Monday, September 10, 2018

Why the films of the 1970s were even greater, stranger, livelier than we thought

Janis Joplin, left, with Dick Cavett and Gloria Swanson. 
This is the first in a two part series. 

By Lars Trodson

On Aug. 3, 1970, Dick Cavett hosted the following guests on his nighttime talk show: Janis Joplin, Gloria Swanson, Margot Kidder, and football player Dave Meggyesy, who had just published an exposée on the sport.

Joplin had been making music since 1962, and had become a star in 1966. Kidder had done some television in her native Canada, had acted in only two American films at that time, but would become famous for playing Lois Lane in the “Superman” franchise that launched in 1978. (It was the 1970s, after all, that brought comic book heroes back to the big screen in a big-budgeted, special-effects way.) Meggyesy's career had started in 1963, but by the time of the broadcast he had quit due to what he felt was the violent nature of the game.

Gloria Swanson, of course, was one of the great, glamorous stars of the silent era, born in the final moments of the 19th century. By 1916, almost 55 years prior to this broadcast, she had become a charter member of the club that became known as The Hollywood Movie Star.

These guests on the Cavett show are emblematic of the decade in movies that was about to play out, an unprecedented mix of emerging talent who worked alongside artists that started as far back as the silent era. This generational mixing, with its differing sensibilities and styles, their competing approach to technologies, and tentative (at first) embrace of the new freedoms, provided movie-going audiences in the 1970s with a gorgeous array of pictures unlike anything that had been seen before.

The 1970s, in movies, is in fact far more exciting when looked at holistically, rather than just the era of Coppola, Peckinpah, Lucas, Spielberg, DePalma, Scorsese, and Cassavetes. It was also the era of Huston, Welles, Zinneman, Hitchcock, and Wilder. It was not just the time of Nicholson, Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Streisand, and Dunaway, but also of Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Robert Mitchum.

It was the 70s, and when they were over, the movies slowly, inexorably, began their journey to what movies are today: special effects-laden spectacles that are deliberately detached from the hard life realities and emotions that movie-makers had spent decades trying to explore on screen.

Throughout the 1970s, title cards in the movies were lettered with the names of Sandra Dee, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Redd Foxx, Jackie Gleason, Melvyn Douglas, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Lillian Roth, Mickey Rooney, Burgess Meredith (started acting in 1929, spent three years in the Air Force in WWII, working steadily and earning two Oscar nominations in this decade), Elizabeth Taylor (screen debut in 1932), Anthony Quinn, John Wayne, Tony Curtis, Don Ameche, Kirk Douglas, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dana Andrews, George Burns (returning to films after a 37-year absence, and winning an Oscar to boot), Ingrid Bergman (winning a third Oscar, quite mysteriously, for “Murder On the Orient Express” in 1974), James Mason and Angela Lansbury — and so many others.

Here's the kind of mix it was: Burt Reynolds and Susan Clark starred in a film called “Skulduggery,” directed by Gordon Douglas, who began at the Hal Roach Studios making comedies in the 1920s. “R.P.M.” with Quinn and Ann-Margret was directed by Stanley Kramer, who started out as a film cutter at MGM in the 1930s. Such old school fare as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “The Hawaiians” were released alongside “Myra Breckinridge,” “My Lover, My Son,” “Flesh Feast” with Veronica Lake, “The Baby Maker” with Barbara Hershey, and “Soldier Blue,” with Candice Bergen, which the poster called “the most savage film in history!” (Directed by Ralph Nelson, who started out in 1950.)

It was not just marquee actors and directors from the the 1920s, 30s and 40s that worked throughout the 70s, but also writers, composers, editors, costume designers, and producers as well. Some of the mavericks mentioned above relied on and revered the older generation. Martin Scorsese chose Bernard Herrmann to score "Taxi Driver" in 1976. Herrmann's first score was "Citizen Kane" in 1941, but he was cooking along in the 70s — he had also scored DePalma's "Sisters" in 1973. George Lucas chose Gilbert Taylor to shoot "Star Wars" in 1977. Taylor began in films in 1948 and had shot "A Hard Day's Night" with The Beatles in 1964.


The Oscars honoring the films of 1969 was held on April 7, 1970, the dawn of the new era. The 42nd ceremony still holds the record for the most-watched telecast of the awards; perhaps due to the confluence of two movie cultures: the “Easy Rider” crowd, which had grown up with TV, and the previous generation, which had long ago embraced TV.

This was the year John Wayne won his first and only Academy Award, not unjustified, for his droll and wonderful performance in “True Grit.” His competition that year was Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt. This is the cinematic equivalent of the Cavett show. Wayne, who started out in movies in 1928, was competing with two actors who were in the only picture with an X rating to win a Best Picture Oscar, “Midnight Cowboy.” 

If anyone was going to symbolize the idea that the Old Guard was not ready to give up the reins to the new freedoms of the Russ Meyers and the perceived vulgarity of “Love Story,” it was going to be John Wayne. If any movie was going to symbolize the frankness that cinema would come to fully embrace during the next 10 years, it was “Midnight Cowboy.”

But Wayne was also more than a symbol. He, and many of his contemporaries, still had considerable box office appeal. Their presence meant good business, and it was wise to mix them in with younger stars who had yet to establish any longevity or power at the box office. In fact, the Oscars had no official host that year. The show was presented with a gallery of stars who were identified as “Friends of Oscar:” Bob Hope, John Wayne, Barbra Streisand, Fred Astaire (who started in show business in 1904), Jon Voight, Myrna Loy (discovered by Rudolph Valentino in 1925), Clint Eastwood, Raquel Welch, Candice Bergen, James Earl Jones, Katharine Ross, Cliff Robertson, Ali MacGraw, Barbara McNair, Elliott Gould, Claudia Cardinale, and Elizabeth Taylor.


