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Part Three: New Hollywood (1967-1969)

© 2013 Simon Hitchman
New Hollywood (1967-1969):
Table of Contents

1. American Independents (page one) 10. "A Man Went Looking for America"
2. Direct Cinema (page two) 11. "The Most Difficult Thing..."
3. A New Hollywood
12. 1969
4. Barbarians At The Gate 13. Midnight Cowboy
5. 1967 14. "We Did It Man, We Did It..."
6. "They're Young, They're In Love..." 15. "If they move... kill 'em!"
7. "This is Benjamin. He's a Little..." 16. Communities of Outsiders
8. Immigrants and Exiles 17. Peace, Love, and Murder
9. King of the Bs 18. "Look Out Haskell, It's Real!"
Shadows, John Cassavetes

<< Continued from 'Direct Cinema', page 2

A New Hollywood

In the late 1960s and early 70s a new generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in American cinema. Their work was thematically complex, formally innovative, morally ambiguous, anti-establishment, and rich in mythic resonance. They spoke for a generation disillusioned by the Vietnam War, disenchanted by the ruling elite, and less willing to conform than their parents.

Dubbed the "New Hollywood" by the press, their films were mostly financed by the major studios, but they introduced subject matter and styles that set them apart from studio tradition. They re-worked and re-imagined some of Hollywood’s classic genres – such as the crime film, the war film and the western – and by so doing, presented a more critical view of America past and present.

Together with the directors came a brilliant generation of actors and actresses, often trained in New York, who brought to the screen a new level of gritty intensity and contemporary relevance. While the new generation’s ambition to overturn the system and create something better in its place ultimately failed, they did succeed in producing a body of work now considered a Golden Age in American cinema.

Barbarians At The Gate

Cleopatra [1953], the film that ruined 20th Century Fox.
The change had been a long time coming. Since the Second World War, the major film studios had lost much of their once unassailable power. As a result of the Paramount Antitrust case of 1948, studios lost the right to own their own theatres, as well as exclusive rights on which theatres would show their films. Consequently they lost both revenue and influence. They were weakened further by the popularity of television in the 1950s. Now, not only did the studios not own the cinemas but they also found it increasingly difficult to sell their product to the newly independent exhibitors.

Their response was to offer audiences something they could not find elsewhere: Technicolor, widescreen, stereo sound and 3-D. Historical epics and musicals, the genres that most suited these innovations, dominated production. While some, like My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) were hugely successful; most, including Cleopatra (1963), at that time the most expensive film ever made, were flops. "Old Hollywood" was losing both money and audience share at an alarming rate and the aging studio bosses, out of touch with the tastes of the new baby boomer audience, were at a loss as to what kind of films they should now be making.

Blow Up [1966]
Blow Up
As the once celebrated movie moguls retired from the business, so the studios began to be bought up and taken over by huge business conglomerates. Film production became a sub-division of companies otherwise involved in selling such commodities as insurance, cars, sugar, mining, records and real estate. However, the upheavals at the studios also provided opportunities for new young executives who were more willing to take risks than their predecessors. They realised that the audience’s cinematic appetite had changed and were ready to back projects and filmmakers who could cater for it.

The success in America of British films such as Alfie, Georgy Girl, and Blow Up, all released in 1966, showed audiences were ready for more sexually explicit content and looser narrative structures. Indeed, the impact of the new waves in cinema coming out of France, Britain, Italy and Eastern Europe and Japan were at last being felt in America, not least in the burgeoning film schools, where the works of such auteurs as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard were more highly regarded by young cinephiles than any homegrown fare. The time of the American New Wave had come.


Though the year of 1967 is now traditionally cited as a turning point in the history of American cinema, at the time it appeared far from the case. The major studios continued to put most of their resources into the kinds of movies that had been successful for them in the past. These included big budget musicals like Camelot (Warner Brothers) and Dr Dolittle (20 Century Fox); James Bond (United Artists) spectaculars and their spoof offspring like Our Man Flint and Casino Royale; and middle-of-the-road star vehicles such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Columbia). Many working in the industry knew that most of the mainstream Hollywood output was mediocre but few were willing to risk their careers by opposing the wishes of the studio heads.

In The Heat of the Night [1967]
In The Heat of the Night
Yet, in spite of their innate conservatism, the studios had begun producing films whose depictions of violence, sex and drug-taking would not have been possible just a few years before. The appointment in 1966 of Jack Valenti as the new head of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) had resulted in an overhaul of the outmoded Production Code allowing a new level of freedom in what could be shown on screen and filmmakers were quick to take advantage. Perhaps more significantly some of the biggest hits of the year, including The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke and Oscar-winning race drama In the Heat of the Night, were all defiantly anti-authoritarian in a way that appealed to the younger, twenty-something audience that had been largely ignored by Hollywood in recent years. ,But with hindsight, what made 1967 such a significant year in American cinema, was the production and release of two films – Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate – which in form, tone and content, broke the mold of what had come before, becoming in the process the progenitors of the New Hollywood revolution.

