The Auteur Cinema: Directors and Directions in the "Hollywood Renaissance"
4Auteurism and the "Film Generation"
The Auteur Cinema: Directors and Directions in the "Hollywood Renaissance"
The Advent of the MPAA Rating System
Recession, 1969-1971, and Easy Rider
Major Independents from the 1960s
Auteurs Manqué and Maudit
"Film Generation" Auteurs, or the "Hollywood Brats"
Conclusion: The Commerce of Auteurism
The invulnerability of the majors was based on their consistent success with virtually anything they made.
As the American film industry stood on the brink of its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a Yankelovich and Associates survey commissioned by the MPAA in 1968 revealed that 48 percent of the box-office admissions for that year were from the 16—24-year-old age group, and concluded that "being young and single is the overriding demographic pre-condition for being a frequent and enthusiastic moviegoer."1 This came as news to the studio executives, who were pumping money into super-musicals modeled on The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), which by December 1968, after three years in release, had earned $72 million and displaced Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) as the top-grossing film of all time. However, it did help explain the healthy $6.9-million rentals of Blowup (Michel-angelo Antonioni, 1966), MGM's racy and enigmatic European pickup set in "swinging London";2 and the spectacular success of two recent youth-oriented American films—Warner Bros.-Seven Arts' Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Avco Embassy's The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)—not to mention the continuing prosperity of Samuel Z. Arkoff's low-budget youth exploitation company American International Pictures (AIP). Bonnie and Clyde, which was produced by its 29-year-old star Warren Beatty, stunned critics and audiences alike with its revolutionary mixing of genres and its unprecedented violence, but returned $22.8 million on a $2.5-million investment and became the third highest grossing film of 1967. The Graduate, directed by the 34-year-old Nichols, evinced the same boldness in its representation of an affair between a college student and his girlfriend's mother, and became the highest grossing film of the decade with $44.1 million in domestic rentals. The success of these films, combined with the Yankelovich data, almost immediately inspired several studios to hire younger producers and directors in an effort to appeal to a younger clientele, and there was a new, industry-wide perception that youth was the key to reviving the sagging box office.3
Just weeks after the survey was published, Jonas Rosenfield, Jr., 20th Century-Fox vice president for advertising and publicity, summarized the new thinking at a trade gathering: "We are tied to the youthful market of the future, we have to keep up with the rhythm of young people."4 Another Fox executive, David Brown, went even further: "The cinema is today for youths in every corner of the world. Pictures with either artistic creativeness or critical content are helping both the industry and the film business….The world is in revolution. We are mirroring it."5 Fox, Warners, and Paramount (each with new, young production chiefs—Richard Zanuck, Ken Hyman, and Robert Evans, respectively) all announced their commitment to making a new style of movie that would allow directors more creative freedom and emphasize the cultivation of new talent.6 Yet the industry was still top-heavy with an older generation of filmmakers who were not eager to share power with newcomers in either the workplace, professional associations, or unions. At Paramount, 37-year-old production executive Robert Evans underscored the industry's dilemma when he commented: "The strongest period in Hollywood history was the '30s, when most of the creative people were young. The trouble is that most of them are still around making movies…." But Evans then went on to boast that of forty-eight directors on major productions since the Gulf & Western takeover in October 1966, twenty-eight, or 60 percent, had no directorial credits prior to 1963.7
Concurrent with this shift in emphasis at the studios was the rise of auteurism at the level of popular criticism and journalism. Although the concept of authorship in cinema is nearly as old as the medium itself, it was first formally articulated by François Truffaut in his 1954 Cahiers du cinema essay "Une certaine tendance du cinema français." There, he spoke of la politique des auteurs (the policy of authors) whereby film should ideally be a means of personal artistic expression for its director (or director-writer, as he originally intended it); bearing the signature of his or her personal style, rather than the work of some corporate collective. The definition naturally privileged those Hollywood filmmakers like Welles, Hitchcock, Hawks, and Ford, who had worked within the classical studio system but transcended it to achieve a cinema of personal vision. However, the idea was not imported into American critical discourse until the 1960s, when Andrew Sarris christened it "the auteur theory" in an essay in Film Culture8 and began to construct the pantheon of American directors that became The American Cinema: Director and Directions, 1929-1968.9 By the time this influential volume appeared, even critics like Pauline Kael, who were initially hostile to the idea (see her "Circles and Squares"10), had begun to accept its fundamental premise, if only by inverse corollary (in her 1971 essay "Raising Kane,"11 for example, Kael went to inordinate lengths to demonstrate that scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, was the principal author of Citizen Kane). The elevation of the director in the public mind during this period is nicely captured in the titles of two best-selling collections of interviews with filmmakers from 1969 and 1970 respectively: The Director's Event and The Film Director as Superstar.12 For the rest of the decade, auteurism was the dominant mode of aesthetic discourse among American film critics, and its single-author perspective was institutionalized as film study entered the academy during the same period.
In Hollywood the strategy of employing young or non traditional filmmakers met with some success, and the years 1968 and 1969 witnessed studio productions like Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey (MGM, 1968), Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (Paramount, 1968), Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant (United Artists, 1969), and Sam Peckinpah's violent and controversial The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros., 1969), whose uniqueness contributed to the auteurist stature of their directors and whose popularity confirmed the box-office power of the newly discovered youth audience. Demographically, this audience was comprised of the growing children of the postwar baby boom—it was not only younger, but better educated, and more affluent than Hollywood's traditional audience, and had grown up with the medium of television, learning to process the audiovisual language of film on a daily basis. Furthermore, the rise of film study in American colleges and universities insured that this generation would know more about what it saw on the screen in academic terms than any generation before it. (In 1967, for example, there were approximately 1,500 film and television courses being offered at 200 colleges, and these numbers would quintuple over the next ten years.) For these reasons, the baby-boomers—often styled as the "film generation"—were drawn toward the kind of films the Cahiers critics had been writing about (and subsequently, as independent directors at the margins of the French industry, making)—films that were visually arresting, thematically challenging, and stylistically individualized by their makers. Because this audience was large and was projected to grow for at least another five years,13 the studios briefly—and somewhat desperately—turned the reins of production over to auteur directors who might strike a responsive chord in the "youth market." The understanding that this was an increasingly cineliterate group is demonstrated by an article on the marketing and reception of 2001 that appeared in Variety for April 10, 1968:
Because today's filmgoers are predominantly under 25, it would seem vital to learn something about this market and its tastes. As many sociologists and psychologists have already noted, there has been a widespread revolution among today's youth, but little of this change has yet to be reflected in the films produced in the U.S.…As Marshall McLuhan has so laboriously pointed out, today's youth is visual-oriented. Words do not have the importance they used to have….Visual and aural sensations have replaced [them]….14
The author concludes that "the film's biggest potential audience remains today's tuned-in youth," and predicts success for it in those terms precisely because of the unusual degree of freedom given to Kubrick by MGM to make "a non-verbal statement."15 Ceding production control to directors was alien to the studio establishment, but, as Jon Lewis points out, younger executives tended to see auteurism as "another way to market the product," not far removed from the time-honored industry practice of contracting talent.16 Yet, although it was market-driven, the studios' embrace of auteurism represented a genuine attempt to bridge the generation gap, which brought with it a few years of real artistic freedom and resulted in some of the most original American films since the late forties. Recalling the unprecedented creative latitude of the era, Arthur Penn noted: "What was happening at that time in Hollywood was that enormous power had devolved upon the directors because the studio system had kind of collapsed. We were really running it, so we could introduce this new perception of how to make another kind of movie."17
The impulse to experiment at the end of the sixties was facilitated by the final dismantling of the Motion Picture Production Code and its replacement by a rating classification system. As chief industry spokesperson, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president Jack Valenti had for several years been promoting a new climate of creative freedom for filmmakers in response to the revolution in social values so clearly taking place across the land. He had engineered the Code revisions of 1966, which eliminated specifically proscribed behavior and offered instead a list of ten general guidelines to be applied contextually, as well as a provision for borderline cases to be released with a "Suggested for Mature Audiences" designation. Soon Valenti had become an apologist for the new wave of movie violence represented by films like The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which in a February 1968 press conference he shrewdly but accurately connected to the escalating war in Vietnam: "For the first time in the history of this country, people are exposed to instant coverage of a war in progress. When so many movie critics complain about violence on film, I don't think they realize the impact of thirty minutes on the Huntley-Brinkley newscast—and that's real violence."18 Four months later, after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been murdered on American soil, the national debate over film violence reached crisis proportions, and Valenti led the MPAA in self-protective action.19 Between June and September, he worked with its nine member companies, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), and the International Film Importers and Distributors of American (IFIDA), to craft a rating system on the British model that would respond to public anger over movie violence without reducing filmmakers' creative freedom (or the industry's huge new profits from graphically representing sex and violence on-screen).
On October 7, 1968, Valenti announced the creation of the MPAA's new Code and Rating Administration (CARA), with its four classifications by audience category to be effective November 1st of that year—G (general audience), M (mature audience—changed in 1972 to GP, then PG [parental guidance recommended]), R (restricted—persons under 16 [later 17] not admitted unless accompanied by parent or guardian), X (persons under 16 [later 17] not admitted).20 Valenti had initially not wanted the X rating, but NATO had insisted on it as a means of protecting its members from local prosecution, and the studios acquiesced thinking the X might someday serve to differentiate their films from exploitation product (as was in fact the case for Midnight Cowboy in 1969). Unfortunately, the MPAA did not copyright the X, as it did its other three ratings, so that it could be self-imposed—a move intended to promote artistic freedom, but one that appeared to lend the MPAA imprimatur to such self-imposed "triple-X" films as Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1972) a few years later. As a result, the X rating quickly became anathema to mainstream producers, and many newspapers refused to accept advertising for X-rated films, including the New York Times. By 1972, 47 percent of all American exhibitors had established a policy against booking X-rated product, and even Valenti was calling it "trash and garbage, made by people out to exploit."21
Adoption of the CARA system, as Stephen Prince points out, helped to institutionalize the radical shifts in film content that had followed the Code revision of 1966.22 Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967), for example, had pushed up against the limits of those new guidelines, but The Wild Bunch (1969), produced during the transition, would have broken through them altogether and could not have been released with the Production Code Administration (PCA) seal in its final form. The new ratings system, however, enabled its producers to negotiate an R rating downward from an X by making a few cuts that left most of its violence intact, insuring that it would reach its target market in the 17-25-year-old age group.23 CARA thus gave the industry an effective marketing tool for tapping into the new American audience (and, not tangentially, a perfect means of differentiating its product from television).
The studios, however, were still dominated by old regimes and continued to produce a large number of expensive flops for the old audience—such as Fox#x0027;s Star! (Robert Wise, 1968) and Hello, Dolly! (William Wyler, 1969), and Paramount's Paint Your Wagon (Josh Logan, 1969)—at a time when they were simultaneously experiencing structural change and financial crisis. As a direct result of such overproduction, all of the studios but 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, and Disney had been taken over by conglomerates by the end of the decade. Beginning with the purchase of Universal by MCA in 1962, extending through Paramount's sale to Gulf & Western Industries in 1966, the acquisition of United Artists by Transamerica Corporation in 1967, the sale of Warner Bros. to Kinney National Service Corporation, and of MGM to Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian in 1969, the studios were one by one absorbed by larger, more diversified companies. Finally, the recession of 1969-1971 forced the recently formed ABC Circle Films and CBS Cinema Center Films out of business, leaving their distributors Cinerama Releasing and National General Corporation—the "instant majors" of 1967—with nothing to distribute and effectively ending their participation in the market. (A third "instant major," Commonwealth United Corporation, was taken over by AIP in 1970.)
In this context, the runaway success of the generationally savvy road film Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)—produced by the independent BBS Productions24 for $375,000 and returning $19.2 million—convinced producers that inexpensive films could be made specifically for the youth market and become hits overnight. This delusion led to a spate of low-budget youth culture, or "youth-cult," movies and the founding of many short-lived independent companies modeled on BBS (an acronym for the first names of its three partners, Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner). It also drove the studios to actively recruit a new generation of writers, producers, and directors from the ranks of film schools like USC, UCLA, and NYU, where the auteur theory had become institutionalized as part of the curriculum. (As Martin Scorsese, one of the most successful new directors would later remark of this era, "Sarris and the 'politique des auteurs' was like some fresh air.")25 Reaching out to the youth market in the late sixties was not enough to prevent an industry-wide recession from 1969 to 1972, which produced $500 million in losses for the majors and by 1970 left 40 percent of Hollywood filmmakers unemployed. But it did substantially help to create the "Hollywood Renaissance" of 1967—1975, during which, as Michael Pye and Lynda Myles have put it, the "film generation took over Hollywood" and attempted to create an American auteur cinema based in large part on the European model. It also opened the door to a generation of directors bom in the 1920s whose iconoclasm and independence had thus far prevented them from entering the Hollywood mainstream, although all of them had recently contributed to it in a decisive way.
This latter group consisted of Arthur Penn (b. 1922), Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), Sam Peckinpah (1924-1985), and Robert Altman (b. 1922), all of whom had recently demonstrated their ability to connect with a youthful audience.
Penn had studied at the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles and worked in live television as a writer and director (for Playhouse go and Philco Playhouse productions, among others) before making his first feature, The Left-Handed Gun (Warner Bros., 1958), a psychological "adult Western" based on the story of Billy the Kid. He spent much of the next decade alternating between film and theater, where he directed such Broadway hits as William Gibson's The Miracle Worker (1959), Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic (1960), and Clifford Odets's Golden Boy (1964). But except for his screen version of The Miracle Worker (United Artists, 1962), in which he directed Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke to Academy Awards (for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively), Penn's films were commercially unsuccessful until he struck a raw public nerve with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). When Bonnie and Clyde unexpectedly returned $22.8 million in domestic rentals to become the third-highest earner of 1967 (and the second highest in Warner Bros. history), and received nine Academy Award nominations, Penn was suddenly one of Hollywood's hottest talents—especially notable for his resonance with the emerging "youth market."
In fact, Penn's affinity with the late sixties counterculture was deeply felt and stemmed from his own leftist politics, forged during the McCarthy era. A concern for social justice had infused much of his previous work, including even the Kafkaesque Mickey One (Columbia, 1965), and in his brief moment of bankability Penn chose to deliberately flaunt his anti-establishment attitudes (which was exactly what the studios wanted him to do). Alice's Restaurant (1969), produced for United Artists, is a rambling adaptation of Arlo Guthrie's eighteen-minute talking blues ballad about draft-dodging and commune life ("The Alice's Restaurant Massacree"), which Penn coscripted with playwright Venable Hemdon; it returned only $6.4 million in rentals. (Intriguingly, Penn made a direct connection between the improvisational style of this film—with its nonprofessional actors, natural lighting, and understated cinematography—and the techniques favored by the rising generation of directors at a 1969 Lincoln Center panel on "the state of student film and filmmaking.")26
Little Big Man (1970), produced by the short-lived CBS Cinema Center Films and distributed by National General, was a much more elaborate production but no less radically charged. Adapted from Thomas Berger's picaresque novel by screenwriter Calder Willingham (whose credits included The Graduate and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory ), the film is a revisionist Western epic narrated by the 121-year-old Jack Crabb, "the only white man who survived Custer's Last Stand," who has spent half of his life in the world of the white settlers and the other half among the Cheyenne. As it moves episodically between these spheres, the narrative swings between farce and tragedy, debunking the mythology of the Old West on the one hand and becoming a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam on the other. In this regard, Penn consciously idealized the Cheyenne as spiritually and morally superior to the whites, whose civilization is shown to be founded on militarism, hypocrisy, and greed. He staged a version of the Washita River massacre to resemble photographs of the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968, which had recently appeared in the American press—a parallel that was widely recognized at the time (The Hollywood Reporter noted that this sequence looked "like the 6 p.m. new footage from Vietnam")27 Little Big Man was shot in Panavision by Harry Stradling over a period of several months on locations in Alberta and Billings, Montana, at a cost of $6 million; released in December 1970, it returned $17 million to become the ninth highest grossing film of 1971. The fact that it starred youth-cult icons Dustin Hoffman the (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy) and Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde) notwithstanding, there has probably never been another time in the history of American cinema when a 150-minute film that bitterly indicts American imperialism and depicts the U.S. military waging genocidal war could become a popular hit.
