be affectionately quoted, along with other style points of the time. Filmgoers old enough to recognize the trashed-out streets of “Joker” or the magic-hour haze of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” knew that Todd Phillips and Quentin Tarantino were paying homage to the ’70s, which are stylistic catnip to filmmakers. Homage can take the form of cool understatement, as in the tightly coiled dramas “Michael Clayton” and “Spotlight,” or it can be pure pastiche, as in the lurid B-movie excesses of “The Love Witch” and Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 camp classic “Suspiria.”

But the referential feedback loop has also resulted in an unfortunate trope, in which dark equals deep, brutality equals maturity, and cynicism equals moral seriousness. The visual and tonal cues generations of ’70s imitators have used to signal importance and sophistication weren’t self-conscious flourishes at the time as much as reflections of the filmmakers’ reality.

“We were living the fight,” Lee Grant says of Robert Towne, Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in “Shampoo.” “These were very sophisticated rebels. They knew the past, they were grabbing a hold of their power … and kind of making over a new world.”

Five years earlier, Grant co-starred in Ashby’s directorial debut: “The Landlord,” a coruscating satire about a wealthy white man (Beau Bridges) who tries to gentrify a Brooklyn apartment building that was astonishingly ahead of its time in addressing race, class, unexamined privilege and colorism within the black community.

As confrontational and daring as “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” would be a generation later, “The Landlord” occupies a particularly vertiginous high wire, which is just where Ashby wanted to be, according to Grant. “That’s where he lived and breathed.” Even more important, the audience followed him there. “The only way you pull an audience into a movie theater now is with those superhero movies,” Grant says sadly. “Good against evil. … Everybody, left or right, decides they’re Superman. And the right’s the enemy or the left’s the enemy and it satisfies all and makes billions.”

Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” in 1975. (Bud Gray/Universal Pictures/MPTV Images)

We’re going to need a bigger boat

Grant identifies what might be the most salient reason the ’70s succeeded, which has less to do with auteurs and actors, and more to do with the audience itself.

Although the most conventional movies of the ’70s wound up coaxing middle-aged viewers away from their televisions, a more adventurous generation — well-educated, trained by years of watching television and perhaps one or two college film courses — was ready to meet just about any movie halfway, whether it was a conventional boy-meets-girl story, an unconventional boy-falls-in-love-with-septuagenarian story or an X-rated stranger-meets-stranger-in-a-Paris-apartment story.

Today, the corporate aversion to risk has resulted in a form of cultural amnesia: Hollywood is still matching interesting young artists with accessible material (see “Black Panther”), but less in the spirit of discovery than producing predictable, crushingly repetitive products for a global market. And moviegoers behave accordingly, forgetting that some of the most successful and beloved films in history were anything but guarantees.

With theaters closed by a pandemic and filmgoers finding movies to watch at home, we’ve found we can still be surprised: Witness such virtual cinema hits as the Brazilian political satire “Bacurau” and the Icelandic drama “A White, White Day.” And we still crave variety. When Netflix recently revealed its 10 most popular original films, the collection of action, horror, broad comedy — and, oh yeah, Scorsese’s “The Irishman” — was mostly good (or at least mediocre) junk.

But art and accessibility still work, as Gina Prince-Bythewood is proving with the record-breaking success of “The Old Guard,” a comic-book fantasy that is violent and escapist, but also feminist, multiracial and emotionally grounded. The biggest hit in newly reopened theaters in Europe and Japan this summer? Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which could be described as the “Girlfriends” of its day.

With studio releases indefinitely delayed, Hollywood is understandably preoccupied with how movies will get made, and under what conditions. An equally sobering question is whether post-coronavirus protocols will make Hollywood’s current model — making CGI spectacles and cartoons for multiplexes and saving human-scale movies for awards season, art houses and streaming sites — will become even more siloed.

If the ’70s taught us anything, it’s that audiences will reward films that take risks, especially when they strive for excellence, engage human values and meet their moment. But first we need to reclaim our power to demand them.

Story by: Ann Hornaday | Illustration by: Leonardo Santamaria | Video by: Allie Caren | Design by: Eddie Alvarez

Read More:

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us