The mixing of old and new stars was tried out on a grand scale in one of the most popular films of the new decade, “Airport,” the grandparent of another genre introduced in the 1970s: the disaster film.

“Airport” was released on March 5, 1970. The cast is a perfect 70s melange of old and new: Burt Lancaster, who burst into film stardom in 1946, (and who made an astonishing 17 films during the 1970s), Dean Martin (first in film in 1949), Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes (winning a second Oscar for this film, and whose film career started in 1910), Van Heflin (starting on Broadway in the 1920s and in films since 1936), Jessie Royce Landis (first film 1930), Lloyd Nolan (1935), Whit Bissell (who started his prolific career in 1943), and George Kennedy, fresh off an Oscar win for "Cool Hand Luke" and a decorated veteran of World War II.

The film was directed by George Seaton, who started his career at MGM in 1933, and who wrote and directed “Miracle on 34th Street” in 1947. The film was scored by Alfred Newman (born 1900), who was conducting on Broadway in the 1920s and received his first film credit in 1930. The costumes were by the Edith Head (born 1898), another Hollywood legend, who started as a costume sketch artist in the early 1920s. “Airport” was shot by Ernest Laszlo (born in 1898, Budapest, Austria-Hungary), and who started shooting films in 1927. The film was produced by Ross Hunter, most famous for his glossy pictures from the 1950s and 60s, such as “Magnificent Obsession” and “Pillow Talk.” One would not immediately associate the 1970s with Hunter, but here he was, in the lead. He produced one more picture in the 70s, a disastrous remake of “Lost Horizon,” in 1973, giving screen time to Liv Ullman, Peter Finch, Sally Kellerman, Bobby Van, John Gielgud, who started on the stage in 1921 and made his first film appearance in 1924 — and the very face of the continental romantic, and Charles Boyer, born in 1899, and who started in silent films in France in the 1920s.

The costumes for “Airport” (and "Lost Horizon") were designed by eight-time Academy Award-winner Edith Head, born in 1897, and who started as a sketch artist for Paramount in the 1920s. She was nominated a total of 35 times, and designed costumes for three more films in the 1970s, including her Oscar-winning effort for “The Sting” in 1973.

The disaster film, at least in this initial incarnation, would last another eight or nine years as a showcase for a raft of old and new stars. There were big budgets, ludicrous plots (although “Airport” is not as silly as the others), terrible special effects, and, at first, box office success and some level of prestige. “Airport,” after all, was nominated for 10 Oscars and earned $100 million.

Gloria Swanson made an appearance in “Airport '75,” alongside Charlton Heston, who had been a star for almost 25 years by that time, and who was carrying on his long-standing habit of playing steely men of action. Talk about a flight crew, this one has Sid Caesar (who started in show business as a saxophone player in the Catskills in the 1930s), Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Martha Scott (who originated the role of Emily Webb on Broadway in 1938 and played the part so beautifully in the 1940 film version), and Erik Estrada.

These were followed by “Airport '77” and “Airport '79 – The Concorde.” The '77 version was a beauty, with the cockpit and passenger seats filled with the likes of Jack Lemmon. and Lee Grant. She started as a dancer in the 1930s, became a stage actress in the 1940s, and made her film debut in 1951, with a stagy but terrific performance in “Police Story,” alongside Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker. Grant's life experience included refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being blacklisted for that courage for the next 10 years. She won an Oscar in the 1970s for another indelible performance as the randy wife of Jack Warden in 1973's “Shampoo.” (Warden, who was a paratrooper during World War II, made his film debut in 1951. He was on television in the late 40s.) They were mixing it up with the likes of the always great but under-used Brenda Vaccaro, Joseph Cotten (film debut in “Citizen Kane” in 1941), and Olivia deHavilland, born in Tokyo in 1916, star of “Gone With The Wind,” and who started in films in 1935.

“Airport '77” also marks one of those odd, histrionic performances from James Stewart, who, in the final decade of his screen career, seemed to have lost all sense of nuance.

There were other disaster films, and at the beginning the creators of these films strove for integrity. The clever, if a little bombastic (why is everybody yelling?) “The Poseidon Adventure,” from 1971, featured a boatload of Oscar winners: Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Jack Albertson (who started out in burlesque with Phil Silvers and who played the postal worker who comes up with the idea of sending all the letters addressed to Santa Claus over to the courthouse where Santa is on trial in “Miracle on 34th Street”), and Shelly Winters (screen debut in 1943). "Poseidon" grossed $130 million and earned two Academy Awards.

“Poseidon” was directed by Ronald Neame, who started as a producer — “Brief Encounter,” in 1945 — as well as the screenwriter of “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist,” each with director David Lean.

“Earthquake” was another venture into this genre, although there were already cracks in the formula. This was filmed, in 1974, in something called Sensurround, which placed giant speakers in the back of the theaters that caused the seats to rumble when the quake hit. (I saw it in the theater and the effect was actually pretty good.) Ava Gardner, who signed her first contract with MGM in 1941, played the daughter of Lorne Green, who was all of seven years her senior.

There was also the ubiquitous George Kennedy, Genevieve Bujold, Marjoe Gortner, Victoria Principal, Richard Roundtree, Lloyd Nolan, and, as a drunk in a bar, Walter Matthau. This one was directed by Mark Robson, who started out as an editor and helped Robert Wise recut “The Magnificent Ambersons” in 1942.

There were diminishing returns but more Oscars. In a testimony to the utter foolishness the Academy can display, “The Towering Inferno,” also from 1974, gave Fred Astaire, born in 1899, his only Oscar nomination, playing a lovable con-man. His mark was played by Jennifer Jones (once married to David O. Selznick and in films since 1939). There was William Holden, who never had a bad moment on screen since he started in 1939, and Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, and, thankfully, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. In retrospect, it seems almost incredible that Newman was nominated for an Oscar nine times, winning one, while McQueen, a far better actor, was nominated just once, for his flawless performance as Jake Holman in “The Sand Pebbles." As was so typical for these movies, the women weren't given much to do. The formidable Faye Dunaway simply draped herself over Newman in this one. Two years later, she was given the role of a lifetime as Diane Christensen in “Network” and she made the most of it. As dynamic as that character was, Diane had no nuance. The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky,gave more dimension to the character played by Beatrice Straight, Holden's long-suffering wife, in her famous six minutes on screen than he did to Dunaway.

