1970s Cinema: Hollywood’s days of heaven


The ’70s are the years that everything changed. In Hollywood’s recent past lay mundane, predictable dramas and stale comedies that lost their attraction and left studios in financial straits, forced to sell off their props and land. In their future was the age of the blockbuster; once they discovered Jaws, Star Wars, and the guaranteed profits that sequels brought in, there was no turning back. But in the meantime, studios didn’t have a clue what to do. So they threw their money at the most talented directors around and hoped that some of it would stick. They loosened their grip on production, and let auteurs do what they wanted. The result? Some of the greatest films to come out of Hollywood. This band of directors had the greatest shot at freedom they were ever going to get, and they took full advantage of it.

The template for the risks that followed was Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Made in the late ’60s for a budget in the region of $300,000, it went on to gross over $19m at the box office, showing major studios that money could be made in small-budget films with unconventional directors. The film sums up the mood of the ’70s new wave well; it explores social issues with a gripping realism that few films dared previously, and ushered in Jack Nicholson as a legitimate movie star.

This was a decade when untested directors started to make the works that today make them household names. After two other directors declined, Paramount Pictures offered The Godfather to Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount may have soon regretted that appointment, as production was not smooth. They disagreed on much, including the casting of Marlon Brando, and Coppola constantly feared he was on the brink of being fired. However, the film went on to be revered as one of the greatest ever made. Coppola cemented his status as an auteur in the remaining years of the decade with The Conversation, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. Coppola also gave a start to another promising young director, one George Lucas, by producing a full version of his student project THX 1138.

Martin Scorsese’s career began here in earnest. Starting in B-movies he learned about tight budgeting, and went on to make the breakthrough hit Mean Streets. After this he made Taxi Driver, his most famous film, a stunning thriller about one man’s spiral into insanity, before rounding off the decade with the musical New York, New York.

Terrence Malick marked his debut in 1973 with Badlands. His immense talent was instantly recognisable, and Badlands proved to be one of the most influential films of its period. Five years later he directed Days of Heaven, and then promptly disappeared for 20 years.

The late ’70s saw the capitalism that was soon to follow. In 1975 unknown Steven Spielberg released Jaws, and immediately changed the landscape of filmmaking forever. It was the first film to enjoy a wide release on hundreds of cinema screens simultaneously, the first summer blockbuster and the first to make over $100m for its producers. George Lucas soon smashed all of those records with Star Wars, and further revolutionised the industry by releasing tie-in merchandise. The two then ushered in the age of the blockbuster together by teaming up for Raiders of the Last Ark.

There are simply too many classic films to cram into these few words. I haven’t even touched on Miloš Forman’s stunning collection of work, including Taking Off, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair. The re-emergence of film noir, starting with Chinatown, has been overlooked. Nor have I acknowledged Woody Allen and his hits Annie Hall and Manhattan. There is no mention of a great deal of classics, including Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, M*A*S*H, The Exorcist, The Sting, Serpico and Network. I had completely forgotten that Stanley Kubrick made two of his best films, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon.

And in a way, that is a good thing. The scope of the ’70s is simply too great for any list to encompass everything that is noteworthy. The volume and creative merit of the decade is unrivalled, and it is due to the freedom that these directors enjoyed. Unfortunately with the freedom a great number of flops were also made. And when Spielberg and Lucas showed that risks didn’t have to be taken, and flops didn’t have to be made, that philosophy died. But its memory lives on in these celluloid masterpieces.


Sign up for the newsletter!

Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details