This is part six of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.
READ HERE: PART 1-AMAZON AND NETFLIX
READ HERE: PART 2-THE DAYS BEFORE THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
READ HERE: PART 3-WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN IF NOT FOR JOE MCCARTHY
READ HERE: PART 4-FRENCH FILM
READ HERE: PART 5-SIX QUESTIONS WITH FILM PROFESSOR VINCENT BOHLINGER
By the mid-1960’s, the Golden Age of Hollywood and its studio system was coming to an end. The major studio moguls were either retiring or dying (Walt Disney in 1966, for example) and their model of film making simply was not filling seats anymore. Consider for example the final years of John Ford, who is accorded the status of auteur by film scholars and undeniably was one of the most respected directors in the business at his prime.
One of the more admirable moments in his life came when, during the McCarthy era, the blowhard Cecil B. DeMille tried to start a witch hunt within the ranks of the Screen Directors Guild that targeted the president, Joseph Mankiewicz, for allegedly being in the Communist Party. Obviously Joe’s familiarity with Yiddish had nothing to do with it at all.
Ford, both very progressive and very Irish Catholic, stood up that night in 1950 and introduced a motion on the floor that called for DeMille and the SDG board of directors to resign, and a second endorsing Mankiewicz’s leadership. And it sank DeMille’s little game right then and there.
But by the mid-sixties, the world had been turned upside down. After directing his last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ford became a stick in the mud, more confused than anything else when it came to social issues. His next several Westerns seemed stale and tired compared to the works of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns that were being put into theaters around that time.
Ford’s final fiction film, 7 Women, was ridiculous in its handling of lesbianism. By the end he was putting out films boosting for the Vietnam war, narrated by Charlton Heston and saying “God bless Richard Nixon” after the president awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
As old men like Ford shuffled off the mortal coil, the studios slimmed down and restructured to accommodate a changing economic landscape. After decades of functioning as full production factories, where everything was done in-house by an artist under studio contract, it became easier for accounting to outsource production tasks to different corporations. (Not to mention that a wacky thing called Rock and Roll suddenly made a full orchestral soundtrack recording seem unnecessary.)
Simultaneously, Baby Boomer children were coming into the business in a way that was extremely different from their predecessors. Whereas Ford and his generation got into the game by moving from dramatic theater to silver screen in the days before the National Labor Relations Act legalized unions, this new generation was coming to a company town like Los Angeles from…film school?
NYU, UCLA, and USC were real academic institutions where suddenly you could get a degree in Film the same way you could get one in English Literature or Accounting. Academic departments for the study of cinema were inaugurated in English departments as individual classes that focused on book adaptations.
Previously there had been a period of time, prior to Stalin clamping down on cultural expression, where the Soviet Union had also developed scholastic efforts around directors whose state-financed pictures were both artistic and promoting the good news of Bolshevism. Now, when combined with the high-minded writings coming from French New Wave critics/directors and other thinkers from across the world, a serious BA program became a real possibility.
And so out of this academic gate came a crop of directors who would go on to define the cinematic playing field for the next two generations:
—Francis Ford Coppola, the elder don of the pack, who came out of UCLA with a mad idea to start a bohemian salon-cum-film studio called American Zoetrope, set up shop on Folsom Street in San Francisco in December 1969.
—Martin Scorsese was a scrawny, asthmatic kid from Little Italy who went to NYU.
—George Lucas, the son of a stationery store owner who survived a brutal car crash at 18, graduated from USC with a desire to make artistic, tone poem films but also had an idea — formulated in the hospital when healing from the car wreck — about an all-powerful Force that surrounds and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.
—Steven Spielberg, who became fast friends with Lucas, dropped out of college but snuck onto the backlots of different studios, pestering men like Ford about how to shoot landscapes and eventually landed a job in television.
—John Milius, who liked Westerns and the whole cowboy ethos (including the guns), was classmates with Lucas, wrote amazing scripts and voted Republican.
—Brian De Palma, who started in a drama program at Sarah Lawrence College, was close to Scorsese’s friend Bobby De Niro and moved west looking to become the “American Godard.”
These and many more men (and a very few women) would shape an epoch. The starting point was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which broke all the rules and showed that change was in the air.
The ending point is either 1980 with Heaven’s Gate, a box office atomic bomb that destroyed United Artists and the career of its director, Michael Cimino; or 1983, with Return of the Jedi, when it became absolutely clear that George Lucas had moved from industry outsider to industry insider, and the man writing the rules for the entire profession.
But not all was well in Tinsel Town. Sex, drugs, broken hearts and a few broken camera lenses pepper the trail between the start and the end of the story. Who sold who out to who and for what is the stuff of whispered gossip and hastily scribbled notes in smoky private screening rooms. And if you keep reading this column here at Washington Babylon, we promise to bring it to you in in all its Kenneth Anger glory.
See you next week.