The television might be considered one of the first “disruptive technologies” in that by the late 1950s, it posed a major threat to a dying film industry. Hollywood was bloated, with aging Golden Age stars drawing smaller and smaller audiences. The average Joe was bored with the constant influx of westerns, sandal epics, and simple-minded comedies.
By the mid-1960s, the United States was embroiled in a devastating war in Vietnam. A president was dead, rock music was exploding, and the gap between generations was growing wider each day. The “baby boomer” generation was coming of age, and they were changing the cultural, political, and economic landscape of the world’s greatest superpower at that time. It didn’t take long for a new generation of filmmakers to capture this blistering period of change and unrest on film. It was the beginning of what some call American cinema’s Renaissance: New Hollywood.
One of the first New Hollywood releases was Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with its then-shocking tagline: “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people.” B&C had a radical style, more sex, and more violence. Considered cheap and sleazy by both the mainstream press and even the studio that begrudgingly released it, Bonnie and Clyde is today known as a groundbreaking film.
Also in 1967 came raunchy romcom The Graduate, featuring a soundtrack led by folk duo Simon & Garfunkel. Sandwiched in with coarse language and sexual content that baffled older moviegoers, The Graduate was a hit with boomers who were desperate to establish personal identities in an increasingly confusing and complex world.
Movies were now being made by young people for young people. Roger Corman’s low-cost “B” movies about monsters, biker gangs, LSD trips, and horny teenagers were immense hits during drive-in season. The counterculture trend continued with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), featuring a cloud of marijuana smoke and a who’s-who soundtrack of late ‘60s rock music.
As the 1970s opened and Americans grew increasingly disillusioned with their country’s failures, films became darker, more compelling, and more critical of contemporary society. Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic The Godfather (1972) is widely hailed as the greatest film of all time. Martin Scorsese burst on the scene with the gritty Mean Streets (1973) and the unnerving Taxi Driver (1976). War films like M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now challenged a country still reeling from defeat in Vietnam.
New Hollywood was unique in film history in that many of the films were financed by major studios but were missing the standard studio flavor. Filmmakers took classic notions of cinema and flipped them upside down. The resulting movies were fresh takes on old ideas. They were gritty, critical of society, and asked audiences uncomfortable questions—things movies had rarely done before.
New Hollywood was a time where the film director was king. Finally, filmmakers could express themselves completely and challenge the taboo. And audiences responded by flocking to cinemas and sending box office numbers through the roof. Studios noticed this, and by the late 1970s, they had learned how to work with cinema’s new radicals rather than against them. This new relationship would establish an unstoppable money-making machine of hit, after hit, after hit. It was 1980, and it was the dawn of the Blockbuster Era.
Did You Know?
One of the victims of the gruesome 1969 Manson Family murders, Sharon Tate, was the wife of young European director Roman Polanski. At the time of her death, Sharon was carrying the couple’s unborn child.
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