The 1970’s: The Real Golden Age of American Films?
Recently I read an interesting article proclaiming that the 1970s were the Golden Age for American Film. I balked at first. Surely this is an impossibility when you consider the Hollywood Studio System that lasted into the 1950’s - a system that teamed the best with the best by design. And yet, the idea is not completely without merit. With the breakdown of the Studio System came new freedom and creativity for filmmakers. As our world expanded so did our exposure to outside markets. One can see instantly how a generation of rising baby booming stars in American cinema were influenced and inspired by the European Filmmakers of the 1960s. New and innovative filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni and Fellini who paved the way for true independent creativity.
In 1970 the world was changing with the Vietnam War and Watergate. The belief systems of Americans were being challenged daily on the nightly news. We were seeing our place in the world in a different light. American Writers, Directors, and Producers created films that reflected the new mind set of America right back into the faces of the American audience. Examples like Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, De Palma’s Obsession, Altman’s Nashville and M*A*S*H, William Goldman’s Marathon Man, and Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (to name a few) brought a less refined, yet more complex, and edgier tone to American Filmmaking. Americans were now demanding the truth even in their entertainment. Movies were now raw, blunt, confronting, and often uncomfortable. It was, for good and bad, like nothing ever seen before or since.
Then something changed when the decade was over. Suddenly, there came a hard swing to the far right and a distinct conservatism entered the American psyche. The reaction to over a decade of free love and liberalism. In late 1979 Ronald Regan was elected President, ushering in a new nostalgia for “happier times”, and the promise that only good days were ahead. With the resurgence of the Cold War, Americans were now tired of seeing real life on a daily basis; they wanted to be entertained. The movies of the 1970’s were now depressing and stale.
Since 1980 some might say that Cinema in general has been in decline. Declining artistry, declining quality, declining sales. Now the average movie goer is in an entirely different demographic than the ticket buying audiences before 1979. The insightful and challenging story-centered plots are now few and far between the Blockbuster fare intended to tempt and satisfy the public with gore and special effects. Sadly, the new ticket buyer seems perfectly happy with it, and can’t get enough. And Hollywood is all too happy to oblige.
For some, the 1970’s were the best for American films. For others it was a dry era of depressing realism. Every decade of film making has its fans, just as every genre does. To say one is better than the others is completely subjective. Other than the Golden Year of 1939, when there were more outstanding film classics produced than any other year by far (with film classics like Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Gunga Din, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice & Men, Young Mr. Lincoln, etc.) no one period in history can claim to be universally the best.
We may one day find another decade that challenges the title for The Golden Age. How do we measure it or define it? Will it be determined by the quantity of productions, Box Office gross, or critical success? Time will tell. For now, I’m happy to be guided by the test of time that resists the sway of fads and trendy gimmicks. If a film is worthy of watching over and over again after 25 plus years, it has earned the right to be called a Classic. Whatever the 1970’s were to American cinema, the decade and the films that came out of it, have left their mark and are worthy of a revisit. Take a look and be inspired.