By this point, Penn had become a celebrity director—one of the "Free Agents within the System" featured in Joe Gelmis's The Film Director as Superstar. But he chose to withdraw from that system for the next two and half years, during which he did not work in feature films, theater, or television, although he did contribute a segment on the pole vault ("The Highest") to Visions of Eight (Wolper Productions, 1973), the omnibus documentary on the 1972 Munich Olympics produced by David Wolper. Penn returned to features with the post-Watergate film noir Night Moves (Warner Bros., 1975), shot in Panavision by Bruce Surtees, which he intended to evoke the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon era. Set in Los Angeles and the Florida Keys (represented by the Gulf coast island of Sanibel), the film's complicated plot involves a detective's search for a missing teenager, and it is peopled by characters whom Penn described as "some of the mourners of the Kennedy generation."28 Night Moves failed to return its investment, and Penn's last film of the 1970s was an agent-packaged Western written by Thomas McGuane and starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, both of whom had recently won Academy Awards for Best Actor. Produced for United Artists on a budget of $8.2 million ($2.5 million of which went to the salaries of its two stars, who also had 21.3 percent of the gross), The Missouri Breaks (1976) was engineered to be a hit, but its eccentric blend of violence, genre revisionism, and whimsy didn't please the public. Despite beautiful Montana locations and splendid Panavision cinematography by Michael Butler, as well as riveting performances by Nicholson and Brando, the film failed commercially and critically, earning just $7 million. In post-Jaws America, the sixties were as dead as Huey Newton, and the "Hollywood Renaissance" was about to bottom out.29 Penn's stock plummeted dramatically, and he did not direct a film again until 1981, when he made Four Friends (Filmways/Warner Bros.) from a screenplay by Steve Tesich. His career has been spotty ever since, demonstrating how closely his temperament was attuned to that extraordinary cultural moment between 1967 and 1971, when he produced in Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man two of postwar American cinema's greatest films.
Like Penn, Stanley Kubrick was a maverick who prized his independence from the mainstream industry. He began by making low- to medium-budget features for United Artists (The Killing ; Paths of Glory ) and scored a major success when he replaced Anthony Mann at the helm of Spartacus (1960), the $12-million Bryna Productions/Universal epic that became the second highest grossing film of 1961 (although it actually lost about $400,000 relative to its combined production and marketing costs of $15 million).30 In 1961, to achieve greater independence, Kubrick moved permanently to England. There, after making an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita in 1962 under the Eady plan (which provided foreign producers with generous tax incentives if 80 percent of their labor was British),31 he began his career as producer-director with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a Columbia release whose financial and critical success thoroughly vindicated his new situation.
Kubrick was years ahead of the youth-cult curve when, in late 1964, he began to conceptualize the metaphysical epic that became 2001: A Space Odyssey (MGM, 1968). Over the next four years he produced and directed the film that would revolutionize the practice of special effects, elevate science fiction to the status of art, and become the defining cinematic experience of the baby-boom generation. Marketed as a quasimystical, psychedelic experience ("The Ultimate Trip"), 2001 caught the imagination of the counterculture like no other film of the era. In its initial run it earned $17 million against a considerably risky $10.5-million investment and became the fifth highest grossing film of 1968, as well as a cult phenomenon—it was, in fact, one of the first films to generate significant repeat business during its initial theatrical release (Bonnie and Clyde was another), ultimately earning $25.5 million.
Kubrick was now in a position similar to Penn's after the triumph of Bonnie and Clyde—that of a loner with one gold-plated hit and a demonstrable talent for appealing to youth—except that by operating in England, outside the Hollywood orbit, he was able to make all of his subsequent films on his own terms through his own production company (Hawk Films Ltd.). Yet, however independent he might become as a producer-director, Kubrick remained dependent on Hollywood's distribution and marketing structures for the commercial success of his work. So, in the words of Robert Sklar, he became adept at "playing the American film business game…by his own rules."32 His next film, a coproduction between Hawk and Warner Bros., was a perfect example of his ability to work the system from afar. Adapted by Kubrick from the Anthony Burgess novel originally published in 1962 (for the rights to which Kubrick paid $150,000 in 1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971) projects an alienated, drug-ridden near-future where—for the narrator, Alex (Malcom McDowell), and his gang of young "droogs"—"ultraviolence" is the primary sensory stimulus.
A Clockwork Orange was one of several films of the era—in the wake of the sixties' political assassinations, urban riots, and antiwar violence (not to mention the violence of the Vietnam war itself)—to take the very nature of violence as a serious theme. But it was the only one to make a Nietzschean connection between art and violence, suggesting that they spring from the same irrational source. Not only does classical music accompany the most horrific acts of violence on the sound track (the Overture to Rossini's "Thieving Magpie," for example, is synchronized with a precisely choreographed gang rape and rumble sequence), but Alex's love of violence is clearly aesthetic—as when his passion for Beethoven's Ninth is directly linked to his lust for "the old red vino" through a masturbation fantasy.33 It was this equation of art with violence, as well as Kubrick's ironic detachment in depicting it, that angered some critics and made the film controversial.
Controversy was good for business (who wouldn't want to see a film described by Vincent Canby as "a brilliant and dangerous work"?),34 but the X rating given to A Clockwork Orange by CARA was not: it limited both bookings and publicity, since newspapers in many communities would not accept advertising for X-rated films. Typical of CARA, the objectionable material was not the film's violence but thirty seconds' worth of sexual intercourse, which, after lengthy negotiation, Kubrick agreed to cut in order to resubmit for a less restrictive R rating.35 Under MPAA rules, this meant that the film had to be withdrawn from distribution for sixty days, but broadening its market base paid off when A Clockwork Orange became Kubricks most profitable film to date, returning $17.5 million on a $2-million investment and ranking eighth in box-office returns for 1971. (Kubrick told an interviewer in 1980 that the film had made $40 million to that date.)36 Despite polarizing the critical response, A Clockwork Orange was voted the best film of 1971 by the New York Film Critics, and Kubrick the best director; the film was also nominated by the Academy for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Screenplay from Another Medium, and Best Editing. In the end, pushing the CARA envelope on sex and violence had been a shrewd move, simultaneously creating controversy, attracting critical attention, and making A Clockwork Orange highly marketable in the newly "permissive" (in the provocative sense of Spiro Agnew's term for the counterculture) American marketplace.37 That it was calculated to perform this way by Kubrick seems unquestionable, since he had pursued the same tactic in testing the limits of the Production Code a decade earlier with Lolita.
Dissatisfied with Warner Bros. International's handling of foreign sales, Kubrick himself tracked bookings and receipts for A Clockwork Orange in the U.S. domestic and British markets and built a database from which to develop a successful worldwide marketing strategy for the film. Warners president Ted Ashley was so impressed that he fired Norman Katz as head of the international operation, and told executives at Warner Communications Inc. (WCI) that Kubrick was a genius who combined "aesthetics" with "fiscal responsibility."38 But Barry Lyndon (1975), another Warner Bros./Hawk Films coproduction, would prove Ashley wrong by half.
Kubrick had barred publicity from the set of A Clockwork Orange and, initially at least, wouldn't even tell Warners what his next film was about,39 perhaps because its scale was so large relative to its source—an all-but-forgotten novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Published in 1844 but set mainly in the period between 1760 and 1789, Barry Lyndon adopts the picaresque form of eighteenth-century fiction to chronicle the rise and fall of an unprincipled Irish rogue who exploits the British class system and nearly attains the peerage. In the film, Kubrick attempted to recreate an entire historical epoch through a mise-en-scène based on eighteenth-century painting, one characterized by real locations, authentically antique costumes, and contemporary source lighting from candles and candelabra. The extremely low light levels of interior scenes required the use of super-fast 50mm lens developed by Carl Zeiss for the Apollo space program, and cinematographer John Alcott had to innovate a special wide-angle viewfinder for his camera in order to maintain focus. The visual style of Barry Lyndon was predicated on a series of slow backward zooms from telephoto close shots to extreme wide-angle long shots, for which a another special lens was designed with a 20:1 zoom ratio (the Cine-Pro T9 24-480mm, adapted from the Angenieux 16mm 20:1 zoom). These shots were intended to evoke the two major painting genres of the period, portraiture and landscape, and they lend the film a sense of stately elegance throughout its 187-minute length, which is sustained by an exquisite score of period music played on original instruments. (Kubrick, who also wrote the screenplay, scored the film himself with prerecorded performances, as he had previously done for both A Clockwork Orange and 2001.) Location shooting consumed 250 days, but the production had exceeded its original budget of $2.5 million after ten weeks, and the total costs may have reached three times that amount.40 (One source puts the negative cost at $12 million.)41 For all its painstaking artistry, audiences hated Barry Lyndon. Released just months before Jaws opened to historic box-office receipts, Kubrick's "time odyssey"42 returned less than $9.9 million and became one of the biggest commercial flops of 1975. Yet it was an undeniable succès d'estime, winning seven Academy nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director [Kubrick's fourth nomination in a row] and Best Screenplay from Another Medium) and four Awards (for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, and Score).
Kubrick's final project of the decade reflected an astute understanding of the change that had taken place in the American marketplace and doomed Barry Lyndon to financial failure. The Shining (1980) was conceived as blockbuster horror film along the lines of Jaws, although it would be no less technically challenging than his previous work (here, in its remarkably fluid use of the new Steadicam system). It had Stephen Kings bestselling 1977 novel as its source and Jack Nicholson, fresh from winning a Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), as its star. Furthermore, the $12-million (various sources say $12-$ 18 million)43 Warner Bros./Hawk Films coproduction was slated for a national television advertising campaign before opening Memorial Day weekend at selected first-run venues, where it would play for three weeks. Then it would break into a 750-site saturation pattern secured in advance by nonrefundable $50,000 guarantees.44 The marketing strategy worked to make The Shining the tenth highest grossing film of 1980, earning $30.9 million. But it was not the blockbuster Kubrick had hoped for, because its parable of an Oedipal family trapped inside the abundant emptiness of America was simply too intelligent to have mass appeal.
Like Penn, Kubrick had reached the outer limits of what he could achieve commercially in the market constructed by the New Hollywood. He clearly understood this market—as he had understood its earlier incarnations—but as a true auteur who had written, produced, and directed his own work for the past fifteen years, he was no longer willing to bend in Hollywood's direction.45 During the eighties he made only one feature, the modestly successful Vietnam combat film/critique Full Metal Jacket (1987),46 and, several false starts notwithstanding, produced just one other film before his death in March 1999 (Eyes Wide Shut [Warners, 1999]), a psychological thriller from a screenplay by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael.47
Sam Peckinpah began his film career as an. assistant to Don Siegel, and in 1957 crossed over to television, where he wrote scripts for the popular Gunsmoke series and eventually created both The Rifleman (1958) and The Westerner (1960) series, episodes of which he also directed. He began directing features with the low-budget Western The Deadly Companions (1961). His second film, Ride the High Country (aka Guns in the Afternoon, 1962), was an elegiac, Fordian Western shot in CinemaScope and Metrocolor by Lucien Ballard which won several international awards. Major Dundee (1965), constructed as an epic Western about a U.S. Cavalry incursion into Mexico, ended in disaster when producer Jerry Bresler fired Peckinpah in postproduction and cut the film from 161 to 134 minutes; Columbia then released the mangled result to hostile reviews.48 After years without work in features, Peckinpah signed a deal with Ken Hyman, the new head of production at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, to direct a screenplay by Walon Green about a band of aging outlaws who become fatally involved in the Mexican Revolution circa 1913. This was The Wild Bunch (1969), which in its unprecedented violence was the first film to take advantage of the new freedoms offered by the CARA rating system. Its balletically choreographed massacres raised the slowmotion bloodletting of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) to new heights and produced a controversy over screen violence that became part of a larger debate about the looming presence of violence in national life. Like Penn's film and Kubricks 2001, The Wild Bunch was a seminal work of its generation, inseparable from the social history of the time, and the primary audience for its R-rated violence was in the 17-25-year-old age group. Produced for a negative cost of $6.2 million, the film grossed only $7.5 million in its first year of release, but in terms of authorial prestige Peckinpah had scored a solid hit.49 In fact, many critics saw The Wild Bunch as a work of genius, which gave the director renewed credibility in the industry and made it possible for him to write his own ticket for the first half of the 1970s.50
Before that happened, however, Peckinpah completed another film signed to Warners by Hyman, a gently ironic parable of the passing of the West entitled The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), which clearly demonstrated his ability to handle nonviolent material. During the filming of The Wild Bunch, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts—its profits for 1969 rapidly falling—had been absorbed by the Kinney National Corporation (later Kinney Services), and Ted Ashley was installed as president. Ashley, who replaced Hyman with John Calley, had already been responsible for cutting ten minutes' worth of flashbacks out The Wild Bunch after several weeks of distribution.51 Now, with Warners profits rising again, he decided to dump Cable Hogue into second-run theaters and write it off as a loss. (With a negative cost of $3.7 million, Cable Hogue grossed less than $2.5 million after three years in circulation.)52 A furious Peckinpah publicly denounced Warner Bros. for damaging his professional reputation. Then he struck a deal with producer Daniel Melnick and the newly formed ABC Pictures to make a film from a novel entitled The Siege at Trencher's Farm, about an American college professor who moves with his family to a farmhouse in the English countryside that he must ultimately defend with his life against a gang of local thugs. (Melnick and Peckinpah had worked together on an ABC television Stage 67 adaptation of Katherine Ann Porter's Noon Wine three years earlier.) Shot on location in Cornwall, the film was called Straw Dogs (1971), and contained some of the most graphic violence ever to appear in a mainstream American film. Not only does the hero (Dustin Hoffman) slaughter all seven attackers in the long concluding siege of the farm, but there is a brutal scene in which his wife (Susan George) is raped and sodomized by two of them. (Peckinpah had to cut the American version of this action by several minutes in order to avoid an X rating from CARA.)53
Released in December 1971 by Cinerama Releasing Corporation (the "instant major" partnered with ABC), Straw Dogs caused more public outrage than even The Wild Bunch had.54 It was attacked by some critics, especially feminists, as depraved and misogynistic, and Pauline Kael in a famous review in The New Yorker called it "the first American film that is a fascist work of art."55 Others compared Straw Dogs unfavorably with A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) for being less artful and cerebral in its treatment of violence, which it certainly was. But many critics saw the film as a brilliant exposition of something tragic and profoundly disturbing in our nature, less misogynistic than misanthropic, yet clearly sympathetic to the individual agonies of its characters. Technically, its montage aesthetics were comparable only to those of The Wild Bunch, and Paul Zimmerman, writing in Newsweek, said prophetically, "It is hard to imagine that Sam Peckinpah will ever make a better movie…."56 The furor probably helped to make Straw Dogs Peckinpah's most successful film to date, but not by much—at the end of 1973, it had returned less than $8 million worldwide against a final negative cost of $3.25 million. Even more than with The Wild Bunch, however, the controversy over Straw Dogs made Peckinpah a celebrity figure. As biographer David Weddie put it, the film made "Peckinpah's name the most widely recognized of any director since Alfred Hitchcock."57
Satisfied with Straw Dogs, ABC signed Peckinpah to direct Junior Bonner (1972) from an original screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook about an aging rodeo star who returns to his hometown for a farewell performance. Essentially a character study containing some extraordinary action sequences, the film starred Steve McQueen in the title role and was produced in association with his Solar Productions company for $3.5 million. It was poorly distributed by Cinerama Releasing (which, like ABC Pictures itself, was soon to go out of business) and returned just over $2.3 million worldwide in its year of release, convincing many in the industry that Peckinpah really was what the press had begun to call him—a "master of violence"—and nothing more.58 But McQueen had meanwhile formed First Artists with Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, and Paul Newman—a star-based production company modeled on United Artists—and he wanted Peckinpah to direct him in The Getaway (1972), from a novel by Jim Thompson with a script by Walter Hill. The film was conceived as the box-office hit they both needed (McQueen hadn't had one since Bullitt [Peter Yates, 1968]), with Love Story's (Arthur Hiller, 1970) Ali MacGraw in the female lead.59 Shot on location in Texas by Lucien Ballard, who had collaborated with Peckinpah on all but two of his films since Ride the High Country, The Getaway is a "criminal couple" movie souped up with Bullitt-style car chases and Wild Bunch-style ballistic ballets. Marketing was enhanced immensely by a torrid affair between McQueen and MacGraw on the set, which ended in her leaving her husband, Paramount production chief Robert Evans. On the strength of this, First Artists was able to secure $7 million in advance guarantees from exhibitors and then distribute The Getaway with heavy publicity through National General.60 Though it opened to mixed reviews, the film earned almost $19 million in the domestic market (and twice that worldwide) against its $3.4-million negative cost in the first year of release, making Peckinpah a truly bankable name for the first and last time in his career.
