Andrew Home takes us through the film landscape of 1969
For Hollywood, the end of the 1960s was a time of drastic change. The studio system, previously the alpha and the omega of the American film industry, had started to crumble. Light entertainment, which Hollywood has previously relied on for the majority of its income, was being slowly but surely monopolised by TV and movies had failed to capitalise on the counter culture movement to which many of the young people of the 1960s were subscribing.
This didn’t stop studio executives from taking a few last minute chances though. Columbia bought the distribution rights to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, a film that defined a generation with its story of a road trip of two friends across the American South: drugs, brothels and all. Seeing it’s box office success (it was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year), studios began to realise that big budget didn’t necessarily equal big success. The 1950s and early 1960s had been full of ostentatious magnificence, with the likes of Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) whose runaway budgets and sensational scale were supposed to prove to audiences the difference between the drab, monochrome of television and the widescreen Technicolor of cinema. Easy Rider paved the way for New Hollywood in this regard; money could come from the avant-garde as well as the mainstream. There would be no Star Wars without Easy Rider.
Another symbol of barriers being broken came in the form of Midnight Cowboy, the only X-rated film to win an Academy Award for best picture. Its story of a naïve young man wanting to make a name for himself in the big city, only to discover the harshness of modern life, was a blunt counterpoint to the kind of white picket-fence perfection of 1950s suburbia.
Hollywood had tried to jump on the counter culture bandwagon but it was too late: the very young people that the studios had neglected for so long were now in a position to make movies of their own. American cinema was about to be taken back by the filmmakers with the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese rising from the studio system’s ashes.