There were more to come, unfortunately: “The Cassandra Crossing” from 1977. Gardner again, playing a rich society matron who keeps a junkie gigolo, gamely played by Martin Sheen, as company. And with Lionel Stander (first in movies in 1932 and blacklisted for being a famously, boisterously uncooperative witness in front of the House Un-American Committee; he went to Europe and didn't return to American work until 1965), Lancaster again, Lee Strasberg (first film appearance in 1937 and an Academy Award nominee in 1974 for playing Hyman Roth “The Godfather – Part 2), and an increasingly histrionic Richard Harris.

A “Meteor” arrived in 1978 and did little to no damage, except to the reputations of the actors in it: Sean Connery, Natalie Wood (first film in 1946), Brian Keith, and that old Method actor, Karl Malden. (Directed by Ronald Neame, losing his grip.) The whole cash cow was killed off by bees: “The Swarm,” with Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray (starting at Paramount in 1934), Richard Widmark (his famous screen debut coming in 1947 in "Kiss of Death," pushing a lady in a wheelchair down the stairs), Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, (none of whom bother to act) and Henry Fonda, who never varied his performance throughout the entire decade. Fonda was, wonderfully, brought back to life by his daughter Jane and Katharine Hepburn in “On Golden Pond,” from 1981, and won an Oscar, deserved, despite the nostalgia attached to the performance due to the fact he was ill.


Although he was almost quite literally a national monument by 1970, it seems astonishing that John Wayne was just 62 years old when the decade began. Wayne was one of the few actors that never had any kind of extensive career slump after he emerged as a major star in 1939's "Stagecoach" by John Ford. He never became a cameo artist, as his friend Jimmy Stewart did. His career barreled right along, resisting trends and fads (for the most part), and gaining strength as the 1970s rolled into view. He was fresh off his Oscar for “True Grit” in 1969 when he was about to enter his fifth decade of stardom.

John Wayne started off the 1970s modestly, with two westerns, including Howard Hawks's final film, “Rio Lobo” (not a hit) and the moderately successful “Chisum.” Another western, “Big Jake,” with old friend Maureen O'Hara (whose first film was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1938), was a big hit. This was followed by one of the finest films of Wayne's career, “The Cowboys,” which saw Wayne surrounded by new, young talent, including Bruce Dern, and Robert Carradine, the scion of an old John Ford repertory man, John Carradine. This was a smash, and Wayne followed that with yet another western, “Cahill: United States Marshal,” which was met with indifference. Wayne finally rode into the 20th century with the out-of-touch, out-of-date “McQ,” an attempt to horn in on some of that Clint Eastwood box office, which it didn't. Another old-timer, Dean Martin, all of 58, tried his hand at this same game, releasing “Mr. Ricco” the same year — this time not a cop in San Francisco but a lawyer — and it proved to be Martin's last starring role.

A fish-out-of-water thriller was next, “Brannigan,” with Wayne in London, surrounded by all the toffs. (He starred in that one with Richard Attenborough, veteran of the Royal Air Force in World War II, and who started out in 1943. Attenborough acted in 14 films during the 1970s, one of which was "Young Winston," released in 1972 and directed by Carl Foreman, formerly blacklisted.) With an eye toward the box office again, Wayne donned the eyepatch once more for “Rooster Cogburn,” with Katharine Hepburn; a big smash for the two stars, both of whom were born in 1907. Wayne capped off his long career with the beautifully done “The Shootist.” Although the film has the look and budget of a TV movie, it is filled with stars of the old order (Lauren Bacall, a mere 50), middle order (Sheree North and Hugh O'Brien), and the new order, Ron Howard.

The entire enterprise had the air of a grand, sad farewell. The original poster for the film was, if anything, a tribute more to Wayne than an advertisement for the film, if there is even a difference, and it went on to become a minor success at the box office. He's one of the few stars from the 1930s and 40s that did not have his career end on a sour, sad note. This was 1976, a year after “Jaws,” the year of “Taxi Driver,” and the year before “Star Wars.” Wayne would be dead before the decade came to a close, succumbing to stomach cancer in June 1979. He was just 72.

Robert Mitchum started out in what were once called “oaters” or “horse operas” in the early 1940s. He, like his buddy John Huston, never seemed to have trouble finding work. He became something of an anti-action action hero in the 1970s, carving his own new-ish niche among the Nicholsons and DeNiros. Mitchum made 12 films in the 1970s, making him a steady film presence throughout the decade; it was his performances that were uneven. His first released film in the decade was David Lean's ambitious “Ryan's Daughter” in 1970, and ended with the little seen “Breakthrough” in 1979, a kind of sequel to Peckinpah's “Cross of Iron,” with Richard Burton and Rod Steiger (seeing action at the Iwo Jima, and who met his fellow Method actors at the Actors Studio in 1947, paying his rent through the G.I. Bill).

In between, Mitchum was in the great “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” (sporting the only, to date, viable South Boston accent on film), and the interesting if not entirely plausible “The Yakuza,” and two Philip Marlowe pictures, “Farewell, My Lovely” and “The Big Sleep,” respectable and enjoyable, if not entirely necessary. He was among many stars in both “Midway” and “The Last Tycoon,” both 1976. “Midway,” about the famous battle in World War II, was more old school, while “The Last Tycoon,” directed by Elia Kazan, mingled DeNiro, Nicholson, Theresa Russell, along with Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moureau. “The Amsterdam Kill,” from 1977, co-stars Keye Luke, who started in films in 1939.

