When Movies Reflect Politics



Are American films really any worse now than they used to be? Is the idea of ‘Transformers 7’ being nominated for an Oscar any crazier than ‘Dr Dolittle’ making the Best Picture list four decades earlier? It’s tempting to name a year and suggest that before such-and-such a point movies were better. There have been key periods, however, when Hollywood has experienced a major sea change not driven by changes in technology.

In 1981, after ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ won Best Picture, there was a shift away from films with a more demanding European aesthetic to merchandisable matinee popcorn. And before then, in 1967, there was another pivotal moment – as studio-generated epics gave way to smaller films that reflected the countercultural thirst for change.

The five nominees of 1967 were ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘In The Heat Of The Night’, ‘The Graduate’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ and ‘Dr Dolittle’. Two of the films reflected changing attitudes to race; ‘Dinner’ was a plea for tolerance and acceptance in the form of an old-fashioned suburban comedy, the idea being that the world’s most famous couple, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, invite the world’s most famous black actor, Sidney Poitier, to become part of their family. It seemed condescending and schematic even at the time of its release, although it features the poignant final pairing of Tracy and Hepburn, and was completed just three weeks before Tracy’s death.

‘In The Heat Of The Night’, also starring Poitier, was set in the deep South and appropriately angrier. It mirrored the growing refusal of young blacks to remain complacent in the face of endemic racism. Not that this stopped more militant African Americans from accusing Poitier of showcasing himself as a ‘good n*gger’ to appeal to a prevailing white sense of superiority.
‘The Graduate’ took advantage of changing censorship laws to examine sexual issues with a new level of sophistication and frankness. During production the script seemed mystifying and bleak, even to the cast. Mike Nichols, the director, announced ‘I’m thinking of using these two kids for the music – one tall and one small.’ Simon and Garfunkel focused attention on the hypersensitive young lead Dustin Hoffman, and the movie suddenly revealed a logical core. One wonders how ‘The Graduate’ would have fared if it had been required to supply a soundtrack based on the contractual obligations of modern studios.

In Texas, the stars of ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ listened to the stories of those who remembered the outlaws, and though the film turned Clyde heterosexual it kept the sense of grievance felt by ordinary citizens who were foreclosed by the banks and who supported the robbers. Warren Beatty was the driving force for this production, but the shoot was jittery and arduous. It was a modest domestic hit, but European fans followed its fashions.

The odd film out – the one which reflected nothing at all of the changing world – was Dr Dolittle, a painful whimsy virtually unwatchable by today’s standards, and represented a last-ditch attempt by studios to foist bloated ‘event’ musicals on the public in the wake of ‘The Sound Of Music’s success. The production was scuppered by Rex Harrison’s capricious behavior, the impossibility of working with hundreds of live animals, a running time of over two and a half hours and a horrible score that failed to spawn a single hit. After a prolonged marketing campaign it went on to win two Academy Awards, and compared to Eddie Muphy’s lavatorial versions of the Lofting books, seems a minor masterpiece.

These five films were filled with enough tantrums, firings and star insecurities to thrill the most jaded Hollywood-watcher. Independent films soon revitalised an increasingly moribund industry by putting it back in touch with its grass-roots audience, but by 1969, Costa-Gavras’ political thriller ‘Z’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ were still vying against a western, a musical and a royal epic for Oscars. However, that was also the year in which ‘Easy Rider’ appeared, confounding the studios and creating panic among executives who no longer knew what audiences wanted.

By 1970 the new cynical mood of the nation brought forth a phenomenal number of hard-edged protest and civil rights movies. Take a look at the iTunes trailers site if you want to see present-day Hollywood baffled, lost and misfiring on all cylinders.

There have been great one-offs like ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Winter’s Bone’, but they’re not as popular as those 1967 films. I had thought that looking at the entertainment cycles of the past might bring hope; 2017 is not unlike 1967, and given the disgruntled mood of the world right now we could be see history repeating.

Except for the New Dumb, in the form of the POTUS – he’s still popular, still not inspiring much of an effective protest. Looks like we’ll be stuck with Transformers movies for a while yet.

6 comments on “When Movies Reflect Politics”

  1. Dean James says:

    A gentle correction. Raiders didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture. Nominated, but didn’t win. Chariots of Fire won.

  2. admin says:

    Fair point well made. Eek, ‘Chariots of Fire’, who remembers that now?

  3. Bob Low says:

    William Goldman, in his brilliant book ‘Adventures In the Screen Trade’, from the early eighties, lamented the fact that such a large number of the films in production at that time were, as he put it, ‘bubblegum pictures’, aimed mainly at youngsters, and a reflection of the fact that the average age of a cinema-goer in those days was fifteen. This is a trend which has continued, and gathered pace since then. The defining characteristic of four of the five films from 1967 described above is that they were intended for an adult audience

    The crack about ‘Chariots of Fire’ is well made. It’s interesting how many of the Best Picture Oscar winners and nominees from yesteryear are now largely forgotten. Who remembers, or has heard of, ‘Ordinary People’? ‘Julia’ ? Is there anyone out there with iron enough of a constitution to have sat through ‘Ghandi’ and remained conscious? .

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    A film that reflects politics and is unfortunately forgotten: ‘Wag the Dog’. Not that many people watched it at the time. It’s a lesson on fake news. Is it forgotten because it’s too painful to remember?

  5. Graham says:

    I don’t think the politics of a film necessarily make it better or worse, but I do think that the economics of recent films make it more difficult for smaller, more intimate films to be made. Too bad that the explosion of independent films in the 90s turned out to be a dead end. These were low cost, and therefore low risk, but they also didn’t have the kind of ceiling that today’s super-mega-blockbusters do.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    There is a difference between politics and philosophy. Politics is immediate, responding to the emotions of the time, taking a profit from people’s reaction to current events, or playing on how we’d like to react. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an example of current events. What if your daughter brought home a coloured boyfriend? was a question being discussed in many liberal settings. In the Heat of the Night was how liberals wanted coloured people to be able to act. It was supposed to show how accepting the northern US was as opposed to those red necks down South. None of it was true and it still isn’t.
    Chariots of Fire was very affecting at the time (most of us remember the beat of the runners’ feet on the beach to that driving music. The characters and the story were real and we were asked to examine our lives and standards in the light of these two athletes. Today there would be no market for a film addressing the extent to which one’s religious rules should affect our actions in society. Whether that is good or bad I leave to you to decide, but people today do not care to discuss the subject and just shrug.
    I just watched “Across the Pacific” with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. It was dated 1942 and had originally been intended to be about foiling an attack on Pearl Harbor but after Dec. 1941 they had to change the locale to the Panama Canal (interesting that). Knowing what was going on in Washington during Nov./Dec. 1941 would certainly have helped and the goal was definitely to stir up the patriotism of mainstream America. It is quite possible to watch it today as long as you remember the goal of the producers. There are all sorts of descriptions of Japanese culture and attitudes which sounded about right to me but which were intended to make the viewer realise how very foreign these people were. The circular lensed glasses which were supposed to evoke these very studious people were given to Joe the Japanese- American character, which was probably supposed to make you realise that even a whole generation in the US wasn’t enough to remove the Japanese thought processes and loyalties. Today you just consider him to be a one off, a traitor. Poor Sidney Greenstreet, having to play another shady character and ending up as too much of a “coward” to commit suicide. It doesn’t come across as a Rah rah for the U.S.A., though as opposed to “Twelve O’Clock High” which is showing now. “These pilots were the only Americans fighting in Europe at the time and they stood alone against the enemy in spite of doubts and criticism at home and abroad.” (This was made in 1949.)

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