“They're young, they're in love, they kill people."

Jean-Luc Godard's Alphavile
In 1963 Robert Benton and David Newman were two young writers working for Esquire magazine in New York when they first had the idea to write a screenplay based on the Depression-era gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Despite not knowing anything about scriptwriting, they wrote what they wanted to see, creating a fresh new perspective as a result. Then, through contacts at the magazine, they managed to get their script to their hero, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut. Truffaut responded with enthusiasm, offering suggestions to make the script more cinematic. For a while Truffaut was attached to direct the project but decided to make Farenheit 451 instead. He passed the project onto fellow New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who briefly committed, before deciding to return to France to film Alphaville (1965).

Truffaut also recommended the Bonnie and Clyde script to Warren Beatty who was in Paris making a film with his then girlfriend Leslie Caron. On his return to New York a week later Beatty called up the screenwriters and asked to see the script. Half way through reading it he called them up again and said he wanted to option it as soon as it was ready, and not only did he want to play the lead part, he wanted to produce the film as well. Beatty agreed to work for little money up front in order to get Warner Brothers studio boss Jack Warner to give the movie a green light.

Arthur Penn, who had worked with Beatty on the unsuccessful Mickey One (1965), was hired to direct despite his own reservations about the screenplay. Initially reluctant to make just another gangster picture, Penn began to see the potential of re-imagining the genre using New Wave techniques while commenting indirectly on the violence and hypocrisy of contemporary 60s America. As Warner Brothers had very little confidence in the project anyway, Penn and Beatty were given a free hand, filling their cast with relative unknowns from the New York stage such as Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons, and filming on location in early 1967 in Texas, far from the confines of the Hollywood studios.

Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde [1967]
Le Corbeau
When Jack Warner first saw a rough cut of Bonnie and Clyde in the summer of 1967, he hated it. Distribution executives at Warner Brothers agreed, giving the film a low-key premiere and limited release. Their strategy appeared justified when Bosley Crowther, middle brow film critic at The New York Times, gave the movie a scathing review. “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy,” he wrote, “that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie…” Other notices, including those from Time and Newsweek magazines, were equally dismissive.

Only Pauline Kael, writing for the New Yorker thought differently. She wrote a rave, nine-thousand-word review in which she described the film as: “the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate.”Kael’s words were not enough, however, to save Bonnie and Clyde from a disappointing first run in the American box office.

Then, unexpectedly, the film became a hit in England where the 30’s styles sported in the film started a fashion craze. Time magazine put a still from the film on the cover to illustrate an article by Stefan Kanfer entitled: “The New Cinema: Violence… Sex… Art”. The article called the film “the best movie of the year,” a “watershed picture,” and bracketed it alongside The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane as the groundbreaker of its era. After the magazine hit the stands, Beatty put pressure on Warner Brothers to re-release the film, threatening to sue the new CEO, Eliot Hyman if necessary. Finally the film reopened in cinemas and quickly took off. Its success was helped by being nominated for ten Academy Awards. By the end of 1968 the film had earned $16.5 million, making it one of the biggest money-earners of of its time.

“This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.”

Another unexpected box office hit released in 1967, The Graduate, also received multiple Oscar nominations (seven in total) in the following year’s ceremony. The rights to Charles Webb’s 1963 novel had been optioned by Lawrence Turman soon after the book came out but he’d been turned down by every major studio despite having Mike Nichols, highly acclaimed for his work in the theatre in New York, signed on as director. Nichols had originally planned The Graduate as his film directing debut but frustrated by the delays in financing, agreed instead to accept an offer from Warner Brothers to direct a screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The film was a huge hit, grossing $14.5 million and winning five Academy Awards with thirteen nominations. This was enough to convince independent producer Joseph E Levine to back Nichols’ next film and at last The Graduate had a green light.

Mike Nichol's The Graduate [1967]
The Graduate
From the start Nichols made audacious creative choices for The Graduate that went against orthodox filmmaking practices of the time but which would ultimately prove inspired and fundamental to the film’s success. The first was to throw out earlier drafts of the screenplay and to hire comedy writer Buck Henry, previously known for his theatre and TV work, to write a new adaptation from scratch. When it came to casting the role of Benjamin Braddock, the story’s central character, Nichols cast against type, choosing an unknown 29-year-old Jewish New York-based theatre actor Dustin Hoffman, rather than the tall, blond, blue-eyed Robert Redford, who wanted to play the part and seemed much closer to the character described in the novel. Nichols was equally innovative during production, pushing veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees to experiment. “We did more things in that picture than I ever did in one film,” Surtees later wrote. Finally, rather than hiring a composer to create music for the soundtrack, the director chose instead to use already existing folk-rock songs by Simon and Garfunkel, an unusual approach at the time, but one which would contribute greatly to the film’s popularity.

