The transition from the producer-friendly studio era to the director-friendly independent era had two significant influences. One was a domestic influence and the other was a foreign influence, but both would alter the realism and style of the films of the New Hollywood.
The domestic influence changed the aesthetic of Hollywood films from an idealized and glamorous world to a gritty and unpolished one and Elia Kazan was a major figure in this shift.
Kazan, a liberal in the era of Hollywood blacklisting, had the challenge of making social-problem films that would not cost him his job while still serving as intelligent entertainment with something important to say, solving this problem mainly by focusing on the human drama rather than the political drama. He pulled this off with great films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and A Face in the Crowd (1957).
Kazan was one of the filmmakers responsible for bringing the more grounded “method” acting style of 1930s New York theatre and the Actors Studio founded in New York in 1947 by Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Kazan to Hollywood. It served as a precursor for the realism of later 20th century films, Lee Strasberg being one of the key teachers of the style. New York was the antithesis of Hollywood glamour and that style was evident on screen via actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Other American films that used New York styles to break from the clichés of Hollywood were Marty (1955), 12 Angry Men (1957), A View from the Bridge (1962) and The Pawnbroker (1965). Directors like Sidney Lumet were realistic and unsentimental while cinematographers like Boris Kaufman were spontaneous and improvisational in their shooting styles.
Part of the rising prominence of New York in acting style and location shooting came from the lack of certainty in Hollywood during its troubled period in the post-war era. And because New York was the center of both theatre and television production, many TV writers would make the jump to film in this New York-centric period.
Television is largely a writer’s medium, and in the fifties television directors were closer to theater directors than film directors, so when these people who worked in television transitioned to Hollywood, they brought the intimacy of working closely with actors on a stage with them, including Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight), Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba), Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network).
In addition to the influence of filmmakers like Elia Kazan and the method acting style he championed, the increasing popularity of foreign films that were artistically unrestricted by the Hays’ Code cannot be understated.
After the war, thanks in large part to foreign films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Hollywood discovered there was an audience for sophisticated, more sociological and less slick films that were more art-focused than commercial-focused.
These foreign films were more subtle and depicted things like sex and politics with less fearful hands. These films that led to an arthouse cinema movement were a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood-ized POV that Americans grew up with.
The arthouse cinema scene had been around since the thirties but the popularity of television led to a rise in the popularity of alternative entertainment. Cinema was becoming to television in the post-war era what theatre was to cinema during the Depression: a higher art form for the elite. And American films stepped up to the plate with more artistic films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). These films and others attracted college students and the cultural elite from urban parts of the country while television was more a family-focused viewing experience with programs that appealed to rural and suburban audiences often maintaining the formula from comedies, mysteries and westerns of the thirties and forties with an added touch of radio.
Hollywood films on the other hand changed their style and substance in the late sixties and early seventies, with many American filmmakers inspired by the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and other film movements from outside the country.
Among the noticeable changes of New Hollywood: heroes generally were antiheroes (Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and the old good guys on the side of law enforcement were depicted as inhuman and humorless buzzkills; happy endings were no longer the norm and tragic endings were mainstream; filming tricks like jump cutting, freeze frames, black & white and slow motion exposed the artificiality of the film medium and were used in ways that intensified the mood; film scores were used sparingly in an attempt to evoke realism, and when music was used it was often rock music, Easy Rider and American Graffiti basically being rock anthologies.
This era of cinema was self-conscious of its own style, while also being more gritty in its cinematography, the city replacing the country as the primary location for many American films.
This growing self-consciousness of film as a medium within the film medium even led to sharp satire from filmmakers like Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles) and old genres were experimented with, including gangster films (The Godfather), westerns (The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and film noir (Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection).
The self-consciousness and cynicism of Hollywood films in this age was a reflection of the attitude at the time. After living through a period when our political leaders were being assassinated, exposed as corrupt liars and drafting baby boomers to fight in a war that many Americans saw as pointless and evil, America was feeling angry, depressed and rebellious. The stories in movies like Chinatown (1974) exposed the American dream as phony and shed a light on its dark underbelly because that was how America felt at the time. Betrayed and bitter.
New Hollywood was cathartic for many filmgoers and authenticity became the goal for many filmmakers. It is a movement that never really went away although its voices have gotten less loud by the time the 1980s and 1990s came around. You would have to yell pretty loudly to be heard over the sounds of the explosions and laser blasts of the blockbusters which have become the dominant form of entertainment in the American film industry ever since the releases of films like Jaws and Star Wars but that’s for another blog.
The important thing is that the auteurs of this period opened up the door for what films could say and paved the way for authenticity, individuality and most importantly artistic freedom, changing the very definition of the word “Hollywood” which by 1965 was no longer symbolic of one place but now symbolized American entertainment in general, including the indie films on the fringe of the film industry which could be made by anyone with a camera. The true death knell of a monopolistic choke hold on creativity that the studio era demonstrated and that film is all the better for escaping.