WITH ALL THE deserved attention “Midnight Cowboy” is getting on its 25th birthday, a few other memories have been triggered about some of the other films that are now a quarter-century old, and about what has happened to some of the directors responsible for them.
To me, it is inarguable that the last great period in American cinema roughly spanned 1967-1977. By the second half of the 1960s, the last remnants of the Old Hollywood were giving way to an exhilarating rush of new talent. The uncertainty of the establishment, and the aging of many of the most famous directors, led studio executives to gamble on a host of untried young filmmakers, some vastly creative and some just full of weed and hot air, but all bursting to be the banner carriers of the New Hollywood. Further fresh voices came from television and overseas, and many of their films were charged with the excitement surrounding the extraordinary social and political upheavals of the era.
The year 1969 saw the first feature films of Woody Allen (“Take the Money and Run”), Paul Mazursky (“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”), Alan J. Pakula (“The Sterile Cuckoo”), Bob Fosse (“Sweet Charity”), Michael Ritchie (“Downhill Racer”), Richard Attenborough (“Oh What a Lovely War!”), Barbet Schroeder (“More”) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Love Is Colder Than Death”). Then there was that most notorious, successful and influential debut of its era, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider.”
There were the extraordinary one shots of Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” and Leonard Kastle’s “The Honeymoon Killers,” interesting early efforts by Francis Ford Coppola (“The Rain People”) and Robert Altman (“That Cold Day in the Park”). There was the second film, after a 21-year hiatus, by Abraham Polonsky, “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”; exceptional international successes from Costa-Gavras (“Z”), Sergio Leone (“Once Upon a Time in the West”), Lindsay Anderson (“if …”), Ken Russell (“Women in Love”), Eric Rohmer (“My Night at Maud’s”), Luchino Visconti (“The Damned”) and Federico Fellini (“Satyricon”). There were late films by old masters Alfred Hitchcock (“Topaz”), Elia Kazan (“The Arrangement”), Andre de Toth (“Play Dirty”), Henry Hathaway (“True Grit”) and George Cukor (“Justine”). Also on the list would be several outstanding films by former TV directors who had been around awhile but were now making their best films, or close to it — Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”), George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), Sydney Pollack (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”) and Arthur Penn (“Alice’s Restaurant”). Any number of these films could warrant being outfitted in new prints and reissued, and would mostly put to shame the films that are currently filling up the multiplexes.
WITHIN A YEAR OR TWO, these talents would be joined at the top by William Friedkin, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich and Hal Ashby. Along with Mike Nichols , John Schlesinger, John Boorman, Roman Polanski, Franklin J. Schaffner and a few others, they represented the A-list of directors of the early 1970s.
Aside from the quality of their work, two things are notable about the most interesting directors of this period. First, a great number of their most successful films (artistically and commercially) are startlingly, if exhilaratingly, downbeat (“Bonnie and Clyde,””Five Easy Pieces,””The Last Picture Show,””The Exorcist,””Chinatown,””Deliverance,””The Godfather,””Carnal Knowledge,””Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy”). Also, most of the directors who are still around can’t make a hit (or even get a good job) to save their lives.
This last situation is the most intriguing, and perplexing, matter. No one could convince me that these directors simply lost all their talent over the years and are incapable of making a fine film that could also perform strongly at the box office. But of all the directors who emerged decisively from the late 1960s through 1971, only Pollack, Pakula, Coppola, Nichols and Allen have been pretty consistently productive and and on top of the game in mainstream feature films up to the current day.
Some of them, of course, have had unique life difficulties to deal with (Polanski’s exile, Bogdanovich’s love-life problems, others with various illnesses or addictions), and some of the problem can be ascribed to the fact that any serious artist can remain connected to the Zeitgeist for only so long. In fact, it is often only by coincidence that this happens at all.
IT’S TRUE THAT, ONCE A DIRECTOR becomes too big, such factors as ego, self-delusion, big money demands and excess power sometimes can come into play and adversely affect one’s career and others’ desire to collaborate. Some directors do get more conventional, lazy and artistically unmotivated with the years, and others no doubt become out of touch because of the isolation success can bring.
But, as a champion of some of these filmmakers’ work even during the darkest and most unfashionable of times, I remain convinced that the talent doesn’t just vanish and, that with congenial material and the right circumstances, some of them can come back with some vital, and even profitable, films. In this regard, the most heartening story in recent seasons is that of Robert Altman. Although he’s never let up since his “MASH” smash of 24 years ago, no one was working more in the commercial wilderness during the 1980s than Altman, who’s now bounced back with two major films in a row and seems to have enough projects lined up to last him until he’s 90. Two of the other best, most consistent and busiest directors around these days, Clint Eastwood and James Ivory, are also over 60.
Perhaps the renewed attention on the quarter-century-old films of certain filmmakers will have the twofold impact of exciting new audiences about their work, and stimulating the directors themselves to recapture something they lost somewhere along the way. It was gratifying to see twentysomethings discovering the films of Arthur Penn at Sundance this year just when Penn is preparing his first major films in some years. I’ve urged the early work of Michael Ritchie upon quite a few younger people who had never seen it, and I can report he has a growing fan club. Certainly, not since the 1920s has gray hair been as out of fashion in Hollywood as it is right now, but perhaps it’s not too late for a few more astonishing comebacks.