New Hollywood isn’t actually that new at all; in fact, the name demarcates a period of intense creativity, crisis, and change that occurred between the late 1960s and the early 1980s within the Hollywood studio system. The period was characterised by a new breed of technically innovative, cinematically-literate, politically-conscious, counter culture filmmaking which encompassed the early careers of directors Martin Scorsese (pictured below with Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver, a quintessential New Hollywood film), Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Terrence Malick, and Francis Ford Coppola, a list of now-infamous filmmakers who spring-boarded from the New Hollywood movement. New Hollywood, sometimes referred to as the American New Wave, is represented by a collective of directors, writers, and actors who arrived upon a crumbling Hollywood scene and were prepared to reenergise it with their impressive new visions for American cinema, thus changing the face of Hollywood forever. Some of these individuals, innovative as they were, failed to break out and are forever entwined with the period which created them; others, such as those aforementioned, continue to exist among the Hollywood elite.
The arrival of New Hollywood is best represented by three films: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, and Dennis Hooper’s Easy Rider. Themes that would be later cited by critics and academics as key signifiers of the movement are evident across all three of these landmark pieces of New Hollywood cinema; Bonnie and Clyde represents a characteristic riposte against the establishment; The Graduate illustrates the trials of a disaffected youth; and Easy Rider points to counterculture movements such as hippyism that informed the era’s formative years. The films were all substantial successes, garnering a plethora of Oscar nominations and wins, and reintroduced a fresh youthful and cinematically-conscious demographic to film who had been left alienated by earlier studio hits such as Fox’s 1965 box-office giant The Sound of Music.
Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider proved a watershed moment for American filmmaking and ushered in a new mode of film production that was exciting, relevant, challenging, and authentic. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the New Hollywood movement occurred in the wake of the dematrialisation of the Hollywood Production Code, an ethical system that had been put in place in the 1930s to protect film audiences from any damaging content. With the exception of Star Wars – more on that phenomenon later – New Hollywood produced films that treated their audience as adults and as such New Hollywood hits such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, and Franics Ford Coppola’s The Godfather were loaded with graphic content that could not have existed in film before the disestablishment of the Production Code.
A further connection may be established between those films mentioned directly above that sets them apart from many of Hollywood’s productions from the 1950s until the early to mid 1960s; their quality. Some filmmakers had already demonstrated their credentials before the arrival of New Hollywood – directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, and Sidney Lumet had already enjoyed successes with films that are not generally considered products of New Hollywood, namely the likes of Kubrick’s Spartacus, Peckinpah’s early Westerns, and Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men – however, for the most part, the New Hollywood directors contributed towards a maturation in the quality of Hollywood’s output and was quickly rewarded with a decade long string of Best Picture Oscars for Midnight Cowboy (1969), Patton (1970), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Sting (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). New Hollywood’s ten year dominance of the American Academy Awards, not to mention the plethora of great talents that it produced, is an enduring testament to its importance within the context of Hollywood film production.
During this unimpeachable decade of creativity, two particular New Hollywood filmmakers managed to both gain the attention of the critics while dominating the global box office: they are none other than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The duo would eventually go on to collaborate on the Indiana Jones franchise, but their individual works in the 19070s proved vital to the saturation of their careers and the played crucial parts in the creation of the summer blockbuster. Spielberg broke out with 1971’s psycho road thriller Duel which he followed with The Sugarland Express in 1974; meanwhile, Lucas arrived on the scene with an intelligent dystopian sci-fi THX1138 in 1971 before defining the coming-of-age genre with American Graffiti in 1973. Jaws and Star Wars of course need no introduction here but continue to represent commercial and artistic peaks for New Hollywood at the height of its considerable powers. In time, Spielberg and Lucas would prove both gifts and curses for New Hollywood; the two were virtually untouchable, and yet their unparalleled successes positioned the entire rising collective of brat-pack filmmakers front and centre in Hollywood’s sights. Before long a series of devastating financial disasters including Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (both 1977), Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982), would prove fatal to the New Hollywood movement and finally mark its perhaps inevitable implosion.
Despite a messy, drug-fuelled climax, the New Hollywood filmmakers produced a perennial legacy; many of the final ‘disasters’ mentioned above have since been reclaimed by critics as flawed but fascinating insights into the end of one of the most productive epochs in the history of American film. It is refreshing to see in recent years that Hollywood has gained insight from the trust it once placed in a band of relatively untested but ultimately brilliant filmmakers who rose to prominence during the New Hollywood era; as large, blockbuster budgets are bequeathed unto independent filmmakers such as Joss Whedon, James Gunn, Gareth Edwards, Duncan Jones, and Colin Trevorrow perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of a New New Hollywood – regardless, it is an exciting time to be a film lover.
Five New Hollywood Films To Watch:
The Graduate – With the possible exception Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, none of the early New Hollywood films quite captured the spirit of America’s disaffected youth as flawlessly as Mike Nichol’s 1967 masterpiece The Graduate. Aided by a wonderful Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack, a note-perfect performance by Dustin Hoffman, and an unforgettable ending, this really is cinema at its finest.
The Godfather – One of the granddaddies of cinema; Coppola’s masterpiece is as breathtaking now as it would have been in 1972. Meticulously constructed, sublimely performed, The Godfather remain peerless.
Badlands – Terrence Malick’s first masterpiece quintessentially captures the American spirit of the New Hollywood movement while, alongside similarly great films such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, capturing the anti-establishment, counterculture elements that would come to define the era. It is also one of the most beautiful films ever made.
Jaws/Star Wars – This might feel like a cheat, but in regards to New Hollywood it is virtually impossible to consider its two biggest blockbusters apart. The fact that the enduring legacy of Jaws and Star Wars does not overshadow the films themselves is indiction of their unrivalled inventiveness and certified masterpiece credentials.
Sorcerer – Just as The Graduate marks the era’s beginning, Sorcerer, alongside Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate perfectly captures its end. By the time William Friedkin directed Sorcerer in 1977, an American remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterful thriller The Wages of Fear, he had already won Oscars for The French Connection and directed New Hollywood’s defining horror The Exorcist. Sorcerer remains a wildly underrated thriller and a fascinating insight into New Hollywood’s tragic if inevitable demise.