When it was released in the final weeks of 1967 The Graduate was received, at first, with dismissive, even hostile reviews from most of the established critics of the time. They spoke for an older generation who felt personally attacked by a movie that portrayed them as self-centred, materialistic and immoral, not to mention hypocritical. Younger viewers took no notice of the reviews and flocked to see the movie, turning it into the highest-grossing motion picture of 1968. The film’s success was so categorical that Warner Brothers and United Artists announced that they were rethinking their entire development slates with a view to appealing to younger audiences. The other studios soon followed their example.

So 1967 had indeed proved to be a watershed year in the history of American cinema. The unexpected critical and box office success of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate showed that audiences were ready for something new. The Second World War baby-boom generation, nurtured on rock and roll and the immediacy of television, had now come of age and were less impressed by spectacle and pure escapism. Suspicious of authority and disaffected by an older generation who had dragged America into yet another war, they identified with the rebellious but comparatively innocent protagonists of these two movies. The fact that both films had been so difficult to finance demonstrated that the studios had lost all sense of what the public wanted to see, and chastened by their misjudgement, now began opening their doors to a younger generation of filmmakers more in tune with the concerns of the newly evolving youth audience.

Immigrants and Exiles

Boorman's Point Blank [1967]
Point Blank
Among the first of the new generation to make their mark were directors from Europe such as British director John Boorman. His previous work included television documentaries for the BBC and a first feature – the Hard Day’s Night-esque Dave Clark Five vehicle, Catch Us If You Can (1965). “There was a complete loss of nerve by the American studios at that point,” Boorman said in a later interview. “They were so confused and so uncertain as to what to do, they were quite willing to cede power to the directors. London was this swinging place, and there was this desire to import British or European directors who would somehow have the answers.” Boorman was drawn to Hollywood for the opportunity to make larger scale cinema. In his first American feature, Point Blank (1967), he used elliptical editing, tonal ambiguity, and an expressionistic use of colour and widescreen to stunningly reinvent the film noir genre.

While Boorman was at work redefining the thriller at MGM, Polish director Roman Polanski who had been signed to Paramount by it’s new head of production Robert Evans, was about to do the same for the horror film. Polanski was a man of persuasive charm and exceptional talent whose first film, Knife in the Water (1962), made soon after he graduated from the famous Polish national film school in Lodz, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Moving to England soon after, he made 3 films including the claustrophobic and haunting Repulsion (1965) starring Catherine Deneuve. Polanski’s American debut, Rosemary’s Baby, was his best work yet, combining acute psychological insight, menacing atmosphere and dark humour in a story of Satanic conspiracy set in a hotel in New York. Evans’s faith in Polanski’s talent paid off as Rosemary’s Baby rapidly became one of the biggest box office hits of 1968.

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]
Boorman, Polanski, and other British and European immigrants like John Schlesinger and Milos Foreman, would contribute some of the best work of the New Hollywood era. They brought with them from their homeland an outsider’s perspective and a bold approach to film technique. Through their films they explored some of the contradictions of America, not only it’s beauty and vitality, but also the moral corruption that often lay beneath the surface.

Moving to England in 1962, American director Stanley Kubrick had taken the opposite course to these European directors, exiling himself intentionally from the power machinations of Hollywood. Since the early 50s Kubrick had established himself as a fiercely independent filmmaker with a unique vision and a brilliant command of technique. His early independently produced films like The Killing (1956), brought him to the attention of MGM for whom he made the critically acclaimed Paths of Glory (1957). Next he was brought in to replaced Anthony Mann at the last minute to direct Spartacus (1960), but found the experience a difficult one and vowed never to work on another film on which he did not have absolute control. Kubrick made Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) in England before deciding to settle there permanently during the making of his next film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Devised in collaboration with writer Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 was not only a quantum leap forward for the science-fiction genre but redefined the parameters of the cinematic experience altogether, becoming, after a slow start, one of 1968’s biggest hits. Steven Spielberg later described the film as “the big bang of his generation”, and it’s hard to imagine later works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) without it. For the New Hollywood generation of directors, Kubrick’s artistry and status as an auteur, financed by the Hollywood studios but independent of their interference, was an ideal to aspire to.

King of the Bs

Roger Corman's The Trip [1967]
The Trip
Roger Corman was another successful independent filmmaker. Since the mid-50s, Corman, and production company American International Pictures, had successfully cornered the market in exploitation teen flicks, cheap sci-fi and horror. The major studios may have felt that movies like Sorority Girl (1957) and The Wasp Woman (1960) were beneath their dignity to produce but such films fit the atmosphere of rural drive-in and inner-city Grindhouse perfectly. By the late 60s Corman was giving a voice to the counter-culture with such films as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967). Both starred Peter Fonda and both went on to be big box office hits.

