The 1970s – Hollywood’s Second Golden Age

The 1970s – Hollywood’s Second Golden Age

Jun 24, 2024 | Blog

They don’t call the 1970s, Hollywood’s “second” Golden Age, for nothing. Looking back upon the decade, it’s an extraordinarily rich period and one of the most interesting films from those golden years is playing in a re-mastered copy at the UPP over the coming months – Coppola’s fascinating “minor” thriller The Conversation from 1974. This features superb performances from Gene Hackman (who was always brilliant, even when appearing in “lesser” movies) and the memorable “hang-dog faced” John Cazale (Fredo from The Godfather films, who died of smoking related cancer in 1978, aged 42 – nursed, in his final months, by none other than Meryl Streep). His brief filmography also includes Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. An impressive body of work, by anyone’s standards.

Alongside The Conversation the UPP is hosting two spin-off seasons – Surveillance (featuring Peter Weir’s prophetic The Truman Show and De Palma’s Blow Out) and also some other notable 1974 50th anniversaries (including George Lucas’ rather good pre-Star Wars THX 1138 and Peckinpah’s brutal Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

So, just what was it that made American cinema, in the early part of the 1970s, so exciting?

It is impossible, in the first instance, to think about the period without reflecting on the quality of the acting. This was a time when Hollywood was opening its doors to a number of new faces, keen to inherit the method mantle handed down by the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando – actors as varied as Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, George C Scott, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway and the afore-mentioned Meryl Streep were doing outrageously good things on the screen (are there better acted films than The Godfather, 1972, Chinatown and Klute, 1974, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975 or Dog Day Afternoon from 1976?). The roles these actors played bought out the best in them – the men were seldom heroes in the traditional sense. They were often flawed, wiry, rebellious, eager for a scrap. And they smoked, in outrageously cool ways.

And so did the women, who were no longer Madonna’s, lit to perfection and framed for the male gaze. They too were spiky, unusual, strong and intelligent. Yes, it’s true that there is, regrettably, far more violence against women on display in 70s American cinema than in any other decade (possibly some sort of misogynist backlash against second wave feminism?). However, it’s also a decade that introduces us to actresses who projected all sorts of variants on “the feminine” – consider, if you will, Sissy Spacek, Jill Clayburgh, Bette Midler, Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand. As a young man, “coming of age” in the 70s – it was these women who shaped my understanding of “the opposite sex.” Bit different to The Kardashians, that’s for sure.

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that whilst there were certainly a lot of young guns in town – the old guard hadn’t entirely faded away – and big stars like John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon and William Holden were still giving mighty performances in The Shootist, Ulzana’s Raid, The China Syndrome and Network, for example. Hell, even Charlton Heston wasn’t bad in Soylent Green.

It’s also the case that, as well as the acting, the new generation of movie brats (and a number of other filmmakers with beards) were being given the chance to direct high profile films (Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Malick, Bogdanovich were all relative newcomers) and the decade brought out the best in a few directors who had found their footing in the 1960s but got better and better in the 70s – Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, Martin Ritt and Alan J Pakula, for example) and also let in a few outsiders, like Czechoslovakian Milos Forman (who directed Cuckoo’s Nest). OK, it’s still a man’s world – but at least these guys had ideas and wanted to make movies that pushed the medium into ever new and increasingly artistic directions. There may well be a great many flaws to the auteur theory but at least you knew who was behind the camera. Can’t really say the same thing about The Marvels, can you?

Blacksploitation films like Shaft had reminded film makers that African Americans also had their own stories to tell, so ethnic representations on screen finally begin to diversify too. It’s not perfect, but at least things are moving in the right direction.

As I wrote in a previous blog about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the 70s was also a golden age for the nascent Horror movie genre and the “new permissiveness” meant that films were able to deal with topics like sexuality, drug addiction, marriage breakdowns and mental health in ways that remain refreshing, thought-provoking and occasionally still shocking all these years later.

Nixon’s descent into criminality and the messiness of the final years of the Vietnam war probably added to the paranoid cynicism and sense of futility that seems to run through so many of the best Hollywood films of the 70s (The Conversation being a supreme example) and it’s interesting that so many of the decade’s biggest box office successes were given X certificates – films for adults about adult themes which adults wanted to see in large numbers (Cabaret, Lenny, The Exorcist, Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, The French Connection, for example).

So, as 1974 recedes into ancient history (is Chinatown really that old?) and we move ever more close to a world where every moment of our lives is being watched, recorded, shared and uploaded; where cinemas are seriously threatened by the new streaming platforms that tell us what we “need” to be watching next without us even having to think; where individuality has been replaced by consumerism; greed and corruption dominate the political landscape and emojis can move us as much as words – let us hope that a) this gives rise to a new generation of filmmakers getting “as mad as hell” and “not going to take it anymore” (to borrow from Network’s “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale) and making some great films and b) film lovers, who want to “discover” things for themselves, will find inspiration in some of the brilliant movies the UPP has selected for the coming months – which for me, at least, will not be a “summer of sport,” but, instead, a 70s season to savour.

Bring it on, man (as they might have said “back in the day”).

Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.

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