During production of The Getaway, Peckinpah had signed a contract with MGM head of production James Aubrey to direct Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) from a script by Rudolph Wurlitzer. The resulting film was shot in Mexico by John Coquillon (who had been the director of photography [DP] on Straw Dogs) and, under time pressure from MGM, Peckinpah produced an elaborate 140-minute cut of the film for a Memorial Day 1973 release. Aubrey, who was in the process of dismantling the studio to finance Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, wanted another 40 minutes removed from it and finally distributed an incoherent 106-minute version of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in July—three months before Aubrey would announce MGM's withdrawal from theatrical distribution.61 During its first year of release the film barely returned its negative cost of $4.6 million, and Peckinpah's mainstream career seemed virtually ended. He made Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) in Mexico for Optimus Productions, an independent company formed by Martin Baum (head of ABC Pictures until its demise in 1972). This grotesque medium-budget ($1.5 million) revenge film was barely distributed by United Artists, which rightly assumed audiences would hate it, although several critics recognized it as a work of dark genius and—to those who knew Peckinpah—alcoholic despair. Still, United Artists retained enough faith in Peckinpah to finance The Killer Elite (1975), a $6-million espionage thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall, which he was hired to direct on location in San Francisco but contractually forbidden to rewrite.62 Even though it merely broke even, the film succeeded as an action-adventure, and in the winter of 1975 Peckinpah and the New Hollywood crossed paths one last time when he was offered deals by independent producers to direct two huge blockbusters back-to-back, both of them laden with special effects: Dino De Laurentiis wanted him for King Kong and Ilya Salkind for Superman.63 That such offers could be seriously tendered to a director with only one real hit to his credit (The Getaway), whose last three films had been box-office failures, and who was known to be a functional alcoholic, is testimony to the astonishing power that the auteur mystique still had at mid-decade in the American film industry.
Peckinpah knew better, though, and opted instead to make Cross of Iron in 1977 for German producer Wolf Hartwig in Yugoslavia. A World War II combat film narrated from the German point of view, Cross of Iron had to be completed with British funds from EMI Films when the production went $2 million over its original $6-million budget. Yet it proved to be terrifically popular in Europe, especially Germany and Austria, where it became the highest-grossing film since The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). In the United States, Avco Embassy dumped it into second-run theaters with no publicity, where it earned less than $700,000 in the year that saw the record-breaking $193.8-million take of Star Wars. On the basis of Cross of Iron's European performance, though, EMI hired Peckinpah to direct Convoy (1978) from a lightweight B.W.L. Norton script about a truckers rebellion based on a popular country-western song ("Convoy" by C. W, McCall).64 The concept was modeled on Universal's Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977), a redneck chase comedy that had unexpectedly grossed $59 million.
Addicted now to cocaine as well as alcohol (cocaine addiction having become an occupational hazard in late-1970s Hollywood), Peckinpah ran the film $7 million over its $5-million budget and was removed from the project in postproduction. EMI released a 110-minute version through United Artists that ironically became the director's highest-grossing film, earning $46.5 million worldwide. Using New Hollywood marketing tactics, EMI had pre-sold Convoy to European and Asian exhibitors as a high concept "event movie" and amortized its costs in prerelease.65 Peckinpah made one more feature, The Osterman Weekend (1983), based on a Robert Ludlam thriller, before dying of heart failure in 1985.
More than any other figure of his generation, Peckinpah replicates the corporate history of Hollywood in the 1970s in a kind of inverse curve. Early on, following The Wild Bunch, he worked with two production companies formed from the industry chaos of the late sixties—the "instant major" ABC Pictures/Cinerama Releasing Corporation and the independent First Artists. Next he worked for one of Hollywood's greatest studios, MGM, as it was being gutted and downsized in the wake of a leveraged buyout by Kirk Kerkorian. Finally, he worked as the director (and sometimes writer-director) component of ad hoc production "packages" financed and distributed by United Artists, or on the United Artists model.66 This was all because he had begun the decade as one of its most celebrated auteurs at a time when the industry literally needed direction. His personal demons notwithstanding (and they were formidable), he ended the 1970s in failure when auteurism became an impediment to the direction the industry had finally taken—that is, toward the production of high-concept blockbusters, a form of production he had specifically abjured by turning down King Kong and Superman in 1975.
The only filmmaker of his generation more prolific than Peckinpah during the 1970s was Robert Altman, who began his career as an industrial filmmaker in Kansas City, Missouri, before making several exploitation features (The Delinquents ; The James Dean Story [1957, codirected with George W. George]) and then working as a director in series television (for episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1957-1958; The Millionaire, 1958-1959; The Roaring Twenties, 1960-1961; Bonanza, 1960-1961; Bus Stop, 1961; Combat, 1962-1963). His first Hollywood features were Countdown (1968), a modestly budgeted drama about the rivalry between two NASA astronauts produced for the Warners' B-unit, and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), a moody psychosexual melodrama shot on location in Vancouver, British Columbia—both financed by the Max Factor family for the "instant major" Commonwealth United. (That Cold Day in the Park contained scenes suggesting incest between a brother and sister, and was cut without Altman's consent by producer Donald Factor in order to avoid an X rating.)67 Neither film was widely distributed (in fact, Countdown played almost exclusively on a double bill with John Wayne's right-wing The Green Berets ), but Altman's next project became one of the biggest hits of the early 1970s.
Based on a script that Ring Lardner, Jr. adapted from a 1968 novel by Richard Hooker, and produced for Fox by Ingo Preminger (Otto's brother), M*A*S*H (1970)—an acronym for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital"—is an irreverent antimilitary comedy about the personnel of a battlefield medical unit during the Korean War. Its subversive blend of humor and gore and its contemporary stylization made the film a hit with the counterculture, and critics recognized its strikingly composed Panavision frames (structured around telephoto zooms by veteran cinematographer Harold E. Stine) and overlapping dialogue as the hallmarks of a bold new talent. (A source of constant confusion to his producers, Altman's overlapping dialogue first appeared in Countdown, of which Jack Warner is said to have remarked: "Jesus Christ, you've got all the actors talking at once! Who's going to understand it?")68 Although M*A*S*H never pretended to be more than a hip service comedy with an absurdist edge, the parallels between Korea and the Vietnam conflict were unmistakable, and it was widely perceived in the youth market as a covert antiwar movie—one that Altman had slipped past the collective nose of Middle America so cleverly that Fox was able to turn it into a popular television series several years later and no one was the wiser. (No one but Fox marketing executives, that is, who exploited the film's antiwar cache with an advertising logo featuring a large hand giving the peace sign.) Shot for $3 million, M*A*S*H took in $36.7 million to become the third highest grossing film of 1970, plus it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film of 1970, and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (with nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Editing).
Some critics see the five years between M*A*S*H and Nashville (1975) as a golden era for Altman;69 in fact they were an unusually fruitful time for American film in general because of the new creative power given to directors in the shifting industry production context. During these years, Altman was able to make six films with various combinations of his "talent trust" of repertory players (Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Rene Auberjonois, Corey Fischer, and Bert Remsen) and creative personnel (cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, editor Louis Lombardo, art director Leon Ericksen) that revised and satirized several Hollywood genres in ways that are now generally described as postmodern. The most unusual of these was Brewster McCloud (1970), produced by Altman's newly formed Lion's Gate Films70 for distribution by MGM. This disjointed social satire, whose negative cost was $1.8 million,71 focuses on an Icarus-like young man whose aspiration is fly like a bird through the Houston Astrodome, to accomplish which he must avoid sex (which binds him to earth) and kill a number of reactionary characters. Although many critics praised its originality and the technical achievement of its subjective aerial cinematography, MGM's James Aubrey hated the movie and distributed it as if it were an exploitation film: after a quick million-dollar play-off, it was withdrawn from theaters.72
Altman's next film was produced for Warners and shot on location in British Columbia by Zsigmond, who obtained a tinted, old-fashioned quality for it by flashing and fogging the stock. Adapted by Altman and Brian McKay from a novel by Edmund Naughton, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is about a buffoonish small-time gambler who, with the aid of an enterprising brothel madam, founds the town of Presbyterian Church in Washington State near the turn of the century. As the town grows and prospers, a large mining conglomerate attempts to buy McCabe out and, when he refuses, has him shot to death by a contract killer. With an elegiac score by poet-folksinger Leonard Cohen, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is both a celebration of community and an indictment of corporate capitalism, very much in tune with the values of the counter-culture. But the film initially confused critics, who thought the Cohen songs inappropriate to a Western and disliked its mixing of comic and tragic elements. Furthermore, the negative was rushed into duplication for a June 1971 release, and early prints had color-timing and dubbing problems (the latter especially troubling, given Altman's elaborately structured overlapping dialogue mix).
Despite audience indifference, however, the film had a second life with the critics, many of whom reversed their original opinions when corrected release prints became available later in the summer.73 Audiences who were put off by McCabe & Mrs. Miller's downbeat ending, were completely alienated by Images (1972), Altman's attempt to make a film according to the model of expatriate director Joseph Losey (The Servant ; Secret Ceremony ). Shot on location in and around an isolated country house in Ireland from an original screenplay by Altman, Images tracks the psychic disintegration of a wealthy Englishwoman (played by Susannah York). The film was produced for $800,000 by Hemdale and Lion's Gate and barely distributed in the United States, although York won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her performance in it.
Altman's next film gave a distinctly revisionist spin to a 1953 Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler, turning the detective into a genial klutz (played by Elliott Gould) and updating the setting to the present. Based on a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and produced by Lion's Gate for United Artists distribution, The Long Goodbye (1973) is less a film noir than a sardonic comment on contemporary American narcissism drenched in the decadent ambience of 1970s Los Angeles. In it, Marlowe staunchly defends a close friend who is accused of murdering his wife, only to discover that his friend is guilty of the crime and has used Marlowe to cover it up. Marlowe, whose throw-away line throughout the film has been "It's OK with me," is finally confronted with something that's not, and he tracks the friend to Mexico and shoots him. The Long Goodbye is distinguished by Zsigmond's constantly moving first-person camera and an innovative soundtrack by John Williams that rings recurrent changes on the title song as it appears in many different guises. But genre purists hated the film when it opened in February 1973, so United Artists withdrew it and re-released it in October with a new advertising campaign emphasizing its satiric take on genre tradition. This helped The Long Goodbye to become a modest box-office success; furthermore, the National Society of Film Critics cited it for Best Cinematography (Zsigmond), and it ended up on many year-end Ten Best Lists.
Altman described the production of The Long Goodbye as "making a film in Hollywood and about Hollywood, and about that kind of film,"74 indicating his conscious intention to rework classical genres, and he turned his attention next to the "criminal couple" film. Thieves Like Us (United Artists, 1974) was adapted from the 1937 novel of that title by Edward Anderson, which was also the source for Nicholas Ray's genre classic They Live By Night (1949). Shot on location in Mississippi by French cinematographer Jean Boffey, the film deals with three prison escapees during the Depression who set out on a spree of bank robbing, become notorious, and are finally killed by the police in a slow-motion death sequence that invokes comparison with Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). A meticulous period recreation, complete with authentic radio sound, the film has an academic quality that led Pauline Kael to call it "the closest to flawless of Altman's films"; and Richard Corliss, less approvingly, "textbook cinema at its best."75 The audience didn't like it either way, but California Split (Columbia, 1974) achieved modest popularity and took in about $5 million in domestic rentals, as well as turning up on the New York Times annual Ten Best list (the fifth Altman film to do so since 1970).76 The first film to use the Lion's Gate eight-track wireless sound system, this was an episodic story of compulsive gambling, based on a screenplay by Joseph Walsh and shot on location in Las Vegas by Paul Lohmann, who would collaborate with Altman on both Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).
At this point, Altman was a darling of the critics, but he had not scored a solid commercial hit since M*A*S*H. Nashville (1975), produced by ABC for distribution by Paramount, was not that exactly, but it did return $9.3 million domestic against its $2.2-million production cost, and became the most highly acclaimed film of Altman's career. Scripted by Joan Tewkesbury and redolent of the preceding decade's traumatic politics, the film follows the lives of twenty-four characters in Nashville over a five-day period preceding a rally for "Replacement Party" presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker at the city's replica of the Parthenon. The characters represent a cross-section of the American public, but all have a common desire to strike it rich in the world of country music, which stands in for American mass media at large. Their lives coalesce at the Walker rally that concludes the film, when a young assassin who has come to kill the candidate kills a celebrity performer instead. For much of its 160-minute running time, Nashville charts the way in which our national entertainment media and our national politics work together to shield America from historical truth. But the film is also highly entertaining in its own right, functioning both as social satire and country-and-western musical. Its intricate sound track was recorded in Lion's Gate eight-track stereo, with individually controlled wireless microphones on seven of the principal players simultaneously (one track was used for background noise), plus an additional sixteen tracks for its twenty-seven musical sequences, half of which were collected on an ABC LP intended to cross-market the movie.77 Although it opened strongly in exclusive runs in major cities and was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, Nashville performed poorly when Paramount attempted a wider release, and it failed to win any of the major Oscars for which it was nominated (Best Picture, Best Director, two for Best Supporting Actress [Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely]), winning only for Best Song ("I'm Easy"). It did, however, win the New York Film Critics awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Tomlin), heightening a growing perception in Hollywood that Altman's work was pitched more toward the Eastern intellectual establishment than toward the industry's bottom line.
His next film seemed to confirm both terms of this proposition with a vengeance. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) was adapted by Altman and Alan Rudolph from Arthur Kopit's off-Broadway play Indians and produced by Dino De Laurentiis for United Artists distribution. It was to be the first in a widely touted three-film partnership between Altman and De Laurentiis. Produced for $6.5 million—Altman's biggest budget so far—and starring Paul Newman in the title role, Buffalo Bill is another indictment of the hypocrisy and exploitativeness of American mass media, this time in the form of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The film shows Buffalo Bill's media image to be a tissue of lies built upon Ned Buntline's dime-novel mythology and the subjugation of Sitting Bull's people, but, unlike Nashville, grows sententious and seemingly random in the process. Furthermore, according to editor Louis Lombardo, De Laurentiis rushed the film in post-production, contributing to its final incoherence.78 Over this and other issues, De Laurentiis and Altman had an acrimonious and highly publicized falling out, which resulted in the producer firing Altman from the project in post-production, as well as canceling a contract with him to adapt E. L. Doctorow's best-selling novel Ragtime.79 (The contract later went to Milos Forman, who made the film in 1981.) De Laurentiis re-edited Buffalo Bill for final release,80 but United Artists's half-hearted distribution of the film condemned it to oblivion at the box office, where it grossed less than $1 million, although it was submitted for competition at the 1976 Berlin Film Festival and won the Golden Bear.
Of the eight films Altman had directed since M*A*S*H, only California Split and Nashville had shown a profit, but his critical reputation was so high that Alan Ladd, Jr., then production head of Fox, provided distribution and financing for his next five films—3 Women (1977), A Wedding (1978), Quintet (1979), A Perfect Couple (1979), and H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979)—all of which were produced by Lion's Gate: Of these, only 3 Women was successful with critics, some of whom saw it as superior even to Nashville. Vincent Canby, for example, suggested that its disorienting, dream-like structure provided the paradigm for a new American art cinema. "At the start of the next century," he wrote, "it may well be possible to look back on these years of the 1970s and identify this very particular period—if not as the turning point from the Old Movie into the New, then as the time when New Movies began to supplement Old in such number that it wasn't always easy to tell them apart….Robert Altman's '3 Women' is very much a New Movie…."81 Based on a screenplay by Altman, with unaccredited assistance from Patricia Resnick, the film is a Bergmanesque study of the psychological relationships among three unrelated women (played by Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek,82 and Janice Rule) who unite to form a spiritual "family," hypnotically photographed by Charles Rosher. Though it contains characteristic elements of social satire, 3 Women has a mystical, quasi-religious quality that distinguishes it from earlier Altman films, and some critics see it as his last important work before The Player in 1992.