Always quick to spot new talent, Corman was unafraid to offer opportunities to untried talent, as long as they didn’t expect too much in the way of a salary in exchange. One of his first protégés was a graduate student from UCLA’s filmschool, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola’s first job for Corman was dubbing and re-editing a Russian science fiction film Nebo zovyot, which he turned into a monster movie entitled Battle Beyond the Sun (1962). Impressed by Coppola’s perseverance and commitment, Corman hired him as sound man on The Young Racers (1963) and then persuaded him to make a low-budget horror movie with funds left over. Corman wanted a cheap Psycho-style thriller with a gothic atmosphere and plenty of bloodshed. Coppola seized his chance to direct his first feature, writing a screenplay overnight, and directing the film Dementia 13 in just nine days on a budget of $40,000.

Coppola returned to UCLA and in 1965 won the annual Samuel Goldwyn Award for best screenplay by a UCLA student. On the strength of this accolade, he was hired as a scriptwriter by Seven Arts and co-wrote scripts for This Property is Condemned (1966) and Is Paris Burning? (1966). With this experience Coppola was able to make a deal with Seven Arts/Warner Brothers to direct as long as the cost remained low. The project he chose was an adaptation of a novel by David Beneditus called You’re a Big Boy Now, a coming of age story of a sexually inexperienced 19-year-old named Bernard, suffocated by parental control, who works in the New York Public Library and longs for freedom and a girlfriend. A frenetic, absurdist comedy, heavily influenced by Richard Lester and with a rock soundtrack by John Sebastian, the film was selected to be shown at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. Still only 28, Coppola had made a name for himself, but there would be a few more faltering steps before he would establish himself as a director able to turn his personal vision into a commercial success.

Another aspiring filmmaker who got his first break working for Roger Corman was Peter Bogdanovich. Born and raised in New York, Bogdanovich was an obsessive cinemagoer from a young age. In his early twenties he got a job as a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art and began writing about cinema, publishing articles in Esquire and monographs on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. Inspired by the example of the French Cahiers du Cinéma critics – Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer – who had become filmmakers in their own right at the forefront of the Nouvelle Vague, Bogdanovich decided to become a director. Along with wife and production designer Polly Platt, Bogdanovich moved out to Los Angeles, where, at a screening of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), he met Roger Corman who had liked his articles for Esquire. Corman hired him as an assistant on The Wild Angels (1966) on which he worked as production assistant, scriptwriter and second unit director, gaining valuable experience in the process.

Peter Bogdanovich directs Boris Karloff in Targets [1968]
Following the movie’s success, Corman rewarded Bogdanovich with the chance to direct a feature on the stipulation that he come up with a story that could include twenty minutes of outtakes from an earlier film, The Terror (1963), and which could also include a part for Horror legend Boris Karloff, who owed him two days work. Bogdanovich’s inspiration was to interweave the story of an aging horror movie star played by Karloff, who recognises that the violence of the contemporary world is making his old-fashioned horror redundant, with a serial-killer narrative based on an actual incident two years earlier when Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, shot and killed 16 people including his wife and mother. Released in 1968, soon after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Targets was an electrifying debut that demonstrated the young director had learned well from masters like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. The film’s exploration of the blurred line between real and fictional violence was brilliantly realised and gave notice of a promising new talent.

By offering opportunities to untried directors, Roger Corman played an important role in the modernizing of American cinema. Operating within the restrictions of budget and genre, the filmmakers under his charge had considerable freedom to introduce startling avant-garde techniques and unconventional messages. In addition to Coppola and Bogdanovich, he would help to launch the careers of, amongst others, Dennis Hopper, John Sayles, Martin Scorcese, Brian De Palma, and Jonathan Demme, as well as actors such as Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Robert De Niro – all of whom would go on to be key figures in the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.

“A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere…”

Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees in Head [1968]

Roger Corman wasn’t the only producer working in Hollywood with his finger on the pulse of youth culture. Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, both originally from the East Coast, met in the early 60s while working in television and soon after formed Raybert Productions. Inspired by the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the pair decided to develop a television series about a fictional rock and roll group and succeeded in selling the idea to LA based production company Screen Gems.

The first episode of The Monkees aired on September 12th 1966 and the show soon became a big hit. Rafelson and Schneider used their success to break into producing movies. Head (1968), directed by Rafelson, produced by Schneider, and written by a then little known b-movie actor named Jack Nicholson, was a psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness black comedy that satirized war, consumerism, television, the music business and most especially the band themselves. Receiving mixed reviews, the film alienated the band’s teenaged fanbase, while failing to attract the hipper, older audience the band had been striving for. Corresponding with a steep drop in the group’s popularity as recording artists, the film effectively marked the end of The Monkees phenomenon. Head has since become a cult classic.

