Do you enjoy special-effects laden blockbusters? How about gritty crime dramas? Or biting comedies? The New Hollywood movement helped to make all of these possible in mainstream cinema.
New Hollywood is less a trend about the kinds of films that were produced and more about the people making them. The New Hollywood movement was about a new generation of filmmakers who came of age in the 60’s and went on to define filmmaking in the 70’s. These are filmmakers who went against tradition to push film to new heights and explore new genres and ideas. New Hollywood is the passing of the torch from the classic era of filmmaking to the modern era. It showed us both how great intimate character-focused dramas could be, but it also expanded the possibilities of what film could be, giving birth to the blockbuster. The New Hollywood movement is the foundation upon which current cinema is based.
The film industry was operated in a much different way before 1950 than it is now. Back then, studios actually owned theaters. They had the ultimate say as far as what could and could not play. Studios could almost single-handedly control the profitability of their films by determining which films audiences got to see at each location. If you were an outsider, not part of the Hollywood scene, there was no possibility for your voice to be heard. To become a filmmaker, you had to be a part of the process. You had to feed the machine. All of this changed after 1948 when the US Supreme Court ruled that studio control of theaters was unconstitutional. From that point on, studio films had to compete head-to-head in theaters. More than ever before, content mattered.
This sudden change in the method of how the film business was conducted understandably scared studios. To try and maintain their business, they shifted to trying to produce movies that would generate a lot of business. No longer were they guaranteed an audience for whatever they could put on screen, they had to earn their audience’s money. To do this, they tried to make movies that appealed to the largest audience possible. By the 1960’s, musicals, adventure films, and sprawling epics became the norm in theaters. Making anything that wasn’t “mainstream” was risky, and therefore rare. Ironically, this era of bigger, more palatable films was called the “New Hollywood” at the time, but it ultimately has nothing to do with the trend we’re talking about beside, perhaps, being the birthplace of it.
In the 1960’s, a new generation of filmmakers were graduating from college and were becoming more technically proficient. The big names of the golden era of film in the 30’s and 40’s were getting old and increasingly out of touch with current popular trends. Audiences for movies had changed a lot. The baby boomers were growing up and didn’t want the same types of entertainment as their parents. Also, baby boomers were far more effluent than their parents who grew up during the Great Depression. They were also far more numerous and the idea of creating a film that catered to a certain demographic was at that time a foreign concept to Hollywood. This was the time of the civil rights movement, a time when the Vietnam war was becoming a hot issue and the Cold War was in its height. While all of these serious issues were taking place, young adults didn’t want to be entertained by the same types of light-hearted and often silly things from their childhood. This generation had grown up, but the mainstream film industry had not. As the world diversified, American film remained stagnant. Hollywood was at first unwilling and unable to cater to their needs. There was no guarantee of profitability in the more adult-themed films that audiences began becoming interested in, and no one had any ideas how to make a popular film that wasn’t based on an idea that had previously been proven bankable.
New Hollywood is the story of the filmmakers and actors who not only made the kinds of films that baby boomers wanted to see, but they made them profitable and eventually more mainstream. This is a look at some of the most famous filmmakers and their contributions to the movement. Although they didn’t have the extent of flexibility and freedom that independent filmmakers do today, they still challenged the methods of their predecessors and eventually proved that like any business sector, the film industry had to adapt with the times in order to remain financially and culturally relevant.
The New Hollywood movement arguably started with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. The story of the two fugitive lovers was told with more violence and sex than had previously been seen in mainstream cinemas. It was also influenced by French New Wave, so the presentation diverged from traditional Hollywood. Younger people gravitated towards it, especially its star and producer Warren Beatty, whom was primarily responsible for getting the controversial film made in the first place. Beatty would become an acting, directing, and writing force in mainstream during the 70’s and wasn’t afraid to use his power to push projects that previously would never have made it to production. He acted in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (directed by Robert Altman, another important New Hollywood director) which is considered an anti-western film since it went against conventions of the genre, which also fit well with Beatty’s reputation. He continued to provide great performances in a number of different roles, often in comedies, all exuding a sort of attitude and energy that pushed against traditional archetypes. The Fortune (1975), for example, found Beatty teaming up with Jack Nicholson. It was the type of screwball comedy that was common before the war and thought to be extinct. The same year he was featured in Shampoo, which was a wicked satire that paired Beatty’s sex appeal with a fitting script to successful results.
Although many New Hollywood filmmakers became fascinated with harsher, more severe ideas, there was also a place for comedy. In the 1960’s, comedies remained fairly traditional and family-friendly. Woody Allen brought his own unique style to the big screen and it was something that many people had not seen before. Allen first made his way as a stand-up comedian, and his observational approach worked well for film. He gave audiences the idea of a spoof, with characters and films that made fun of established ideas with witty remarks and absurd situational comedy. Allen further augmented this rebellious comedy with influences of foreign cinema in his films to create a new type of comedy film that resonated well with younger people. His 1969 film Take The Money and Run, was a mockumentary, which was one of the first films to ever use the technique. Bananas was his follow-up, which audiences enjoyed because of Allen was able to successfully break down a bleak world view into something funny and entertaining. His ability to tackle serious topics by placing traditional perspectives on their head won him many devoted fans as he fine-tuned his abilities as a filmmaker in the 1970’s.