It was Peckinpah that helped William Holden (born in 1918) get back in the game. Holden did not have a terribly fruitful decade in the 1960s — his fourth decade in movies, after having started with walk-ons in 1938, and reaching stardom in 1939 with “Golden Boy.” The 1950s, however, were a triumph; starting with the astounding “Sunset Boulevard,” and ending with the big budget flop, “The Horse Soldiers,” directed by John Ford, co-starring with John Wayne. In between was an Oscar for “Stalag 17,” (1953), and another global blockbuster, the magnificent, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1957.

But Holden made a wise, if risky, choice in 1969 with Peckinpah's “The Wild Bunch,” and rolled through the 1970s with curious choices and box office appeal. Holden made seven pictures in the 1970s, making him a constant presence, including the ludicrous but profitable “The Towering Inferno” in 1974, and one truly great film with a gorgeous performance in a gorgeous motion picture, “1976's “Network,” alongside Dunaway, Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight (appearing first on Broadway in 1939), and Wesley Addy. Holden was nominated for an Oscar for that film, losing admirably to his co-star, Peter Finch. There were more forgettable pictures, but he had some great moments in Blake Edwards' “S.O.B.” in 1981. That was the year he died, from a fall, presumably while drunk. The director Billy Wilder, in assessing the stupidity of it, said that Holden's death wasn't one of a movie star, but of a “Bowery bum.”

Although he was two years older, Kirk Douglas (born in 1916) got a later start in films than Holden. He remade himself, much in the same vein as Charlton Heston, as a kind of vigorous, if middle-aged, action hero in the 1970s. He made 11 films during the 70s, as well as a handful of TV films, making him a sturdy, if not exactly memorable, presence. He made big splashy melodramas, “Once Is Not Enough,” based on a Jacqueline Susanne novel, in 1975, and a middling Brian DePalma, in “The Fury,” in 1978, with Cassavetes and Amy Irving. He continued right along until retiring in 2004. He then became something of an icon, the last male star of the Golden Age, which he remains to this day. He was celebrated when he turned 100 in 2016, as did another Hollywood giant, Olivia De Havilland, who made her first film in 1935 for Warner Brothers.

De Havilland made five films in the 1970s, including two star-studded disaster films, so bad they virtually killed off the genre: “Airport '77” and “The Swarm,” with Michael Caine and Katharine Ross, as well as Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray (who appeared as an extra in 1929 in “Girls Gone Wild”), and Henry Fonda.

Fonda, for his part, was overshadowed by son and daughter; the son, Peter, saw his stardom flicker away quickly, while Jane Fonda became an enduring, if controversial, star. The 70s began, for Peter Fonda, with the air of marijuana smoke wafting in from “Easy Rider,” in 1969, and Jane won an Oscar for playing a prostitute in “Klute” in 1972, memorably looking at her watch while accommodating a customer. Fonda the elder, born in 1905, by contrast, seemed like a relic; a model of 20th century decency and charm, even if that was not the case in his family life. He began in 1935, appearing in westerns and period pieces. He made more than 100 films, and as the 70s rolled in, he kept at it, appearing often, as did his counterpart Gregory Peck, as a politician or military man.

Fonda made an incredible 25 films throughout the 1970s, including Billy Wilder's strange “Fedora,” in 1978, with Holden. That cast also included Arlene Francis, who started in films in 1932, and was an early actor for Orson Welles. Fonda ended the decade by playing the President in the aforementioned “Meteor." A true disaster. The cast also included Karl Malden, who memorably burst on the screen with his Academy Award-winning role in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Kazan in 1951. 

Group Theatre co-founder Lee Strasberg, whose professional stage career began in 1925, earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1974 playing Hyman Roth in “The Godfather Part II,” and was a fairly regular presence throughout the decade, appearing in the international production of the “The Cassandra Crossing” (1977), as well as Al Pacino's “...And Justice for All” (1979). Strasberg ended the decade with the wonderfully droll New York story bank heist caper, “Going In Style” (1979), about three retirees who rob a bank for much-needed cash.

His co-stars in that film were Art Carney (who won an Oscar for 1973's "Harry and Tonto," beating out, um, Nicholson, Finney, Hoffman, and Pacino) and George Burns. Burns, a staple of vaudeville, television, and some movies, had not made a film since 1938 when he was tapped to play the vaudevillian Al Lewis in 1974's “The Sunshine Boys.” Burns was paired with Walter Matthau, and the role won him the Best Supporting Oscar in 1975, sparking a remarkably prolific comeback for an actor who was 78 years old. Burns wasted no time. He appeared in five more films throughout the 70s, including playing the titular character in “Oh, God!” a big hit, and he became ubiquitous on TV. Burns died at 100 in 1996.

Carney's most famous co-star, Jackie Gleason, made just a few films in the 1970s, having started his career in 1941 in “Navy Blues.” He created a classic character in Buford T. Justice in the Good Ole Boy comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977.

Alec Guinness, a member of the first wave of English actors that made their way to stardom from the stage on the West End to Hollywood, a small group that included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud, contributed to 1970s cinema with his indelible portrait of Obi Wan Kenobi in 1978's “Star Wars.” He earned an Oscar nomination for that one, and another one for another Dickens interpretation, “Little Dorrit,” in 1989. He was in 11 films during the 1970s.

Gielgud, who would go on to win an Oscar in 1980 for “Arthur,” transcending in magnificent fashion the role of the butler. He made 17 films in the 1970s, including another butler role in “Murder on the Orient Express,” (he played a butler in 1955's Best Picture winner “Around the World in 80 Days”) ,and an astonishing 25 films in the 1980s.

His compatriot Laurence Olivier (born in 1907, making his first film appearance in 1930) would go on to be nominated for Oscars in the films “Sleuth” (1973), “The Marathon Man,” (1976), and “The Boys from Brazil” in 1979. He made a total of 11 theatrical films in the 1970s.

