1970: The Year of Living Radically

Getting Straight

 I’m working on a project these days that has me cataloging films released in the years between 1970 and 2000. On one level, it’s simple data entry… entering movie titles and pertinent production information (director, principal cast, production company, distributor, genre, rights holder) and good mindless employment; on another level it’s been an incredibly evocative and nostalgic head trip for me. I was 9 in 1970 — actually 8 for most of that year — but I was already walking myself half a mile into town to go to the movies alone. I have vivid memories of going to see a lot of the films released in 1970 but what this perspective has given me is a whole new appreciation of how diverse the American movie scene was 40 odd years ago. There were westerns (RIO LOBO, LITTLE BIG MAN, MONTE WALSH) and war films (PATTON, TORA! TORA! TORA!, THE MCKENZIE BREAK, M*A*S*H) and love stories (LOVE STORY, RYAN’S DAUGHTER, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT)  and horror movies (THE DUNWICH HORROR and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE), biker flicks (ANGEL UNCHAINED, REBEL ROUSERS, ANGELS DIE HARD!) and sex comedies (PUSSYCAT, PUSSYCAT, I LOVE YOU) and dramas (THE WAY WE LIVE NOW) and crime pictures (… TICK TICK TICK…, THEY CALL ME MR. TIBBS, A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY )and musicals (SONG OF NORWAY). There were movies about spies and assassins and mad housewives and hillbillies and cops on the case… and teenagers.

 

RPMThe uptake in unrest on college campuses worldwide through the mid-1960s and into the new decade led to a string of big studio movies about students and their concerns and explorations of radical politics. By the time of the horrific killings of student protesters at Ohio’s Kent State University in May of that year, Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT had been out for three months, Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M. and Stuart Hagmann’s THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT were already in the can and Richard Rush’s GETTING STRAIGHT – a decidedly more lightweight campus drama (the studio emphasized the free love angle in their advertisements and one sheets, depicting star Elliot Gould as a kind of coital Candide) that nonetheless ends in a full blown police riot — was a week from being rolled out into movie theaters. Talk about serendipity.

1970_Zabriskie Point_03The moviegoing demographic was changing, was getting younger, and other films not specifically concerned with college life were also filtering through, among them HOMER, starring Don Scardino as a Wisconsin farmboy radicalized by the death of his buddy in Vietnam; Paul Bogart’s HALLS OF ANGER, about racial tension in an inner city high school; Leonard Horn’s THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART, with Don Johnson as a would-be campus pornographer; and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR, about a suburban family (Eli Wallach and Julie Harris — now there’s a couple! Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez and Emily Dickinson) dealing with a drug-using daughter. In the same calendar year, Jon Voight — fresh from his success in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) — played both a Long Island high school senior (at the age of 32) dealing with love and loss in Paul Williams’ OUT OF IT and a campus radical who feels betrayed by both the right and the left in Williams’ follow-up, THE REVOLUTIONARY. It’s great to go back and note the interest that the Establishment (for want of a better word) had in the youth of that time, though naturally not all of it was well-intentioned. Kids who felt ill-served by the legacy of Eisenhower America, who wanted to grow out their brush cuts or pop their bouffants, who wanted to listen to voices other than Richard Nixon and Bishop Fulton Sheen and Perry Como, who wondered why we were sending 16 year old boys to Southeast Asia (and so on and so on) were often derided in popular entertainment as flakes and hippies and hypocrites who broke from their radical cells on Friday afternoon to bring their laundry home to Mom to do over the weekend. Things were changing and the studio elite was afraid of both the change and the changers, and the first response in many artistic circles to fear is to mock and belittle and so there was a lot of that in movies like Hy Averback’s I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! (1968) and Garson Kanin’s WHERE IT’S AT (1969) and Russ Meyer’s (Roger Ebert-scripted) BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), which can be viewed as either great camp fun or the worst nightmare of every 40ish taxpayer with a closet full of Sans-a-belt slacks.

