Looking Back 50 Years: A New Generation Takes Over

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This article is part 3 of 4 in a series. 

Read Part 1 Here: Looking Back 100 Years: The Birth of New Hollywood

Read Part 2 Here: Looking Back 75 Years: The War on Film

Two decades after the second world war, the children born during the postwar economic boom were coming of age. By 1964 they made up more than 40 percent of the population, and in 1966, Time Magazine declared that their “Person of the Year” was a shared honor among those that were age 25 or younger. In 1967, one could argue that these “baby boomers”, as they would come to be known, had officially taken the reigns from their parents to become the dominant segment of the population. For the first time, the youth had a power that they never had before. They were a demographic that simply could not be ignored. They had more freedom, power, and opportunities to express their opinions than any group of young people previously in history. Their experiences of growing up in a consumerist suburban environment created a resentment towards the traditions and constrictions that their parents had lived their lives. In the United States, the Civil Rights efforts were growing in strength, millions protested and rioted against the Vietnam war and the draft, and others simply dropped out of society all-together, joining the hippie movement. 

Born of this tumultuous environment, the seeds of change had also been planted in film. As the youth were throwing aside the cultural norms of their parent’s generation, they also stopped showing up to movies which followed the decades-old traditions that had made Hollywood successful in the previous 3 decades. To survive the emergence of the baby boomers, movies had to change. They had to adapt to the more rebellious and pointed attitudes of their intended audiences. No longer could film just be a means of entertainment, it could be used as a form of expression. It was a way to convey new ideas and inspire raw emotions. The abandonment of the Production Code in the mid-1960’s helped to allow films to explore concepts that would have previously required censorship in order to receive wide release. From this expanded freedom of expression, New Hollywood emerged, and in 1967 the movement had its first major box office hits. 

The American New Wave was a big departure from how films had been made in the past. Rather than the studios calling all the shots, individual filmmakers would be in charge of production. In many ways, it was a response to the sudden rise of European art films. As the baby boomers went off to college, they were attracted to the experimental nature of those films. Falling attendance in theaters caused Hollywood to take desperate action. They began hiring younger talent, often from counter-culture environments, and then giving them more freedom to make the types of films they wanted. These new-era films that Hollywood produced featured more violence, sex, and controversial topics than would ever have been tolerable in the previous system. The younger audiences eventually returned to theaters, embracing the films that echoed their perspectives. This success gave birth to a new generation of movie stars that would come to dominate film for the next 2 decades. 


 

The Stars

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If there is any doubt to the fact that the film landscape was changing in 1967, look no further than the fact that the actor who was the most successful at the box office that year was Sidney Poitier. Poitier became especially popular in the 60’s because he was frequently featured in films that challenged the status quo and brought up important social questions. Interest in the Civil Rights movement no doubt had an impact on Poitier’s popularity, and was a major reason he had not one, but three box office hits in 1967. It started with To Sir, With Love, a British drama that found Poitier playing an inner-city school teacher who dealt with racial issues from his students. His second film of 1967 was In the Heat of the Night, a murder mystery where Poitier played an investigator. That film was appreciated for the realistic way that it portrayed the south in a time when many films were guilty of glossing over the situation, including one famous scene where Poitier strikes back against a racist jeer. Finally, Poitier starred in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a comedy drama which dealt with the issue of interracial marriage, something that was illegal in 1967 in 17 states until the middle of that year. These last two films were nominated for a combined 17 Oscars, with In the Heat of the Night winning Best Picture. To commemorate his success this year, Poitier was the first black actor to have his handprints and footprints immortalized in front of Grauman’s Theater in Los Angeles. 

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One of the biggest stars of the mid 1960’s was Julie Andrews. Andrews first gained widespread popularity because of her performance in her 1964 film debut, Mary Poppins. In that role she was able to show off her impressive talents in both acting and singing, winning an Oscar for Best Actress. This would prove to be an important combination of skills for Andrews in the 60’s where big-production musicals were frequently the most successful at the box office. In 1965 she starred in The Sound of Music, earning another Best Actress nomination. In 1967 she starred in Thoroughly Modern Millie, another musical and a hit at the box office. At this point in her career, Andrews was the highest grossing actress in film. However, as New Hollywood took over, the popularity of musicals quickly waned. Andrews starred in two more big-budget musicals to close out the 60’s but both of them became major flops. A clear indication of change in audience taste, and indication that the sure-fire hit formula of Andrews in a big production musical would no longer work. 

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With Andrew’s quick fall from super-stardom to the rise in influence of actors like Potier who took on more challenging roles, it was clear that 1967 was a year of significant change in the world of cinema. This was also seen in the way that many famous filmmakers of the previous generation who had once ruled the box office suddenly found it more difficult to have a lot of success. Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Frank Capra found their careers winding down as they made fewer films, and the ones that they did make would be less well known. But while some filmmakers saw their star power falling, others were rising. While 1967 was still too early in the New Hollywood movement to have any new-style filmmakers with substantial success, many names who were new at the time would become the leaders of the industry for many years. 1967 saw the release of the second film (The Graduate) directed by Mike Nichols, who would become the first American New Wave director to have multiple major successes. Likewise, the swell of interest in foreign films caused an increase in popularity of European filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roman Polanski.  

