The Greatest Era in Film History: 10 Movies From '70s America

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Arguing about the best era in film history is a little like arguing about the nicest color—it’s impossible for anyone to win, and few people will have the same perspective. Still, there are some leading contenders in the film department. First, and most famous, is the French New Wave, with Godard and Rohmer and Truffaut and the rest. Then there’s the Asian cinema of the 1950s, featuring Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa. Some think the current independent era has produced the finest work, while others reserve a kind of complacent affection for the studio blockbusters of the ’80s and ’90s. I suppose there must even be a handful of moviegoers who hold the musical heyday of the ’60s or the paranoiac red-scare films of the ’50s in high regard. To each his own.

But for me, the single best era in film history will always be the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. It’s possible to simplify the story of how that singular decade came about: There was a short period in American film history just after the general public got sick of the mundane, cloying dramas and comedies the ‘60s, but before the studios discovered the lucrative benefits of franchises like Jaws and Star Wars that could pile sequel upon sequel, rake in merchandise proceeds, and guarantee a steady stream of big money regardless of artistic merit. In that odd little interval, studio executives had no better idea than simply throwing money at talented directors and hoping to get lucky.

The blueprint for that philosophy was Easy Rider, a 1969 road movie made for roughly $350,000 by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. When the film earned more than $41 million at the box office, studios began to see the potential for exponential profits in the work of ambitious, low-budget directors. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (both made in 1967) are also credited with jumpstarting the New Hollywood after making huge grosses compared to tiny budgets. Because the success or failure of movies in the decade that followed was so dependent on a director’s vision, American cinema in the ’70s is often called the “auteur era.” For a full account of the phenomenon, it’s worth reading Peter Biskind’s Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

The result of this brief loosening of the studio chains was a decade of profound filmmaking that, at least for me, surpasses anything that came before and everything that’s followed. The movies of the ’70s, broadly speaking, possess a gritty kind of realism that is every bit as clever and wise as the French New Wave, but infused with the freewheeling American spirit that hadn’t yet been stifled by a corporate agenda. It was when directors like Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola and so many others made their names. Because of the odd structure of the film industry, they had the closest thing to freedom that any film director has ever possessed, and they made it count.

I was born about three years after the New Hollywood era limped to its end, but every time I see one of the films, I feel a longing to have lived during that time. It was a raw, passionate, melancholy, artistic decade, and the timing couldn’t have been better. America had fully emerged from its stoic postwar idealism, but it hadn’t yet discovered its capitalist destiny moving into the new century. The country was crying out for individualistic expression in its cinema, for a reflection of the uncertainty and wildness that existed in every nook of the diverse American experience. The idea of film as an escape, as light entertainment that took itself too seriously if it strove for art, was temporarily discredited. The honesty of the work that followed, whether it dealt with sex or violence or drugs or love or manhood or morality, is still the most remarkable cinematic signpost left standing. It was only 40 years ago, but seeing those films feels like spying on the life of a different planet.

Any true fan of New Hollywood can reel off 20 to 30 of their favorite films. What follows are my top 10, a list that is constantly changing and far from definitive.

10. Dog Day Afternoon —1975

In Sidney Lumet’s best work, Al Pacino stars as a novice bank robber trying to finance his gay lover’s sex-change operation, and these modest goals initiate a hostage standoff. Smart, funny, tense and depressing, I’ve always found it to be Pacino’s best performance. Though he’d already established his frantic, impassioned credentials in the Godfather movies and The Panic in Needle Park, this is the actor absolutely unleashed. Before he became something of a self-parody later in life, Pacino’s frenetic, sweaty intensity may only seen its only true fulfillment here.

Elsewhere in the Al Pacino department, it’s worth mentinoing the beautiful Scarecrow (1973), a devastating film about two drifter friends (Pacino and Gene Hackman) traveling together and trying to keep each other from getting lost in every sense of the word.

9. Deliverance – 1972

In this anxiety-filled journey, a group of four friends travels into the interior of the Georgia wilderness on a canoe trip. They’re assaulted by a frightening group of backward rednecks, and the iconic moment of this film will always be the single line: “Squeal like a pig.” Which is unfortunate, because the heart of this movie is about friendship and the ability of humans to endure dark horrors and emerge on the far side. In that sense, the wilderness is one of the more compelling metaphors in film history. The best and most wrenching scene comes at the end, after the violence and the danger, when Jon Voight’s character, Ed, watches his friend Bobby (Ned Beatty) enjoy a meal among townspeople. Bobby seems to be in fine spirits, despite the fact that he suffered the worst horrors on the river. As he surveys the scene, Ed breaks down in tears. He cries for the trauma and the relief, but also, I’ve always believed, for the heartbreaking possibility of being restored.