RPM 1970

Some producers tried to hedge their bets, giving the public a youth movie with an older protagonist for balance. In R.P.M. (an apt, if perhaps a bit too on-the-money pun, the anagram standing for “revolutions per minute,” and evoking both campus unrest and the youthful inclination towards protest music as a seminal text), campus radicals Gary Lockwood (then 33) and Paul Winfield (31) have to take a narrative back seat to Anthony Quinn, as a middle-aged (but cycle-riding) sociology professor (the actor was 45 at the time) who finds himself mediating between the kids and the college administration (while carrying on with graduate student Ann-Margret, then a pink-cheeked 29). You could take Stanley Kramer’s tale two ways, as a realistic depiction of a rational man’s response to youthful wrongheadedness or as a cop-out (which tends to be the revisionist spin on any Kramer movie) that admits, somewhat coyly, that the radicals were right in theory but cannot let them triumph in reality. The Tate-LaBiance murders of August 1969, seemingly perpetrated by hippies but really spawned by a galloping case of white supremacy on the part of instigator Charles Manson, got middle America to stop fretting so much about race war and to focus instead on the Generation Gap, with hippies promoted on the fear factor from mere irritants to potential home invaders, like the Red Indians of so-called progressive westerns, whose aboriginal protagonists were depicted with fairness only on condition that they also die in the end.

Getting Straight 1970

GETTING STRAIGHT narrowed the Generation Gap considerably but it was still a major studio wanting it both ways, wanting to foreground student radicalization but through the relatively safer perspective of someone older and more experienced. Thirty-three year-old Elliot Gould plays 28 year-old Harry Bailey, a Vietnam veteran who returns to college six years late to finish up a teaching degree, only to find himself recruited by the campus left (in the person of Max Julien, Jeannie Berlin, and John Rubinstein) and tapped by the college deans (Jon Lormer, Cecil Kellaway, and Jeff Corey) to act as an intermediary before the National Guard has to be called in. Based on the novel by Ken Kolb (best known, I guess, for writing the screenplay for THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), adapted by Robert Kaufman (whose crazyquilt CV runs the gamut from DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE to FREEBIE AND THE BEAN), GETTING STRAIGHT is fast and funny and quotable but I like it less now than I did when I was an impressionable youth — and it’s mostly Elliot Gould’s fault, or rather the fault of the device Gould plays. Less a character than a prism, Gould is supposed to refract the respective lunacy of both right and left, of young and old, to prove to us the old chestnut “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” I understand the reaction but the ending, in which Gould and leading lady Candice Bergen make love, not war (literally — shedding their clothes in the middle of a campus riot, with tear gas canisters going off around them and fuzzy heads being cracked by storm trooper truncheons), strikes me as far too pat and pleased with itself and there’s an undercurrent of homophobia that, you should pardon the expression, kind of queers it for me. But on the plus side, a ridiculously young Harrison Ford pops up to share a couple of dialogue exchanges with Gould and it’s kind of fascinating to appreciate now how Ford’s career was ascending towards megastardom with STAR WARS while Gould’s promise as a sort of alt-leading man was squandered in such stinkers as S*P*Y*S (1974), WHIFFS (1975), and MATILDA (1978).

The Strawberry StatementSo fresh in their day, so au courant, these campus movies have not aged well — by that I mean they have lapsed into obscurity, less well remembered by the general public than all those westerns and war movies and monster flicks. Millennials snigger at their fashions, conservatives bristle at their politics and (it’s a fair cop) naivete, and they tend to get relegated to the bin of oddments, relics. And yet it’s rewarding to go back and see something like THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT or THE REVOLUTIONARY, which had the temerity to stick with a consistent perspective, that of youth, and follow it to, if not an inevitable conclusion, then at least a logical and fair one. At age 24, Bruce Davison and Kim Darby were not too far grown to play college undergrads and costar Bud Cort was a year behind them. (Darby was already a seasoned professional at this point in her career, having first played a teenager in BYE BYE BIRDIE almost ten years earlier and having just appeared in George Schaefer’s GENERATION, alongside David Janssen in Disapproving Father mode… a prototype he was honing to perfection that year, having played a similar character in WHERE IT’S AT.) I guess it’s worth noting that the same year THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT was released, Davison starred as a wacked out youth in WILLARD and Bud Cort as a wacked out youth in BREWSTER MCCLOUD – both of whom wind up dead by the final frames. Darby was a hippie in NORWOOD, also released in 1970, and her character winds up pregnant, as she had in GENERATION to boot.