A Wedding was a comedy of manners about nouveau riche nuptials whose most interesting feature was its use of two eight-track sound systems to record fourteen different actors simultaneously;83 with a domestic gross of $3.1 million, it was the only one of the Fox films to make over a million dollars. Quintet was an unmitigated disaster—a futuristic murder mystery driven by an elaborate and, finally, inexplicable game. The film lost nearly all of its $7.6-million production cost, and convinced Fox not to release either A Perfect Couple or H.E.A.L.T.H. theatrically, although both were subsequently released to cable. In spite of these commercial failures, Altman was signed by producer Robert Evans of Paramount to direct a musical adapted by Jules Feiffer from the comic strip Popeye (1980), starring Robin Williams in the title role. Based on a pre-sold property and heavily marketed, the film grossed $24.5 million to become the twelfth highest earner of 1980, but so firmly was the blockbuster mentality entrenched by this point that Popeye was seen as a failure (which, relative to the $141.7-million gross of that year's The Empire Strikes Back, it probably was). Since M*A*S*H, Altman had made fourteen feature films and worked for every major studio in Hollywood; after Popeye, he would not work for a major distributor again. Even his comeback films of the 1990s would be handled by the "mini-majors" Fine Line and Miramax. Lion's Gate Films—which had produced not only Altman's best work of the decade but also such notable films as Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A. (1977) and Remember My Name (1978), Robert Benton's The Late Show (1977), and Robert M. Young's Rich Kids (1979)—experienced increasing difficulty in securing financing and distribution (even as it expanded into a new $2-million post-production facility in 1979), and was sold in 1981 to independent producer Jonathan Taplin for $2.3 million.84
Of all the auteur directors of his generation, Robert Altman was the most critically esteemed and courted by the media; furthermore, ownership of his own production company gave him a power base and a source of income that buffered him against the winds of change blowing through 1970s Hollywood as he moved from one project to the next. But even these advantages were not enough to keep him working in mainstream cinema into the 1980s. When the high concept blockbuster became the industry standard, Altman's revisionist-deconstructive approach to genre became unmarketable, and for more than a decade he effectively withdrew from the film industry to work in theater, cable, and television.85
Mediating culturally and aesthetically between the generation of Penn, Kubrick, Peckinpah, and Altman—all but one of whom (Kubrick) received his basic production training in television—and the "film school" generation of Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, and De Palma, were a group of directors who attempted to parlay the creative freedoms of the late sixties and early 1970s into auteurist careers. They met with only middling success but, at the same time, produced collectively a number of remarkable films. They came from a variety of backgrounds—theater and live performance, documentary television, film criticism, screenwriting, etc.—but all had in common a sense that they shared with the first directors of the French New Wave: that at this particular time in the history of their national industry almost anyone with talent and the will to do so could become a film director. This would be an incredible premise today, when the production costs of even a standard feature can exceed $30 million and no one but a professional can be trusted to handle them. Indeed, it would be incredible by the decade's end—after the astonishing success of Jaws and Star Wars; but in the early 1970s, before the blockbuster syndrome had firmly gelled, mainstream features could still be made for a few million dollars (the average negative cost for 1971 was $1.75 million), and were considered hits if they returned three or four times that much at the box office.
Furthermore, the Easy Rider "youth cult" bubble encouraged the employment of relatively untested directors for their freshness and novelty. It was in this context that the film careers of Mike Nichols (b. 1931), Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939), William Friedkin (b. 1939), Bob Rafelson (b. 1934), Hal Ashby (1936-1988), Alan Pakula (1928-1998), and several more genre-oriented directors bore fruit. The same perspective lends coherence to the singular contributions of two American originals—John Cassavetes (1929-1989) and Terrence Malick (b. 1945)—whose work is also examined below.
Mike Nichols (born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin; emigrated 1938) was an improv performer (An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and a successful Broadway theater director when he created a sensation with his filmic adaptation of Edward Albee's corrosive 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced for Warners, whose foul language initially caused it to be denied the Production Code Seal, helping it to earn $14.5 million and become the third highest grossing film of 1966. (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a major catalyst for Jack Valenti's 1966 revision of the Code and its ultimate replacement by the CARA system—see above.)86 It was followed by the prototypical youth-cult movie The Graduate (Avco Embassy, 1967), which became the highest-grossing film of the decade and won Nichols an Academy Award for Best Director, and an $18-million adaptation of Joseph Heller's surrealistic World War II novel Catch-22 (1970)—Paramount's failed attempt to cash in on the antiwar movement, which returned only $9.3 million. But Nichols's next film, Carnal Knowledge (Avco Embassy, 1971) became a watershed in the history of censorship and free speech when the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the obscenity conviction of a theater owner in Albany, Georgia, for showing it. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1974 overturned the Georgia ruling on the grounds that the film was not obscene under the standards recently established by Miller ν. California.87 (This was the landmark decision that in June 1973 laid down the ambiguous "community standards" test for determining obscenity.) Written by Jules Feiffer, Carnal Knowledge offered a depressing view of male sexual exploitation by charting the lives of two college roommates from the 1950s through the present. Although it showed no explicit sex acts on screen, the predatory exploits of its protagonists were recounted in graphic dialogue, and the film contained several nude scenes. Predictably, Carnal Knowledge was both popular (it earned $12.1 million to become the twelfth-highest earner of 1971) and critically successful, winning praise for its Panavision cinematography by Guiseppe Rotunno and Nichols's strong direction. Nichols made only two more films during the 1970s: The Day of the Dolphin (Avco Embassy, 1973), a political thriller written by Buck Henry in which a pair of trained dolphins become ploys in a presidential assassination plot; and a black comedy about the bungled kidnapping of an heiress during the 1920s entitled The Fortune (Columbia, 1975). Neither was commercially successful, and Nichols didn't direct again until 1980, when he filmed an unexpurgated version of Gilda Radner's Broadway show Gilda Live. He has since become a mainstream industry figure with several notable hits to his credit (SILKWOOD ; Working Girl ; The Birdcage ).
Peter Bogdanovich was an off-Broadway theater director and auteurist film critic (author of monographs and books on Welles, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, and Allan Dwan) before he directed his first feature for Roger Corman in 1968. This was the flashily reflexive Targets, a film about psychotic Vietnam vet who becomes sniper, interfoliated with Boris Karloff outtakes from Corman's recently completed The Terror (1963). Produced for $125,000, this tribute to AIP horror was distributed by Paramount and was followed by the documentary Directed by John Ford (1971), which was financed by the American Film Institute and was chosen as the official U.S. entry at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. Bogdanovich's mainstream breakthrough film, The Last Picture Show (1971) was produced by the newly formed BBS Productions and became that company's biggest hit. Based on a novel by Larry McMurty and scripted by McMurty and Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show was produced for $1.3 million and shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Robert Surtees on location in Texas. The film, like the novel, takes the closing of the local picture palace as a
metaphor for the unraveling of rural American life and creates an elegiac mood worthy of Welles and Ford. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (and winning for Best Supporting Actor [Ben Johnson] and Best Supporting Actress [Cloris Leachman]), The Last Picture Show was an unexpected popular success (it earned $14.1 million to become the tenth highest grossing film of 1971). It propelled Bogdanovich toward his next project, the updated screwball comedy What's Up Doc? (Warner Bros., 1972), which was modeled on Howard Hawks's 1938 hit Bringing Up Baby. When this re-created genre classic returned $28.5 million in rentals, making it the second highest earning film in the year of The Godfather ($86.3 million), Bogdanovich became one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood.
In 1973 he joined with two other newly bankable talents, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola, to form the short-lived Directors Company, a creatively autonomous unit of Paramount capitalized by production chief Frank Yablans at $31.5 million. Through this short-lived entity,88 Bogdanovich produced Paper Moon (Paramount, 1973), another nostalgia piece shot on location in black-and-white, this time by Laszlo Kovacs in rural Kansas. A comedy set in Depression-era Kansas, it teamed Ryan O'Neal with his ten-year-old daughter Tatum as a pair of con artists, and she became the youngest person ever to receive a competitive Oscar when she won the 1973 award for Best Supporting Actress. The film itself was a relative success, coming in at ninth place with earnings of $16.6 million, but the blockbuster syndrome that had been forming in the wake of The Godfather emerged full-blown in 1973 with The Exorcist's $89.3 million in rentals, The Sting's $78.2 million, and American Graffitis $55.3 million. When Bogdanovich's next film, an adaptation of Henry James's Daisy Miller (Paramount, 1974) shot on location in Italy for the Directors Company, lost money, his bankability was barely sustainable through one more flop. Yet he was able to produce two before the studio doors were completely closed to him—At Long Last Love (Fox, 1975), an elaborate attempt to re-create a 1930s musical in the Astaire-Rogers style, based on Cole Porter songs;89 and Nickelodeon (Columbia, 1976), a comedy-drama about the early days of the film industry, derived in part from the anecdotal accounts of pioneers Bogdanovich had interviewed as a critic.90 Bogdanovich now left Hollywood for Singapore where, with financing provided by Roger Corman, he directed a low-budget adaptation of Paul Theroux's Vietnam-era novel Saint Jack (1979), which won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1979. After the failure of the romantic comedy They All Laughed (1981), which he attempted to distribute himself,91 and the murder of his mistress Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband, Bogdanovich entered a period of decline.92 He went into bankruptcy in 1985, continuing to work as a director but produc ing few notable films (MASK 93 and Noises Off  among them).
During the 1970s, however, his career had epitomized the auteurist ideal: beginning, like his French New Wave counterparts, as an auteurist critic and cineaste, he started to
work in low-budget features with Roger Corman at AIP; directed his first hit for the independent, youth-and-cinema-oriented BBS Productions; and afterwards produced, directed, and co-wrote nearly all of his films himself. Furthermore, as David Thomson points out, Bogdanovich's best films are not so much auteur pieces as extensions of his criticism, and his criticism was instrumental in the rise of auteurism as the dominant mode of aesthetic discourse about film from the 1970s through the present,94 at least in terms of its more public manifestations.
William Friedkin's career, by contrast, follows the parabolic commercial trajectory of 1970s Hollywood. Friedkin began as a director of local broadcast television in Chicago, having worked his way up from the station mail room at the age of sixteen, and went on to direct network documentaries and dramatic shows (including the final episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour) before making his first features. These were indebted both to television (Good Times [Columbia, 1967], a Sonny and Cher vehicle), and Richard Lester's Beatles films (The Night They Raided Minsky's [United Artists, 1968], a Norman Lear production) for their vigorous camera and editing styles; while The Birthday Party (Palomar [U.K.], 1968) and The Boys in the Band (National General Pictures, 1970, produced by CBS' Cinema Center Films) were more stagebound in their adaptation of plays by Harold Pinter and Mart Crowley, respectively. It was Friedkin's reputation for creating a "cinema of immediacy," however, that led Richard Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox to hire him to direct The French Connection (1971), a screen version of Robin Moore's best-selling book about two real-life New York cops who uncovered an international heroin-smuggling ring. Shot in and around Manhattan for a modest $1.8 million, the film featured a spectacularly edited car chase (modeled on a similar one in Peter Yates's Bullitt ) so compelling that it generated significant repeat business. This helped to boost The French Connection into third place at the box office for 1971, with $26.3 million in earnings; it was also nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), and Best Film Editing (Jerry Greenberg). This unprecedented sweep of the Oscars by a simple, if flashy, genre film is indicative of the state of the industry as it approached the end of its historic recession, simultaneously seeking to reward box-office success while privileging novelty of style.
Friedkin was now a hot property, and he was signed by Warner Bros. to direct an adaptation of William Peter Blatty's best-selling horror novel The Exorcist (not as hot, however, as Penn, Kubrick, and Nichols, all of whom turned the project down before it was offered to Friedkin).95 The resulting film, which opened December 26, 1973, was one of the most controversial and successful of the decade, earning $89.3 million ($250 million worldwide) and stirring a national debate over sensationalism in the movies that, in some sense, is still going on. While crowds reportedly waited in line for hours to see the R-rated film,96 critics found The Exorcist to be brutal, manipulative, and disgusting. In the pages of Film Comment, for example, Stephen Farber wrote that it "offers perverse sexual kicks that make ordinary porno movies look wholesome," and said of Friedkin, "He is the model of what the studios want: pragmatic, opportunistic, professional, utterly cynical."97 Yet, if it did represent a new extreme in the "cinema of cruelty," The Exorcist's historic grosses confirmed what The Godfather had suggested the year before—that recession in the industry was over and that film attendance was once more on the rise, at least for the biggest hits. (In February 1973, Variety reported that January business was up 24 percent over 1972, but that the ratio of business done by the top twenty-five films remained constant.)98 For the second time in eighteen months, a souped-up Friedkin genre film had become a blockbuster and received multiple Oscar nominations (ten this time, winning only two—Best Screenplay [Blatty, who had also produced] and Best Sound).
But now the director yearned for respectability, and under a new contract with Universal he conceived the idea of remaking Henri Georges Clouzot's perverse thriller The Wages of Fear (1952) from a screenplay by Walon Green, who had co-written The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) with Sam Peckinpah. When the projected budget for this film reached $15 million, Universal entered into a coproduction deal with Paramount to release it internationally through their joint foreign distributorship CIC (Cinema International Corporation), which dominated about a third of the overseas
market.99 Acting as his own producer on location in the Dominican Republic (chosen because Paramount's parent company Gulf & Western had interests there), Friedkin completed the oddly titled Sorcerer (1977) at a cost of $21.6 million.100 After he supervised the final cut, Universal released the film in the same week as Star Wars, and Sorcerer ultimately earned less than $9 million.
Though his star had fallen, Friedkin was hired by Dino De Laurentiis to replace John Frankenheimer as director of The Brink's Job (1978), a caper film based on 1950s legendary Boston armored car robbery. With a negative cost of $12.5 million ($7 million above the average for 1978), The Brink's Job made less than $5 million ($4,686,810) and seemed to confirm the fact that Friedkin had suddenly become an expensive loser. What had really changed, though, was not the director but the production context in which he worked. Virtually every filmmaker examined in this chapter, with the exception of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, experienced a reversal of fortune from the beginning to the end of the decade because so much changed so rapidly. Friedkin's was simply more dramatic than most, because he had been briefly at the pinnacle of the blockbuster pyramid in the process of its formation.
Ironically, Friedkin's last film of the 1970s had originally been slated for Spielberg when the property was optioned in 1971 by Philip D'Antoni, producer of The French Connection. This was Gerald Walker's novel Cruising (1970), a murder mystery about a cop who goes undercover in New York's gay S&M subculture to track down a serial killer, which D'Antoni had finally abandoned as too bizarre for contemporary audiences. By 1978, however, Friedkin was attracted to adapting the novel as a means of restoring his box-office reputation for sensational entertainment. (He may also have felt immune from criticism that the project was antigay because he had earlier adapted The Boys in the Band , a movie that depicts gay men in a positive light.) Whatever the case, Cruising (Lorimar/United Artists, 1980), for which Friedkin wrote his first screenplay, depicts the world of gay leather bars as dangerous, sinister, and sick, and the film aroused a storm of protest in the gay community, beginning with several near riots during location shooting on Christopher Street. Opened in major cities as "William Friedkin's Cruising" on February 15, 1980, the film met with picket lines and demonstrations, and did terrific business in its first two weeks before plummeting abruptly and eventually earning less than $7 million ($6,788,140) in rentals.101 (Variety's assessment that Cruising "resembles the worst of the 'hippie' films of the 1960s" accurately connected it with the youth market appeal that had first made Friedkin bankable.)102 After this debacle, Friedkin had a hard time finding work, although his technical skills sustained him through an occasional genre feature (To Live and Die in L.A. ; The Guardian ; Rampage ; Jade ) and television pilots. His two great hits of the 1970s inspired several sequels directed by others—The French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 1975), Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977), and The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)—but they did little more than return their negative costs (their rental earnings were $5.62, $13.9, and $11.5 million, respectively). Yet, as Larry Gross points out, the films themselves virtually invented two genres that became commercial norms and have helped to sustain Hollywood ever since—the visceral, high-speed action movie and the A-budget, effects-laden horror film.103
Although he never directed a megahit like Friedkin or acquired the art-film cachet of Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson for a brief period in the early 1970s was regarded as one of the most important directors in the business, both for his own work and for his participation in BBS Productions. Rafelson began as a writer-producer for television, working for David Susskind, Desilu, and finally Screen Gems/Columbia, where he met Bert Schneider and formed Raybert Productions with him in 1965. Raybert, which would become BBS ("Bert, Bob, and Steve") with the addition of Steve Blauner to the partnership in 1969, first produced the hit television series The Monkees, a show about a rock group inspired by the style and substance of Richard Lester's Beatles film A Hard Day's Night (1964). The series ran for two years on ABC (September 12, 1966-August 19, 1968), elevated the Monkees to best-selling recording artists, and inspired Rafelson's first feature Head (1968), a psychedelic fantasy on the theme of pop stardom written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. Raybert's first and only feature film was Easy Rider (coproduced with Peter Fonda's newly formed Pando Productions), the three-hour rough cut of which Rafelson and Schneider reduced to 94 minutes to create the film that catalyzed the "youth-cult" boom by returning $19.2 million on its $375,000 investment.104 Raybert then became BBS, and the stunning success of Easy Rider gave the new production company enough clout to strike a deal with Columbia Pictures in late 1969 to finance and distribute six films of its choice (a deal that was assisted by the fact that Bert Schneider's father, Abe, was chairman of the Columbia Pictures board, and his older brother Stanley was studio president). So long as the budgets stayed under $1 million per picture, Columbia had no right of project approval, which left BBS free to pursue the small-scale, high-quality films for which it became briefly famous in the early 1970s.
