Part 3: Political Turmoil and the Rise of the Movie Brats

In case you missed it, here’s  Part 1 and Part 2

The 40th Academy Awards, honouring film achievements for 1967, had been originally scheduled for 8th April 1968. But the ceremony was postponed for two days out of deep respect for the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

1968 is considered to be one of the most turbulent and divisive twelve months in American history, where the country’s image as a place of freedom and true democracy was severely damaged. A cascade of dramatic and tragic events shocked American society through pervasive coverage by the media. TV newscasts beamed pictures into American homes of hand-to-hand combat between American soldiers and Communist Viet Cong – within the confines of the US embassy in Saigon! President Lyndon B. Johnson had continuously promised the American people that victory in Vietnam was close at hand. But the carnage of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive proved that Johnson had been lying to them. As a direct consequence, this led to strong domestic opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Soon after, a haggard-looking Johnson announced that he would not run for presidential re-election. Violent anti-war and anti-racism protests increased across the country, with bloody battles fought with police on the streets of Chicago and at various State Universities.

And then, just two months after King was murdered, so too was the new Democratic frontrunner, Bobby Kennedy. The young New York senator was shot just moments after claiming victory in the California primary. Assassination and anarchy now seemed to be part of American political life. The US burgeoning youth population found themselves increasingly at odds with the established social and conventional political order that appeared to be coming apart at the seams.

Francis Ford Coppola directing Robert De Niro in a scene from The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Two films that had tapped into America’s youth counterculture won Oscars at the 40th Academy Awards ceremony. Bonnie & Clyde was the most profitable film of 1967-68, and The Graduate became one of the top five box office hits of the decade. With the scrapping of the strict Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood was at long last free to explore controversial subject matter in more mature films. Time magazine ran a cover story describing Bonnie & Clyde as the beginning of a new American cinema, influenced by the European Nouvelle Vague. The article was headlined “Violence… Sex…Art, a new freedom of filmmaking combining commercial success with critical controversy”.

Easy Rider

Easy Rider with actor/director Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, with Luke Askew riding pillion.

The following year saw the release of a movie about two disillusioned, drug-addled bikers. Alienated from society, they take to the road to find the real America, only to die in the process. Easy Rider (1969), a satire on the American dream, perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Accompanied by a groundbreaking hard rock soundtrack, the film became a cinematic phenomenon. Independently financed but released through Columbia Pictures, it was made on a budget of less than $400,000 but returned over $19 million in domestic rentals. Easy Rider, brought youngsters flocking back to theatres at a time when cinema audiences appeared to be in terminal decline. This convinced movie producers that one did not need to spend millions of dollars to make a hit movie, especially if it was geared to the counterculture youth market.

Mean StreetsThe US film industry during this period was in dire financial straits. Following the sensational box office returns for both Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of the major studios had heavily invested in expensive family-friendly roadshow musicals – the majority of them specifically designed to replicate the Julie Andrews extravaganzas. But Dr Doolittle, Hello Dolly!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Paint Your Wagon, Sweet Charity and Star! turned out to be colossal box office flops. Consequently, by the end of 1969, practically all of the Hollywood studios were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

With the exception of Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Disney, the major film studios had been taken over by conglomerates. The old movie moguls had all been replaced by a melange of business executives, bankers and lawyers. They saw movie production primarily as just another part of their overall investment strategy. However, these industrial businessmen knew very little about moviemaking.

The Last Picture Show

Peter Bogdanovich on the set of The Last Picture Show (1971).

The box office success of Bonnie & Clyde,The Graduate and Easy Rider had revealed 58 per cent of theatre admissions in 1968/69 were from the 16-25 age group. This encouraged the studios’ new corporate managers to recruit younger filmmakers and screenwriters. Some that were hired became collectively known as “Movie Brats”. Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, John Milius, Martin Scorsese and their mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, were all film school graduates, educated and steeped in cinema history. This group, along with Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Demme, had served apprenticeships churning out cheap horror/exploitation movies for Roger Corman at American International Pictures. But now they were all given unprecedented creative freedom by the major studios to make movies. They swiftly developed this opportunity into an era of American auteurism, in which the director is the major creative force of a motion picture. A possessory credit at the opening of a movie declaring “A Francis Ford Coppola Film” or “A Martin Scorsese Film”, became de rigueur during the 1970s.

American Graffiti

George Lucas directing a scene from American Graffiti (1973).

A resurgence of male-dominated films followed, featuring protagonists who were – much like the young audience they were aimed at – anti-authoritarian. Movies like Five Easy Pieces, Mean Streets, the two Godfather films, The Conversation, The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver and American Graffiti also introduced to audiences an array of new, unconventional movie stars. Actors such as Al Pacino, Robert  De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall looked and sounded nothing like the handsome matinee idols of Hollywood’s Classic Golden Age.

However, what they brought to the screen was a refreshing new realism. The movie brats and their new young actors were able to express contemporary concerns onscreen much better than their older peers could. They did this by handcrafting visionary films that spoke for young modern audiences. Movies had become relevant again.

But this period of innovative and thematically challenging films would only last for a few short years, due primarily to the enormous commercial success of a “summer blockbuster”. This movie released in 1975 would once again change the course of American filmmaking and remind Corporate Hollywood that it was in business to make money.

To be continued…