There were other contemporaries making appearances: Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, made one film appearance in a film directed by actor David Hemmings in 1978 titled “Just a Gigolo.” Dietrich made her first film appearance in 1930, and was an icon of Allied patriotism during World War II.

Dietrich made a great film with Jimmy Stewart in 1939, “Destry Rides Again,” which, along with “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” jumpstarted a remarkable run for Stewart, including the sublime “Philadelphia Story” in 1940, which earned him an Oscar. Out of commission for almost five years due to the war, and achieving a military record of note, he returned with a gorgeous performance in “It's A Wonderful Life,” and began a run of quality films and performances that lasted more than a decade. He later showed a bunch of up and comers how it was done in “Anatomy of a Murder,” in 1959, earning his final Academy Award nomination, easily and casually upstaging Ben Gazzarra, George C. Scott, and Lee Remick. Stewart made some profitable family comedies in the early 1960s — “Dear Bridgette” — and some more westerns, but by 1969 his career was in decline.

For some reason, Stewart never could make the transfer to a more modern America. Perhaps he was too rooted in a more simpler time, perhaps, after all, his screen — and by all accounts his own — personality was just not pliable enough, or maybe he was not interested enough, to make the transition. (Unlike John Wayne.) Stewart tried his hand at a couple of gentle television shows, without success, and a few roles scattered throughout the decade were little more than cameos. He played the doctor informing an aging John Wayne of his cancer in “The Shootist,” and appeared with Mitchum in the remake of “The Big Sleep.” Maybe the directors simply let him do what he wanted, but the performances were a parody of excesses, and in the last 20 years of his life Stewart was often seen on TV, reading his poetry on Johnny Carson, or showing up to make a short speech for a colleague receiving an award.

It may have been a patchwork end to a great career, and an iconic American, but Richard Schickel, in his book “The Stars,” which was published in 1962, was correct when he called Stewart, “the last of the great men.”

Gregory Peck, who rose to stardom in 1944's “The Keys to the Kingdom,” continued churning out movies in the 1970s and beyond. He was never in a disaster flick. He started out the decade with a western, “Shoot Out,” directed by Henry Hathaway, who started out in 1925. One of Peck's co-stars in that film was Paul Fix, who was at his side in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and who had his first film role in 1925. Peck, riding on his stolid reputation, made seven films in the 70s, the most popular of which were “The Omen,” a trashy but effective son of the anti-Christ flick, and the weird “The Boys from Brazil."

No one quite had a career like Mickey Rooney. Born in 1920, Rooney started acting in films in 1926, achieved superstardom in the 1930s and early 40s, and entered into a long decline that seemed to be contradicted by his ubiquitous presence on screen and TV. He was one of the last actors to have started in silent films still working into the 21st century, a career that lasted almost 90 years. Rooney made an astonishing 18 films between 1970 and 1979, most of them forgettable, but he capped that decade off with a beautiful performance in “The Black Stallion,” playing a horse trainer. He was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Melvyn Douglas for playing the dying tycoon in “Being There.” Douglas, born in 1901, an soldier during the war, started in films in 1931.

Douglas's co-star in “Being There,” Peter Sellers, made a voice-only appearance in a film in 1950.
(Sellers made an astonishing 17 films in the 1970s, including three films starring as Inspector Clouseau, which returned him to box office glory, but many others were quite disastrous.)

Four of the biggest female movie stars from the Golden Age that had retained their fame and who continued to work had an uneven decade. 

Joan Crawford made her first appearance in film in 1925, and made her last in 1970, in an unfortunate film called “Trog,” short for troglodyte, which had some pedigree: it was directed by the two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis. Francis, who found work at the studio that was the precursor to Ealing in the 1930s, directed training films during the war. He directed seven films in the 1970s, all with delightful titles (“The Creeping Flesh,” “The Ghoul”), but he regained his stature in 1980 when he shot David Lynch's “The Elephant Man” in 1980, a very beautiful film. 

Crawford's rival Bette Davis stayed in the game longer, but with diminishing results. Still, Davis was a movie star of the first order, even in the 70s. She made her Broadway debut in 1929, and was in films by 1931, racking up a total of 10 Academy Award nominations and two wins throughout her long career. In the early 1970s, she took part in a series of talks with her contemporaries, Myrna Loy (first film in 1925, three films in the 1970s, including Burt Reynolds' "The End" and "Airport '75"), Rosalind Russell (one film in 1971: "Mrs. Pollifax - Spy"), Lana Turner (made a film called "Bittersweet Love" in 1976, with Celeste Holm (career beginning in 1946), Robert Alda (starting big in "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1945), and Meredith Baxter-Birney), Crawford, and Sylvia Sidney

Davis made six films in the 1970s, none of them memorable, but was a staple on the TV talk show circuit well into the 1980s, smoking, and being frank about her co-stars (including Dunaway). She died in 1989, frail, but still formidable.

Barbara Stanwyck was absent from the big screen, but was seen on TV throughout the decade. 

Katharine Hepburn fared better. It could be that she was more modern than any of them to begin with. Make no mistake, these were all tough, smart, trailblazing women, but Stanwyck, for instance, was so noir-ish that she was seemingly stuck to that look and time. Davis was thoroughly a studio star, a product of that time, mannered and showy; she could not have played Robert De Niro's grandmother even if she tried. Crawford would have had the same trouble, for the same reasons.

Hepburn and Wayne started almost at the same time, but Hepburn became the bigger star first. While Wayne churned out low-budget westerns, Hepburn started out in glossy productions, which she kept on making for the next 60 years.

Hepburn made just four films in the 1970s, but she was a constant presence. She returned to the theater, and made some lovely TV movies, two with George Cukor (who started working in Hollywood in 1928). Hepburn's theatrical output in the 1970s concluded with the unknown “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” in which her presence must have been some sort of favor to somebody. She died in 2004 at the age of 96.

