Friday, 5 March 2021

New Hollywood and the box office Part III

This is the third, and last, part of a focus on the history of, and conventional wisdoms about, "New Hollywood" and should preferably be read after you have read the earlier ones. Part I is here and part II here.

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Alfred Hitchcock sometimes talked about his inspirations from continental Europe, and in the 1960s he was enthusiastic about Michelangelo Antonioni and other Italian directors, saying they were ahead of what he himself was capable of doing. But Hitchcock was also one of those who in the early 1960s played around with, and tried to move beyond, a more conventional narrative and style, with Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). He had done this before too, it was not new, but this was his last major effort in this regard as I think his last four films were less adventurous.

Hitchcock is a good example of the fact that in the early 1960s people were experimenting and pushing the form of what a Hollywood film might be, i.e. before 1967, the year usually singled out as the birth of "New Hollywood" or the "Hollywood Renaissance." Some directors, like Arthur Penn when making Mickey One (1965), were explicitly stating their ambition of making a film in the style of the French New Wave. Mickey One is an extravagant experiment which to me feels more Fellini-esque than French New Wave, albeit with a sense of paranoia that is not to be found in Fellini's work, but is in common with a certain tradition in Hollywood, which I sometimes call "urban paranoia". Penn, John Frankenheimer, and later Alan J. Pakula are three prominent directors within that mood, working in the 1960s/1970s. Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966) is such a paranoid film that is also another experimental work (within a mainstream context) to appear before "New Hollywood." From this new generation there is also Sidney Lumet who, with films like The Pawnbroker (1964) was trying out new things, partly inspired by what was going on in European cinema. In particular, The Pawnbroker's use of time, memory, and flashbacks, some as short as a split second, makes it possible to consider it an experimental film. Other scenes are reminiscent of Antonioni, both in terms of concrete spaces and social/emotional distances between characters.



Robert Rossen was, like Hitchcock, one of those from an older generation who in the 1960s tried out new things, new styles, in The Hustler (1961) and Lilith (1964). The latter one in particular has a New Wave ambiance. 

There are other films and filmmakers that could be mentioned but this is enough to illustrate how, while the years before 1967 are frequently given short shrift by the conventional view on "New Hollywood," there was a lot going on in terms of stylistic and thematic developments. These did of course not appear out of nowhere; each decade has its own experimentations and developments. Some of these films, like Mickey One or Seconds, were bolder than many of the more celebrated films of 1967 and after. The reason why 1967 is given such a prominent place is instead due to the box office successes of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate of that year.

Since the box office numbers are so important for the telling of the history of "New Hollywood," they have tended to skew the idea of the 1960s. Consider also that Point Blank (another example of "urban paranoia") is from the same year, 1967, as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, and is more avant garde than either of those two, but since it did not become a box office sensation it is not discussed as much, or much at all.

It is curious that the focus in the telling of the story of "New Hollywood" is on how Hollywood had changed and how this made it possible in 1967, and after, to make a new and different kind of film, even though such films had been made before. Might it not be more appropriate to talk about a change in the audience rather than in Hollywood? Maybe instead of "New Hollywood" we could talk about a "New Audience," an audience that was, briefly, more willing to watch such films than they had been before, and came to the cinemas in unusually large numbers. As I indicated in the previous post, is not the success of Easy Rider (1969) an aberration rather than a sign of a new Hollywood?

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There is another issue with the association of "New Hollywood" with box office figures. The years given for the first period of it are 1967 to 1975, with Jaws (1975) often blamed for the renaissance's decline and fall. (See my first two posts for more on this.) Yet a look at the box office figures for the 1970s suggests that in 1975, the renaissance moment had already passed. It might be more correct to say that the last year in which a more alternative, experimental Hollywood film could make it to the top ten was 1972. There are few traces of such films in 1973 and 1974, although the 1975 was a better year for them.

One thing that changed was that in 1972, The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure captured the top of the charts, and especially The Poseidon Adventure led to a shift in priorities, either in Hollywood or among the audiences. It led, as I said in the previous post, to an avalanche of disaster movies, several of which became very successful. It is sometimes said that Airport (1970) initiated this wave of disaster movies, but it is different from the later ones. In Airport there is no disaster, for one thing. There is, towards the end, the threat of one, but it does not happen, and the film does not need it. In the later disaster films, the disaster is all-encompassing, it controls both the narrative and the characters, from the title and onwards. Airport is not like that. Therefore, I think it is more appropriate to consider The Poseidon Adventure as the proper starting point for the cycle. (Disaster films first began appearing in the 1910s and one prominent cycle appeared in the 1930s, with special effects often more impressive that those in the 1970s.)

So, if going by box office numbers, one might say that the renaissance lasted from 1967 to 1972. However, if it instead refers to a certain way of filmmaking, it began before 1967 and continued for longer, beyond both 1972 and 1975. It never even went away; it just did not make the top of the box office charts any longer. And that disappearance happened two years before Jaws appeared.

