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Movies

In 1968, moviegoers had a lot more choices before blockbuster fever took over

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS DEC. 28-JAN. 1--Actor Keir Dullea peers through his space helmet in Sta
Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic landmark “2001: A Space Odyssey” was 1968’s top-grossing film.
(Associated Press)
Film Critic

Remember the fable about frogs in a pot of water, oblivious to the temperature slowly changing from tepid to boiling until it’s too late? The same thing is true for critics, except it’s not water we’re immersed in, it’s movies.

Because we deal with hundreds and hundreds of films, one 12-month period to the next, it’s hard to tell what’s different about any given year or even compare one decade to the next. Was 2017 a better year than 2016? Four months into 2018, it’s hard to say.

But 50 years, a full half-century, that is a time span to conjure with. And while nothing may initially come to mind about what was different about the films on screens in 1968 as opposed to now, once you start looking at specifics, the picture, so to speak, comes into sharper relief.

READ MORE: A look back at entertainment in 1968 »

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The entire breadth of choice in 1968, from ‘The Love Bug’ to ‘2001,’ [was] taken for granted by moviegoers at the time.

What struck me most is how many different kinds of films there were, especially from studios and major Hollywood production companies, how many genre bases were touched that have since disappeared or become the almost exclusive property of television.

For one thing, there was definitely a taste for less demanding material back in the day. 1968 was the year, after all, of John Wayne making the world safe for democracy in “The Green Berets” and of “The Love Bug,” an old-school Walt Disney studio vehicle about a VW Beetle named Herbie who turned out to be a whiz at winning races.

Then there were musicals, a category now almost extinct. “Oliver!,” complete with exclamation point, the musical version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” would go on to take the best picture Oscar and four others.

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And “Funny Girl,” the musical story of actress/singer Fanny Brice, won star Barbra Streisand the best actress Oscar in a rare tie with Katharine Hepburn, who was in the historical drama “The Lion in Winter,” another category not frequently seen these days.

In fact, genre entertainment of various sorts was alive and well in 1968. Westerns, for instance, saw both Clint Eastwood (“Hang ’Em High”) and his Italian mentor Sergio Leone (“Once Upon a Time in the West”) making their marks.

Science fiction of all sorts had an especially strong showing. The original Charlton Heston/Roddy McDowall “Planet of the Apes,” which spawned eight more films in two distinct series, came out that year, as did George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the progenitor of the ever-present modern zombie film.

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Ghouls attack a farmhouse in the George Romero's "Night of the living Dead."
(Los Angeles Times )

READ MORE: The 10 best movies of 1968, according to the film critic who reviewed them all »

And that’s not even mentioning Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an enigmatic landmark that became the year’s top-grossing film and remains so relevant that Christopher Nolan is going to present a newly made 70-mm print at Cannes this year.

While science fiction has certainly not gone away, one genre that’s just about disappeared is the non-raunchy comedy. 1968 saw several, including Neil Simon’s enduring “The Odd Couple,” starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as friends who are too opposite to attract.

And, as moviegoers can witness at the forthcoming TCM Classic Film Festival 50th anniversary celebration, 1968 saw Mel Brooks’ manic “The Producers,” starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as connivers who hope to make a fortune on “Springtime for Hitler,” a Broadway musical that envisions der Fuhrer as “a swell guy with a song in his heart.” They don’t make them like that anymore.

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The biggest difference between 1968 and now, however, is the presence in strength of intelligent entertainments with adults in mind.

You could start with “Rosemary’s Baby,” Roman Polanski’s deft chiller about devil worship in Manhattan starring John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow. Or else the involving family drama “The Subject Was Roses” — starring Patricia Neal, Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson, who won an Oscar for his performance — might be for you.

Photo of Mia Farrow in the movie Rosemary’s Baby, 1968. Photo/Art by:anon
Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby."
(American Movie Classics )

READ MORE: In May 1968, the Cannes Film Festival ground to a halt. Fifty years later, it’s still sparking controversy »

Or maybe pick the terrific duo starring the cool, graceful presence of star Steve McQueen: “The Thomas Crown Affair,” a cat-and-mouse escapade where he costars with Faye Dunaway, and “Bullitt,” which features a car chase through the streets of San Francisco that remains a knockout.

And if double bills are your style, try two by thriller meister Don Siegel: “Madigan,” with Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda costarring as San Francisco cops, and “Coogan’s Bluff,” a fish-out-of-water tale (think Arizona sheriff in Manhattan) that was Siegel’s first of five collaborations with Clint Eastwood.

Finally, however, it was not any single film but the entire breadth of choice in 1968, from “The Love Bug” to “2001,” taken for granted by moviegoers at the time, that is the major difference between the movie landscape then and now.

A mere seven years later, in 1975, Universal made the daring and hugely successful decision to simultaneously open “Jaws” in 640 theaters nationwide and the nature of the American movie business began to change.

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What we have now, half a century later, is a Hollywood dominated by a wide-release blockbuster movie culture, where a film like Duane Johnson’s “Rampage” opens in more than 4,100 theaters.

Films like the forthcoming Avengers sequel and the rest of their tentpole buddies do their best, week in and week out, to in effect suck all the air out of the room as far as major studio releases go.

Yes, we have independent cinema, documentaries and foreign-language efforts from almost every country on Earth, all stronger than they were 50 years ago. But the kind of mainstream aesthetic diversity that was Hollywood’s birthright is a thing of the past. The reasons for it are many and much debated, but it remains a fact of life for now and the foreseeable future.

MORE ON 1968:

Author Todd Gitlin on how to remember 1968

Days of rage and wonder: Full coverage of 1968’s cultural changes

California Sounds 1968: 10 essential Los Angeles-infused records from a kaleidoscopic era


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