Scorsese was a mentor of Roger Corman, whom was an expert at making low-budget films. Corman essentially invented the cult movie, and the cost-effective and time-sensitive approach he used would become valuable for his mentors in their own career, including Scorsese. Scorsese’s breakthrough was Mean Streets (1973), which caught the eye of influential critics and launched the career of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. The film showcased Scorsese’s quick-cut style, aptitude for violent crime-dramas, and focus on gritty locales. All of these things brought a realism to his films that appealed to contemporary audiences simply because they hadn’t seen anything like it before. Corman’s teachings also helped Scorsese as Mean Streets would not have been a success if Scorsese wasn’t able to make the most out of his limited production resources. Later in the decade, Taxi Driver (1976) struck another chord with proponents of the New Hollywood movement. This was a film with an anti-hero at its core, disillusioned with reality and falling into insanity. Such complex and devious characters had never had the chance to be seen onscreen before, and the type of violent intentions of the character had never been as explicitly detailed as they were in this film. Taxi Driver allowed for more intense, psychological films such as Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter, which told stories that were able to haunt (and subsequently thrill) their audiences despite being grounded in reality.
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Cappola created two of the most well-received and most iconic films of the 1970’s. The Godfather and Apocalypse Now gave audiences an experience that they had never been part of before. With The Godfather, Cappola single-handedly made crime dramas relevant again. The gritty, dark, and violent genre had been long cast aside as studios pushed out lighter, more expansive productions in the 50’s and 60’s. The Godfather’s success not only showed that audiences had come full circle and were now able to embrace darker films again, but also opened a door to many new possibilities for film to explore. A darker tone could allow for more interesting explorations of characters than had ever been achieved in film. Indeed, The Godfather allowed for films to become smaller in their focus. Movies like Taxi Driver, Scarface, and even Apocalypse Now would not have been possible if The Godfather didn’t first lay the groundwork to establish character-focused films and a break from traditional film set-up as being something that could have success. Plus, not only did The Godfather resonate well with audience’s appetites for more involving pictures, but it echoed the sense of socioeconomic turmoil and change that defined the decade.
Polanski became an important part of the New Hollywood movement because of his European upbringing which allowed for a unique perspective and approach to film. Prior to 1969, younger audiences wanting a more expressive film experience gravitated towards French New Wave and Japanese cinema. This fascination of foreign cinema was understandably driven by the burgeoning drug culture, but at the same time offered American audiences something they had not seen before and couldn’t get domestically. Polanski, unrestrained by traditional American ideas of cinema, could push his films to areas of extremity or bleakness that mainstream audiences were entirely unaccustomed to. When Rosemary’s Baby (1968) became a commercial success, it proved that audiences enjoyed the shock factor. He added vulgarity to a classic in his 1971 version of MacBeth before helming Chinatown in 1974, which catered to audience’s newfound taste for darker, bleaker films.
Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda
Of course Jack Nicholson is not best known as a director, but he is an occasional writer and award-winning actor that defined the era of filmmaking in the 70’s like no other. He was part of many different and important projects throughout the decade that today we still can’t stop talking about. It started in 1967 when he wrote the film The Trip, which starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. That film helped to establish Fonda as an icon of counterculture and helped launch Nicholson’s career. Their next film together (along with Hopper) was Easy Rider which many people consider one of the starting points of the New Hollywood movement (along with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde). That film’s anti-establishment tone as well as influence from the French New Wave made it immensely popular with younger audiences which also made it profitable. Easy Rider proved to big studios that there was money to be made by catering to certain demographics. Throughout the 70’s Fonda would go on to portray more anti-establishment characters of which audiences enjoyed cheering on, while Nicholson’s performances in films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown would cast him in the roll of Hollywood’s energetic bad boy and a treasured cultural icon.
Spielberg’s films tended to be much more straightforward than his peers, and he wasn’t as daring, but he made up for it with ingenuity. Spielberg’s approach to film was about using technical proficiency in order to make the experience of watching a film more engaging and entertaining. Duel, his first feature film, is a great example. He takes a very simplistic story and with his dynamic control of the camera, makes it a thrill to watch. This was a big breakthrough; the way a film was made could have just as much impact (if not more) than the actors, plot, and script. He was one of the first filmmakers that really made film fun to watch, even if you were watching something serious, as in Sugarland Express. His style caught on quickly, and allowed audiences to connect easily. This ease-of-viewing is what made the blockbuster possible (Jaws), and later led to the importance of special effects in film (Close Encounters). As part of the New Hollywood movement he challenged the traditional approach that had been used to create big-business movies and would later become one of the most successful and critically acclaimed directors of all time.
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