The first of these was Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), an off-beat character study in the form of a road movie but with the pacing of a European art film. Starring Jack Nicholson, and written by Rafelson and Carole Eastman (under her psuedonym "Adrien Joyce"), Five Easy Pieces won much critical recognition, including four Oscar nominations and the New York Critics awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Karen Black). In all these respects it nearly perfectly fulfilled the BBS mission to inspire a "Hollywood New Wave" whose metier would be artistically ambitious, low-budget films involving new talent. Three other BBS productions were released—Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), Henry Jaglom's directorial debut A Safe Place (1971), and Jack Nicholson's directorial debut Drive, He Said (1972)—before Rafelson made his second and last BBS film, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), from an original script by Esquire critic Jacob Brackman. Inventively photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, who had also shot Five Easy Pieces,105 this highly original and eccentric study of the relationship of two brothers living in Atlantic City had little mass appeal—unlike its predecessor, whose youth-culture orientation had garnered $8.9 million in rentals and made it the thirteenth highest grossing film of 1970. Critics were puzzled, and the film's poor box-office showing helped to hasten the demise of BBS, whose contract with Columbia was cancelled when David Begelman replaced Stanley Schneider as studio president in 1973. (Schneider then became an independent producer; he died of a heart attack on January 22, 1975, on location in New York City for Three Days of the Condor—five days short of his forty-sixth birthday; see Chapter 6.)106
Rafelson attempted to make his next film, an adaptation of Charles Gaines's novel Stay Hungry, more accessible by collaborating with Gaines on the screenplay, having co-written the stories for his two BBS features with professional scenarists. (He coproduced the film with Bert Schneider's younger brother Harold, a former BBS colleague—Rafelson produced or coproduced all of his films from Head through The Postman Always Rings Twice .)107 Stay Hungry (United Artists, 1976), which revolves around the culture of body-building in contemporary Birmingham, Alabama, is more tightly structured than Rafelson's earlier work and was welcomed by critics like Stephen Farber, who lauded it for embracing "moral and human values" but wondered whether it could appeal to an audience "battered by sensationalism and addicted to blockbusters."108 Predictably, it didn't, and after an abortive attempt to adapt Peter Matthiessen's novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) for MGM, Rafelson contracted with Fox to direct Robert Redford in the prison exposé Brubaker (Stuart Rosenberg, 1980). After a violent argument with Fox vice president Richard Berger, he was fired from the set less than two weeks into principal photography. Over the next two decades, Rafelson worked sporadically for Lorimar (The Postman Always Rings Twice ), for Fox again (Black Widow ), and for Carolco (Mountains of the Moon ), but he never regained the stature he had achieved in pre-Jaws Hollywood when the BBS model looked like one of several possible industry futures.
Like Rafelson, Hal Ashby was regarded as a director of serious artistic intent for much of the 1970s, but one who could also produce a box-office score. The critical success of films like The Last Detail (Columbia, 1973) and Bound for Glory (United Artists, 1976) gave him a reputation for high originality and social consciousness, while the commercial success of films like Shampoo (Columbia, 1975) and Coming Home (United Artists, 1978) placed him in the first rank of industry talent. He had been an editor during the 1960s, winning an Oscar for his work on Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (United Artists/Mirisch, 1967), and his first film as a director was an unconventional social satire on racial attitudes in contemporary New York entitled The Landlord (United Artists/Mirisch, 1970), which he took over from Jewison when the older director left the project. Ashby's second film, Harold and Maude (Paramount, 1971), signaled a unique sensibility that was coolly received by mainstream critics but appreciated almost immediately on college campuses. A dark comedy about the sexual liaison between a death-obsessed twenty-year-old man and a free-wheeling seventy-nine-year-old concentration camp survivor, Harold and Maude was dismissed in 1971 by Variety as having "all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage" but has since become a cult classic.109
There was nothing but praise, however, for The Last Detail, a picaresque comedy-drama about two junior Naval officers (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escorting a convicted thief (Randy Quaid) from their base in West Virginia to a military prison in Massachusetts, where he is sentenced to serve an eight-year term for petty theft. Written by Robert Towne, who would become one the 1970s' most respected and successful screenwriters, the film is riven with profanity (including "forty-seven 'mother-fuckers,'" according to Towne)—which still had a salient shock value for audiences in 1973. In fact, profanity and other forms of vulgar speech would become an important means of product differentiation between theatrical films and television as the decade wore on; and under CARA rules, sexually derived expletives triggered an automatic R rating.110 (Furthermore, since such language could be easily deleted or modified by editing the sound track, the practice of writing it into film scripts did not inhibit ancillary sales to television, where it could be cut, overdubbed, or "bleeped.") The disparity between Quaid's crime and his punishment gives The Last Detail a melancholy undertone, even as his escorts' determination to show him a good time on the way to prison produces hilarious results. Nicholson, Quaid, and Towne were all nominated for Oscars, and the film established Ashby as a director of substance, as well as earning a respectable $4,745,000. Towne and Ashby collaborated again on the hit comedy Shampoo—at once a sex farce and a satire on the shallowness of American, and, especially, Hollywood, values—set on the eve of Richard Nixon's election as president in 1968. Produced and co-written by Warren Beatty (who also stars, with Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn), the film is both aggressively sexy and politically hip, and it was extremely popular with contemporary audiences—benefiting unquestionably from post-Watergate cynicism about American society. Shampoo was nominated for four Oscars, and, with $24.5 million in rentals, became the third-highest earner in a year of megahits (e.g., Jaws, with $129.5 million, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, with $60 million).
Now Ashby was in a position to choose his own material, so he opted for a biopic of the Depression-era folksinger and labor activist Woody Guthrie, based on portions of his autobiography. Notable for its Technicolor-like cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and early use of Garrett Brown's Steadicam (see Chapter 9), as well as for its period detail, Bound for Glory was a succès d'estime but a box-office loser, suggesting that the era of the counterculture and radical chic was over. (Just seven years earlier, Arthur's Penn's Alice's Restaurant —arguably a biopic about Woody's son Arlo—in which the elder Guthrie actually appears, was a success precisely because of its countercultural appeal.) Bound for Glory was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two (Best Cinematography and Best Original Score). Typically, Ashby's final films of the decade were straws in the wind of industry change. Coming Home was among the first films to confront the effects of the war in Vietnam, which had ended officially in 1975 but was still very much an open wound on the body politic. Deliberately melodramatic, the film treats the plight of paraplegic veterans without sentimentality and registers the nation's general disillusionment with the war. Like its predecessor, Coming Home received multiple Oscar nominations (eight, winning for Best Actor [Jon Voight], Best Actress [Jane Fonda], and Best Screenplay [Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones]), including Ashby's first and only as Best Director. It was more successful commercially than Bound for Glory (returning $13,470,505 in rentals), probably owing to the presence of Fonda, a bankable star whose early and highly publicized opposition to the war made her a natural for the film's lead. Being There (United Artists, 1979) was adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel about an idiot savant gardener whose knowledge of the world comes exclusively from television—as was figuratively the case for many Americans by the end of the 1970s. (Indeed, with the average viewer watching seven hours a day, the pervasiveness of television in daily life was such that concern about its effects had reached the level of a public policy debate.) Yet despite the casting of an eminently bankable Peter Sellers as the gardener (a role he had longed to play since publication of the novel and for which he received an Oscar nomination), Being There was only a modest commercial success, earning just over $11 million in rentals.
Like those of so many other directors examined in this chapter, Ashby's career, virtually stellar in 1975, was effectively over by the decade's end. He made five more films before his death from liver cancer in 1988, only one of which—a skillfully edited Rolling Stones concert film entitled Let's Spend the Night Together (1982)—earned more than $1 million (and only $1.5 million at that), and none of which was even remotely successful with critics. Although his decline was probably hastened by drug problems, it neatly paralleled the course of the film industry as its emphasis shifted from youth appeal and novelty to mass appeal and strategic marketing. Along the way, however, Ashby produced brilliant collaborations with some of the industry's most innovative cinematographers—Gordon Willis (The Landlord), John Alonzo (Harold and Maude), Michael Chapman (The Last Detail), Laszlo Kovacs (Shampoo), Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory, Coming Home), and Caleb Deschanel (Being There)—and he made three of the decade's most critically acclaimed films. As late as 1976, Joseph McBride could write: "Ashby deserves to be ranked with Coppola and Altman in the forefront of the Hollywood directors who have emerged in the Seventies."111
Alan Pakula was a successful producer112 before directing his first film, a youth market vehicle called The Sterile Cuckoo (Paramount, 1969), best remembered for Liza Minnelli's debut performance in the lead (for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress). But it was critical acclaim for his thriller Klute (Warner Bros., 1971), in which he directed Jane Fonda to an Oscar-winning performance as the neurotic call-girl Bree Daniels, that created the perception of Pakula as an important auteur. This was confirmed by The Parallax View (Paramount, 1974) whose edgy, paranoid vision of an America clandestinely ruled by assassination resonated perfectly with the sinister revelations of the Senate Watergate hearings.113 Its critical impact was great, moving Film Comment to remark "There is no more classical filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula at work in the American cinema today."114 But, whereas Klute had earned $7 million in rentals, Parallax was doomed by its downbeat ending. It was Pakula's affinity for political material that led the producers of All the President's Men (Warner Bros., 1976) to hire him to direct the film version of the best-selling account of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cracked the Watergate cover-up. With its skillful building of suspense (no easy job, given that virtually every sentient American knew the story's outcome) and documentary-like respect for the facts, All the President's Men was a huge popular and critical success, earning $31 million on an $8.5-million investment and placing fourth at the box office in the phenomenal year of Rocky (John G. Avildsen), King Kong (John Guillermin), and A Star Is Born (Frank Pierson). It received multiple Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won four, including one for William Goldman's screenplay; and it was named Best Film by the New York Critics. Pakula fell from this peak with Comes a Horseman (United Artists, 1978), a sort of noir Western set in postwar Montana that barely broke even with $4.2 in rentals, despite stunning location photography by Gordon Willis and the presence of Jane Fonda and Jason Robards (who had just won Best Supporting Actor for All the President's Men). The mildly popular Starting Over (Paramount, 1979), a "comedy of divorce" with then-bankable stars Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh, returned $19.1 million and was Pakula's last commercially successful film until Presumed Innocent (Warner Bros., 1990) eleven years later. He had one modest critical success in Sophie's Choice (1982), adapted from William Styron's prize-winning novel, but he was never again regarded as anything more than a competent technician—which, perhaps, is all he ever was. But during the 1970s Pakula was generally thought to be an artist of uncompromising vision, and he briefly became one of the American cinema's most influential figures.
There are several other directors whose career trajectories conform in whole or part to this pattern but whose work has been especially genre-specific, notably Paul Mazursky (b. 1930), Bob Fosse (1927-1987), Woody Allen (b. 1935), and Mel Brooks (b. 1926).
A former actor and screenwriter, Mazursky produced a hit in his first film as a director—Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Columbia, 1969), a modish comedy about (attempted) wife-swapping which he co-wrote with his longtime collaborator Larry Tucker. It became the sixth highest earning film of 1969, returning $14.6 million in rentals—a figure that would barely cover prints and marketing costs only a few years later—and it was nominated for four Oscars, including one for its story and screenplay. On the strength of this success, Mazursky was able to find financing during the 1970s for a series of original, eccentric comedies that barely registered at the box office—Alex in Wonderland (MGM, 1970—under $1 million), Blume in Love (Warner Bros., 1973—$3 million), Harry and Tonto (Fox, 1974—$4.6 million—for which Art Carney won an Academy Award for Best Actor), and Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Fox, 1976—under $1 million). The relative success of An Unmarried Woman (Fox, 1978), which earned $12 million and was nominated for three Academy Awards (including two for Mazursky—as producer [Best Film} and writer [Best Original Screenplay]), kept him in the game. Yet, with the exception of Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Buena Vista, 1986), a contemporary reworking of Renoir's anti-bourgeoise satire Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) that earned $28.3 million—real money even in the mid-1980s—Mazursky's subsequent work was both commercially and aesthetically disappointing (Tempest ; Moon Over Parador ) and sometimes barely adequate (Scenes from a Mall ; The Pickel ). In true auteur fashion, Mazursky produced, directed, and wrote or co-wrote all of his films of the 1970s and after. But the creative environment that nurtured his talents in the early years of the decade had all but disappeared by its conclusion, and the grosses for his 1970s films, which would have been respectable by 1960s (and earlier) standards, were paltry compared to the rolling thunder of blockbuster revenues.
Bob Fosse was a dancer and choreographer who choreographed numerous successful Broadway musicals and their Hollywood adaptations (for example, Warner Bros.' The Pajama Game [George Abbott and Stanley Donen, 1957] and Damn Yankees [Abbott and Donen, 1958]), before directing the film version of Sweet Charity for Universal in 1969. A critical success that earned a disappointing $4 million, the film received three Oscar nominations (for Art Direction, Score, and Costume Design) and lent Fosse enough political capital within the industry to raise the real capital for Cabaret (ABC/Allied Artists, 1972), a film version of the John Masteroff-Fred Ebb-John Kander Broadway musical adapted from the John van Druten stage play I Am a Camera (1952), itself adapted from Christopher Isherwoods Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Returning to the original source and contextualizing the musical numbers as stage performances, Fosse made the film a chilling account of Nazism's gradual encroachment on daily German life, as well as a spectacularly energized showcase for the musical talents of its stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. Cabaret became the sixth highest earning film of 1972, returning over $20 million, and it was nominated for ten Academy Awards, eight of which it won (Actress, Supporting Actor, Director, Cinematography [Geoffrey Unsworth], Art Direction, Sound, Score Adaptation, Film Editing)—The Godfather took Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The credit went largely to Fosse, who had turned the film in the direction of serious social criticism, orchestrated its remarkable choreography, and directed the Oscar-winning performances of Minnelli and Grey. Hailed now as an auteur who had reinvigorated the musical genre, Fosse attempted to do the same for the biopic with his version of Lenny, Julian Barry's play about the life of the controversial nightclub comedian Lenny Bruce. Shot in black-and-white in semi-documentary style, Lenny (United Artists, 1974) was well received critically but did less well at the box office ($11.5 million) because of its grimness. Fosse and his film were again both nominated for Academy Awards, as were its stars (Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine), cinematographer (Bruce Surtees), and screenplay (Julian Barry), but received none. Ever restless, he returned to choreography and stage direction and underwent open-heart surgery in 1978, the aesthetic result of which was All That Jazz (1979), coproduced by 20th Century-Fox and Columbia and distributed by Fox. This semi-autobiographical account of a frenetically driven, self-destructive Broadway director was compared almost immediately to Fellini's 8½ (1963), invoking the auteurist standard of the European art cinema, and, indeed, its hallucinatory mixture of fantasy and reality sequences sometimes brings it close to that. Despite its surrealistic excess, All That Jazz was a popular success, if not a hit, earning $20 million in rentals, and it brought Fosse his third Oscar nomination for direction in a row (as well as eight others, four of which—Art Direction, Score, Film Editing, and Costume Design—it won). Fosse continued to work in Broadway theater and made one more film—Star 80 (Ladd/Warner, 1983)—a non-musical film about the murder of Dorothy Stratten—before his death from a heart attack in 1987. Although his profile as a film director was enhanced by his reputation as a stage director, there is no question that Fosse's film career benefited immensely from the auteurist climate of the early 1970s. Of the three films he made during the decade, only one was a clear box-office hit, yet Fosse was one of the few people in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated as Best Director for three consecutive productions. The perception that he was a "great director" overshadowed all other features of his work—which in hindsight seems considerably uneven—and enabled him to work in the industry under his own terms until he died.
