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.