Undaunted, indeed somewhat relieved to be liberated from a show that, though it had made them rich and famous, lacked the cultural kudos they craved, Schneider and Rafelson began casting about for their next project. This came via actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper who had an idea for a modern western about two bikers who score a large sum of money in a drug deal and travel across the southern United States encountering hippies and rednecks along the way. Raybert agreed to produce what was then called The Loners (it was soon retitled Easy Rider by Terry Southern who turned the original idea into a screenplay). Schneider, who financed the film from his own money, agreed to let Hopper direct, despite his lack of experience and unstable reputation. This reputation proved all too warranted during a disastrously chaotic test shoot on location in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which saw an increasingly paranoid Hopper fighting for control of the project from a hastily organized crew, even coming to blows with one of the cameramen. Hopper’s manic behaviour even caused a falling out with Fonda that continued throughout the rest of the production.

Despite the disastrous New Orleans episode, Schneider kept faith with Hopper, ensuring that a proper crew was assembled for the rest of the shoot. The team included cinematographer Lázsló Kovácks who would become a key contributor to the look of American New Wave cinema over the coming decade. Even more significant was the decision to hire Jack Nicholson to play hard-drinking lawyer George Hanson when Rip Torn, who had already been cast in the role, withdrew after a bitter argument with Hopper. Nicholson, who had by that time been acting in movies for a decade but had failed to make much of an impact, was on the verge of giving it up for a career behind the camera. His performance, full of little touches that brought the character to life, turned out to be the most memorable in the film, establishing the "rebel against the system" persona he would become famous for.

Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider [1969]
Easy Rider

Filming took place in the spring and early summer of 1968 in locations including Monument Valley and Louisiana, although the hippy commune featured in the film had to be recreated in Malibu, California, because the original, based near Taos in New Mexico, did not permit shooting there. Nicholson helped to keep the peace between Hopper and Fonda and the production was conducted on a considerably more professional basis than previously. Still, Hopper broke a number of the established rules of filmmaking, improvising much of the dialogue and ignoring mismatches of continuity.

Hopper continued to follow his own vision in the editing room. Influenced by the French New Wave, cinéma verité, and American underground filmmakers like Bruce Conner, he refused to discard technical imperfections like lens flair. The original cut came in over 4 hours long, including extensive use of the “flash-forward”, a narrative device in which a shot from later in the story is intercut into the current scene. In the end Hopper was persuaded by Schneider to take an extended holiday and Henry Jaglom was brought into edit the film down to a more coherent and commercial 95 minutes.

“The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself.”

Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary [1967]
David Holzman's Diary
There were some American filmmakers at this time whose work was too raw and personal to get backing from either the major studios or the independents but they refused to compromise and instead financed their own work. One such was Jim McBride, an NYU film-school graduate who was commissioned (along with collaborator Kit Carson) by the Museum of Modern Art to write a book about cinema-vérité. Instead he decided, with Carson, to make a fictional film using verité techniques as if it were real, creating what is now known as a mockumentary. The eponymous hero of David Holzman’s Diary (1967) is a filmmaker, played by Carson, who puts Jean-Luc Godard’s dictum that “cinema is truth 24 frames per second” to the test by pointing a camera at himself and his daily life, hoping in the process to discover some kind of truth about himself. Instead his obsessive filming alienates everyone around him leaving him alone and suicidal. The film successfully satirized cinema-vérité while simultaneously celebrating the possibilities of simply filming one’s immediate environment directly and without intervention. As a foretaste of the endless video diaries and reality TV of the present day, David Holzman’s Diary was remarkably prescient. Its importance was recognised by the Library of Congress when they selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

John Cassavetes' Faces [1968]
The same honour was also accorded to John Cassavetes’s 1968 depiction of a disintegrating middle class marriage, Faces. Cassavetes made the film partly as a reaction to his frustrating experience directing two films for the Hollywood studios, Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child is Waiting (1963), which had been offered to him following acclaim for his independent debut feature Shadows (1959). His intention was to portray the everyday lives of the kind of high-powered executives with whom he’d clashed while in Hollywood in an effort to try to understand them. Financing the project himself to ensure he was free to make creative decisions without interference, Cassavetes filmed on 16mm at weekends and evenings whenever funds were available. Throughout cast and crew functioned like an extended family with the emphasis on teamwork as opposed to Hollywood competitiveness.