The 1970s were capacious enough to try to accommodate that most anachronistic of movie comedy teams, The Three Stooges, who, after experiencing a resurgence in their popularity due to reruns on TV and a spate of low budget films in the 1960s, tried a comeback with a failed TV pilot called "Kooks Tour." Hobbled by health woes by members of the team, it was never finished. Larry Fine died in in 1973, and Moe Howard in 1975. Moe had made something of a solo comeback by appearing on talks shows during the first part of the decade.


For the generation of actors and filmmakers that were born in the late 19th century or early 1900s, hard times and tragedy were not just dramatic abstractions. Many of them lived through the First World War, the Depression (even if they had not personally been impacted by it), and from that they went into, or lived through, the deprivations of World War II and the craziness of the 1950s. They may have played soldiers, Marines, and members of the Air Force and Navy, but many of them had also played that role in real life.

So there were the war pictures, too, then, with studios being able to turn, perhaps for the last time on any real scale, to the men and women who had actually been in the war. “MASH” may have been an early feature for Robert Altman, but he was also a guy who flew more than 50 bombing missions with the 307th Bomb Group during World War II. The film was written by Ring Lardner Jr., one of the famed Hollywood 10 who went to jail for expressing his Constitutional right to free speech, who went on to win his second Oscar for this film (the first was for “Woman of the Year” in 1942), and produced by Ingo Preminger, who, as a young lawyer, fled the Nazis.

“Tora! Tora! Tora!” was the final film executive produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who brought the world talking pictures in 1927 with his production of “The Jazz Singer.”

Other films of the 1970s: “Catch-22,” from the novel by Joseph Heller and based on his own wartime experiences; “Slaughterhouse Five,” ditto for Kurt Vonnegut; “Midway,” from 1976, stuffed with the old guard: Fonda, Mitchum, Glenn Ford (starting with Columbia in 1939), and scored by John Williams, who by
that time had also written the music for “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure”and had been in film work for almost 20 years. There was “Patton,” “A Bridge too Far,' Peckinpah's “Cross of Iron,” “Monsieur Klein (directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey, who started in the Federal WPA Theater project in the 1930s), and many, many more. These would be the last films made about the war that were created by people who had either been in the military, many in combat. (Even Mel Brooks managed to squeeze some Nazis into 1973's “Blazing Saddles,” his hatred of them stemming from his own active duty in Europe after he was drafted into the Army in 1944.

Pier Paolo Pasolini made, among other films, “Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom,” an allegory on the atrocities committed during World War II, which is, although beautifully crafted and photographed, unwatchable. (I've tried to finish it more than once, and can't do it.) This was not “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Pasolini was drafted into the Italian Army and later captured by the Germans, he escaped, and his bother Guido was killed by Italians sympathetic to Axis powers. In the 1970s, he completed what is known as his “Trilogy of Life,” filmed works of "The Decameron," "The Canterbury Tales," and "Arabian Nights."

Pasolini was murdered — the circumstances of which remain controversial to this day — in 1975. He was 53.


The British Film Institute, in an article published in 2017 reduced the 1970s to a familiar formula: the beginning of a new era created by young men and women who were the first generation to avoid war and get their aesthetic from something called a film school. The defining films in that piece were directed by Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas, Cassavetes (“A Woman Under the Influence”), Alan J. Pakula (“All The President's Men'), Scorsese, David Lynch (for the indelible “Eraserhead, in 1977); Claudia Weill, for “Girlfriends” in 1978; and Charles Burnett for 1978's “Killer of Sheep.”

There is no question about the cultural impact these filmmakers had on the decade (some more than others, obviously). but its bewildering that these few have come to define the decade. It overlooks a marvelous resurgence by John Huston, or the two wonderful films by Hitchcock, or interesting work by Kazan and others.

For instance, Tay Garnett, who started in films in 1924 and directed the original “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” directed a film called “The Delta Factor,” which was co-written by Raoul Walsh, who began his acting career in 1909, directed his first film in 1913 and his last in 1964. (Walsh died in 1980.) “The Christine Jorgensen Story,” about the first trans woman, was directed by Irving Rapper, who started in film in 1941.

Billy Wilder (born in Poland in 1906, first credited screenplay, 1929) had four films released in the 1970s.

“The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" received affectionate reviews, but was not potent box office. The film was scored by Miklós Rózsa, who started in film in 1931, and one of the stars was Christopher Lee, who had a remarkable military career during World War II and who worked almost right up until the day he died in 2015. Wilder paired again with Jack Lemmon in “Avanti!,” labored, and the uninspired remake of “The Front Page,” perhaps just an excuse to unite Lemmon and Matthau in a piece that (at that time) still had some familiarity with audiences. The final film in the 1970s, and his next to last film, was the odd “Fedora,” admittedly with echoes of “Sunset Boulevard,” and with Holden, José Ferrer (who started on Broadway in the early 1930s), and Marthe Heller. It wasn't much noticed. The final film came in 1981, “Buddy, Buddy,” with Lemmon and Matthau, but none of the old magic was anywhere to be found. Wilder died in 2002, at the age of 95.

Elia Kazan started as a professional actor in 1932 in New York. “Tycoon” was the second film he made in the 1970s, the first being a micro-budget film titled “The Visitors,” which came out in February 1972. Starring two unknowns, James Woods and Steve Railsback, it tells the story of a Vietnam veteran (Woods) living in an isolated Connecticut farmhouse with his wife, child, and father-in-law. The visitors are two soldiers that Woods' character testified against in the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl while they were in the Army. (The same story is the basis for Brian DePalma's “Casualties of War” from 1987.)

The two soldiers (Railsback and Chico Martinez), fresh out of Leavenworth, show up unexpectedly at the farmhouse, exuding an uncomfortable stew of friendliness and menace; their intentions are unclear, especially after one of the soldiers tells Woods he bears him no ill will, while making it clear he is not speaking for the other man. The snow-covered landscape adds to the discomfort, and the movie concludes with violence, although not as extreme as Sam Peckinpah would have it.

