10 Reasons Why the 1970s Was the Greatest Decade in American Cinema

Why were films so much better in the seventies? Or were they? There is also an argument that audiences were better informed, more politically aware, which given the explosion of information at our fingertips now is tough to believe. One thing is clear, movie audiences in the seventies were far more discerning than they were today. The audiences then were certainly were more demanding of their movies. They expected honesty with their artistry, they did not appreciate anything cheap or fake. It was important movies be about something.

One would hope because today’s audiences have had access to films on DVD for years, making them the best educated cinematically in history, that they would expect more from their cinema, but sadly that is not the truth. In the seventies good movies made millions, today they sometimes struggle to be seen. Good to great films sometimes make a tenth of what a major blockbuster makes, which means inferior like the dreadful Transformers series makes untold millions while a brilliant movie like Jackie (2016) struggles to make back its budget.

I do believe today’s audiences are less demanding. But why? Are the films less substantial than they were then? Are audiences seeking pure entertainment? What shaped the cinema of the seventies, of that place in history? What drove the filmmakers and actors of the time? Why do the films of today feel less than they were in the seventies? Make no mistake, there are still great films being created, but they are not greeted with the same loving embrace they were in the seventies. Not even close.

The seventies were unique. The fervent belief that cinema should be about something. Topical, urgent. While being powerfully realistic portraits they also had to entertain or teach…and they did. What events were responsible for the shaping of seventies?

Social change.
Mistrust of authority and government.
The Cold War.
The Civil Rights Movement.
Vietnam Nam.
The assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy.
The conspiracy and government connection to their killings.
The space program.
The counter-culture led by the hippy movement.
The drug culture.
The Neo Italian realist movement in film in the forties and fifties.
The French New Wave in the late fifties and early sixties.
European cinema.
The method acting movement.
The slow, almost agonizing death of the studio system.
Emerging directors from film schools, obsessed with cinema, bursting with originality and wanting to bring those ideas to the screen.
The easing of language, nudity, sexual and subject matter barriers in American film.

All of this combined deeply impacted the cinema of the very late sixties and the seventies. All forms of art had changed, but film was the last to change, however when the change came it was overnight. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), in the Heat of the Night (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969), and They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969) stunned audiences and critics with their blazing honesty and intensity. Film was holding a mirror up to society and reflecting it back at us, and how we loved it.

In the seventies lines formed around city blocks to see Patton (1970), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972), Deliverance (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Jaws (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Star Wars (1977), Annie Hall (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Julia (1977),
Midnight Express (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Norma Rae (1979), All That Jazz (1979), and Manhattan (1979), none of which could be described as mainstream cinema, but were solid hits nonetheless. Both Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) were science fiction films, hardly a popular genre, yet each was a blockbuster, each a multiple Oscar nominee. The Exorcist (1973) was a major horror film, the first to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture but no one expected the impact it would have.

Audiences sought out great film, and in many ways there viewing, there reactions drove films to legend. It was a time films were allowed to build reaction, to open and let audiences find them. No internet, only TV ads, film magazines, and newspaper articles announced a film was coming. A film could stay in theaters, the same theatre for as long as seven months, longer in LA or NY, depending on box office. Just as audiences could make a film, so could they break them. No one went to see At Long Last Love (1975), leaving Peter Bogdanovich, self-appointed film genius reeling in shock. William Friedkin could not believe no one embraced Sorcerer (1977), his remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953), a genuinely good film that was simply too bleak for audiences, though a year before they had flocked to see Taxi Driver (1976). Martin Scorsese, a gifted director, no question, spent more than thirty million on his musical New York, New York (1977) but no one came, it was a huge flop, only to be found later.

Directors emerged for the first time from film schools, educated in the history of cinema, obsessed with all things film. Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas were all Film School graduates, while Steven Spielberg cut his teeth in television, while Woody Allen worked both in TV and the theatre. Midway through the decade they had taken Hollywood as their own, making the films they wanted often with outlandish budgets. Some filmmakers had emerged in the sixties from TV and found their footing in the seventies, among them Robert Altman, Sidney Altman, Sydney Pollack, while others came from the stage, Bob Fosse for instance.

