Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Film Discussion: The 1970s

Welcome to a brand new feature here at, where my colleague Michael Drinan (@mdrinan380) and I discuss the films of a given decade and list some of our favorites.  We'll talk a little about the industry during this era and how it shaped the artistic and commercial direction some of the major filmmakers took.  We're gonna start with the 1970s since this was the earliest decade in which we both really immersed ourselves.

Justin: I consider the 1970s one of the greatest decades for film - it was a time when critical and commercial appeal were essentially one and the same.  The Hollywood studio system had more or less collapsed with the retirement of all the original moguls and studio execs turned to film schools to find the next wave of great directors.  And since initially these execs didn't know much about film, they put a great deal of trust in these young directors to make the films they wanted to make.  If you look at some of the top grossing films of the '70s it's kind of staggering how challenging and subversive many of them were.  A film like The Godfather for example would have a lot of trouble making a ton of money nowadays, with a three-hour running time and such a meditative pace.  There'd be great pressure from the studio to trim it down, you'd have a whole team of screenwriters making changes to the script, etc.  But in the 70s people had patience for films that weren't action blockbusters (mostly because the modern blockbuster wasn't really invented until 1975).  So the films that won loads of awards were also the popular favorites.  In the '80s these two types of films were almost mutually exclusive.  But the moviegoing audience in the '70s hadn't yet been conditioned not to use their brain when watching a film.

Mike: I agree with you, the 1970s is one of the greatest decades for film for all the reasons you've mentioned. Everything changed during that decade: all the taboos regarding sex and language were done away with, the "summer blockbuster" was born during this decade (for better or worse), filmmakers were taking huge risks, and the decade MADE the film industry after it was going bust by the end of the '60s. The subject matter seemed to expand also providing for great stories about the disenfranchised. The horror genre was redefined during this period. The entire decade drips with classic films. Also, film audiences appreciated these magnificent works as well, like you mentioned.

Justin: Even the genre pictures made presumably just to turn a profit were full of subtext and social commentary.  Dawn of the Dead for example smacked of satire of '70s consumer culture.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake was an indictment of the "Me Generation."  THX-1138 was about losing one's individuality.  Even The Godfather has been described by its director as pertaining to "the death of capitalism."  And then there were the genre-redefining films like Alien, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  What a richly creative time for film.

Mike: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest sticks out to me because it told an "Us vs. Them" story but did it with such humor, angst and tragedy. It's pretty incredible how filmmakers during this decade found a way to weave all these different emotions through a story, making you care about the story and the characters. Very cathartic decade. Most important was the heavy influence foreign film had on the new filmmakers of the '70s. A lot of these films drew from Italian Neo-Realist films and the French New Wave of the 1960s. Implementing these very avant garde styles in mainstream films of this decade completely changed the look and feel of movies forever. Enough about the directors, this decade also launched the careers of quite a few legendary actors: Pacino, Keaton, Redford, De Niro, Nicholson, Madeline Kahn, Dustin Hoffman, Duvall, Caan and Dreyfuss. Quite the list.

Justin: The '70s were definitely a director's decade, but yes, loads of great actors emerged as well.  Don't forget Harrison Ford, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, Sigourney Weaver, Martin Sheen, Christopher Walken, Jodie Foster, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, etc.

It was also kind of the earliest era where the great actors weren't presented as "movie stars."  They were real, flawed human beings whose performances were meant to convey realism, not movie star qualities.  Harrison Ford had a rather infamous altercation with a casting agent early in his career where he was auditioning for the role of a grocery delivery boy.  The agent told him, "You'll never make it in this business, I never believed you were a movie star."  Ford leaned over his desk and angrily replied, "I thought you were supposed to believe I was a delivery boy."  That story is such a perfect illustration of how the 70s changed the way people viewed actors.

Aside from that there was also the advent of "method acting," pioneered by Marlon Brando and adopted by Deniro, Pacino, Hoffman, etc.  Speaking of Dustin Hoffman, another amusing anecdote (not sure if it's true or not, but it's funny) involved him and Lawrence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man.  Hoffman had deprived himself of sleep for a few days to get into character and when he informed Olivier of this, Olivier's response was supposedly, "Have you tried acting, dear boy?"  The total devotion to their craft set these young actors apart from their predecessors and allowed their performances to be completely immersive and naturalistic.

Mike: I have heard that Hoffman story before. It's an interesting story because it displays the generational difference between actors of different eras and their approach to characters. The '70s really brought forth the perspective of the disenfranchised, the overall mistrust of society in general, going head on with traditional mores of the time and the actors employed really seemed to transform themselves into those parts and fit the narrative. De Niro in Taxi Driver is the prime example of that. Rocky is the obvious choice of a story of a downtrodden character in a rough part of town that seemed very emblematic of where the country was at that point in time. These were real people on screen, real emotions, which benefited the directors since it made their vision and story that much more effective. It sacrificed the glitz and the glam for gritty and audiences related more to it.

Justin:  There are so many '70s films I wish I could go back and see for the first time, when they originally came out.  So many of them have become such an ingrained piece of the culture I can't even imagine how mindblowing they were at the time.  The original Star Wars is the obvious example of course (I feel like I saw that in the theater on its 1979 re-release but I can't be sure), but films like The Exorcist (that movie must've psychologically scarred so many audiences), Jaws (ditto there), and The Godfather films must've just been life-altering at the time.   And this was back when you could see a movie in the theater over and over for months, and actually be able to afford the repeated admission price.

Mike: I will say that some of these films, even after seeing them hundreds of times, are still an amazing experience on the big screen whenever theaters run them. I saw Jaws a few years ago on the big screen to celebrate the beginning of summer and the thing was sold out and still had people jumping and screaming at certain parts. It hasn't lost anything even after forty-two years. I also recently saw The Godfather in an old time classic theater and that was a thrill too. But you're right, The Exorcist would've scared the hell out of me if I saw it in theaters; would've been awesome. Star Wars would've been amazing too. Unfortunately, I was born in 1980 so I missed them all in their original run. Anyway these films still hold up today whether you catch them on television or during a special theater screening, which is a testament to the quality of storytelling, directing and acting that was prevalent during that decade.

Well let's take a look at our Top 10 lists from the '70s...

Justin's Top 10 Films of the '70s

10. The Godfather part II
9. Dawn of the Dead
8. Barry Lyndon
7. Rocky
6. The Exorcist
5. Jaws
4. Taxi Driver
3. Apocalypse Now
2. The Godfather
1. Star Wars

Mike's Top 10

10. A Clockwork Orange
9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
8. Taxi Driver
7. The Exorcist
6. Rocky
5. Star Wars
4. Apocalypse Now
3. Jaws
2. The Godfather Part II
1. The Godfather

Justin: Looks like we're in almost total agreement about the best films, just have them in different order.  Also, what the hell happened to Francis Ford Coppola after 1979?  Guy made three of the greatest films of all time in one decade and then....almost nothing good after that.  Perhaps a discussion for another time....

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