This article about the movement known as “New Hollywood” is the fourth installment in the “Film Movements 101” series. It is highly recommended to read the first article and continue with the next two, as they discuss historic cinematic sensibilities with a considerable impact on the subject of the present article.
The New Hollywood movement represents a period between the mid-60s and the early 80s, in which young American cineastes experimented with the form and transformed the old studio system. Under the influence of previous movements, discussed in this series, these bold directors challenged classical narrative norms and brought a new style of film to the public’s eye.
To understand the background of this somewhat loose movement, one needs to take a look at the situation of the big studios of the time, such as MGM, Columbia, and Warner Bros., among others. The genres which brought them financial success in the past, like the musical or historical epic, stopped being effective in the late 50s and early 60s. The American audience was more attracted by television programs or by the very real debate over the civil rights movement. By the late 60s, most lavish large productions “lost money, and executives proved slow to understand that the big picture was no longer a sure thing” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 513). To minimize the effect of the burgeoning financial crisis, the big studios had to take drastic measures. “Banks forced companies to trim the number of releases, avoid big-budget films, and partner with other studios in coproductions” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 513). However, this downsizing proved to be a blessing in disguise as young filmmakers and producers started working on smaller projects, with little control from the studios. This freedom resulted in the counterculture-infused films of the late 60s and a Hollywood renaissance in the 70s, which included now-famous figures such as Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen.
Because this movement spans over more than a decade, several film genres, and an entire generation of cineastes, it is somewhat difficult to identify a series of common sensibilities and practices within New Hollywood. However, some aspects are representative of the movement, as its embrace of the auteur theory, which dictates that directors should express personal views in their films. One relevant change happened in 1966 when the Motion Picture Association of America stopped regulating the moral cinematic guidelines and created a rating system. Because this body routinely regulated the content of films since the 30s, cineastes that discussed taboo themes were limited or even banned in the past. With the new rating system, daring filmmakers received “license to treat violence, sexuality, or unorthodox ideas” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 515).
Another essential feature of this cinematic generation is the focus on counterculture and youth-related themes. As studios gave more power to young filmmakers, they “launched a cycle of youthpics, which offered young audiences entertainment unavailable on television” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 515). This led to a fresh treatment of issues such as sexuality, violence, and drugs, which showcased the creativity of bold cineastes and transformed the business of the studios.
One of the first movies to be considered as part of this Hollywood renaissance is The Graduate (1967). The film, directed by Mike Nichols, tells the story of Benjamin, a recent graduate with a confused worldview. As he navigates his post-college life, he encounters Mrs. Robinson, an older woman who is trying to seduce him, and falls in love with her daughter Elaine. The film’s daringly explicit sexual nature and the protagonist’s apparent aimlessness spoke to the youth of the late 60s, which made the film a financial success. “It cost $3 million and returned $49 million to its small distributor, Embassy Pictures” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 513). Ironically, it took a story of counterculture to revive mainstream American cinema. Nevertheless, Nichols’s cinematic eye and the film’s social significance represented a considerable shift toward a new wave of bold, innovative cinematic stories.
Another essential film of the movement is Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a bloody film about the now-famous American criminal couple. The movie was highly controversial at the time, for its apparent glorification of violence and murder. However, it was this very disputed nature that brought people to see it, especially college students. The film acted as a new perspective on violence, from both a conceptual point of view and a technical one. It popularized the use of slow-motion to increase the effect of violence and presented one of the most gruesome death scenes at the time, with both protagonists being brutally gunned down by the police. This final sequence mesmerized the public and opened “the floodgates to a fearless movie culture in which anything could be shown” (Gleiberman, 2017).
Easy Rider (1969) is probably the quintessential counterculture film. Dennis Hopper’s daring film presents the story of Billy and Wyatt, two bikers who travel across the American South, after a successful drug deal. The movie takes a bold, unfiltered look at hippie culture, drug use, and perceived freedom, themes that made it a commercial and critical hit. Among the films discussed in this article, it represents the fullest departure from the studio movies. Easy Rider fractured the narrative with choppy cuts to give the impression of psychedelics and included improvised dialogue and acting to reveal the reality of the hippie commune. Hopper’s drug-infused road movie “struck a chord with a public in thrall of the country’s youth movements, who could relate to Billy and Wyatt’s desire to be and stay wild” (Bramesco, 2019).
While it ended, ironically, with the creation of the blockbuster and stronger studio controls, New Hollywood’s inventive and bold filmmaking cannot be ignored. In a time of financial crisis for the industry, these young cineastes stepped forward and experimented with the form, going against the cliched formulas of the studios. Their films captured the imagination of the counterculture youth and gave birth to a new style of cinema. This filmic philosophy further developed in the 70s to become a form of American art cinema, which gave the world movies such as The Conversation (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Deer Hunter (1978).
Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2002). Film History: An Introduction (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
Gleiberman, O. (2017, August 13). ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ at 50: A Revolutionary Film That Now Looks Like the Last Work of Hollywood Classicism. Variety. https://variety.com/2017/film/columns/bonnie-and-clyde-warren-beatty-faye-dunaway-50-year-anniversary-1202525866/
Bramesco, C. (2019, July 15). Easy Rider at 50: how the rebellious road movie shook up the system. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/15/easy-rider-at-50-how-the-rebellious-road-movie-shook-up-the-system