The film that resulted from this collaborative process was nothing less than extraordinary. Set over the course of one long night during which businessman Richard Forst (John Marley) cheats on his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) with a prostitute (Gena Rowlands), and she in turn does the same with a young gigolo (Seymour Cassel), Faces is less about narrative intrigue than about revelation of character. Everyone in the film is constantly laughing, singing and dancing but their jollity is fuelled by alcohol and frequently changes to something more sombre. Their vain attempts, through a temporary bond with a stranger, to distract themselves from the emptiness and unhappiness they feel inside, only accentuates the shallowness of their lives. Yet always Cassavetes portrays his characters with compassion rather than ridicule or satire. Explaining his art, he once said: “The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things – but above all we must dare to fail. You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”


1969 marked the beginning of a three year slump in cinema attendances in America to an all time low of 15.8 million a week in 1971 (by comparison attendances in 1946 were 78.2 million a week). At the same time overheads were rising. Sensing an opportunity, wealthy corporations who had made their money in industries such as zinc mining or hotels, began buying and taking over the ailing Hollywood studios. Paramount was sold to Gulf + Western industries run by Charles Bluhdorn and MGM to Navada casino millionaire Kirk Kerkorian. An unexpectedly positive consequence of these upheavals was the arrival of new production executives such as Robert Evans at Paramount and John Calley at Warner Brothers, whose creative judgement would play a decisive part in the movies produced during the New Hollywood era.

One studio that had always operated differently from its bigger and more powerful competitors and who now, despite the difficult climate, found itself prospering, was United Artists. Ever since it had been set up by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith in 1919, U.A. had put the filmmaker first and it continued to do so. In the 1960s they had made a fortune from the hugely successful James Bond pictures, the Pink Panther series, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the Beatles films. They had also scored artistically, winning Best Picture Academy Awards for Tom Jones (1963) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). They would win again for a film released in 1969 that would be probably the most controversial ever released by a major studio up to that point.

Midnight Cowboy

Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy Midnight Cowboy had been in development for some years before going into production. Its story about a young Texas dishwasher, Joe Buck, who travels to New York to make his fortune as a gigola but ends up down and out in the company of a consumptive street hustler named Ratso Rizzo, included, for its time, frank depictions of homosexuality and drug-taking. British director John Schlesinger, who had made his name with Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), first read the book in 1965 and joined forces with producer James Hellman to bring it to the screen. Hellman, who had worked with United Artists on his previous picture, approached its head of production David Picker, who agreed to finance the project as long as its budget was kept to a very low $1 million (this was eventually raised to $2.3 million).

Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy [1965]
Midnight Cowboy
The screenplay went through several unsatisfactory drafts before Waldo Salt, a screenwriter who had been blacklisted for over a decade after refusing to testify before the House UN-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, came on board. His dense fractured screenplay in which flashbacks to Joe’s early life in Texas were incorporated into the main narrative had exactly the kind of hectic New York-style energy that Schlesinger had been looking for. Equally crucial to the film’s success was the casting of the two leads. Dustin Hoffman, who had already been cast at Ratso on the strength of his performance in the off-Broadway production Eh? had since then become a huge star after the success of The Graduate. Mike Nichols and others advised him not to take on a part that would damage his new romantic leading man status but Hoffman, who was uncomfortable with that status anyway and longed to prove himself a real actor, relished the opportunity to take on such a contrasting role. Finding the right actor to play Joe Buck was less straightforward. Schlesinger originally wanted the already established Michael Sarrazin for the part but casting director Marion Dougherty, who had helped launch the careers of James Dean, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty, kept pushing the initially-reluctant Schlesinger to screen-test a young unknown called Jon Voight. Schlesinger wavered for a while but eventually agreed that Voight was right and he was offered the part.

Schlesinger went into production far from confident. His previous film Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) had been a box-office failure in America and he had little reason to believe there would be much of an audience for a film about New York lowlife. There were also doubts from some quarters about a British director being able to successfully capture the real New York. But Schlesinger and his Polish cinematographer Adam Holender brought a fresh and credible eye to their vision of the city and the film is full of memorable images. They also brought techniques like rapid-fire editing and trippy dream sequences, familiar from the New York Underground film scene, into a mainstream American cinema for the first time. But ultimately it was the chemistry between the two leads that most connected with people. The unlikely friendship between Voight’s naïve, out-of-his-depth Joe Buck and Hoffman’s sleazy but ultimately loveable Ratso Rizzo had an emotional appeal way beyond traditional arthouse audiences.

Yet, when shooting was over, the film’s qualities had yet to be recognised and Schlesinger was exhausted and plagued with doubts about the film. His anxiety wasn’t helped when the ratings board slapped the film with an X rating – the first X-rated movie released by a studio. However early screenings were overwhelmingly positive; there was a 10-minute ovation on opening night and soon audiences were queuing up around the block to see the film. Midnight Cowboy eventually became the second highest grossing movie of 1969.

“We did it, man. We did it. We’re rich, man.”

