Cinema’s Annus Mirabilis

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Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show. (Columbia Pictures/Trailer image via YouTube)

In 1971, Hollywood gave us a string of not only great films but enduringly fascinating ones.

Fifty years ago Hollywood embraced a new era, the most creatively satisfying one it has ever known. New Hollywood’s rebels had gotten a foothold in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, then taught the studios that weird rinky-dink homemade-looking no-budget movies could be among the year’s biggest moneymakers (Easy Rider in 1969, M*A*S*H in 1970). By 1971 the artists had the run of the place, and the superannuated studio moguls of the 1920s, such as Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, had given up. The Seventies were cinema’s greatest decade and 1971 its greatest year.

Comparing film slates across eras is no more fruitful than comparing Johnny Unitas to Aaron Rodgers: Football is simply a different game today. So is moviemaking. Although 1939 was probably the greatest year of Hollywood’s Golden Age, on the strength of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Midnight, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, and, oh yeah, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, stacking these up against Seventies films doesn’t work. Mr. Smith couldn’t have been made in 1971, and A Clockwork Orange couldn’t have been made in 1939.

The Seventies were a strange interlude in cinema, the only period when Hollywood suits shrugged and let the crazy kids make the decisions. The studios had in many cases become dusty corners of conglomerates. It sounds like a gag on The Simpsons, but for a few years Hollywood’s greatest studio, Warner Bros., was a humble subsidiary of a company whose primary interests were parking garages and cleaning services. Before the rise of home video, and at a time when most American movies had very little potential to make money overseas, movies were such a small business that in 1966 the once-mighty, and soon-to-be-mighty-again, Warner Bros. was sold for $32 million. The Seventies began when no one could crack the code of what constituted a blockbuster: The old model — splashy musicals, big-star dramas, and historical epics — was dead. The new model of action-based thrill rides that could be exploited with sequels and merchandising and sold overseas had not yet been invented.

In 1971 there was a breathtaking sense that you could get away with anything. After 40 years of tight creative control and mandatory self-censorship enforced by the Production Code, all valves were open and offbeat ideas were welcome. The best film of that year, The Last Picture Show, was Peter Bogdanovich’s tale of heartbreak in a small Texas town like the one where Larry McMurtry, who wrote the book from which the movie was adapted, grew up. Bogdanovich, who grew up in New York City, had started out as a film historian and critic. In what was only his third film, he and his outstanding cast — Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, and Ben Johnson, the latter two in Oscar-winning roles — realized the characters and the specificity of the setting in such a restrained, non-soapy way that the story’s underlying emotions grew overwhelming. Bogdanovich had the ingenious idea to shoot the film in black and white, just five years after black-and-white cinema had petered out with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The choice made the film a kind of throwback item that subtly reminded us just how much had changed in the 20 years since the events imagined in the film and gave it an anti-Hollywood, documentary feel. Bogdanovich was 32 years old.

Exciting new forms were emerging: The most shocking film to date by a major Hollywood studio director (A Clockwork Orange), a police drama of unprecedented grit and realism (The French Connection), a daring children’s film that depicted wee tykes as rotten little bastards (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), a landmark in counter-counterculture film (Dirty Harry), a hippie Dirty Harry that amounted to a counter-counterculture item (Billy Jack), the first and still the most powerful screen exploration of misogyny (Carnal Knowledge), the blackest black comedy about New York City ever put on screen (Little Murders), a reengineering of the Western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), a Woody Allen comedy masterpiece (Bananas), one of the most sophisticated satires ever written for the screen (The Hospital), the film that launched Clint Eastwood as a director (Play Misty for Me), the film that launched blaxploitation (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), the film that launched George Lucas (THX 1138), the film that launched Al Pacino (The Panic in Needle Park), the film that launched Steven Spielberg (Duel), and the film that launched Wes Anderson (Harold and Maude).

Okay, Wes Anderson didn’t make Harold and Maude, but only because he was two years old. That movie (directed by Hal Ashby, the prototype of the drug-fueled hippie avant-garde filmmaker) invented the combination of deadpan black comedy and childlike preciousness that would come to define Anderson’s work, and it’s hard to imagine Anderson’s career without it.

So rich a year was 1971 that I can hear pencil tips being licked as angry readers prepare to protest my omission of other beloved films: What about Shaft, Klute, and Kotch? Summer of ’42, Willard, Vanishing Point, Get Carter, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, A New Leaf, They Might Be Giants, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Omega Man, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Straw Dogs? You’re making my point for me: It was a spectacular year. There were even a couple of notable last hurrahs: 1971 brought the last great big-screen adaptation of a Golden Age of Broadway musical (Fiddler on the Roof) and the last of the great Sixties-style historical epics (Nicholas and Alexandra). If that latter film had gotten the casting right — alas, two insufficiently compelling actors, Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman, played the title roles of the czar and czarina — this gripping and brutally effective drama about being swept away by the tides of history would have enjoyed the box-office success it richly deserved.

An annus mirabilis, 1971 was a year of not only great films but enduringly fascinating ones, the kind you find yourself watching over and over down the years. I can think of only one other year, also in the Seventies, that rivals it. This also happened to be the year I first became interested in grownup films, so my judgment is perhaps colored by that. But I’ll write about the spectacular offerings of 1979 another time.

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