12 Greatest Films of the New Hollywood Era
Throughout most of the 20th century in the Hollywood film business, films were dominated by star-power driven by powerful producers. However, in the late 1960s, a Hollywood Renaissance emerged and changed the game forever. Dubbed the “New Hollywood,” young film school-educated directors dominated the box office with critical acclaim throughout the 1970s. Films went against the standard “Hollywood ending” theme. They were bloody. They pushed the limit on language and taboos. And they represented the current sexual revolution. Above all, they were the counter-culture answer to decades-long conservative Hollywood.
Directors established themselves with low budget films shot on location with no-name actors. When major studies took notice, they hired them in hopes of shifting away from their financially declining business model. Big budget epics like “Cleopatra” and “Hello Dolly!” failed at the box office. This “Old Hollywood” model was not profitable. Studios shifted their focus to exciting, original scripts. These young directors were influenced by European filmmakers like François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Production budgets were small so studios hoped to turn an easy profit. What followed was a creative boom in filmmaking. A crop of close-knit directors came together and produced some of the most groundbreaking films.
Since its peak in the 1970s, many of the directors and young actors are now considered Hollywood legends. Unfortunately, others didn’t survive and their careers’ had fallen. But for film fans, this period marked an important shift in cinema and influenced countless filmmakers and actors since. The following is an overview of the 12 greatest and most iconic films of the period. There are two films which are considered to be the breakthrough of the period. The proceeding 10, in chronological order, represent the evolution of the period and their lasting impact in the film industry.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
When the “gangster” genre was thought to be dead by the 1960s, young actor Warren Beatty was interested in bringing the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker onto the big screen. Beatty established himself as a marquee name after “Splendor in the Grass” but wanted to produce a film on the bank robbing lovers. He soon signed on to portray Barrow. This also marked the breakthrough for actress Faye Dunaway as Bonnie. Directed by Arthur Penn and written by David Newman and Robert Benton (with re-writes by Robert Towne, soon to be an important figure in this period), “Bonnie and Clyde” pushed the limits of violence and sexuality. The two protagonists were criminals but were celebrated as folk heroes at the time because of public disdain for the banks. Their tale ends in a bloody shootout but would create a lasting impression on audiences.
The Graduate (1967)
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) was a young man with no idea where his life would take him. A recent college graduate, he had no ambition and no certainty. His parents push for him to attend graduate school and advance into a suitable career. Yet, he finds content by just floating in the pool without a care in the world. He soon comes under the seduction of older woman Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) but is also pressured to pursue her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross), whose more age appropriate. Directed by Mike Nichols and aided by an iconic soundtrack by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, “The Graduate” represented a trying time for young people. Under the pressure to grow up, get a job, and start a family, the baby boomer generation identified with this sense of uncertainty.
At the 40th Academy Awards, both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” were up for numerous awards, competing against each other for Best Picture of the Year. Both lost to “In the Heat of the Night.” Both films had multiple actor nominations with Estelle Parsons winning Best Supporting Actress for “Bonnie and Clyde.” Mike Nichols won Best Director for “The Graduate.” Nonetheless, both films left a lasting impact on Academy voters that year.
Easy Rider (1969)
While “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” established themselves as a new revolution in storytelling, “Easy Rider” was the punk rock marker on cinema before there was even a “punk rock concept.” Starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (also director), “Easy Rider” was billed as a modern day western. Two counter-culture friends travel the American south on motorcycles, engage in psychedelic drugs, meet new people, and clash against the establishment... all the while trying to define the American Dream. After smuggling cocaine from Mexico and making a drug deal in California, Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) set their course on the road to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. After a stint in jail, they pick up ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough performance) whose occupied in the nearby cell for public intoxication. George reluctantly joins them for the trip and experiments marijuana for the first time during a camp out. Over the course of their trip, they are publicly discriminated against because of their appearance but arrive in New Orleans and engage in a visual LSD trip that defied standard photography and film editing. The tale of the two bikers end tragically but audiences at the time identified with the ultimate goal of defying authority.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Director Peter Bogdanovich’s breakthrough film was a coming-of-age tale in a desolate Texas town on the brink of abandonment. Shot in black and white, it made Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd stars and placed emphasis on the concept of young adults coming to grips with maturity. Like “The Graduate” before it, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) has a romantic affair with older woman Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his high school athletic coach. Sonny’s best friend Duane Jackson (Bridges) briefly dates Jacy Farrow (Shepherd), a popular girl who ultimately pursues her own sexual experimentation. Duane joins the Army and would soon be shipped off to Korea. Near the end of the film, Duane and Sonny attend the final screening of the local movie house before it shuts down. What made this film memorable was its blunt look at a once-flourishing western small town but on the brink of bleakness. These young characters have the chance to break out but some still feel attached. Their only outlet to the outside world was their movie theater but even that couldn’t survive. While the fate of these characters are up to interpretation, the 1990 film “Texasville” served as an update with many of the cast (and director Bogdanovich) returning.