Even more surprising was the success of Easy Rider, which finally premiered at the 1969 Cannes Festival, where the troupe of long-haired and bearded hippies filmmakers in town to present the film caused a sensation along the Croisette. At the festival it won the award for Best First Work – an award created especially so that the film could be honored. When the film opened in America later that summer it was greeted with grateful recognition by a counter-culture unaccustomed to seeing themselves and their beliefs portrayed on screen. Fuelled by a rock soundtrack featuring Steppenwolf, The Band, The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix, the film became a major box-office hit going onto earn more than $60 million worldwide. It even received two Oscar nominations, one for Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor and one for the screenplay.

In one of the final scenes of Easy Rider, when Wyatt tells Billy, “We blew it,” he might have been speaking for the whole country. The idealism and sense of possibility that had characterised much of the 1960s had, by the end of the decade, given way to anger and confrontation. 1968 had seen the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the escalation of the Vietnam war, and race riots in some of the major cities. Across the country children were rejecting the values of their parents. This divide was very apparent at the 1969 Oscars where New Hollywood films like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, which had both re-contextualised western iconography in a contemporary setting, competed for awards with more traditional examples of the genre like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit. In the end Midnight Cowboy was the surprise winner of the Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, although John Wayne beat out Hoffman and Voight to win the Best Actor Award.

“If they move… kill ‘em!”

William Holden in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch [1969]
The Wild Bunch
One film that didn’t feature among the nominations at the Academy Awards for 1969 was Sam Peckinpah’s controversial western The Wild Bunch. Set in the dying days of the old west, it tells the story of a gang of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) who flee to Mexico following a botched bank robbery pursued by Bishop’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and a posse of men hired by the railroad. There they get caught up in the Mexican revolution resulting in a bloody showdown with a renegade general and his ragtag army of Mexican Federal soldiers. This was a vision of American history at its most brutal. Director Peckinpah stated that the film was an intentional allegory of the war in Vietnam whose carnage was then being televised nightly to American homes on the six o’clock news. It was also his attempt to show the violence of the old west and the character of the men who perpetrated it authentically and realistically for the first time. In doing so he renewed and redefined the western genre while bringing a new level of artistry to the filming of action sequences that has influenced filmmakers ever since.

But it wasn’t only his films but the man himself who inspired many of the New Hollywood generation. Combative and uncompromising, Peckinpah was not afraid of upsetting either studio executives or crew members when it came to realising his vision on screen. A brilliant craftsman with a poetic sensibility, he had made his name in the late 1950s writing and directing television shows like The Rifleman andThe Westerner. His second cinema feature Ride the High Country was a big success in Europe and hailed by critics both there and in America as a brilliant reworking of the western genre. However the follow up Major Dundee went over-budget and over-schedule and was taken away from its director and substantially re-edited. The resulting muddle failed at the box office and Peckinpah was subsequently fired from his next film The Cincinnati Kid when its producer heard that he was difficult to work with.

Sam Peckinpah
The Wild Bunch
Effectively ostracised for several years, Peckinpah survived as a screenwriter. By the time he returned to directing in the late 1960s the cinematic landscape had changed. Bonnie and Clyde in particular had widened the parameters of what was acceptable for a mainstream American movie. When The Wild Bunch became a hit for Warner Bros. Peckinpah’s immediate future as a director was ensured. Over the next decade and a half Peckinpah’s name was synonymous with violence and controversy but to younger acolytes like Paul Schrader and John Milius he was a maverick genius who refused to kowtow to the system. His anti-establishment stance was reflected in many of the protagonists of his movies – talented men hired for a job who find themselves double-crossed and outgunned but hold steady to a code of honor even though it ultimately means their own self-destruction. Inevitably Peckinpah’s hard-living lifestyle, which included years of alcohol and cocaine abuse, caught up with him and he died at the age of 59 in 1984.

Communities Of Outsiders

Although a generation younger than Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola had in his short career so far already experienced the frustration of working with studio executives who opposed his artistic vision. Following the success of You’re a Big Boy Now, he had been hired by Warner Brothers to direct the film version of the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow staring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. Wanting to make it as realistic as possible Coppola opted to shoot much of the outdoor scenes on location in the Napa Valley but these contrasted awkwardly with the Hollywood soundstage set scenes that the studio favoured and the resulting film was a critical and commercial failure. The experience did have one lasting legacy however. It introduced Coppola to a young film student called George Lucas who had won an award from Warners to observe one of their films in production. The friendship that began on set between the swaggering, ebullient Coppola and the intense, shy Lucas would have a momentous effect on the future course of cinema.