Woody Allen (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg) worked as a performer, playwright (Don't Drink the Water, 1965), and screenplay writer (What's New, Pussycat? [Clive Donner, 1965]), before he directed and wrote his first feature Take the Money and Run (1969), a pseudo-documentary parody of crime and prison movies, in which he also starred.115 Made for under $2 million and distributed by the mini-major Cinerama Releasing Corp., the film turned a profit of $1 million, and earned Allen a three-film contract as a director-writer-actor with United Artists. This deal yielded Bananas (1971), a satire on revolutionary politics in a Latin American dictatorship, a comic adaptation of Dr. David Reuben's best-selling Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and the Orwellian science fiction parody Sleeper (1973). These films made enough money among them ($3.5 million, $8.8 million, and $8.25 million in rentals, respectively) to continue Allen's association with United Artists for the rest of the decade, during which he made four more films. Love and Death (1975; $6.9 million in rentals) continued in the parodic vein of his earlier work, sending up Tolstoi's War and Peace (1864-1869), Eisensteinian montage, David Lean's film of Dr. Zhivago (1965), and other cultural icons, high and low. But Allen sailed emphatically into the contemporary mainstream with the romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977) which, released without advance publicity, earned $19 million and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Diane Keaton), and Best Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman).116 Chameleon-like, Allen now challenged both audiences and critics with a deliberately Bergmanesque psychodrama of disintegrating relationships within a haute bourgeoise family entitled Interiors (1978). This homage to his acknowledged mentor, and to the European art film in general, was followed by Manhattan (1979), which many see as Allen's most accomplished work. Offering both a paeonic vision of New York City—lyrically photographed in black-and-white Panavision by Gordon Willis—and a biting satire of 1970s Manhattan lifestyles, the film was nearly as successful as Annie Hall (it earned $17.5 million in rentals), and it established Allen as a serious auteur at the very time auteurism was receding as an industry fashion. He was able to sustain this appropriate irony for the next decade, working with a close group of
New York-based collaborators (producers Charles H. Joffe and Robert Greenhut; co-writer Marshall Brickman; the actresses Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow; cinematographers Gordon Willis and Carlo Di Palma), distributing through Orion and, later, Columbia-TriStar and Miramax.117 During the 1970s, Annie Hall notwithstanding, Allen was able to position himself as an East Coast alternative to Hollywood production practice, and to shift his public image from that of a comic to that of an artist. Inevitably, the prestige conferred upon the figure of the writer-director by the auteur theory helped to cultivate the popular perception of him as an independent, intellectual filmmaker removed from the mainstream, which his regular invocations of Bergman and the art film tradition served to punctuate.118
Mel Brooks was a comic and a television writer (Get Smart, 1965-1968; co-written with Buck Henry) before he wrote and directed The Producers (Embassy, 1967), an outrageous farce about two swindlers, played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, who sell 25,000-percent interest in a musical comedy (Springtime for Hitler) designed to fail, but which unpredictably becomes a hit. Nominated for two Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor), The Producers earned less than $1 million but its critical success helped Brooks raise the funds to make The Twelve Chairs (UMC, 1970), based on a comic Russian novel set in the 1920s. This movie lost most of its investment, and Brooks had to wait another three years to find backing for his breakthrough film Blazing Saddles (Warner Bros., 1974). A lewd, libidinous, and occasionally hilarious parody of the classical Western, this film was a phenomenal commercial hit, earning $47.8 million in rentals and three Academy Award nominations (including Best Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn). Although Variety characterized it as "essentially a raunchy, protracted version of a television comedy skit,"119 Blazing Saddles almost single-handedly established the genre parody as the paradigmatic form of 1970s film comedy, and Brooks shrewdly followed it with another one. Young Frankenstein (Fox, 1974) was a sendup of 1930s Universal horror films (as well as studio-era biopics like MGM's Young Tom Edison )—specifically James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939)—that managed to achieve a nearly perfect balance between parody and homage. In cinematography, lighting, and set design, in fact, Brooks sustained an atmosphere of brooding horror that honored the original films, even as his dialogue made mincemeat of their hoary plot conventions. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein did terrific box office, earning over $30 million in rentals (as well an another Oscar nomination for Brooks [and Gene Wilder] for Best Screenplay), and Brooks suddenly found himself the writer-director of the second and seventh highest grossing films of 1974. He stayed in play with his last two films of the decade, but was unable to sustain his remarkable string of hits into the 1980s. Silent Movie (Fox, 1976)—which is literally silent except for a musical score, sound effects, and a single spoken word—was less a parody than an attempt to resurrect silent slapstick comedy, although it also works as a satire on the Byzantine business practices of contemporary Hollywood (the plot revolves around the attempted takeover of a studio by a conglomerate named Engulf & Devour—clearly Gulf & Western). Silent Movie earned $21.2 million and was the tenth most profitable film of 1976, while Brooks's Hitchcock parody High Anxiety (Fox, 1977) was twelfth for 1977 with $19.2 million. In 1980, Brooks formed his own production company, Brooksfilms, but he never approximated the critical or commercial success of the 1970s films again, both because his style of parody had been replicated ad nauseam by television shows like Saturday Night Live, and because many of his early collaborators (Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn) had gone off in their own directions. Another reason, however, is that Hollywood's corporate leadership had discovered that "kid" and teenage "gross-out" comedy could draw much larger audiences than comedy intended primarily for adults, however low-pitched, making Brooks's unique directorial appeal obsolete as a mass-market industry resource.
Two directors whose work is unequivocally connected with American cinema in the 1970s but who remained resolutely outside of the mainstream are John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick. Both were eccentric talents who flirted briefly with industry careers but chafed under Hollywood's commercial constraints to the extent that Cassavetes moved completely into low-budget independent filmmaking during the 1970s and Malick quit making films altogether by the decade's end.
Cassavetes (1929-1989) was trained as an actor and rose to prominence as a writer-director with his cinema verité-style 16mm feature Shadows (1960). Hailed as a breakthrough for alternative cinema, the film won several festival prizes (including the Critics Award at Venice) and earned Cassavetes a contract with Paramount. After one theatrical feature for that studio (Too Late Blues ) and another for independent producer Stanley Kramer (A Child Is Waiting —which he disowned after Kramer recut it), he returned to 16mm semi-documentary production with Faces (1968), which earned enough critical acclaim (three Oscar nominations, including one for Cassavetes's screen-play) and money—together with his acting in such mainstream films as The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)—for him to shoot Husbands (1970) in 35mm and color. Faces was self-distributed but Husbands was picked up by Columbia as part of its search for alternative markets; both films were intense, if sometimes clumsy and self-indulgent, psychodramas about middle-class marriages in crisis. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), financed by Universal, was closer in tone to a 1930s-style screwball "comedy of remarriage" but was successful with neither audiences nor critics. By contrast, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) nearly approached the status of a hit. Working atypically from a prepared script, Cassavetes delivered a wrenching film about a housewife's nervous breakdown, with stunning performances by his frequent collaborators Gena Rowlands (also his wife) and Peter Falk. The cast and crew worked on deferred salaries, and the film was personally financed by Cassavetes and Falk, who also self-distributed it through their newly formed company Faces International. A Woman Under the Influence became Cassavetes's biggest hit; and he and Rowlands were both nominated for Academy Awards. With The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977), however, the director returned to the loosely plotted, improvisational style of his early work with poor results, although he and Rowlands excelled as costars in the latter. Cassavetes's last film of the decade was the considerably more accessible Gloria (1980), produced for Columbia, in which Rowlands plays a former gangster's moll who becomes the protector of an eight-year-old boy after the mob has killed his parents, earning another Oscar nomination for the part. Cassavetes once remarked that he was more interested in "the people who work with me than in the film itself, or in cinema," and his work is shot through with this sentiment. Personal, at worst, to the point of solipsism, his films are sometimes incoherent in terms of narrative and jagged in technique, but they can also achieve a disturbing intensity of emotion that is virtually unique in the American cinema.
Terrence Malick (b. 1945), on the other hand, achieved a kind of aesthetic distance in his two films of the 1970s that is equally rare. Malick attended the AFF's Center for Advanced Film Studies and worked on several scripts (including, reputedly, those of Drive, He Said [Jack Nicholson, 1972] and Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1972]) before receiving his first screen credit for writing Pocket Money (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973), a contemporary Western produced by the short-lived First Artists company. He then made an impressive debut as a writer-producer-director with Badlands (1973), which was bankrolled by Ed Pressman for about $450,000, minus deferred salaries of approximately $500,000. (Pressman sold the film to John Calley at Warner Bros. for $1.1 million—considerably less than it returned in rentals.)120 This generically astute "criminal couple" movie was based on the real-life case of Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate, who killed ten people during a murder spree in Nebraska in the late 1950s, and it offers an incisive critique of the symbiosis between the mass media and sensational violence that became a template for such later films as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994). By turns moody and ironic, Badlands was critically acclaimed but unpopular, and it took Malick years to find backing for his next and apparently final project—Days of Heaven (1978), independently produced by Bert Schneider for Paramount—a film that has become legendary for its meticulous period recreation and ravishing available-light cinematography by Nestor Almendros. (Photography was completed by Haskell Wexler when Almendros had to leave to work on Truffaut's Le Chambre Verte [The Green Room, 1977].) The narrative, which is the least of the film's attractions, concerns a trio of a migrant laborers in the early 1900s who end up working in the fields of a self-made Texas wheat baron and attempt to defraud him through marriage. With fragmentary voice-over exposition and little dialogue, Days of Heaven is in many ways an homage to silent cinema, and the imagery itself has a sort of transcendent, Biblical resonance. Production began in the fall of 1976, and Malick's demand that much of the film be shot in "the magic hour" (actually about twenty minutes) of the sun's afterglow made the process agonizingly slow. The editing then took nearly two years, but the finished version caught the attention of Gulf & Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn, and Paramount gave it a premium release in 70mm and six-track Dolby sound.121 Critics were ecstatic with the result, and the Academy nominated Days of Heaven for Best Cinematography (Almendros), Best Sound Recording (John K. Wilkinson, et al.), Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris), and Best Original Score (Ennio Morricone). In an acknowledgement of the film's extraordinary visual beauty, Almendros received the Cinematography award, but once again the public was indifferent, and Malick gave up on Hollywood in 1979, when he left the United States to take up permanent residence in Paris. (In the mid-1990s, Malick returned to commercial filmmaking, developing The Thin Red Line  for Sony Pictures, although it was ultimately produced and released by 20th Century-Fox.)
Whereas the generation of directors descended from classical Hollywood had learned filmmaking through apprenticeship or in transmigration from Broadway and the theater, and the recruits of the fifties and sixties were trained in television, many new directors of the seventies had studied film as film in university graduate programs and professional schools. They had taken film history, aesthetics, and production as formal academic subjects, and they had learned the technical aspects of production, as well as budgeting and marketing, more thoroughly than any generation before them. Many of them had also apprenticed with producer-director Roger Corman (b. 1926) at American International Pictures (AIP), where low-budget, youth-oriented genre films were the stock in trade. (As a creative exploitation producer in the sixties, Corman scoured the L.A. film schools for cheap local talent, like director Francis Ford Coppola, writers Willard Huyck and John Milius, and producer Gary Kurtz, who were eager to work for non-union wages.) When they began to enter the industry at the turn of the decade, average weekly attendance was approaching an all-time low (it bottomed out at 15.8 million in 1971). By 1975, admissions had recovered and box-office grosses increased by $150 million, and the young auteurs of the "New Hollywood," as everyone was calling it, were leading the major studios into the 1980s in relative prosperity. But this was largely on the strength of several expensively produced blockbusters that reaped windfall profits—The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)—the ultimate effect of whose success was to multiply average negative costs nearly five-fold during the decade (from $2 million in 1972 to $9.4 million in 1980) and make directors increasingly dependent on studio financing through commercial banks for production and distribution. This "blockbuster syndrome" caused a trend toward the production of fewer and fewer films, and an attendant increase in advertising and marketing budgets to insure a film's success. Ironically, the decade in which "the film generation took over Hollywood" produced fewer feature films than any before it and witnessed the historic shift whereby the cost of promoting a film actually exceeded the cost of producing it, often by twice the negative cost (see Chapter 3).
The auteur directors of the 1970s—aka the "whiz kids," "wunderkinder," and "Hollywood brats"—entered the industry at a time when, as Thomas Schatz has noted, Hollywood was desperately searching for its bearings.122 What they offered was fresh creative talent and adaptability to a system in the midst of radical change. Their youth guaranteed their ability to address the new audio-visual sensibility of an audience, like themselves, that had grown up watching television. And, as far as the studios were concerned, their relative inexperience as first- and second-time directors meant that they could be hired for much less than established talent. Because of their training, they knew more—conceptually, at least—about the production and marketing of motion pictures than the nonfilm executives, like Charles Bluhdorn (CEO of Gulf & Western) and Ted Ashley (Executive VP of Kinney Services), who had recently taken over the industry, and this academically certified expertise was attractive to new managers who were themselves largely ignorant of the film business. Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939) was the vanguard figure of this new breed of directors, and he quickly became the mentor of a generation of gifted filmmakers, whose other prominent members include George Lucas (b. 1945), Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), and Brian De Palma (b. 1940). At a second remove, stand the screenwriters and sometime directors John Milius (b. 1944) and Paul Schrader (b. 1946).
Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola received his undergraduate degree in drama at Hofstra University in 1960 and then enrolled in the graduate film program at UCLA. There, he began to work at the fringes of the industry, doing uncredited second-unit direction for Corman and eventually directing Dementia 13 (1963), a horror film shot in Ireland in three days with the cast and crew left over from Corman's The Young Racers (1963). After collaborating on several major scripts, both with credit (Is Paris Burning? [René Clement, 1966]; This Property Is Condemned [Sydney Pollack, 1966]) and without (Reflections in a Golden Eye [John Huston, 1966]), Coppola was able to adapt and direct You're a Big Boy Now (1966) from the comic novel by British writer David Benedictus. Produced by Phil Feldman for the newly merged Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for $800,000, the film was heavily influenced by the style of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and the French New Wave, and Coppola submitted it to UCLA as his masters thesis. Although it didn't break even until its sale to television, You're a Big Boy Now attracted enthusiastic reviews and impressed Warners sufficiently to sign Coppola to direct the $3.5-million musical Finian's Rainbow (1968), starring Fred Astaire. Based on a twenty-year-old Broadway hit that satirized racial prejudice in the South, the film was ultimately a box-office disappointment, but Coppola had done an extraordinary job of giving it the feel of a big-budget spectacle and Warners blew the film up to 70mm for road-showing.123 Before the failure (a relative term in these times—the film ultimately earned $5.5 million) of Finian's Rainbow became clear, the studio staked Coppola to $750,000 for a small personal project entitled The Rain People (1969), based on his own script about a pregnant Long Island housewife who leaves her husband to go on an odyssey across America. Experimental in form, the film has been hailed as a feminist document before its time; many critics in 1969 applauded its distinctly individualistic nature, and it won first prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, while barely returning its negative cost. Meanwhile, the EASY RIDER panic had struck at Warners, and Coppola convinced its executives to bankroll his own small studio in San Francisco, American Zoetrope, to develop films for the youth market. (As Jon Lewis notes, the deal was relatively simple: Warners put up $600,000 in exchange for the right of first refusal to any and all American Zoetrope projects.124)
American Zoetrope (renamed Omni-Zoetrope in 1979, and Zoetrope Studios in 1980), in which Coppola was the only shareholder, was deliberately modeled on the Roger Corman unit at AIP.125 Within a year of its opening, Coppola had produced his friend George Lucas's first feature, THX-1138 (1971), sponsored John Milius in writing the first script for Apocalypse Now (1979), and become a guiding light of his generation. But Warners hated the rough cut of the Lucas film and demanded repayment of its investment, pushing Zoetrope and Coppola close to bankruptcy. To make ends meet, he co-scripted Fox's megahit Patton (Franklin Schaffner, 1970), sharing with Edmund G. North that year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Then he accepted a job directing a project for Paramount based on Mario Puzo's The Godfather, a best-selling novel about the Mafia. The studio had conceived The Godfather as a mainstream genre film with blockbuster potential on a modest budget ($6 million), and Coppola was chosen after at least three other directors (Constantin Costa-Gavras, Peter Yates, and Peter Bogdanovich) had tuned it down. He collaborated on the screenplay with Puzo, shot the film on location in New York City in midwinter, and brought the project in a scant $1 million over budget, an impressive achievement given the richly textured results. Assisted by a Paramount advertising blitz and saturation booking, The Godfather (1972) became the first great blockbuster of the 1970s, earning $86.3 million in rentals to become the fifth highest grossing film of the decade (it was briefly the highest-grossing film in history and for several decades among the top twenty-five).
