In my previous two-part blog series about the New Hollywood era, an era which began taking shape in the sixties and seventies with heavy influence from New York theater and foreign cinema, I said that directors were having more creative control in this period. At the same time, certain directors were getting more respect and being treated like celebrities, to the point where they could get away with making Hollywood films that included no stars, a practice virtually unheard of until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out.
The personalities of these directors often came through in these films whereas previously those personalities were buried beneath the decisions of producers and writers. These filmmakers are seen as some of Hollywood’s first true auteurs and I’m going to highlight a few important directors who stood out at the time.
Woody Allen established a new formula for cinematic comedy that shared a lot in common with the works of comic auteurs like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in its depiction of an oddball out of tune with society, only the difference with Allen is that his films appealed to the intellectual arthouse cinema crowds.
Allen did not often make straight comedies but rather psychoanalytical studies that found humor in the mundane. While his neurotic schlepp persona was a constant, his films evolved into more than just amusing diversions like What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? (1966), Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) and more into studies of the human condition with masterpieces like Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Allen’s movies elevated the sophistication of Hollywood comedies significantly.
Robert Altman was good at exposing the realistic side of traditional film genres like Westerns, detective films and war films. M*A*S*H (1970), a black comedy about American medics stationed at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War, was a reflection of America’s indifference towards the Vietnam War and the pro-human spirit and anti-violence attitude of the counter-culture movement, while at the same time charting the course for the R-rated Hollywood comedy as we know it today.
Also subversive, Altman’s film McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) attacked the myth of the American Western by depicting “good guys” who drink, gamble and shoot people in the back, Thieves Like Us (1974) is about a group of thieves who want to rob enough banks to settle into respectable middle-class lives, and Nashville (1975) uses the center of the country music industry to explore not only the American dream of fame and success but political, sexual and economic structures in American society.
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola was great at bringing the Hollywood epic into a new generation. Starting out as an assistant to Roger Corman learning how to cut, dub, write and shoot films, and as a screenwriter on films like the Oscar-winning Patton (1970), Coppola was one of the most important film figures of his generation directing personal yet ambitious films like Finian’s Rainbow (1968), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979).
His 1974 film The Conversation is a brilliant and stylistic exploitation of Watergate era paranoia that was among the first of Coppola’s socially conscious films. The Godfather trilogy examines the different periods in the Corleone crime family, The Godfather exposing the dark underside of business and how it corrupts personal values, The Godfather Part II exploring the dissolution of the American dream that first brought immigrants to the U.S. as we see the rise of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in the past and Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of losing his family in the present, and The Godfather Part III (1990) depicting Michael Corleone’s attempt to seek redemption for his sins. Meanwhile Apocalypse Now showed the horror of war better than all previous war dramas, not just the violent toll but the mental toll.
Martin Scorsese, one of the most enduring directors from this period, combined the improvisational acting spontaneity of Altman with the dramatic scope and sensibility of Coppola. Scorsese’s films felt inspired by both Italian neorealism and the gritty New York dramas of the post-war era, often being psychological portraits of urban life that depicted characters with little moral value, as the stories were more occupied with the horrors of reality than with good vs. evil, as evidenced by films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).
The depth and creativity of Scorsese’s films have elevated him to the top tier of American directors and make him one of cinema’s most respected auteurs. But some of my favorite Scorsese films came out long after this period. Goodfellas (1990), based on a true story about a man who joined the mafia and ended up regretting it, is the pinnacle of Scorsese’s skills. Violent and energetic like Mean Streets but more funny and with more confident direction, it is still one of the best films and possibly my favorite gangster film ever made.
Besides Goodfellas, Scorsese’s impressive track record for great films includes The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), The Color of Money (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2019). Scorsese in fact may have the best track record of all the New Hollywood directors.
The perfectionist filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was longing so much for artistic freedom that he actually freed himself from the constraints of Hollywood to direct films in England. Like Orson Welles, Kubrick cared only about his own vision and was uncompromising in getting it on the screen.
Among his most popular early work is Spartacus (1960) but while Spartacus is seen as a highly-regarded classic, Kubrick did not so much direct it as save it from bombing as Kirk Douglas needed to hire someone to basically captain a sinking ship. His work from the late sixties to the eighties are much more reflective of his talents.
Just like many New Hollywood filmmakers, Kubrick was also a social critic who liked to shed a light on the foibles of society, including the military, the suburbs, politics and technology. But most importantly his films were critiques of the human race and how we always lead ourselves to disaster, whether we are uncivilized like the apes in the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or an advanced society living in a space station. Kubrick had a way of satirizing society in ways that felt partly like horror films but ones that were not completely devoid of humor, which made his filmography feel like a series of depressing farces rather than silly ones. Dr. Strangelove (1964) for example was a nuclear war satire that was just as tragic as it was comedic.
One of the consequences of Kubrick’s artistic independence is that when he adapts books he ignores things in the source material and uses it as a launchpad for a story that is artificially similar but lacks a vision similar to the original author’s own. The most famous example of this is The Shining (1980) but it can also be said of Lolita (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), although all three of those films have their own artistic merits.
2001: A Space Odyssey is the most well-known of Kubrick’s films and also the best and most unlike any film that came before it, giving new dimension to science fiction with special effects that are still impressive to this day. Although many critics at the time did not know what to make of it and even today it can be too artsy for some. 2001 was not appreciated by many Americans in the sixties, the main problem being that Kubrick was so original that people did not understand him. But it is appreciated far more today and seen as a Hollywood classic.