The Godfather (1974)
Notable Hollywood producer Robert Evans wanted to bring the tale of the Corleone family to the big screen, based on a novel by Mario Puzo. He originally sought out Italian director Sergio Leone and then approached Peter Bogdanovich. Both declined. Francis Ford Coppola originally objected because he didn’t feel it was right to glorify Mafia violence with Italian-Americans. Evans was persistent on hiring an Italian-American director and Coppola ultimately agreed when he decided to use the movie as a metaphor for American capitalism. At the time, Coppola had directed a number of small films but was a co-writer for “Patton” and produced his young protégé George Lucas’s “American Graffiti.” Coppola's casting choices were not well received by Paramount. The then-unknown Al Pacino was cast as Michael Corleone while already-Hollywood legend Marlon Brando was suggested for Don Vito, despite his bad reputation for being uncooperative on movie sets. What followed was an epic tale that focused on trust and loyalty when it comes to the family business, no matter how immoral their actions were. But “The Godfather” became a film where you would sympathize with the bad guys. The Corleones were family first and businessmen second. They exemplified the immigrant experience of the American Dream. “The Godfather” won Best Picture at the Oscars but it’s sequel, “The Godfather Part II” expanded the family tale and racked up even more awards. The young directors in town were now making a name for themselves.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Counter-cultural author Ken Kesey’s case study of the patients of a mental institution and its film adaptation created a new form of storytelling. Randle McMurphy (Nicholson in his first Oscar-winning role) is a criminal recidivist who winds up in an Oregon facility. Constantly clashing against authority, in this case the dreaded Nurse Ratched (Loise Fletcher), McMurphy is trying to obtain his own sense of freedom within the dreary walls of this institution. He’s surrounded by catatonics, schizophrenics, and high-strung paranoid patients. He befriends some of them (including the mute six-foot seven Native American “Chief”) while alienating some like the belligerent Taber (Christopher Lloyd). He soon becomes the leader of the group, encouraging patients to break out and challenge authority. What follows is McMurphy’s tragic attempt to change the hospital’s routine. McMurphy’s story parallels’ the youth movement to challenge the Nixon administration. Winner of Best Picture of the Year as well as Best Director (Milos Forman), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is both compelling yet inspiring.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Soon after their success in “The Godfather,” actors Al Pacino and John Cazale played would-be bank robbers who were caught up in a robbery gone awry over the course of a hot summer day in New York City. Sonny (Pacino), Sal (Cazale), and a second accomplice plan to rob a bank but only after the daily pick-up occurred and roughly a thousand dollars is left in the bank. The second accomplice feels remorse and flees the scene. Without any options, they hold the bank employees hostage while police forces swarm in. Soon, a media firestorm comes pouring in while Sonny and Sal try to control the situation. The inept pair do their best but it’s soon leaked out that the purpose of the robbery was to fund the sex-change operation of Sonny’s lover (Chris Sarandon). Up against the police force and the media, Sonny becomes a folk hero, yelling “Attica!! Attica!!,” which invokes the anti-police chant that stems from the 1971 Attica prison riots. Soon, Sonny gains the sympathy of the public. This anti-authoritarian theme is becoming popular in the New Hollywood genre. Based on a real bank robbery incident, “Dog Day Afternoon” is a social commentary on both the police force and media outlets. These criminals are painted as protagonists but their tale (once again) ends in tragedy.
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That was the rallying cry that defined this social commentary on media with director Sidney Lumet’s satire on network news. Veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is disillusioned and upon learning of his eventual dismissal, he announces on air he will commit suicide in the next week’s show. Almost fired, he’s allowed a proper farewell show but takes the moment to take viewers to task to shout out their windows. Soon, Beale finds new found success from his angry-man persona. Programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) seeks to exploit Beale’s newfound appeal. What follows is an epic rant against corporate greed and journalistic sensationalism. The film won several Oscars for its actors (including a posthumous Best Actor award for Finch) but lost the Best Picture award for the more audience-friendly “Rocky.”