But all of the above depends entirely on how you define the films in question. What exactly is a "New Hollywood" film? I think it is safe to assume that there is no consensus about this. For some films, like Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces (1970), yes, but not for all films. Below I have listed the top ten films from 1969 to 1980 (based on domestic rentals in the United States), and colour-coded them to give an idea of the complexity of the situation. You can also see what kind of films were popular, and how what was popular evolved over time. These are just suggestions, or an opening for a further discussion, than anything definitive.


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In the previous post I said I would come back to the issue of how filmmakers who were already well-established before the 1960s managed the transition into a new period. As I mentioned, it is often said that they did not do particularly well. Here is a quote from Barry Keith Grant as an example of that view: "Almost alone among the great directors of the studio era, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock continued to make interesting films." (p. 11), and he mentions Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Howard Hawks as four failures. 

Capra and Chaplin did only make one film each in the 1960s, so they had their best days behind them, even though Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) has its defenders. I personally love three of Hawks's films of the 1960s, Hatari! (1962), Man's Favorite Sport (1964) and El Dorado (1966), and I like Red Line 7000 (1965), so I disagree with Grant's idea that Hawks was a failure, but as I said earlier we cannot base our view of film history on what we like or dislike. More relevant is that Hawks continued to be reasonably popular at the box office, his films were recognisably his in terms of theme and style, and within the context of Hawks's development as a filmmaker they are interesting.

Cukor is interesting too, partly because, unlike Hawks, he was trying new things and adjusted his style to the times, such as with The Chapman Report (1962) and Justine (1969), while also making one of the definitive blockbuster musicals of the decade, My Fair Lady (1964). I am not sure that Hitchcock's films are by default more interesting, even though they were more successful. (Cukor struggled a lot with studio interferences and such.)

Then take William Wyler. He made one of the most successful films of the decade, which is also perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the blockbuster musicals, Funny Girl (1968), and the glossy and glamorous How to Steal a Million (1966), with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. But he also made The Children's Hour (1961) that shows how he had appropriated some new ideas. Especially the last 30 minutes or so are "modern" in its style. He also made The Collector (1965), saying no to an offer of doing The Sound of Music (1965) in order to make this peculiar film, that is more in line with "New Hollywood." It is also a reminder of the influence British films, music, and art in general, had on Hollywood and the United States in the 1960s.

Some, like Billy Wilder, did one fine film after another, showing no signs of a loss of creative capabilities, even if financing became more difficult. He eventually had to seek his money from Europe. Anthony Mann was another one who struggled with Hollywood and instead went to Europe. There he made two massive productions in Spain, El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), produced by Samuel Bronston, and those epics are among Mann's finest films.

Robert Wise on the other hand thrived within Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, and adopted well to the new realities. But I will not list all filmmakers. Suffice to say that, while taste is subjective, it is difficult to defend a position that most of them failed, whether creatively or at the box office.

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There were major shifts in how Hollywood functioned, and in the style of filmmaking, and with regards to censorship, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But that is almost the norm in Hollywood. The breakthrough of sound in the late 1920s, the tightening of censorship in the mid-1930s, the Paramount Decree in 1948, the rising power of the agents, the package-unit deals in the 1950s, and so on. The ground was often shaking under the studios, and the way films were made, how they were financed, and how Hollywood was structured, evolved and erupted persistently, as did the style and themes of the films.

As is often the case, there is not much in the conventional story of "New Hollywood" that holds up, and it is too often told by a combination of ignorance, confusion, romanticism, and letting one's personal likes and dislikes get in the way of historical accuracy. That this is not unique for this period is not a secret, but it is perhaps the one period where this is most obvious.

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The quote above is from American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations (2008), edited by Barry Keith Grant.

New Hollywood and the box office Part I: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2021/02/1970s-and-economics.html

New Hollywood and the box office Part II: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2021/02/new-hollywood-and-box-office-part-ii.html 

Here is a selection of 35 films from 1960 to 1966. They are different in ambition, in budget, and in theme and style, and some are better than others, and some are among the best ever made, but they all exemplify the scope and vitality of American cinema then. There are other titles that could be included as well.

A Fine Madness (1966)

Advise & Consent (1962)

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

Cape Fear (1962)

Cry of Battle (1963)

Hell Is for Heroes (1962)

Lilith (1964)

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

Marnie (1964)

Merrill's Marauders (1962)

Mickey One (1965)

Psycho (1960)

Ride the High Country (1962)

Seconds (1966)

Seven Days in May (1964)

Shock Corridor (1963)

The Apartment (1960)

The Collector (1965)

The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963)

The Hustler (1961)

The Intruder (1962)

The Killers (1964)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Misfits (1961)

The Naked Kiss (1964)

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pink Panther (1963)

The Shooting (1966)

The Train (1964)

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

Wild River (1960)

You’re a Big Boy Now (1966)

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