The film obviously has echoes of Peckinpah's “Straw Dogs,” (the 2011 remake of which Woods also appeared in). The two films also share a rape scene in which the victim can be read as, at least partially, enjoying the violent attack.

“The Visitors” is an interesting experiment for Kazan: expert filmmaking, compelling, disturbing — there isn't a laugh or smile in it — and very much an artifact of its time. It would undoubtedly have received more attention if “Straw Dogs” had not been released just a few months before. Peckinpah was much more a man of the moment that Kazan.

Kazan finished his career with "The Last Tycoon" in 1976, and he seemed to gather as many movie stars from as many eras as Kazan could find: De Niro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasance, Jeanne Moureau (who began playing small roles in 1949), John Carradine (starting out in 1930, and who made something like 45 films in the 1970s), and Jeff Corey (who made his first film appearance in 1938 and who was blacklisted for not naming names).

A counterpoint to Kazan was Carl Foreman, directed of "Young Winston," in 1972. He started out working with the Bowery Boys in the 1940s, wrote "High Noon" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," on which his credit did not appear because he was blacklisted, and in 1978, made "Force 10 From Navarone," the sequel to one of his biggest hits from 15 years before.

Two films Hitchcock made in the late 1960s: “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz,” are very bad. Returning to England seemed to re-energize Hitchcock, and he made a particularly nasty, if well-crafted, film, “Frenzy” in 1972. It was a hit, and the film marked the first time Hitchcock was forthright with nudity (he was coy about it, and got away with it, in “Psycho” in 1960). (I saw this in the theater and the violence traumatized me; I should not have seen it at the age of 11. I walked out about an hour into it, reeling.)

His cinematographer on “Frenzy,” Gilbert Taylor, had worked with Hitchcock 40 years before, and he, like Hitchcock, had started in silent films in England. Taylor had a busy decade, starting with Roman Polanski's “Macbeth” in 1971, as well as “The Omen” in 1976 and “Star Wars” in 1977. He was still planning films up until his death in 1980.

Hitchcock's final film, out of 53, was the gentler, more playful "Family Plot" in 1976, but it was not nearly as memorable as the film that came before it. That was scripted by Ernest Lehman, who had written with Billy Wilder and who also wrote "North By Northwest' (1959).

No one, save perhaps John Huston, may have been less specialized than Hitchcock than Robert Wise. Wise rarely rises to the level of a first-tier director, despite having won two Oscars for his work, nor is he thought of as someone who started out in the Golden Age, despite having started as a sound cutter in the 1930s, and of course as the editor of "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons." Wise made many popular films in the 40s and 50s. He reached his peak in the 1960s, and continued into the 1970s, and beyond.

Despite a checkered record during the 1970s, Wise was picked to direct one of the biggest projects of the decade, the relaunch of the "Star Trek" franchise, reborn in the cosmic wake of "Star Wars." It wasn't very good, but good enough to jumpstart the now-epic series.

Stanley Donen had a decade similar to Wilder's. Donen, born in 1924, had reached the heights in the 1950s, but he crashed in the 70s. He made three films, all of which were a kind of throwback to his heyday: "The Little Prince," "Lucky Lady," with Hackman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minelli, and the warmly received "Movie Movie," a retro double feature with an intro by George Burns. Donen began the 1980s badly, with an ill-advised sci-fi story, "Saturn 3," with Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel (whose voice seems to have been dubbed), and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. It got worse with "Blame It On Rio," an almost inconceivably offensive film about a middle-age man (Michael Caine) having an affair with his friends teenaged daughter (Michelle Johnson).

John Huston started out in a show-biz family; his dad being Oscar-winner Walter Huston, and he received his first screenwriting credit in 1930. He directed six pictures in the 1970s, and acted in about 20 films he did not direct, including earning an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Chinatown” in 1973. Huston seemed to take most of his acting jobs as a lark, or perhaps for some much needed cash, because he certainly wasn't very picky. There are titles such as “Tentacles” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”

His directing work throughout the late 60s, and early 70s, even with A-List budgets, is not highly considered, until “The Man Who Would Be King” in 1975, a story he originally wanted to star Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable. Then he was on something of a winning streak, ending finally with the subtly beautiful adaptation of James Joyce's story, “The Dead,” in 1987, bringing him back, at least on a sound stage, to his beloved Ireland.

Fred Zinnemann (born in 1907 in Vienna) started the decade with the beautifully modern “The Day of the Jackal” in 1972, and the wonderful "Julia" in 1977. Other directors kept working, if not at the same level, including Otto Preminger, Joseph Mankiewicz, and others. Edward Dmytryk, born in 1908, started in film in 1929, and directed three films in the 1970s, including “Bluebeard,” in 1972, that was nothing more than excuse to parade Richard Burton through various affairs with Raquel Welch, Virna Lisi, Joey Heatherton, and Sybil Danning.

It is almost axiomatic that very often those who break, and create, new rules, are often washed away by the tides they create. The sexual frankness that Preminger explored in “The Moon Is Blue” in 1953, “Anatomy of a Murder” in 1959, and "Advise and Consent" in 1962 had become mainstream by 1970, and Preminger was left floundering. (He made a dreadful "hip" comedy in 1968, "Skidoo," that defies imagination. His efforts in that decade, including a couple of international thrillers, “Rosebud” (1975) and “The Human Factor” (1979) were muddled and not well received. They were his last.

It was a G-rated picture, "Oliver!" directed by Carol Reed. who started in films since 1935 — that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1968. He made two films in the 1970s, including a film sympathetic to the plight of American Indians, called "Flap") and a thriller called "Follow Me!" with Mia Farrow. "Follow Me!" was a Hal B. Wallis production. Wallis, who started out at Warner Bros. in the 1920s, produced, among many, "Little Caesar," (1931) "Casablanca" in 1942, the Best Picture classic, and "True Grit. His last production was "Rooster Cogburn."

