In the 1960s, a groundbreaking approach to filmmaking emerged that would forever alter the course of cinema. Dubbed the “New Hollywood” movement, this was a period of transition when upstart talents arose to challenge and change the parameters of the types of stories that films could tell. The “New Hollywood” mindset – which also dubbed the “Hollywood Renaissance” or the “American New Wave” (in a tip of the hat to the similar ethos shared by French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and François Truffaut) catapulted directors into the spotlight like never before. Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds these individuals involved in this cinematic shift helped galvanize a motion picture industry that had grown stagnant from an adherence to the old studio methods. Doing things the tried and true way may have been reliable for Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount et al, but it also had created a malaise with viewers who wanted to see the changing times they suddenly found themselves thrust into represented upon the silver screen.
Like all great revolutions, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly when the “New Hollywood” spirit got off the ground, although most film scholars point to the release of Arthur Penn’s riveting 1967 crime biopic Bonnie and Clyde as a launching pad for this new approach to filmmaking. For this was a feature that reveled in the unexpected, painting a portrait of the notorious titular criminals as deeply complex characters in shades of grey as opposed to black and white like most releases of the era. In a way, Penn’s depiction of Bonnie and Clyde as fleshed-out characters was nearly as shocking as the increasingly bloody robberies the pair carried out during the movie’s runtime. Audiences were not accustomed to seeing this kind of non-traditional story play out on screen. Yet they were more than ready for it. Bonnie and Clyde was a megahit, bringing in more than $70,000,000 during its theatrical run and helping to cement Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as two of the era’s most captivating stars. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences took note as well, the film garnered eight Academy Awards. (Eventually winning two: A Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Estelle Parsons and a Best Cinematography statue for Burnett Guffey).
With the creative floodgates now open, Tinseltown found itself in a period of transition. Traditionally bankable fare like the Julie Andrews musical Star! tanked at the box office, while mind-bending efforts like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes were challenging audiences with their stunning visuals and surprising conclusions. The latter of these featured Hollywood stalwart Charlton Heston portraying a world-weary astronaut whose primary character trait wasn’t heroism but rather a desire to survive to understand this new environment he found himself in. Heston’s Taylor was a new kind of antihero protagonist, one who questioned previously taboo subjects like man’s attitudes toward God and country. There was nothing like this ever seen before in mainstream cinema, let alone a G-rated science fiction film ostensibly directed at children. It was beyond exciting, and such developments were happening throughout “New Hollywood.”
Then there was the rise of the indies. Filmmaker George Romero toiled away for years on his pet project, the pioneering zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. This was a film made independently over the course nearly six months for a budget of $114,000. Thanks it part to word-of-mouth about several of its more macabre and violent moments, the film went on to play the midnight film circuit (itself a direct result of “New Hollywood” filmmaking) for years, becoming one of the most critically and commercially successful releases in history. And that’s not even getting into how it inspired countless contemporary zombie efforts ranging from The Walking Dead to Jim Jarmusch’s recent The Dead Don’t Die.
While bad for society at large, the turbulence of the 1970s led to “New Hollywood” becoming more embedded in the fabric of our culture. It was a time of moral ambiguity, controversy, civil unrest, war, and negativity – all of which was mirrored back to bijou attendees in these works. The counterculture who saw themselves in the characters of Easy Rider just a few years before now had their fears and concerns reflected at them in Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola’s masterwork. Coppola was one of a generation of directors, along with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch and George Lucas, who were among the most enduring “New Hollywood” figures.
Complicated, counter-cultural, captivating. These are the type of films that came to define “New Hollywood,” and the movement’s impact is immeasurable.
This article originally ran in August of 2019.