Just nine days after the 1970 National Guard shootings at Kent State University in Ohio had left four students dead and nine injured during a Vietnam War protest, Columbia Pictures released "Getting Straight," a counterculture comedy-drama exploring campus rebellion, unrest and the sexual revolution.
"Getting Straight" wasn't the only mainstream Hollywood production that explored campus unrest and antiwar protests. But "The Strawberry Statement" and "R.P.M." failed to capture the zeitgeist of the era in the same way as "Getting Straight." The film impressed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman so much that when casting his 1971 drama "The Touch," he chose "Getting Straight" star Elliott Gould.
On Wednesday evening, Laemmle's Anniversary Classics Series will present the 45th anniversary screening of "Getting Straight" at the Royal theater in West Los Angeles. Film critic Stephen Farber will conduct a Q&A with Gould and the director of "Getting Straight," the Oscar-nominated Richard Rush ("The Stunt Man"). The program also will celebrate Rush's 86th birthday.
"Getting Straight" revolves around Harry Bailey (Gould), a shaggy-haired former student activist and Vietnam veteran who returns to college to get his teaching degree. Harry wants to stay out of the campus unrest, but his fellow students — including his girlfriend (Candice Bergen) — keep pulling him into the fray.
Shot by László Kovács ("Easy Rider"), "Getting Straight" also starred such newcomers as Harrison Ford and Max Julian (of "The Mack" fame), as well as veteran actors such as Cecil Kellaway and Jeff Corey.
"The late '60s was a very edgy time," Rush said. "It was the decade of rebellion — the sexual revolution. The civil rights movement was going full blast. And there were bigger things happening. There was a war on. There was a draft. There were marches in Washington, riots in Chicago and kids on campus who were at the barricades."
Rush had directed teen and counterculture exploitation films including American International Pictures' 1967 "Hell's Angels on Wheels" and 1968 "Psych-Out," both starring Jack Nicholson, when Columbia offered him "Getting Straight," based on the novel by Ken Kolb.
"It was a nice novel about a graduate student taking his orals to get his teaching credentials," he said. "The administration of the college is like a medieval torture chamber, and the oral exam is like the Salem witch trials. He barely escapes with his sanity. I said I like it, but not quite. I will do it enthusiastically if you allow me to make a contemporary picture and the kids at the college are rebelling against the draft and war. They thought it over a long time."
The studio executives gave him the green light and a list of writers working at the studio.
"I interviewed a lot of them and hired one and shortly thereafter got a very unsatisfying screenplay," Rush said.
The director then hired someone not on the studio list: screenwriter Robert Kaufman, "a brilliant, vicious intellectual, total amoral comic. He could make me laugh. He was a bright, funny man."
Gould was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood when "Getting Straight" came out. He recently had earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Paul Mazursky's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and won raves as the cynical surgeon Trapper John in Robert Altman's groundbreaking antiwar comedy "MASH." He even made the cover of Time magazine, which in 1970 proclaimed him the "Star for an Uptight Age."
" 'Getting Straight,' " noted Gould, "was very meaningful to me. I recall when I met with Richard Rush. We had breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to talk about the project. He said to me, 'Can you get angry?' Because I had never been in the Army nor had I ever gone to college nor am I an angry person. I said, 'I believe I can show you some passion and emotion for this character.' "
"He had complete abandon," Rush said. "Elliott did a hell of a job."
Laemmle's Anniversary Classics Series: 'Getting Straight'
Where: Royal theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday