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The "New" Hollywood

Digital History TOPIC ID 129

As the 1960s began, few would have guessed that the decade would be one of the most socially conscious and stylistically innovative in Hollywood's history. Among the most popular films at the decade's start were Doris Day romantic comedies like That Touch of Mink (1962) and epic blockbusters like The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Cleopatra (1963). Yet, as the decade progressed, Hollywood radically shifted focus and began to produce an increasing number of anti-establishment films, laced with social commentary, directed at the growing youth market.

By the early 1960s, an estimated 80 percent of the film-going population was between the ages of 16 and 25. At first, the major studios largely ignored this audience, leaving it the hands of smaller studios like American International Pictures, which produced a string of cheaply made horror movies, beach blanket movies--like Bikini Beach (1964) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)--and motorcycle gang pictures--like The Wild Angels (1966). Two films released in 1967--Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate--awoke Hollywood to the size and influence of the youth audience. Bonnie and Clyde, the story of two depression era bank robbers, was advertised with the slogan: "They're young, they're in love, they kill people." Inspired by such French New Wave pictures as Breathless (1960), the film aroused intense controversy for romanticizing gangsters and transforming them into social rebels. A celebration of youthful rebellion also appeared in The Graduate, which was the third-highest grossing film up until this time. In this film, a young college graduate rejects a hypocritical society and the traditional values of his parents--and the promise of a career in "plastics"--and finds salvation in love.

A number of most influential films of the late '60s and early '70s sought to revise older film genres--like the war film, the crime film, and the western--and rewrite Hollywood's earlier versions of American history from a more critical perspective. Three major war films--Little Big Man, Patton, and M*A*S*H-- reexamined the nineteenth-century Indian wars, World War II, and the Korean War in light of America's experience in Vietnam. The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) offered radical reappraisals of the mythology of the American frontier. Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) revised and enhanced the gangster genre by transforming it into a critical commentary on an immigrant family's pursuit of the American dream.

During the mid- and late-70s, the mood of American films shifted sharply. Unlike the highly politicized films of the early part of the decade, the most popular films of the late 1970s and early 1980s were escapist blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-- featuring spectacular special effects, action, and simplistic conflicts between good and evil--inspirational tales of the indomitable human spirit, like Rocky (1976)--or nostalgia for a more innocent past--like Animal House (1978) and Grease (1978).Glamorous outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde were replaced by law and order avengers like Dirty Harry and Robocop. Sports--long regarded as a sure box officer loser--became a major Hollywood obsession, with movies like Hoosiers, Chariots of Fire, Karate Kid, and The Mighty Ducks celebrating competitiveness and victory. Movies which offered a tragic or subversive perspectives on American society, like The Godfather or Chinatown, were replaced by more upbeat, undemanding films, and especially by comedies, featuring such actors as Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray.

Critics partly blamed the trend toward what Mark Crispin Miller has called "deliberate anti-realism" upon economic changes within the film industry. In 1966, Gulf and Western Industries executed a takeover of Paramount and the conglomerization of the film industry began. In 1967, United Artists merged with Transamerica Corporation; in 1969 Kinney Services acquired Warner Brothers. In one sense the takeovers were logical. Conglomerates wanted to acquire interests in businesses that serviced Americans' leisure needs. The heads of the conglomerates, however, had no idea how to make successful motion pictures. Too often they believed that successful movies could be mass produced, that statisticians could discover a scientific method for making box office hits.

A trend toward the creation of interlocking media companies, encompassing movies, magazines, and newspapers, and books accelerated in 1985 when the Department of Justice overturned the 1948 anti-trust decree which had ended vertical integration within the film industry. As a result, many of the major studios were acquired by large media and entertainment corporations, like Sony, which purchased Columbia Pictures, Time Warner (which owns Time magazine, Simon & Schuster publishers, and Warner Brothers), and Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings include HarperCollins publishers, the Fox television network, and Twentieth Century Fox. At the same time that these large entertainment conglomerates arose, many smaller independent producers like Lorimar and De Laurentiis, disappeared.

Nevertheless, important issues continued to be addressed through film. Many films focused on problems of romance, family, gender, and sexuality--aspects of life radically changed by the social transformations of the 1960s and early 1970s. Certainly, some films tried to evade the profound changes that had taken place in gender relations--like An Officer and a Gentleman, an old-fashioned screen romance--or Flashdance--an updated version of the Cinderella story--or 10 and Splash--which depict male fantasies about relationships with beautiful, utterly compliant women. But many other popular films addressed such serious questions as the conflict between the family responsibilities and personal needs (for example, Kramer v. Kramer) or women's need to develop their independence (like An Unmarried Woman, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Thelma and Louise).

At a time when politicians and news journalists were neglecting racial and urban issues, movies like Boyz in the Hood, Grand Canyon, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever focused on such problems as the racial gulf separating blacks and whites, the conditions in the nation's inner cities, the increasing number of poor single parent families, police brutality, and urban violence.

Ironically, the most controversial issue of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War, only began to be seriously examined on the screen in the late '70s. Although many films of the late 60s and early 70s embodied the bitter aftertaste of the war, the conflict itself remained strikingly absent from the screen, as Hollywood, like the country as a whole, had difficulty adjusting to the grim legacy of a lost and troubling war. During the conflict, Hollywood produced only a single film dealing with Vietnam--John Wayne's The Green Berets. Modeled along the lines of such World War II combat epics as The Sands of Iwo Jima and earlier John Wayne westerns like The Alamo, the film portrayed decent Americans struggling to defend an embattled outpost along the Laotian border nicknamed Dodge City.

Although America's active military participation in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the controversy engendered by the war raged on long after the firing of the last shot. Much of the controversy centered on the returning veterans. Veterans were shocked by the cold, hostile reception they received when they returned to the United States. In First Blood (1982), John Rambo captured the pain of the returning veterans: "It wasn't my war-- you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what I had to do to win....Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby- killer...."

During the 1970s and '80s, the returning Vietnam War veteran loomed large in American popular culture. He was first portrayed as a dangerous killer, a deranged ticking time bomb that could explode at any time and in any place. He was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a veteran wound so tight that he seemed perpetually on the verge of snapping. Or he was Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), who adjusted to a mad war by going mad himself.

Not until the end of the '70s did popular culture begin to treat the Vietnam War veteran as a victim of the war rather than a madman produced by the war. Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) began the popular rehabilitation of the veteran, and such films as Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985) transformed the veteran into a misunderstood hero. Where some films, like the Rambo series, focused on the exploits of one-man armies or vigilantes armed to the teeth, who had been kept from winning the war because of government cowardice and betrayal, another group of Vietnam War films--like Platoon, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July--took quite a different view of the war. Focusing on innocent, naive "grunts"--the ground troops who actually fought the war--these movies retold the story of the Vietnam War in terms of the soldiers' loss of idealism, the breakdown of unit cohesion, and the struggle to survive and sustain a sense of humanity and integrity in the midst of war.

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