8. The Conversation —1974

The really incredible fact about this film is that Coppola made it as a side project between Godfather movies (which I’ve left off purposefully despite their greatness). Starring Gene Hackman, it’s the story of a surveillance technician coming face to face with the implications of his job, and the paranoia of being watched at every moment. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, an award that went to The Godfather, Part II. It’s one of the rare times in film history when a director has lost to himself.

7. The Deer Hunter —1978

Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken star as townies from Pennsylvania steel country called to serve in Vietnam. From the magnificent montage of a Russian Orthodox wedding to the disturbing war scenes to the barren epilogue, this gets my vote for the best of the Vietnam films. Their lives in Pennsylvania are so richly imagined, between the desolation and the dignity, that the loss of a symbolic homeland due to the psychological terror of Vietnam is deeply felt.

6. Badlands —1973

This is director Terrence Malick’s first film, about an outlaw (Martin Sheen, in his first true starring role) and his teenage girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) embarking on a killing spree. It’s a wonderfully imagined take on a real-life parallel from the 1950s, and the spiritual overtones that would become Malick’s hallmark two decades later in The Thin Red Line are present among the corrupted morality. His eye for beautiful landscapes is well utilized in the Dakota badlands, and throughout the film, beneath the narrative, there’s a thrill in realizing that you’re being taken along in the hands of a young genius. For viewers of my generation, it’s also fascinating to see how venerable old actors like Sheen and Spacek began their careers. If Malick is your speed, Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, is another classic.

5. The French Connection —1971

As someone who loves crime films, it’s difficult for me to find any movie quite so satisfying. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider star as New York detectives trying to crack a heroin ring that operates in the U.S. and France. The French Connection was revolutionary in several regards. Not only did it show the weakness of the main characters and create moral ambiguity within the good guy/bad guy spectrum, but it strove for reality in human behavior. This included the use of racial slurs in the dialogue, a rarity at the time. For what it’s worth, it also has the best car chase in film history, and an ending that becomes more unsettling and shocking with every viewing. This was the first R-rated film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. (A great trivia question for movie buffs, albeit with an obvious twist answer, is this: which class of film won a Best Picture first, X-rated or R-rated? Explanation coming later…)

As a side note, Gene Hackman had what I consider to be the fourth-most impressive decade of any actor in the New Hollywood era. Along with this film, The Conversation, and Scarecrow, he also starred in the strange thriller Night Moves, The French Connection II and the war epic A Bridge Too Far.

4. The Last Detail —1973

I’ve limited myself to one film per director, and this is my choice for the great Hal Ashby. The Last Detail follows two soldiers (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) assigned to take a naïve kleptomaniac (Randy Quaid) to a military brig in the northeast. He’s been sentenced to 10 years for stealing from the wife of a military bigwig, but out of generosity and their own rough spirit, the guards decide to show him a good time on the way north. If I had to choose a word to describe this film, it would be ‘gray.’ It’s a heavy, sad film, but Jack Nicholson is at his wild best, and the humor is never far from the surface. When the fights and the drinking and the rendezvous with prostitutes are over and they arrive at the prison, there’s a scene where Quaid, understanding what he’ll be missing for the next 10 years, breaks down and tries to escape. Nicholson, as he tracks him down in the snow, erupts in anger, and contained in the anger is the realization that there was a downfall to showing him a new side of the world—he knows what he can’t have. Just before the final outburst, the most beautiful scene in the movie is scored by William Byrd’s “The Bells,” which is still one of my favorite uses of music in film.

On the topic of Hal Ashby, it’s impossible not to mention films like Harold and Maude, Being There, and my second-favorite, Coming Home, starring Jon Voight, the actor with the third most impressive resume of the decade. Voight starred in Midnight Cowboy in 1969, and continued throughout the decade with the underrated Catch-22, Deliverance, Conrack, The Odessa File (a great spy movie based on a Frederick Forsyth book) and the boxing movie The Champ.