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s dark, gritty tale of a Vietnam vet’s descent into the ugliness of New York City encapsulate the dark nature of taxi driver Travis Bickle. With no real skill outside the military, Bickle works the night shift driving around Manhattan, picking up prostitutes, drug addicts, and sexual deviants. It’s his remedy for his anti-social behavior. He becomes infatuated with a campaign volunteer (Cybill Shepherd) for a New York senator. His idea of a date is taking her to a Swedish erotica film. He also becomes involved in the life of a teenage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Bickle wants to rid the city of all the trash he’s seen, becoming a vigilante. Unlike Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish,” Bickle is a product of the horrors of the Vietnam War and wages war against a deviant pimp (Harvey Keitel) in the hopes of freeing the innocence of Iris. Written by Paul Schrader, “Taxi Driver” cemented Scorsese as a New Yorker after his breakthrough film “Mean Streets.” “Taxi Driver” was the height of Scorsese’s career in the 1970s but he suffered a decline due to constant drug use.
Annie Hall (1977)
Comedian Woody Allen’s epic career is pretty much defined by his landmark film “Annie Hall.” Throughout most of the 1970s, Allen’s films were screwball sex comedies that originated from his stand-up career. What made “Annie Hall” stand out was its impact on the romantic-comedy genre. It’s the anti-romantic comedy. Neurotic comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and the ditzy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) connect at first but their relationship dissolves over time. They are attracted to each other but later learn they are not meant to be. Annie and Alvy are polar opposites and that's what makes this film go against the typical Hollywood love story. Allen’s on-screen persona would be repeated over and over in his films but his comedic talents are at its best in this film. “Annie Hall” marked a turning point in his career, which he would later find critical acclaim in “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to the first two “Godfather” films marked the beginning of the end of the New Hollywood period. Coppola sought to create a Vietnam War adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.” The movie is the tale of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who is commissioned to take down rogue Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the Cambodian jungle. Coppola struggled to get the film greenlit and the production was no picnic. Over-budgeted with a prolonged shooting schedule, “Apocalypse Now” was a studio nightmare. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack on set and Marlon Brando was promised a then-staggering $3.5 million for just a few weeks of work despite showing up on set overweight and unprepared. The film would turn a profit but marked the decline of Coppola’s reputation in Hollywood.
Raging Bull (1980)
After the disastrous reception of his musical “New York, New York,” Scorsese reluctantly took on the biography of boxer Jake La Motta, a passion project for actor Robert De Niro. After the success of “Rocky,” American audiences were not ready for a new film about an uncelebrated boxer who was more known to take hits rather than win titles. However, it was Scorsese’s classical approach to portray La Motta in an unflinching film that grabbed audiences' attention. La Motta is not a likable character. He has a rocky relationship with his brother/trainer Joey (Joe Pesci). He develops a relationship with then-teenage Vickie (Cathy Moriarity). His professional and personnel life implodes and ultimately serves time in jail for inviting young girls into his nightclubs. De Niro infamously gained 70 pounds to portray the overweight later years of La Motta. Shot in black and white, Scorsese used chocolate syrup to portray bloodshed in the ring because it was the most effective looking on black and white film. De Niro was awarded Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance and “Raging Bull” remains one of Scorsese’s best films. However, upon its release, “Raging Bull” was a financial failure. It marked the continued decline of the New Hollywood era. In the years since, “Raging Bull has been considered a classic. Film critic Roger Ebert named it the best film of the 1980s, despite it being a product of 1970s cinema.
The New Hollywood Decline
With any movement, there comes a rise and thus comes a fall. Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” is considered the nail on the coffin. Cimino achieved success with the unflinching Vietnam epic tale “The Deer Hunter,” which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1979. Cimino was given creative control over his next film, an uninteresting tale of Wyoming ranch owners in the 1870s, but it was a financial flop. Over-budgeted and over-long, “Heaven’s Gate” marked a turning point in movie studies’ willingness to fund these types of films. However, there are other factors that contributed to the decline in the New Hollywood period:
Directors' ego: After initial success at young ages, directors such as Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and Hal Ashby had their egos get to the best of them. Trying to out-do their previous efforts, their ambition grew and so did the budgets. Studios reluctantly funded them but their return-on-investment fell through.
Drugs: Caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle, directors engaged in the rising popularity of marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogenic drugs. Scorsese, Hopper, Ashby and Schrader depended on drugs for creative outputs. What they ended up with were damaged bodies and damaged relationships. Studios cut off ties with those dependent on drugs and even those who tried to clean up their acts had no luck in reclaiming their success.
Blockbuster Mentality: Thanks to the monstrous financial success of “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” movie studios became more dependent on first week ticket sales and marketing campaigns. While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were members of the New Hollywood crew, their blockbuster films would pave the way for how Hollywood markets summer events. The nature of the New Hollywood movement was based on directors making personal films. After “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” films were more about commercial appeal.
The period detailed can be further explored in the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the sex-drugs-and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” and the documentary film “A Decade Under the Influence,” available on DVD.