Hollywood at the Crossroads

Though it seems hard to believe today, back in the 1960s, Hollywood nearly collapsed and died. We all know it was resuscitated, but what exactly brought it back from the brink? Some of the answers may surprise you.

During the sixties movie going went into decline as TV had become more or less ubiquitous to the average American home and colour TV was becoming widespread and was quickly replacing the old black and white sets. While families stayed home to watch TV, at the same time Hollywood was stagnating and making dreary formulaic copies of earlier movies starring the old style contract stars like Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Hollywood was not moving with the times, as evidenced by the fact it was making three Elvis Presley movies each year. It’s not that those character actors were terrible; they had great qualities, but Hollywood seemed to have got completely out of touch with the viewer and their movies became drawn out clichés of what had gone before. This was a time when kids were growing their hair and listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The slick looks of the Hollywood stars in their tailored suits and white dresses were out of touch.

By 1963 Hollywood had produced the fewest number of movies it had ever made in a single year (121). At the same time there was the rise of the TV and the made-for-TV movie. People were staying at home to get their entertainment and the TV stations were filling the demand. Post WW2 Britain saw cinema numbers fall from 4,700 to 1,580 by 1969. American attendance dropped from 90 million post WW2 to 20 million in 1970. By 1961 TV networks were beginning to screen major theatrical movies and in 1964 NBC premiered ‘See How They Run,’ the first ‘Made for TV’ movie. Cinemas across North America, Britain and Europe began to close, or convert to other entertainment options including bingo. The end of the golden age of movies was definitely in sight and the studios were about to shut their gates for good.

Then there came along two distinctly different actors who would change the fortunes of Hollywood and draw audiences back into the dark halls of cinema and show you a world you had never seen before.

The first of these men was Warren Beatty and, in particular, his 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. This movie shifted the zeitgeist from actors who were as sweet as apple pie but klutzy, to real gangsters with a lust for blood and sex. To be fair, this was French new wave cinema with an American twist.

Warren Beatty wasn’t just an actor in this movie, he was deeply involved. He was the producer, he cast the movie and he made script adjustments on set. The result was a movie for grown-ups; romance had been replaced with sex and lust (aided by the verve of Faye Dunaway), and now, for the first time in cinema, gun shots with the use of squibs, blew bloody holes through people adding realism like you had never seen before. Though there were comedic moments, the ending is a touching, violent Greek tragedy. Bonnie and Clyde paved the way for a new wave of Hollywood and started the raft for an excellent run of gangster movies that included Gene Hackman in The French Connection, Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

A little later, in 1967, another American movie, directed by Mike Nicholls, also broke the mould. The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Ann Bancroft did away with the niceties of cute romantic couples and replaced them with an older married woman seducing a young, nervous, virginal male who had just graduated college. Pretty much a French style of movie once again, but none the less, it was much more riveting, sexually tense and authentic than previous American romantic comedies. And it's of note that Hoffman was not the pretty blond boy that most people would have expected in this role. The combination of these two movies opened the door to mainstream movies with more realistic discussions and portrayals of sex as seen later in Midnight Cowboy and Five Easy Pieces.

Is Hollywood at yet another crossroads? The top twenty grossing movies of 2016 were all action/adventure; two of them were Star Wars movies. Only ‘Sully’, the true story of a stricken plane that Captain Sullivan landed on the Hudson river, starring Tom Hanks,  was able to make it into the top 30, and the Oscar award winning La La Land scraped into the top 100, at 83. By contrast, the 1971 top grossing movie was The French Connection, a dramatic tale of a gritty American cop pitting his weight against a French crime ring that imports heroin to the US. This would suggest that the theatrical release of today’s movies mostly targets the 5 to 20 year old age bracket. Either that or we don’t like serious drama anymore, or alternatively, that it is the rise of internet access TV is where we now receive most of our adult drama. This last option makes sense; the internet providers have given us a range of series and mini-series of movie like quality that are best watched by adults. Among these are: Game of Thrones, The Night Manager, American Crime Story; The People Verses O.J. Simpson and Westworld. And then there is quite a critical buzz about about some of the recent Netflix movies, such as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) and Roma (2018), this last has been nominated for 10 Oscars in 2019. Is the widescreen TV and the mini-series a threat to the Hollywood movie, or just another consumer vehicle that we have added onto our entertainment schedule? Time will tell, but in the meantime making movies in Hollywood is becoming prohibitively expensive and the day may soon come when we actually see the studio gates about to close again, forever. That doesn’t mean that we will stop making movies, it just means that how and where we make them, and how we consume them, may change.

The sixties generation and those that followed owes thanks to those actors who pumped new life into the heart of movie making by changing our visual references. I, for one, am grateful to Warren Beatty and Mike Nicholls for revitalising cinema, and to those who stood beside them and acted with them and to the women who acted as human beings charged with yearning and passion. For a while, back in the late sixties and early seventies, sex and violence sold American movies, but in context, that didn’t make it wrong.

But that's not where it ends. See Hollywood at the Crossroads, Part 2; Did Bruce Lee Save Hollywood?

January 2019.