Computer Wore Tennis Shoes 1970

The one campus movie of 1970 that probably everybody remembers is Disney’s THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, the first of a series of campus comedies distributed by Buena Vista that took place at the fictional Medfield College (which had made its first film appearance in THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR back in 1961) and featured a gaggle of irrepressible but harmless young tearaways led by Kurt Russell (actually college-aged, at 20). I’ll confess to loving Disney’s “Dexter Reilly” movies as much as I do any of the above-mentioned titles but looking back it’s hard not to appreciate the way The Mouse clamps its iron hand down on the notion of student politics, wanting to quash any hint of unrest and smooth everything out into a latticework of hijinks and antics, to comfort and reassure middle class America that its investments are sound and its children BEACH PARTY harmless. Well, to each his own, I guess. I hope I’ve inspired some of you to go back and have a look, or maybe even a second look at some of these titles. Making a study of the different ways they view the world and the people who were/are poised to change the world is, in retrospect, a little like going back to school.

16 Responses 1970: The Year of Living Radically
Posted By george : May 23, 2014 7:14 pm

“So fresh in their day, so au courant, these campus movies have not aged well …”

Most of those “youth rebellion” movies were box-office flops in their own time. That includes ZABRISKIE POINT, GETTING STRAIGHT, R.P.M. and THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. The young audience that made huge hits of EASY RIDER and THE GRADUATE stayed away from these movies.

As for GETTING STRAIGHT … it’s hard to believe that Elliot Gould was once a popular leading man in movies. His stardom (like Dustin Hoffman’s) could only have happened at a time when young people were rejecting their parents’ ideas of what a movie star should be. Hoffman’s stardom lasted longer, but he (like Gould) now largely plays character and supporting roles.

Posted By Qalice : May 23, 2014 8:27 pm

Thanks for this post; I’m finding 70s movies more and more interesting. I was a kid then, too, and not really aware of how profound some of the changes happening in society were. Movies from the period are interesting for exactly the reasons you describe: fascinated but deeply uncomfortable with a reality in which young people seem to have great power. This is one of the reasons I love classic movies so much — they’re history lessons. All of them!

Posted By Doug : May 24, 2014 1:13 am

I’m going to pull a fast one-a little late to the party, but with the mention of ‘college movies’ AND Kim Darby…I point to “The One And Only” (1978). While in college, (okay, it’s the 1950′s, but with ’70′s hair) a supremely confident actor played by Henry Winkler sweeps college sweetheart Kim Darby off her feet and they get married.
Tag line:
“She had to marry him-she was too embarrassed to have him as a date!”
Carl Reiner directed, sort of a tonal prequel to his “Bert Rigby, You’re A Fool”.
Elliot Gould? Meh-He’s done good work, (M*A*S*H) but I’ve never warmed up to him…maybe it’s just me.

Posted By george : May 24, 2014 1:55 am

“Thanks for this post; I’m finding 70s movies more and more interesting.”

The ’70s were a great time for movies, and the last time the major studios produced and released a large number of great films.

It’s funny, though: most people at the time didn’t think the ’70s were any sort of golden age for movies. Most people I knew thought movies were worse than ever. And most of the older people dismissed almost all movies as filthy trash. They were pining for the movies they grew up on, the classics of the ’30s and ’40s.

Maybe that’s why I’m uncomfortable when people talk about this current decade as “the golden age of television.” If you think you’re living in a golden age NOW, you’re probably not. Let a few decades pass, then see what holds up.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : May 24, 2014 1:33 pm

The 1970s are a fascinating decade for cinema but there is a lot of reality checking that has to done as well. I mentioned this another thread before that Musicals, Westerns, Gothics, Elliot Gould movies and Romantic Comedies just didn’t make it alive out of that decade or at least made it out as a different beast all together.