 


 

The Successes

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By far the 1967 film that had the most lasting impact on the industry was Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde opposed the traditions of Hollywood films at the time by showing explicit violence and sex. In a time when more wholesome movies were the most popular choices for mainstream audiences (look at the success of Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music a few years earlier), Bonnie and Clyde was a shock. It was true that more violent and sexual films were hitting theaters (consider James Bond), but Bonnie and Clyde was among the first films to use violence as a stylistic element. Because of this, many critics initially wrote off the film as insensitive and uncivilized. However, the film caught on with the younger generation and became a box office hit. The fact that the younger generation appreciated the film’s brutality helped convince critics to reassess their opinions. Once critics started changing their mind, it opened up the possibility of the film community to make additional films that used explicit violence as an important method of storytelling. 

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While Bonnie and Clyde may have signaled that the New Hollywood movement had indeed arrived, it was The Graduate which proved that it had staying power. The Graduate was not only a box-office hit (second highest grossing film of the year), but it was well received by critics (including 7 nominations for Academy Awards). The Graduate doesn’t hide its intentions. It tells a story of a young man who finds himself out of place in a rapidly changing world. He is taken advantage of, slandered, and ultimately betrayed by people of an older generation. Traditionally, films which expressed a new idea or had a style that opposed tradition like The Graduate had been met with trepidation by audiences and critics. That wasn’t the case here. Instead, it brought to light the same hesitations and uncertainties that many young people who were coming of age at the time shared with the protagonist. Because of this, it earned a strong following as it represented the feelings of an entire generation.  

 


New Developments

 

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Expo 67 opened on April 27th 1967 in Montreal. Of the many exhibits built especially for the event was a motion picture art piece called In the Labyrinth. This project was displayed simultaneously on 5 screens in a specially built pavilion. The film had moments that had to be coordinated on all screens with an image or film clip. The coordination and technical proficiency required to pull off this display required much planning and the development of new technology. This technology would become the precursor for what today is known as IMAX. After the expo, the creators of In the Labryinth created a company called Multiscreen to further develop this technology for commercial use. 

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The Sony DV-2400 Video Rover was brought to market in 1967. It was the first commercially available video recording device that could be operated by a single person. It featured a black and white camera connected to a separate tape recorder. The tape recorder could be worn around the shoulder, making it far more portable than even the smallest video camera systems of the time used for film production. This technology would become known as a PortaPak and would be copied by several other manufacturers. The PortaPak would start the era of home video, bringing the capabilities of film outside of the theater. Suddenly anyone who could afford one could make their own films or capture real life in a way that couldn’t have happened before. They became especially popular among independent news networks. In a time when there was a lot of social unrest, riots, and stand-ins, PortaPaks were commonly seen filming these events. They offered a portability and flexibility to the situation that typical television cameras of the time did not allow. 

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When contemporary Hollywood films of the time failed to interest the younger generation, international films became popular. They provided a certain artistic quality and innovation that Hollywood had not yet caught up to. It was the British which filled the void of the more popular, pop-culture style films left by the void. James Bond was an international sensation, Stanley Kubrick was breaking barriers of what was possible on film, and David Lean was bringing big, sprawling epics that offered the type of escapism that wouldn’t be matched until the dawn of the Blockbuster 10 years later. Domestically, as the careers of John Ford and John Wayne were ending, so too was the traditional Western a dying genre. Spaghetti Westerns filled the void. These films were produced most often in Europe. At first they simply echoed the characteristics of the Hollywood Western, but over time they evolved to showcase the perspectives of their diverse creators. Furthermore, Spaghetti Westerns became more violent and harsh than the original Westerns which they were influenced by. In many ways, they satisfied the more explicit tastes of the younger generation who saw their parent’s Westerns as old fashioned and boring. Also in Europe, filmmakers were taking the media to new extremes. The French New Wave became a movement using film and editing techniques in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Filmmakers like Francois Truffaunt and Jean-Luc Goddard became key figures in the development of film independently from large studios, a format that didn’t really have a way to be supported commercially. Therefore, it became more about creating art, and the filmmakers became artists creating their own unique styles that carried over from one film to another. Here, the auteur method of filmmaking was born, something that would heavily influence the era of New Hollywood films.   

Connection to 1942: The highest grossing film of 1967? Disney’s The Jungle Book. The first film version of Rudyard Kipling’s novel was released in 1942. The 1967 Disney animated version was the last film that Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death in 1966. 

Connection to 1917: Charlie Chaplin became a star in 1917, becoming the first actor to be awarded a million dollar contract. In 1967 he released his last film, A Countess From Hong Kong starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Chaplin was both writer and director for that film, and it featured his final onscreen appearance in a small cameo role. 

Click here to continue to Part 4 of the series.