They made films that mattered, that spoke of the time and entertained. And there were films that were made purely for entertainment, Love Story (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Sting (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), and King Kong (1976), blockbusters all. Their success gave the studios the confidence to make smaller, more risky films that otherwise might not have been made at all.

At the end of the decade, the studios were re-thinking the budget free for all that had taken place through the seventies, and were slowly reigning them in. This was partly because a film was being made that had gone wildly over budget while being made. Recent Academy Award winner Michael Cimino was directing Heaven’s Gate (1980), The budget rising from 8 million dollars to more than 40 million. The studio, United Artists (UA), was clearly terrified and rightly so, the film was a huge flop and bankrupted the studio, one of the oldest in Hollywood. The blatant disregard for money and his superiors caused this, nothing else. The studios would, through the eighties, take back their open cheque books and make directors fiscally responsible. Stick to the budget became the rule in the eighties.

And of course along came home video, which initially permitted film fans to watch movies on video tape in their homes. This would explode, as studios put more and more films on video, and eventually made them affordable to own. This generation, and that of my daughter, became the most educated in cinema than any before it. Period. They could see anything they wanted to see, anytime, and as time went on they could own them! As the technology improved with DVD and later Blu Ray, so many features could be placed on the disc about the making of the film, interviews with actors, directors, writers, cgi techs, it was Film School! So again is there ever any excuse for a so called film buff, film student NOT to have seen the best of the best from the late sixties and seventies? None.

And finally the actors who emerged in the seventies were more like audiences than ever before. Sure there were good looking people on screens, but just as often there were artists who looked like us, average, but possessed of great talent. Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, Jill Clayburgh, and Sally Field were not glamour stars, they were actors first and foremost. This resulted in a second renaissance of the method acting movement which brought to screens brilliant, better than ever film performances, the like of which we had not seen before.
It was once said to me that the best and worst thing to ever happen to cinema was digital. Why? Digital cameras and digital technology has allowed anyone to make film, which is the best thing that could happen to cinema. But it is also the worst because some people should not ever make a film, and some films should never have been created. The seventies were bursting with gifted directors making excellent films ripped from the headlines. My God was film ever better?

Here are the 10 reasons 1970s was the greatest decade for Hollywood:

1. Social Change: Granted the majority of change happened in the sixties, but it would spill over into the seventies. There was still sweeping change to come, Nixon opened relations with China and Russia, finally brought an end to the war in Vet Nam, until finally crippled by the Watergate investigations, resigned after being re-elected in the greatest landslide in Presidential history. The mistrust left over from the sixties, quadrupled in the seventies as the youth failed to trust their government. In the late decade, American hostages were held by the radical Khomeini until Reagan was elected, a move meant to, and which did humiliate President Carter.

2. Directors: The emergence of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, Lucas, Lumet, Pakula, Friedkin, Pollack, Fosse, Ashby, Forman, , Polanski, Eastwood, and veterans Kubrick, Huston, says it all. They conquered Hollywood very quickly. Many of them continue to work at an exceedingly high level, continuing to alter the course of cinema. They dared, and with that brash boldness came talent, often unexpected, but simply exciting to see. Their sheer love of cinema was in every frame of their work and was infectious. Never before had the camera seemed to move, that we had such energy in the frame, that a director could tell so much within the frame. The art of film direction was at its zenith, which is why the great directors of today were students of seventies cinema.

3. Writing: It all starts with the story and some of the finest screen writing would emerge on the seventies. William Goldman and Robert Towne reigned as major writers, Woody Allen would dominate, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader would explore the dark aspects of man. Paddy Chayefsky became the master satirist of his time, while Mel Brooks created the parody. Is Chinatown (1974) the greatest script ever written or is it The Godfather Part II (1974), or is it Manhattan (1979)? Writing was never as sharp or astute as it was in the seventies…ever. Goldman worked miracles when he adapted All the President’s Men (1976), a mammoth study of how two reporters from the Washington Post brought down a Presidency.