David Lean made one film in the 1970s, "Ryan's Daughter," one of his big efforts. Too bad its just plain dull. His kind of epic had surely fallen out of fashion. In films since 1930, Lean epitomized a kind of sumptuous, langorous cinematic style, epic in sweep and length and completely out of keeping with his surname, but he had started out that way in the 1940s with such fare as “Brief Encounter” and a couple of extraordinary Charles Dickens interpretations.

His epic scale began in 1957, with the magnificent “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, with Holden, and Best Actor Alec Guinness, and a host of great English actors. His penchant for the grand scale continued with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” movies that took years to film. Another was “Ryan's Daughter,” in 1970, but that experience must have been discouraging, for he made just one more film, in 1984, the much-lauded “A Passage to India.”


But it wasn't just the images and faces in films that were part of the 1970s movie-going experience, it was also the sound of them.

David Lean's favorite composer, Maurice Jarre,  and a veteran of the French army during World War II, scored “Ryan's Daughter" in 1970. He composed the soundtracks for 26 films in the 1970s, including Kazan's “The Last Tycoon.” 

There were film scores by Dmitri Tiomkin (born in 1894 and who started in films in 1937 with the original "Lost Horizon" and Leonard Rosenman, and Alfred Newman.

Here's an oddity in the composing department: Charlie Chaplin, born in 1888, could be considered a working film composer in the 1970s. The film score for his film, the beautifully titled “Limelight,” won the Oscar for Best Film Score in 1973 because that film, released in 1952, had not formally been released in the United States until 1972. Chaplin had been in exile, ostensibly for this political leanings, since that year. He had sailed for Europe and had never returned. His artistic homecoming, if you will, happened the year before, at the 1972 Oscar ceremonies, with an Honorary Oscar. His soundtrack award was shared with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell. Chaplin had released his final theatrical film in 1967, the curio “The Countess From Hong Kong,” with Brando and Sophia Loren. (Photographed by Arthur Ibbetson, who started in films in 1949, and who shot this film like it was a silent from 1915.) Chaplin died in 1977, the last full-blown icon of the silent era, on Christmas day, at the age of 88. His death came just a few months after the death of Groucho Marx, who was, interestingly, two years younger than Chaplin. But their artistry could not have been more different. Chaplin, born in Victorian gaslight, was silent, delicate, balletic, while Marx's artform was a rapid-fire patois born out of the heated ethnic soup of New York City's neighborhoods. 


By 1980, almost all of those craftspeople had either died or fully retired. That vast life experience — artistry born out of personal economic, political or social turmoil — or all three, whether here in America or anywhere else on the globe — was mostly gone. 

Their absence is evident: the look and feel between Hollywood in the 1970s and the Hollywood of the 1980s is one of vast, almost unrecognizable differences. This was not due to an evolution of technology — such as sound, color, or of the media — it was because this was the first decade in which the pre-eminent filmmakers had gotten their starts in film school, and that's been the trajectory ever since.

The difference between the 1970s and 1980s, in terms of tone and quality of the movies those decades produced, can be reduced to one film released in 1977 and its sequel, which came out in 1983: "Saturday Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive." The relative realism of the former was replaced by laughably synthetic histrionics of the sequel. 

I remember watching James Cagney getting the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, and I'll never forget that little dance step he did when climbing the stairs. For a young movie buff, it was thrilling. (I also saw the inaugural broadcast when the award was given to John Ford.) 

These were living artists, not at all relegated to history, and they seemed to be part of something much larger, imprimaturs on the collective conscious of a country. Or perhaps they just seemed like America to me, strong and funny and attractive people who had come from nothing and had accomplished something extraordinary.


And then there was — is — Orson Welles, American-made as anything that was ever American-made. He made so few films in his life, it is amazing he managed one feature in the 1970s: the wonderful “F For Fake.” It's a pastiche, held together by a fanciful narrative and assorted film clips, and it shows Welles in good humor and good form. It is also an astonishing feat of what can be done in the editing suite.

Welles spent half of the 1970s filming “The Other Side of the Wind,” which has now had its premiere  in Venice and will be available on Netflix in November 2018. The reviews have been decidedly mixed, but its release constituted something like an actual movie event, something that seems so rare today.

I once wrote an essay on my theory about the meaning behind the title "The Other Side of the Wind." I felt it was a reply to the big, bloated Hollywood features, specifically "Gone With the Wind." There is another world of filmmaking, Welles was trying to say — way outside the Hollywood studio system, far away from the studio apparatus that produced such a strange, odd, movie as "Gone With The Wind." (Tradition aside, GWTW is astonishingly weird.) I think Welles intended his "Wind" to say that art can be made over in another corner, without the machinery of the studio system that had so thoroughly rejected him. It was intended to be a a "fuck you" gesture to the studios that welcomed him and then spit him out.

Welles, then, was even more of a maverick than the young men and women who were making daring pictures in the 70s, because they were making their movies within the studio system. Welles's film, made in a place called Carefree, Arizona (you can't make that up), was a marvel of independence.

Its presence, the release of this film, in 2018, is a reminder of just how wonderful that decade was for the movies. There was Orson Welles, still plugging away, working with John Huston, who was still a major force, while Scorsese was over there making "Taxi Driver," and Coppola was making "The Conversation" or Lena Wertmuller making a series of trendsetting films.

If, during the 1970s, you didn't want to see something by Paul Mazursky, then just around the corner, at another movie theater, there would be a film by Hitchcock, by Fred Zinnemann, or David Lean, or Billy Wilder, or a new film starring John Wayne, or a disaster or war flick with any number of your old favorites. 

All of this means it was an exciting time for the movies, and not just because of the shark.