Part 2: The Beginnings of a New Hollywood
French Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut, had previously described the traditional French film industry’s productions as le cinema du papa (Grandad’s cinema); outdated and outmoded. Truffaut’s blunt criticism could also equally apply to a large section of Hollywood’s post-war movie output. Although the Hollywood studio system of manufacturing movies and stars was now defunct, the day to day operation of the film studios was still in the hands of the old regime who had founded the system in the late 1920s. The likes of Adolph Zukor, Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck were now well into their seventies and eighties and many of the films they now independently financed and distributed reflected their age.
By the early 1960s, family audiences, which for decades had provided the bread and butter for the so called “Mom & Pop” neighbourhood theatres, had practically disappeared – mainly due to the popularity of television. Subsequently, family audiences were now the minority audience, yet over 60 per cent of Hollywood movies with their aging stars and recycled plots were still primarily family-friendly and pitched at an audience that rarely came anywhere near a movie theatre.
Massive social upheavals during this era – such as the Red (Communist) scare, Cold War tensions, nuclear paranoia, the assassination of JFK, the birth control pill and consequent sexual revolution, the increasing recreational use of marijuana, women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam war – shook the foundations of American society. This was now the Age of Aquarius, the era of the post-war baby boomers who had come of age, and there was no way a formulaic and frothy Doris Day and Rock Hudson Hollywood movie was going to attract them to a cinema. Instead, these college-educated youngsters found the vibrant realism of European new wave films with a sociopolitical commentary more relevant and more to their taste.
Jean-Luc Godard’s French gangster movie Breathless was still drawing in New York audiences two years after its US debut, as were the British “kitchen sink” dramas. Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey offered detailed examinations of controversial subjects like pre-marital sex, abortion, and homosexuality. As far as young American moviegoers were concerned, Hollywood’s answer to these realistic European films throughout that decade appeared to be the likes of pretty little Debbie Reynolds singing Tammy and Rex Harrison talking to the animals.
Even when Hollywood adapted adult novels for the screen, such as From Here to Eternity and Butterfield 8, the “adult content” had to be totally sanitised; all American films were subjected to the censorious standards of the Motion Picture Production Code. Consequently, the films were stripped of the real meaning contained in the books that the American public had been reading for years. To counteract the rigid code, a few of Hollywood’s old guard directors had become creative in disguising the act of sex onscreen, such as moving the camera from a couple’s clinch to a log fire that suddenly flares up. More inventive was the final scene from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are seen embracing on the upper berth of a train compartment that then swiftly cuts to the train entering a tunnel. This was Hitchcock’s unique way of depicting that the couple’s relationship had actually been consummated and was, of course, completely missed by the censor.
The wealth of realistic new wave European films – that were attracting large audiences into the US urban arthouses – triggered a one-man rebellion against the strict production code that impeded all Hollywood filmmakers from producing similarly themed movies. Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue (1953) was refused a production seal of approval by the US censors because he refused to excise the word “virgin” from the dialogue. Six years later he made Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which created controversy and was banned in a number of US cities because the dialogue contained the words panties, rape and penetration. Both of Preminger’s films – and his The Man with the Golden Arm, which dealt with another Hollywood taboo: drug addiction – were direct assaults on the Production Code. The media picked up on this and the Motion Picture Association of America began to be ridiculed in the press as the last will and testament of a bygone age and consequently, completely out of touch with modern society.
This adverse publicity and subsequent public curiosity made Preminger’s movies big hits at the box-office; in fact, bigger hits than they deserved to be. But then in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock, who had also been impressed with the French style of filmmaking, especially the 1955 production Les Diaboliques, imitated the style and similar plot line for his movie Psycho. Paramount gave Hitchcock a very small budget to work with, because of their distaste with the source material. They also deferred most of the net profits to Hitchcock, believing the film would fail by being refused the production code’s seal of approval. Psycho didn’t fail – it made Hitchcock a fortune.
The huge success of Psycho – with its violence and provocative sexual content, combined with it being the first American film ever to show a toilet being flushed onscreen – fatally weakened the authority of the MPAA Production Code and paved the way for the eventual introduction of the film rating system, still in use today.
The following years saw a marked increase in the production of relatively low budget films that would appeal to a younger audience, by essentially featuring characters rebelling against any form of authority.
Actor Warren Beatty – turned producer – persuaded Warner Bros. to finance his 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde with a mere $2.5 million budget. The story treatment of the Depression-era gangster couple, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker – who went on a killing spree, holding up banks in the Midwest – was given an effectively glamorised and extremely violent treatment, very much in the style of the French Nouvelle Vague. Warner Bros. had so little faith in the film that initially, they gave Bonnie & Clyde a limited B-movie-type release, sending it to drive-ins and lesser theatres. When critics began raving about the film and thousands of young people showed up at cinemas clamouring for tickets, it was better promoted, given a nationwide release, and went on to gross over $22 million in domestic rentals.
A similar reception was given to the release of the independent Embassy Pictures production The Graduate (1967), starring newcomer Dustin Hoffman. The film presented a candid look at sex in the American suburbs, where a nervous young graduate (Hoffman) is seduced by the older and rapacious Mrs. Robinson – brilliantly played by Anne Bancroft. When these two movies received a combined 17 Academy Award nominations on top of their huge box-office returns, the Hollywood establishment finally came out of its ten-year coma.
Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, having shrewdly tapped into the American counterculture of the late 1960s, conjointly heralded what would become known as the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s.
To be continued…