4. The Actors: The seventies was considered the Mecca of acting, the greatest period in ten year history jammed with some of the greatest performances in movie history. A plethora of fine actors were at their finest for years, giving an array of performances still admired, still appreciated today. Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson kicked it all off with their work, Fonda in Klute (1971) and Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Unlikely movie star Gene Hackman gave a superb, real as it gets performance in The French Connection (1971) and The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) would unleash Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, and Robert De Niro. Fonda gave women the courage to be real, to take risks, and Ellen Burstyn, Louise Fletcher, Diane Keaton, Jill Clayburgh, Sally Field and Sissy Spacek all followed. Look at the consistency of the work in the seventies! Never would it happen again. Not this good, nor consistent.

5. Taboos Gone: While issues such as domestic abuse, drug addiction and trafficking, prostitution, divorce, rape, criminal activity (realistically), mental illness, homosexuality, urban alienation, Watergate, Vet Nam, corruption within police forces, and government had once been forbidden, they were now explored regularly on film with a startlingly candid honesty. Never had Society been so honestly explored on film. It would lead to some of the most powerful films of the decade.

6. Freedom with Language, Nudity and Sexuality: The first time I heard Jane Fonda utter “fuck” on film I was admittedly shocked, but I was also twelve. Suddenly films were allowed to use foul language, nothing we had not heard before. Sex was explored openly and major stars no longer shied away from nudity. It became all about the truth, nothing else mattered. They were recreating life on screen and in doing cinematic art of the highest order.

7. Truth on Screen: Nothing else mattered, even in fantasies it was essential the effects made the world come to life. The shark in Jaws (1975), The blazing tower in The Towering Inferno (1974), or making us believe a man could fly in Superman (1978). The stunning effects in Star Wars (1977) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (1977) made the impossible real. On the street, the grime and filth in Taxi Driver (1976) plunged audiences into the hell of New York, while life in a mental hospital was captured in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Nothing was as important as creating truth on screen in any genre of film, it had to be believed. Audiences would accept nothing less.

8. Courage Among Artists: Beginning with the director and writers and moving to the actors, never before were film artists as brave as they were in the seventies, taking enormous risks as artists. Actors were cast against type and made it work, directors fought for the casts they wanted and won, writers wrote about demanding, difficult subjects and created art, it was the most exciting time to be a film freak. Look at Bob Fosse with Cabaret (1972)? He took a Broadway musical and turned it into s savage statement about the rise of Nazism in Berlin in 1931. His choreography was breathtaking and spiky, the likes of which we had not seen before, relative newcomer Liza Minnelli was astonishing in a role she was born to play, and Joel Grey was demonic as the strange Emcee of the club. He broke from every possible film convention for his film and the film won eight Academy Awards. Consider the immense courage of Francis Ford Coppola in directing The Godfather Part II (1974)? He had everything to,lose in making a sequel, but forged ahead, creating both prequel and sequel in a film of breathtaking power that explores how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Risk is essential when creating art. And art is what they forged.

9. The Critical Community: Pauline Kael wrote about film in a manner that was intoxicating, even if she hated the film her writing was such that you had to see the film to know why? Love of film is an essential quality for a critic, and Kael adored film. She could be ruthless, and would often turn on directors she once championed, but her word could save a film. Nearly single handedly she saved Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and elevated Nashville (1976) to classic status after seeing a rough cut. Her review of Last Tango in Paris (1973) compared the film to Stravinsky’s music, she was that passionate. John Simon, Charles Champlain and Roger Ebert were all fine writers, they loved cinema, but no one wielded the power of mighty Pauline, and how she knew it. Today the internet has permitted anyone and everyone to be a critic, and the truth be told some are very good at it. I do worry the history of film is being overlooked sometimes, but there is no shortage for people who genuinely love cinema.

10. Home Video/ Entertainment: I was away at college when Dad brought home a VCR. I came home at Christmas and promptly rented twelve movies and went back a few days later for more. It was like a film junkies wet dream, being able to watch movies at home, find those I had missed and see them, share them with family and friends, it was incredible. You could walk into a store and buy hundreds of dollars worth of DVD’s, own them, create a library of films as people have books. I did! Home entertainment allowed the teens of the eighties, their kids and now their grandchildren to become the best educated cinematic population in the history of mankind…they have seen more films than any generation before them. The impact on the film industry itself was enormous in terms of films being permitted to be re-discovered after failing in theatres, and to have a second revenue stream. How many films were re-discovered after their release? Far too many to name here.