I’m not sure if I would actually enjoy many of the movies that Richard listed as an actuall movie. That’s okay. The writing shows that the history of movies is at times more fascinating than movies by itself. At least someone, for a little while anyways, wanted and made movies that wanted to be about something else, something from the headlines, besides a brand name. It’s as if the audience finally got to see “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”.

I missed out on most of the movies listed here but all of the titles are familiar. I’d see them listed in the TV schedule in the paper.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : May 24, 2014 5:18 pm

strange that there’s no mention of Peter Boyle in JOE…it was a polarizing movie and fairly obscure now,but it was a box office success in 1970

Posted By george : May 24, 2014 7:51 pm

JOE is a fascinating time capsule and well worth seeing. I think it was Susan Sarandon’s film debut. And it’s available on DVD.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 25, 2014 3:08 am

Yeah, I wanted to name-check Joe but in the end I just let it go, trusting that someone would pop in and say “Hey, what about Joe?”

Posted By george : May 25, 2014 7:50 pm

Another good one from 1970: Roger Corman’s last film for AIP, GASSSSS (not sure how many S’s there are in the title).

It was also not a financial success. Corman blamed AIP for butchering the film, but it may have been too satirical for young rebels who took themselves and their causes VERY seriously. Featuring Cindy Williams and Talia Shire (billed as Tally Coppola) before they were famous.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065760/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_5

Posted By Stephen White : May 26, 2014 8:16 am

George, I find your dismissal of Dustin Hoffman as being mostly limited to supporting roles these days more than a little odd. The man is something like 76 years old! Just how many actors still get to play leading roles at that age? (I can think of one Peter O’Toole movie, and that’s about it in recent years). Hoffman’s time as a leading man lasted as long or longer than Nicholson’s, Pacino’s, DeNiro’s or that of his Midnight Cowboy co-star Jon Voight. Warren Beatty is allegedly making a picture in which he’s going to play Howard Hughes, but I’ll believe it when it actually comes out. He hasn’t even appeared in a film in a dozen years or more.

Posted By george : May 26, 2014 5:40 pm

Well, Stephen, Clint Eastwood played his last leading role at 82 (in TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE). Henry Fonda was 76 when OLD GOLDEN POND was released.

I’m not dismissing Hoffman as a superb actor or star. He’s one of the all-time greats. But I think he (like Gould, Gene Hackman and George C. Scott) was always essentially been a character actor … albeit a character actor with the charisma of a leading man. These men — and Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, too — came along at a time when audiences wanted stars who looked more like real people, instead of the matinee idols of the past. They were lucky, but they were also talented.

As for Beatty,it looks like his Howard Hughes project (which he’s been talking about since the ’70s) is finally filming. It will be his first movie since the mega-bomb TOWN AND COUNTRY in 2001.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1974420/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_1

Posted By Doug : May 26, 2014 6:34 pm

George, are you suggesting that “Town And Country” is done with re-writes? Just kidding- Beatty impressed me with “Bugsy” but for the past few decades, that’s been about it. Bulworth was worthless bovine.

Posted By Jbenn : May 26, 2014 9:06 pm

I believe Anthony Quinn was actually 55 when RPM came out (making love interest Ann-Margaret 26 years his junior). In a way Quinn’s character (the not quite establishement/not quite counterculture “hero”) speaks more about the middle-aged studio execs greeenlighting these films than the young generation they were targeted for.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : May 27, 2014 11:47 pm

I was in my teens when these “campus” movies came out and, as I recall, most got bad reviews and pretty much tanked at the box office. I think Hollywood was just trying to cash in on what was going on.

Posted By Rebekka Bishop : May 28, 2014 1:14 am

OMG I remember seeing ‘The Strawberry Statement’ YEARS ago…I thought I was the only person on Earth who had

Posted By swac44 : June 10, 2014 11:33 am

Still haven’t seen The Strawberry Statement, but it has a pretty great soundtrack LP, as I recall. Being born in 1967, the only films in this batch I got to see were the Disney Dexter Riley films, usually as part of a family movie double bill at the local drive-in in Calgary, where I probably didn’t make it very far into the second feature. I do have fond memories of seeing one of the openers, The Boatniks though.

Sadly, there was no solo moviegoing for me until we were into the post-Jaws blockbuster years.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.