3. Midnight Cowboy —1969

In this film by British director John Schlesinger, Voight plays a Texan with a troubled past who comes to the big city trying to make a career as a gigolo. Enter his pal, Ratso Rizzo, played by the great and grating Dustin Hoffman. The relationship between the two is one of the best and most unusual friend dynamics in film history. It was rated X upon release for homosexual content that would hardly raise an eyebrow today, and remains the only film of that category to ever win an Oscar, much less the Best Picture award it captured in 1970. (The only other X-rated film to be nominated was Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.)

Second on the list of the decade’s greatest actors is Dustin Hoffman. Along with Midnight Cowboy, he starred in the seminal The Graduate, the western epic Little Big Man, Peckinpah’s terrifying classic Straw Dogs, the controversial Lenny (a hopeless Best Picture nominee in the 1974 class with The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II), All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer. But his incredible turn as Ratso Rizzo is still the greatest performance of his career, and the chemistry between he and Voight is hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking.

2. M*A*S*H —1970

Again, I’m limiting myself to just one film from each director, and this is the choice for Robert Altman, the best director of the New Hollywood generation. According to Altman, who up to that point had largely directed industrial films and TV movies, he was the 13th choice to direct the film. When he finally got the chance, his style was so loose and sporadic that Donald Sutherland tried to have him fired. But the resulting film, about a MASH unit in the Korean War trying to deal with the ugly reality surrounding them, is a tragicomic masterpiece. In what would become an Altman trademark, the film is full of overlapping dialogue and roving camera movements. The first time I watched the film, I couldn’t decide if it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, or the saddest. Eventually, I decided it was probably both. The mock suicide scene, featuring a recreation of “The Last Supper” and the song “Suicide is Painless” that would eventually become the theme to the television show, is a perfect rendering of that dichotomy.

In the Altman ’70s oeuvre, the following cannot be missed: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (western), The Long Goodbye (crime), Nashville (music), and California Split (gambling).

1. Five Easy Pieces —1971

Jack Nicholson, if you haven’t already guessed, tops the list for best actors of the era. Between this, Easy Riders, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger (an excellent and almost unknown film by the Italian director Antonioni), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I think the Nicholson decade has an argument for the best stretch by an actor who’s ever worked in film.

But Five Easy Pieces, directed by Bob Rafelson, is the best. It’s the story of a talented upper-class wanderer who can’t get his life together and hurts a lot of people because of a selfish and noncommittal streak. A bland description, but the energy and passion of Nicholson, who was still new to the world of cinema and clearly hungry for the fame that would soon come his way, was anything but bland. In fact, he was electrifying, and in combination with the excellent screenplay and the inimitable Rafelson style (distracted, poignant, poetic), the film is a tour de force through the beaten-down America of the ’70s. Where else could you find the indelible image of Nicholson on the back of a moving truck, playing an old piano in a traffic jam? And I won’t test your patience by copying the entire dialogue of the hysterical diner scene, but I highly recommend you find it on YouTube. As for Rafelson, he’d go on to direct The King of Marvin Gardens, another classic featuring Nicholson in one of his few straight man roles, and slowly watch his career devolve over three decades into making short erotic films and video tributes to Lionel Richie. In some ways, his rise and decline is a perfect symbol of the New Hollywood.

Any reader who shares my love for 1970s American film is thinking the same thing at this point: the list is dead wrong. Where is the Milos Forman classic One Flew or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? Where are any of Kubrick’s films? Scorcese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver? Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan? What about the Boston crime classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle? Hell, what about the greatest sports film ever made, Slapshot? Or the second best, Breaking Away? What about Apocalypse Now and The Last Picture Show and The Exorcist and Network? Or Serpico and The Sting and the brilliant western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

And that reader is exactly right. No list can possibly capture the full scope of the New Hollywood era, and disagreement is part of the bargain. When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas showed the studios how to take away the uncertainty from the film industry, and with it the art, the sun was bound to set on the auteur director. The problem with giving them too much freedom is that along with the classics, they produced plenty of flops. And when executives realized that flops weren’t necessary, it wasn’t long before the directors became redundant too.

Many see Scorcese’s Raging Bull as the end of New Hollywood, but regardless of the final moment, it was soon clear that the golden age was gone for good. Still, it was lucky that the decade existed in the first place. The influence of the ’70s lives on in directors like Wes Anderson and The Coen Brothers, and if the day comes when the strain of those men dies out completely, we can be grateful that there’s so much to remember them by.