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas
Determined to make his next picture something more personal, Coppola based the script on a real event from his own childhood in which his mother disappeared from the family home for several days. The Rain People was initially financed by Coppola himself from the money he’d earned on Finian’s Rainbow. With Lucas aboard as production assistant and chronicler (he would direct a 30 minute documentary about the production called Filmmaker) and a cast that included Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duval; Coppola and his crew took to the road for six weeks taking advantage of the visual opportunities presented by the American landscape, both natural and man-made, encountered along the way. For Coppola and Lucas the experience was something of a revelation as they realised, with the new light-weight equipment available, movies no longer had to be shot and edited in Hollywood. Reckless though it may have seemed to some, Coppola’s cinematic adventure, artistically at least, paid off, resulting in his most accomplished film so far.

The experience of making The Rain People convinced Coppola that he worked best amongst a community of like-minded collaborators, and with his characteristic fearlessness, he decided to set up a studio which would build on this, producing more personal films, as well as giving first-time directors their chance to direct. “It was,” in the words of Lucas, “a way of saying we don’t want to be part of the Establishment, we don’t want to make their kind of movies, we want to make something completely different.” Reflecting this attitude, Coppola and Lucas moved far away from the LA studios to San Francisco where they set up their new company called American Zoetrope in an old warehouse building. There they installed editing suites and space for an art department, wardrobe, props and sound dubbing. Crucially Coppola was able to persuade John Calley, head of production at Warner Brothers, to back the new venture with $300,000. Much of this went toward developing ten or so screenplays by talented former USC and UCLA film student friends of Coppola and Lucas, like Willard Huyck, Carroll Ballard, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood and others. First into production would be Lucas’s debut feature, a dystopian science fiction story called THX 1138.

Arlo Guthrie in Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant [1969]
Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas
Zoetrope was just one of many alternative communities springing up across America inspired by hippie idealism. Arthur Penn, in his follow up to Bonnie and Clyde, explored the phenomenon in Alice’s Restaurant, based on the satirical song of the same name by folk troubadour Arlo Guthrie. In the film Arlo, playing himself, takes up residence in a deconsecrated church with friends Alice and Ray and other like-minded bohemian types. After Thanksgiving dinner he decides to do his hosts a favour by getting rid of their garbage for which he is arrested by the local police chief. The criminal conviction unexpectedly results in him being rejected for military service in Vietnam. Warm and whimsical at first, the movie takes a darker turn as one member of the community falls victim to drug addiction, overdosing on heroin. Alice’s pensive gaze toward the camera as she contemplates an uncertain future in the film’s final haunting shot eloquently suggests the fragility and contradictions inherent in the carefree counter-cultural lifestyle.

Peace, Love and Murder

The opposing Aquarian and Saturnalian tendencies of the burgeoning hippie movement were played out for real in the summer of 1969. Over a long weekend between August 15th and August 18th, 500,000 concert-goers descended on Woodstock, New York to enjoy “3 Days of Peace and Music.” A watershed moment that defined a generation, the Woodstock Festival brought together half a million people united in a message of peace, openness and community. Meanwhile just days before, on the other side of America in Los Angeles, members of a quasi-commune lead by aspiring rock-star Charles Manson, broke into the rented home of Roman Polanski, who was away in Europe at the time, and murdered his wife Sharon Tate, their unborn child, and three others. The next night, ‘the family’ as they were known, murdered two more people. This was the hippie dream turned nightmare, members of their own community unleashing an orgy of rage and violence fuelled by drugs and warped conspiracy theories.

“Look out Haskell, it’s real!”

Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool [1969]
Medium Cool

In reality, while the children of the middle-classes were “turning on, tuning in and dropping out”, many Americans were simply battling to survive. Whether in the jungles of Vietnam or the inner city ghettos, life for them did not resemble the idealised life-styles portrayed in many television shows and Hollywood movies. One filmmaker determined to depict life as so many experienced it was acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. In an interview in 1968 he stated that he wanted to “find some wedding between features and cinema-verité.” Groundbreaking in its mix of documentary and fictional narrative, his remarkable debut feature Medium Cool (1969) achieved just that.

The film’s the lead protagonist is a Chicago television news cameraman played by Robert Forster who at first appears oblivious of the responsibilities of his profession. “Jesus, I love to shoot film,” he proclaims after filming the aftermath of a car crash. But the discovery that his boss has been showing out-takes of his work, including footage of radical groups, to the FBI, sparks a growing awareness of his own responsibility. At the same time he becomes involved with Eileen whose husband has died in Vietnam and her son Harold. The film climaxes with Eileen desperately searching for Harold, who has gone missing amongst the crowds of protestors and police at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. Wexler and his crew filmed these scenes during the actual protest and ensuing riot, following actress Verna Bloom as she walked through the lines of armed policemen and the bloodied crowds. At one point a tear-gas canister comes flying toward the camera as a voice off-screen exclaims “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” The line perfectly crystallized the film’s central theme of the thin line between what’s real and what’s not, what’s fact and what’s fiction.

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