The cover story for the year-opening edition of Time magazine was all about the year 1968--an "annus mirabilis," writer Lance Morrow called it, "a year of wonders" that, like a knife blade slicing through social history, "severed past from future, Then from Now." Morrow's reflective essay did not mention the state of movies in 1968, or the effect that the year would have on movies. But in seeing the events of that remarkable year laid out again--the Tet offensive, campus uprisings, hawk/dove debates, police riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy--I was reminded of how good movies seemed to be then, of how quickly and intuitively some film makers were able to tap into the changing American consciousness.
It didn't all happen in 1968, of course. Evidence of the disaffection of youth emerged in the Free Speech Movement in the early '60s, and if you're looking for the weapon that cut through the Then and Now of American social idealism, you might consider the mail-order rifle that Lee Oswald fired in Dallas in November, 1963.
The seminal movies of the social revolution--Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964); Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" (1966); Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), and Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" (1967)--all predate the cataclysmic events of '68, as does "The Trip," the feature-length LSD promo that presaged the landmark 1969 up-the-Establishment film "Easy Rider."
But 1968 was certainly the busiest year of the social revolution and it contributed greatly to the larder of issues that would preoccupy some of the best film makers over the next decade and create, for a golden split second in history, a commercial market for social-minded films.
In looking back now, it is obvious that Hollywood got into issues in the late '60s and stayed with them through most of the '70s because they made economic sense. The bill-paying audience was perceived then, as now, to be young people between the ages 14 and 24, and most of the youth then, unlike now, were linked by their interest in social and political issues (and sex and drugs).
A relaxing of attitudes toward profanity and sexual explicitness in film (and in all the arts) was apparent before 1968. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) gave Hollywood's hottest couple, Dick and Liz Burton, an opportunity to lacerate each other and audiences with previously verboten vulgarisms, and Antonioni's "Blow-Up" introduced the phrase full frontal nudity to the vocabulary of film.
I almost broke my neck doing a "Did I see what I think I saw" double take when Angie Dickinson appeared topless in a scene in John Boorman's 1967 "Point Blank." It was "fleeting nudity," as opposed to the kind that sticks around, but just seven years later, there was Angie in all her glory--and in full sunlight--romping around in "Big Bad Mama," a sort of "God's Little Acre" version of "Bonnie and Clyde" and it was just another movie.
(How times had changed. Hedy Lamarr barely did a nature jog in the 1933 Czech film "Ecstasy" and the scandal haunted her for the rest of her life. Dickinson allowed herself to be exploited over and over in "Big Bad Mama" and shortly afterward became a feminist role model as the lead in TV's "Police Woman" series.")
It is ironic that industry czar Jack Valenti's ratings system has become the sword of Damocles for today's serious film makers. In the beginning, it had the opposite effect. The ratings, by discouraging local censorship, opened the floodgates for the blunt handling of sexual, social and political themes.
It is impossible to imagine Bernardo Bertolucci's 1973 "Last Tango in Paris" being released in the United States without the advance work done by other films endorsed with movie ratings. Unfortunately, it is also impossible to imagine "Tango" being released in the United States in 1988, now that ratings system itself has evolved into a censorship body.
For a decade beginning roughly with "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967 and ending roughly with "Star Wars" in 1977, the major studios and well-heeled independents clamored after serious projects with socially ambitious directors attached. Films with messages even scaled the heights of the generally detached Academy Award ritual.
In 1969, John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" and Costa-Gavras' "Z" were nominated for best picture ("Midnight Cowboy," an X-rated movie, won). In 1970, Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" and Robert Altman's "MASH" were nominated. In '71, the final five included Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show."
Later on, there were the "Godfather" movies (the ultimate debunkers of the American Dream), "The Candidate," "The Conversation," "The Parallax View," "Taxi Driver" and "All the President's Men," all movies fueled by skepticism and political introspection that began in the '60s.
Certainly, not all--or even the majority--of movies made during that decade had serious bones in their bodies. The new freedom was more frequently abused than used. Some film makers became absolutely giddy about the commercial mandate given to nudity, and bare breasts suddenly flourished on the screen like night-blooming jasmines.
Those elements survived the changes that closed out the '70s and brought Hollywood's infatuation with issues to an abrupt end. Nudity and scatological humor and violence all merged into a blur of commercial hits that ushered in the '80s.
Hollywood lost one audience and found another. When the Baby Boomers moved up the actuarial chart, had children and became interested in things besides politics and social change, movie makers groped for ways to tap their replacements. The next generation of teen-agers was a smaller group than the Baby Boomers, but as George Lucas quickly discovered, it was one given to repetition.
Lucas' "Star Wars" raised the expectations of what a film could do if it connected with kids, and for the next 10 years, Hollywood was obsessed with repeating the "Star Wars" experience. Occasionally, the attempt succeeded. More often, it failed. In the process, little of lasting consequence was made.
There are reasons to believe the pendulum is shifting back. Hollywood and the Baby Boomers are rediscovering each other and despite the current box-office success of such slight fare as "Three Men and a Baby" and "Throw Momma From the Train," an unusual number of provocative films have been easing into the market in the last couple of years.
You have only to look at the apparent success of "Ironweed," "The Last Emperor" and "Hope and Glory" to believe.
In the next few years, the power and creativity in Hollywood--the directors, the producers and the studio heads--will become increasingly under the control of people who are themselves Baby Boomers. If they can't make movies better than what we have seen in the '80s, the '60s were not as profound as we thought.