Coppola's success in turning a studio-produced gangster film into an epic saga of a (crime) family, full of operatic intensity, won Oscars for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (for Marlon Brando's performance in the title role), as well as Academy Award nominations for direction, three supporting performances, sound, editing, and costumes. The Godfather made Coppola a power in Hollywood, and he used his leverage immediately to produce George Lucas's coming-of-age mosaic American Graffiti (1973) and to direct his own screenplay The Conversation (1974), a brilliant meditation on electronic surveillance and paranoia stylistically indebted to the European art film—most immediately Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966). Produced by the newly formed Directors Company (see above) and distributed by Paramount, The Conversation won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, as well as Oscar nominations for best picture, best original screenplay, and sound, but could not compete at home with Coppola's own remarkable sequel The Godfather, Part II (1974), which won the 1974 Best Picture Award, as well as Oscars for Direction, Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Screenplay from Another Medium (Coppola and Puzo), Art Direction, and Score. Constructed as a contrapuntal movement between the Corleone family's noble, if violent, past in the early years of the century and its presently corrupt involvement in Batista's Cuba and Las Vegas in the fifties, The Godfather, Part II both continues and enriches the original, portraying an America in which legitimate and illegitimate power are very closely intertwined (suggesting obliquely, in its final moments, the mob's involvement in the assassination of JFK: when family lawyer Tom Hagen tells Michael Corleone that killing rival Hyman Roth is out of the question because "it would be like trying to kill the President," the new Godfather replies, "If anything in this life is certain—if history has taught us anything—it says [sic] you can kill anyone"). Produced for $13 million, The Godfather, Part II grossed less than half as much as The Godfather, generating $30.7 million in rentals, but it brought Coppola to the pinnacle of his influence. He had directed the two of the most financially successful films in industry history to date, both of them hailed critically as major contributions to American cinema; he had won five Oscars and become the only director ever to be nominated for two Best Picture and Best Screenplay awards in the same year; and he had founded his own studio and become a beacon to a whole generation of American filmmakers. (For the record, it should be noted that in 1974 he had also written—in three weeks—the screenplay for Paramount's disastrous The Great Gatsby [Jack Clayton, 1974], and had purchased the failing New York-based exhibitor-distributor Cinema 5 Ltd. in the vain hope of distributing his own productions.)126 George Lucas would say of him: "Francis was the great white knight who made it."127 John Milius was even more direct: "He subsidized us all…. If this generation is to change American cinema, he is to be given the credit, or the discredit. Whichever it may be…."128 It was in this spirit near the decades end that Coppola produced Caroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979), coproduced Akira Kurosawas Kagemusha (1980), and distributed the restored version of Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon (1927; 1980) under the Zoetrope banner; and until the studio was sold in 1984 he continued to produce, distribute, and otherwise promote the work of a remarkably eclectic group of filmmakers, including Wim Wenders, Hans Jurgen Syberberg, Jean-Luc Godard, and Paul Schrader.
Coppola's last work as an auteur in the seventies was the legendary Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now (1979), which he also coproduced, co-scripted (with John Milius and Michael Herr) and scored. Budgeted at $12 million and shot on location in the Philippines, the production was plagued by illness, natural disasters, and other logistical problems which nearly tripled its costs (to $32.5 million) and resulted in a flawed, if brilliant, film.129 Apocalypse Now is a version of Joseph Conrad's short novel "Heart of Darkness" transposed to the hallucinated, horrific landscape of post-Tet Vietnam, whose first two-thirds may be one of the greatest war/antiwar films ever made, but whose conclusion bogs down in a morass of pomposity and metaphysics. Widely viewed as an act of hubristic folly, the film permanently damaged Coppola's position within the industry, although it earned $37.9 million in rentals (making it, not insignificantly, the sixth highest grossing film of 1979 and the thirty-second highest grossing film of the decade), was nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning two—Cinematography [Vittorio Storaro] and Sound [Walter Murch, et al.]), and shared the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979).
With his share of the Apocalypse Now profits, Coppola purchased the old Hollywood General Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard (built in 1919 and most recently the site of Desilu productions) in March 1980.130 His plan was to renovate it, renamed Zoetrope Studios, as a state-of-the art facility for alternative production that would actively compete with the majors. Embracing the new technologies, he seriously contemplated distribution of Zoetrope films via satellite for exhibition in high-resolution video, and he planned to release a full slate of features by 1982.131 (As foolhardy as this may now seem, we should recall that the majors did not fully appropriate satellite distribution until the formation of TriStar Pictures by Columbia, HBO, and CBS in 1983.) Unfortunately, this revolutionary thinking fell victim to Coppola's own megalomania and the reactionary fallout from Heaven's Gate. Zoetrope's first production was Coppola's One from the Heart (1982), an expensively stylized musical set in Las Vegas that employed an experimental production technique called "electronic cinema"—basically a method of "pre-visualizing" the film on video so that it could actually be edited before it was shot.132 Although he claimed that the electronic cinema method cut production time and therefore costs, Coppola spent nearly $27 million to produce the final negative of One from the Heart and lost most of it when the distributor (Columbia) pulled the film after seven weeks of release to devastating reviews. Coppola was forced to put Zoetrope Studios up for sale in order to pay off his production loans, but he could not find a buyer until 1984 and remained financially compromised for the rest of the eighties, before recuperating his career in the nineties.133
George Lucas (b. 1945), Coppola's close friend and protege, traveled a less bumpy road from renegade auteur to industry mainstay. Befriended as a teenager by veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler (b. 1926), Lucas studied animation at the University of Southern California's Cinema School, working intermittently as a cameraman for Saul Bass and editing documentaries for the USIA, and in 1965 produced the award-winning student film THX-1138: 4EB/Electronic Labyrinth, which won first prize in that year's National Student Film Festival. Lucas subsequently won a scholarship to observe production at Warner Bros., where he met Coppola—who was then at work on Finian's Rainbow (1968)—and became a production associate on The Rain People (1969). Within a year, Lucas was working on the feature-length version of THX-1138 (1971) that would become the first and only production of American Zoetrope as that studio was originally conceived. Written, directed, and edited by Lucas, with an electronic score by Lalo Schifrin, this chilling vision of an Orwellian future, where TV and drugs have subsumed the individual will and replaced sex, offended Warners, which cut it for distribution134 and cancelled the entire Zoetrope deal with Coppola (see above). Produced for $777,000, THX-1138 earned only $945,000 in rentals, but attracted considerable praise from critics and contributed to the prestige of Lucas's next project, American Graffiti (1973). Produced by Gary Kurtz under the new Lucasfilm Ltd. banner for a little over $775,000, with Coppola as executive producer and Wexler as cinematographer, this nostalgic recreation of early '60s adolescence in the suburbs of Los Angeles was shot in twenty-eight days. Full of vintage cars and period music, American Graffiti was hesitantly released by Universal (which spent only $500,000 for advertising, publicity, and prints—refusing even to dupe them in stereo), but it struck a common chord and went on to earn $55.3 million in domestic rentals. It also won nominations for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best screenplay (Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck), and became the source of many television spin-offs, positioning Lucas for the even more astonishing success of his next project, the now legendary Star Wars (1977).
Three years in preparation, Star Wars was conceived by Lucas as a folkloristic "space fantasy" with the breathless pace of the cliff-hanging Saturday serials. To counterpoint the fairy-tale quality of its narrative, hyper-realistic special effects were produced at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a subsidiary of Lucasfilm founded in Van Nuys in 1975 specifically for this purpose. Here F/X director John Dykstra (b. 1947), who had worked as Douglas Trumbull's assistant on Silent Running (1972), perfected a computerized motion-control system for traveling matte photography that made the process uniquely cost-effective, enabling Lucas to create hundreds of complicated stop-motion miniature sequences for Star Wars at a fraction of their cost for earlier films ($2.5 million as compared, for example, with $6.5 million for 2001, which had used far fewer traveling mattes). With live action sequences shot in Tunisia, Death Valley, and EMI-Elstree Studios in England, Star Wars also became the first film both recorded and released in four-track Dolby stereo. Still, it was produced (by Gary Kurtz) for 20th Century-Fox release for the relatively modest sum of $11.5 million, and neither Lucasfilm nor Fox expected to earn back more than about twice that in domestic rentals, because of the traditionally hard-sell market for science fiction. All were stunned when Star Wars made almost $3 million in its first week of limited release in May 1977, and by the end
of August had grossed $100 million. The film played continuously throughout 1977-1978, and was officially re-released in 1978 and 1979, by the end of which it had earned $262 million in rentals worldwide. Moreover, Lucas had designed the film with an eye toward merchandising tie-ins and retained licensing control through Lucasfilm; though he could not possibly have foreseen the bonanza of sales in toys, books, records, posters, and other Star Wars memorabilia that made him a multimillionaire and turned Lucasfilm Ltd. into a $3o-million corporation. (By decade's end Star Wars-related merchandise would gross far more than the film itself—over $1 billion retail by most accounts.) Nor could he have imagined that the film would be nominated for ten Academy Awards and receive seven (including Art Direction, Sound, Original Score, Film Editing, Costumes, and Visual Effects), win two Los Angeles Critics Awards, and win three Grammies for its score.
Clearly, Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon as well as a movie. Its spectacular success enabled Lucas to move to Marin County in northern California, where he established a state-of-the-art production facility free from the constraints of the major studios in Hollywood, fulfilling a dream shared by him and the members of his generation of filmmakers. At this point, he abandoned directing to became executive producer of the blockbuster Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), both of which were hugely profitable ($142 million and $169 million in rentals, respectively). He was also the inspiration behind Steven Spielbergs lucrative Indiana Jones trilogy—Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981—$116 million), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984—$109 million), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989—$116 million)—as well as less successful films like Ron Howard's sword-and-sorcery epic Willow (1988—$28 million in rentals) and bombs like Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck, 1986—$10 million). ILM, which revolutionized photographic effects in the Star Wars era, went on to pioneer computer animation and digital effects in the late eighties and nineties, becoming the major F/X studio in the industry, and Lucasfilm's Skywalker Sound division and its THX Group have had a similar impact on movie sound design and reproduction. Although he directed only three films during the 1970s, George Lucas has since exercised enormous creative and financial influence over the American film industry. He redefined the film generation's concept of authorship to become the creative CEO of the largest independent studio in the world—Lucasfilm Ltd. and its subsidiary LucasArts Entertainment Company—which has attained the status of a multinational conglomerate.
Unlike Coppola and Lucas, Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) did not have professional film school training, although he began making amateur films in 16mm as early as age thirteen. By the time he was in college at Cal State, Long Beach, he had produced Amblin' (1969), a short about hitchhikers that won festival prizes in Atlanta and Venice, and led to a contract with the Universal/MCA television division. Here he directed episodes of Night Gallery, Columbo, Marcus Welby, M.D., and other popular shows, as well as the extraordinary TV movie Duel (1971), which was released theatrically in Europe. His theatrical feature debut in the United States was The Sugarland Express (1974), a deftly directed fugitive-couple film with Goldie Hawn that earned a bare $3.2 million in rentals. Then came the epoch-making Jaws (1975) which, even more than The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and intervening blockbusters like The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and (George Roy Hill, 1973), changed the way movies would be cost-projected and marketed. Adapted from Peter Benchley's best-selling novel about a great white shark that terrorizes a New England beach community at the height of the tourist season (which Universal producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had shrewdly acquired the rights to before its publication in 1973), Jaws was produced for only $12 million and promoted as if it were the arrival of the New Millennium. As Pye and Myles write in The Movie Brats, the single most salient feature of Jaws was "the transformation of film into event through clever manipulation of the media."135 As sharks were raised to the level of a national fetish, "Jaws-consciousness" caught fire, and the film earned $100 million in domestic rentals in its initial summer run (and ultimately $129.5 million) to become the first megahit of the decade.
The success of Jaws permanently hooked the industry on blockbuster windfalls—coproducer Richard Zanuck made more money on his share of its profits in six months than his father, studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck, had made in his entire career. Circumstances like these led to the kind of studio roulette played in Spielberg's next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which Columbia gambled most of its working capital on a $19.4-million special effects extravaganza about UFOs landing in middle America. It was rewarded with $83 million in domestic rentals and eight Academy Award nominations (in the year of Star Wars, it took only one—for Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography; Jaws had received four and won three—for Sound, Original Score, and Editing). Spielberg had not only directed Close Encounters but had originally conceived it from story idea dirough post-production special effects (supervised by 2001 veteran Douglas Trambull), and he was now in the same position as Lucas, with two consecutive $100 million grosses to his credit. The result was hubris in the form of the comedy-action film 1941 (1979), an inflated farce about war panic in post-Pearl Harbor Los Angeles that bombed at the box office, returning only $23.3 million in domestic rentals on its $26.5-miIlion investment. After this rare failure, Spielberg began the historic collaboration with George Lucas on the Indiana Jones series for Paramount that would make him the dominant commercial force in American cinema for the next twenty years and shift audience demographics toward the lower end of the age scale (12-20 years old, as compared with 16-24 during the late 1960s). As the industry closed ranks against auteurism in the wake of Heaven's Gate, Spielberg came to incarnate the new focus on blockbuster revenues by directing the two highest-grossing films in history—E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal, 1982—$399.8 million; $228.2 million in domestic rentals) and Jurassic Park (Universal, 1993—$356.7 million; $208 million in domestic rentals), as well as four others among the top fifteen in that category through 1996 (Jaws , Raiders of the Lost Ark , Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade , and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ). Like Lucas, Spielberg would later form his own production company (Amblin Entertainment, 1984) and, finally—with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen—his own multimedia conglomerate (Dreamworks, 1994) to become one of the wealthiest, most powerful individuals in the American film industry.136
The fourth major figure of the "film generation," Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), may have attained the goal of American authorship more fully than any of his peers by regularly creating art out of commercially viable material. The sickly child of Sicilian immigrant parents, Scorsese grew up in New York's Little Italy and became deeply infatuated with movies. After graduating from high school, he entered a seminary with the intention of becoming a priest but left after a year to enroll in New York University's film department. There he earned an undergraduate degree in 1964 and an M.A. in 1966, while simultaneously making a number of award-winning student shorts. He then joined the faculty as an instructor and wrote and directed Who's That Knocking at my Door?, a low-budget semi-autobiographical feature released in 1968 by the small independent Trimod Films. Next, he worked as an assistant director and supervising editor on Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (Warner Bros., 1970) and found work on several other documentaries the following year. In 1972, Roger Corman hired Scorsese to direct Boxcar Bertha (AIP), a violent sequel to his exploitation hit Bloody Mama (AIP, 1970), but Scorsese's first important feature as an auteur was his third as a director, Mean Streets (Warner Bros., 1973), which became the hit of that year's New York Film Festiv. Shot on location in Little Italy from a screenplay by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, this character study of a small-time hood wracked by Catholic guilt inaugurated Scorsese's relentless moving camera style and was distinguished by the improvisational ensemble performances of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, both of whom would become the director's regular collaborators. Despite its low budget ($500,000) and wide-spread critical acclaim, Mean Streets lost money. Scorsese then shot the forty-eight-minute television documentary Italianamerican (1974) before his next feature, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Warner Bros., 1974), which was both more conventional and more popular in its feminist account of a young widow's struggle for self-fulfillment, earning an Oscar for its star Ellen Burstyn and inspiring the long-running CBS television sitcom Alice (September 1976-July 1985).
After Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Scorsese had the base of critical and financial support he needed to make Taxi Driver (1976), his nightmare vision of urban hell in which a psychotic Vietnam veteran, brilliantly played by De Niro, becomes an avenging angel of violence and death. Written by UCLA Film School graduate Paul Schrader (see below), with a score by Bernard Herrmann, and produced for Columbia by Michael and Julia Phillips (whose previous vehicle had been the upbeat caper film The Sting ) for just under $2 million, Taxi Driver won several Oscar nominations, including that for best picture, and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. (Scorsese's account of the evolution of the film is contained in an interview published in Film Comment for July-August 1977, where, among other things, he reveals the influence of John Ford's The Searchers  on the subplot involving a child prostitute and her pimp.)137 It is a personal, obsessive work that treats some of the darkest aspects of human nature—including child prostitution, racial hatred, and sadism—with a surreal intensity heightened by Michael Chapman's neo-noir widescreen cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's pulsing score. Furthermore, in its lurid display of perverse sexuality (the title character is fixated on a twelve-year-old prostitute played by Oscar-nominated Jodie Foster), gun violence, and gore, Taxi Driver pushed the R-rating envelope just about as far as it would go, suggesting that a limit of tolerance had been reached for CARA and audiences alike.138 The film turned a modest profit, taking in $12.6 million in domestic rentals, which contributed to Scorsese's track record—even in the climate created by Jaws—and made him attractive to the production team of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who were fielding a script about the romance of two young musicians during the big band era. Packaged as a musical with De Niro and Liza Minnelli as stars, for distribution by United Artists, this project became New York, New York (1977); and Scorsese made it a virtual compendium of MGM musical styles of the forties and fifties, watching hundreds of such films from his extensive video library in preparation for it. (Scorsese was an early and vocal supporter of video archiving as an instrument of film preservation.) A testament to Scorsese's remarkable grasp of film history and evocatively photographed by Lazslo Kovacs, New York, New York became the director's first bigbudget flop, returning less than $7 million of its $9-million investment, and driving him back to the documentary with The Last Waltz (United Artists, 1978), a feature-length account of The Band's farewell concert in November 1976 shot in 35mm by seven of the generation's leading cinematographers (Michael Chapman, Laszlo Kovacs, and Vilmos Zsigmond among them). Scorsese then shot another documentary in 1978, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, which chronicled the life a young Jewish friend who
had starred as a gun dealer in Mean Streets and later become a heroin addict; with Italianamerican it was intended as part of a six-film series on the immigrant experience (which to date has never been completed).
The documentary impulse also informed Scorsese's last feature of the seventies, Raging Bull (United Artists, 1980), another Winkler-Chartoff production which many critics consider to be his finest film. Scripted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, and shot by Michael Chapman in starkly rendered black-and-white, the film recreates in pitiless fashion the fractured life of championship boxer Jake La Motta, who rose from squalor to the pinnacle of his brutal sport in the 1940s and was destroyed by his own paranoia (and a dubious morals charge) a decade later. The film won an Oscar for Robert De Niro's remarkable performance as La Motta, as well as for its editing by Thelma Shoonmaker. Of all of Scorsese's psychodramas, Raging Bull is the most intense and unyielding; it was so graphic in its slow-motion depiction of battering in the ring that critics accused it of pandering to masochism (Variety called it "an exploration of Catholic sadomasochism"139. Despite its quality, the film earned just $10 million as audiences basically stayed away.
Scorsese's films of the eighties reflected the sense that he was no longer a player in the New Hollywood, an anxiety he reflected in several contemporary interviews with the press. (He would, for example, later note in one such interview that New York New York opened in the same week as Star Wars and therefore was doomed to fail in the climate that made that film a megahit.)140 The success of The Color of Money (1986), conceived by Touchstone Pictures as a star vehicle for Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, brought Scorsese back into the fold, and he has since alternated between commercial films (Cape Fear ; Casino ) and more personal projects (The Last Temptation of Christ ; Goodfellas ; The Age of Innocence ). In fact, Scorsese may be the only director of the 1970s "film generation" working in the mainstream industry who can still lay claim to being a serious artist; and he is certainly one the few who still passionately cares about the medium as such. (This is as evident in his own work as in his tireless efforts on behalf of film preservation and restoration, which extend from the resurrection of 70mm epics like El Cid [Anthony Mann, 1961] and Lawrence of Arabia [David Lean, 1962] to the reissue on video of classics like Michael Powell's Black Narcissus  or Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar .)
Brian De Palma
Like Spielberg, Brian De Palma (b. 1940) did not attend film school, but as a physics major at Columbia University he began making 16mm shorts and eventually won a fellowship to Sarah Lawrence College sponsored by MCA. There he codirected (with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe) an experimental 35mm feature in 1963, which was first shown publicly as The Wedding Party in 1969 and is notable largely as the film debut of both Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. A negligible second feature, Murder A la Mod (1968) was barely released, but Greetings (1968), a satiric rendition of the Greenwich Village counterculture, was produced for $43,100 and caught the attention of Frank Yablans, soon-to-be production chief at Paramount, who was then working for a small New York distributor affiliated with Filmways called Sigma III. Yablans marketed Greetings almost single-handedly, pushing it toward a $1-million gross and sig nificant critical acclaim (it also won a Silver Bear jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival). De Palma was suddenly touted as one of the country's leading independent directors and accorded an interview in Joseph Gelmis's influential The Film Director as Superstar, where he spoke of his aspirations to become "the American Godard."141 As if to fulfill this goal, he next produced the experimental split-screen documentary Dionysus in '69 (1970), which records a performance of Euripides' The Bacchae from the perspective of both audience and players. De Palma then produced a sequel to Greetings for Filmways on a budget of $120,000, the equally offbeat Hi, Mom! (1970), which like the earlier film starred De Niro and Allen Garfield. This earned De Palma a "youth market" contract from Warner Bros. to direct another counterculture comedy, Get to Know Your Rabbit (1970; released 1972), written as a star vehicle for Tommy Smothers. De Palma was removed from the project before it was completed, and then worked briefly on Fuzz (Richard A. Colla, 1972), but over the following year he was able to direct Sisters (1973) from his own script. Independently produced by Edward R. (Ed) Pressman and marketed as a shocker by AIP, this film about separated Siamese twins, one of whom is apparently a psychotic murderer, marked De Palma's first attempt to model his work on Hitchcock's: it resonates with themes and plot devices from Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), and employs a lush score for Moog synthesizers composed by Bernard Herrmann. The commercial and critical success of Sisters (the film received excellent trade and popular reviews and earned $1 million) enabled Pressman to raise $1.2 million to produce Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a reworking of the Faust legend in the context of contemporary rock culture from an original De Palma script.142 Twentieth Century–Fox paid $2 million to pick up the negative, the largest sum it had ever advanced for a completely independent production, but then failed to properly market it. For this reason, Phantom of the Paradise quickly disappeared, but not before it had made a strong impression on critics like Pauline Kael, who praised its self-conscious creation of "a new Guignol, in a modern idiom, out of the movie Guignol of the past."143 De Palma's next film was written by Paul Schrader (see below) and financed by a Cincinnati-based "production services" tax shelter of the sort outlawed by the Tax Reform Act of 1976, but it sat on the shelf for eight months before Columbia agreed to distribute it, costing producer George Litto a small fortune in interest in the interval. This was Obsession (1976), a film indebted to Vertigo (1958) for its plot and to Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-nominated score (his last and, in his own judgement, his best)144 for its emotional subtext. Shot on location in Italy and New Orleans by Vilmos Zsigmond in Panavision, Obsession was well received by critics (many of whom found it too imitative of Hitchcock, nonetheless),145 but Columbia failed in attempting to exploit its "youth market" appeal, and the film grossed only a modest $4.47 million.
Just three months after Columbia released Obsession, United Artists opened De Palma's Carrie (1976), which like its predecessor was financed by a tax shelter partnership. Traces of Hitchcock were apparent here too, but this film was more clearly De Palma's own in its use of split-screen montage (a staple since Sisters) and its cynical, gory hipness. Producer Paul Monash, whose recent credits included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), had optioned the rights to the novel by the then-unknown Stephen King, who admired Sisters and suggested that De Palma be hired to direct. Adapted for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen146 and scored by the Italian composer Pino Donaggio (who would write the scores for Dressed to Kill , Blow Out , and Body Double ), Carrie concerns a repressed teenager with telekinetic powers (Sissy Spacek), whose confused response to her first menstrual period brings a torrent of abuse from her cruel high school classmates. Their continued mockery of her dawning sexuality culminates in a vicious prom night humiliation, and, in a special effects tour-de-force, Carrie unleashes a bloodbath of revenge against both them and her mother (Piper Laurie)—a religious fanatic based on Marnie's mother in the 1964 Hitchcock film. (The spectacular mechanical effects for this sequence were provided by Gregory M. Auer, who had worked with De Palma on Phantom of the Paradise, and they were imitated in many subsequent horror films.) Tapping into the nascent "psycho-slasher" trend, Carrie was a career-making hit for De Palma, earning $15.2 million against its $1.8 million investment in domestic rentals and a good deal of critical praise (Roger Greenspun, for example, called Carrie "one of the few recent achievements in American movies"),147 especially among intellectual critics who were beginning to see De Palma as a kind of postmodern satirist.148 But it did not lead immediately to creative independence for him, and De Palma blamed United Artists for failing to go after the mass market that had made blockbusters of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).149 Furthermore, he found himself widely—and, for the most part, accurately—accused of misogyny, another similarity with Hitchcock which became increasingly problematic for De Palma as his work became ever more prominent.
After two more features—the violent supernatural thriller The Fury (1978), produced by Frank Yablans for Fox at a cost of $5.5 million and grossing $11.1; and Home Movies (1979), a low-budget ($400,000), independently distributed farce about moviemaking shot with a crew of Sarah Lawrence film students—De Palma was finally acknowledged as a mainstream auteur with Dressed to Kill (1980), a Filmways release that looked considerably original in its day and is still probably his best film. Directed from his own screenplay and shot in Panavision by Ralph Bode, it combines Hitchcockean suspense with eighties-style sex and gore in the story of a cross-dressing serial killer in Manhattan who murders women with a razor. Dressed to Kill is at once erotic, sadistic, and intensely manipulative, raising once again charges of misogyny, but this time the film had the blessings of the critical establishment that come with a laudatory feature story in the New York Times. It also made nearly as much at the box office ($15 million) as Carrie. (Although influential critics like Pauline Kael and David Denby continued to champion the reflexive quality of De Palma's thrillers, feminist outrage led him to abandon the form from 1984 to 1992.)150 In the eighties and nineties, De Palma continued to be an ambiguous, controversial figure, attempting and occasionally achieving seriousness (Blow Out ; The Untouchables ; Carlito's Way ) but just as often exploiting violence and misogyny (Scarface ; Body Double ; Casualties of War ; Raising Cain ) with sadistic intensity. He has had more financial ups and downs than any member of his generation except Coppola, and his treatment of unpleasant material has often bordered on the prurient. Stylistically, however, he is more interesting than many of his peers because he is less predictable and consistent—during the 1970s, for example, he employed some of the best cinematographers in the business (Gregory Sandor, Vilmos Zsigmond, Mario Tosi, John A. Alonzo, Stephen H. Burum) but rarely used the same one from film to film, and he never attempted to build up a repertory of performers in the manner of Scorsese or Coppola (although Nancy Allen, his wife from 1979-1984, was a presence in all of his work from Carrie through Blow Out).
John Milius and Paul Schrader
Two other figures of the "film generation"—John Milius (b. 1944) and Paul Schrader (b. 1946)—are known mainly as screenwriters, but they have also directed films of distinctly auterist aspirations. Milius attended USC film school as a member of the "miracle class" that included Lucas, Randal Kleiser (Grease ), and John Carpenter (Halloween ),151 and he began to produce hardboiled action scripts in the early seventies, writing or collaborating on such Warner Bros.' films as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971; uncredited), Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972), and Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), before directing Dillinger (1973) from his own script at AIP. Cast in the mixed genre format of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), this violent gangster film focuses on the FBI manhunt for the famous bank robber who became "Public Enemy Number One" during an eighteen-month crime spree in 1933 and 1934. Milius portrays both Dillinger (Warren Oates) and his nemesis, G-man Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), as media-conscious public heroes obsessed with shaping their images within the popular mythology of their times. Although it was produced on a limited budget by a youth-market studio, Dillinger attracted a wide audience and unexpected critical acclaim, briefly putting Milius in the forefront of his generation. For his next project, he had epic aspirations, although the result is more in the nature of an elegy. The Wind and the Lion (MGM/United Artists, 1975) is a quasi-historical account of the kidnapping of the wife and children of an American diplomat by a Berber chieftain in Morocco in 1904, in response to which President Theodore Roosevelt sent in the marines. With Kurosawa-like action sequences and widescreen desert cinematography modeled on Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Wind and the Lion creates a sort of Fordian myth of gunboat diplomacy entirely appropriate to its writer-director's rightwing ideology. (Contrary to his generations liberalism, Milius is a self-proclaimed militarist, sworn to the mystical power of violence and survivalist gun-culture.) The Wind and the Lion earned a modest $4.8. million, and the pretentious surfing film Big Wednesday (Warner Bros., 1978) had to be recut and sold to pay-TV before its losses were fully covered. In the 1980s, Milius's films were more resonant with the reactionary politics of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and he produced several near-hits in the bone-headed Conan the Barbarian (De Laurentiis, 1982), Red Dawn (MGM/United Artists, 1984), Farewell to the King (Vestron, 1989), and Flight of the Intruder (Paramount, 1991), but has done little else since.
Paul Schrader, the product of a strict Dutch-German Calvinist upbringing, studied divinity at Calvin College seminary but became deeply enthralled by movies through a summer film course he took at Columbia University. When he graduated from Calvin in 1968, Schrader enrolled in the UCLA's graduate film program where he was a classmate of Francis Ford Coppola, Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion [1979)], and B. W. L. Norton, Jr. (More American Graffiti ). There he became a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, the editor of Cinema magazine, and the author of the influential scholarly volume Transcendental Style: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1974). His first screenplay was The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1975), but serious critical notice awaited his scripts for Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and De Palma's Obsession (1976). Schrader also worked uncredited on the script for Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and co-wrote (with Mardik Martin) Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), as well as writing the screenplays for Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Scorseses The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). As with Milius, Schrader's success as a writer during the 1970s enabled him by the end of the decade to direct films from his own scripts. Blue Collar (Universal, 1978) and Hardcore (Columbia, 1979) both invoke the ambience of Taxi Driver, reflecting combined fascination and disgust with the underside of the American life—in the former, labor union corruption in a grim factory town; in the latter, the night world of the $6-billion pornography industry, into which the teenaged daughter of a Midwestern Calvinist lay minister, heroically portrayed by George C. Scott, disappears on a trip to Los Angeles. Modeled on the plot of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Scott's attempts in Hardcore to track the girl down lead him into unimagined byways of sexual prurience, debauchery, and morbidity, plunging him finally into a dark night of the soul that seems to be a paradigm for Schrader's neo-Protestant ethic. Both films were critically well-received and had respectable rental returns ($3 million and $7 million, respectively). Less morally intense was American Gigolo (Paramount, 1980), a stylistically spare thriller involving kinky sex built primarily around the ambiguous persona of its star, Richard Gere. Nevertheless, the film was a hit, earning about $11.5 million in domestic rentals, and spurred Schrader to direct the sensationalistic Cat People (Universal, 1982). Cat People remade Val Lewton's classically understated horror film of 1942, which was directed by Jacques Tourneur, as a disturbing 1980s-style gorefest with prosthetic makeup effects by Tim Buram. It was a box-office disappointment (it returned $5 million), and though Schrader continued occasionally to direct, with the exception of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Zoetrope, 1985) and Affliction (Largo Entertainment, 1998), had little critical or financial success. Although he continued to write screenplays (for his own films and others'), sometimes (as earlier) in collaboration with his brother Leonard, Schrader seemingly ended up, like Milius, at the dead end of a cinema of ideas where philosophy turns to rhetoric.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, auteurism became much more to the American cinema than simply a mode of aesthetic discourse. In the unstable environment of the crumbling studio system the opportunity arose to actually practice one form of it, when the studios' transitional managers briefly turned over the reigns of creative power to a rising generation of independents and first-time directors whose values seemed to resonate with the newly emerging "youth culture" market. In the long run, however, the idea that American directors, working within the world's most capital-intensive production context, could somehow approach the European ideal of authorship as incarnated in the French New Wave was doomed to fail from the start; and it proved especially intractable in the business climate that prevailed after and Star Wars. By that time, the industry had been fully absorbed by new owners who saw it primarily as a locus for high-stakes speculation and corporate tax-sheltering. They were skilled at these pursuits, and their new management style produced early results—from a combined loss of $41 million in 1969-1970, the eight motion picture companies earned profits of $173 million in 1972-1973, thanks largely to the success of a few heavily-marketed blockbusters.152 However, as this review of the careers of the most prominent directors of the 1970s is intended to suggest, the extent to which film production had become an investment-specific strategy by the latter part of the decade was quite unprecedented, and it warped the shape of the industry for years to come, driving production and marketing costs to hitherto unimagined levels.
Starting in the late sixties, studios began recruiting both veteran independents and untested film school-trained directors to appeal to the "youth market," which was correctly understood to be driving a national resurgence in film attendance. The institution of the MPPA Ratings System in October 1968 was initially seen as a boon to experimentation by these directors, and in some ways it was. By the mid-seventies, however, ratings had worked to create a two-tiered system of production, in which studios looked to make either cross-generational blockbusters like Jaws and Star wars in the PG category (initially M, then GP, and later PG-13), or tailored entertainment for specific market segments—children (G), adults (R), and "adults" (X). In effect, because the G-rating market share was relatively small and the X rating was reserved mainly for pornography (or what was then perceived as such), most Hollywood films of the decade were rated either PG or R. The "film generation" auteurs, for example, were neatly divided along this fault, with Lucas, Spielberg, and Milius cleaving mainly to the PG side, and Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, and Schrader on the other. Significantly, the two major non-"film generation" directors of the 1970s—Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick—made a nearly equal number of films in each category.
By the end of the decade, this linkage of "auteurs" with certain types of entertainment—Coppola with the Godfather films, Lucas with the Star Wars cycle, Spielberg with wondrous spectacles of all sorts—combined with the practice of saturation booking and massive national publicity to make promotion the most important aspect of exhibition and distribution.153 Auteurism thus became a marketing tool that coincided nicely with the rise of college-level film education among the industry's most heavily courted audience segment.154 From the cinema of rebellion represented by films like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), America's youth transferred its allegiance to the "personal" cinema of the seventies auteurs without realizing how corporate and impersonal it had become. And the auteurs themselves were transformed from cineastes into highrolling celebrity directors (many of them) with their own chauffeurs, Lear jets, and body guards. In 1968 Coppola had said, "I don't think there'll be a Hollywood as we know it when this generation of film students gets out of college,"155 accurately forecasting the enormous impact his generation of filmmakers would have on the industry. What he could not foresee was how the change would boomerang on the new auteurs and recast their films as branded merchandise to be consumed along with T-shirts, action figures, Happy Meals, and, by the end of the decade, miniaturized and badly framed versions of the films themselves called "videos."