Not even Hollywood escaped the 1960s counterculture of hippies and psychedelia, but is it remembered fondly or critically by today’s filmmakers?
Does Hollywood negatively stereotype hippies?
In 1969, Charles Manson and his gang of acid-addled followers were arrested and put on trial for an assortment of gruesome crimes. To many, this spelled the end of the era of free-love and innocence, which, for many, remains the defining factor of the hippie movement. In the same year, Dennis Hopper contributed the counter-culture classic Easy Rider to the New Hollywood canon, a film that delves into the darker elements of the non-conformists of the 1960s. Hopper himself plays Billy. A twitchy, swarthy fiend who bears more than a passing resemblance to Manson. Additionally, the struggling Hippie commune visited by the film’s protagonists suggests that whatever promise the Hippie movement once held… was never truly realised.
Interestingly, one of the most damning portrayals of 1960s Bohemia comes from a comparably white-bread film; 1994’s Forrest Gump. In Forrest Gump, director Robert Zemeckis suggests that Forrest’s childhood friend, Jenny, is only drawn towards the flower-child lifestyle because it offers her a superficial escape from the traumas that she has suffered, only for her be sucked into a world of drug-addiction, further abuse and, finally, fatal disease. Easy Rider, at least, takes the time to explore the allure of free-love, drugs and communal living, as well as the darker side of perpetual rebellion. Forrest Gump, on the other hand, dismisses the entirety of the counter-culture movement as empty hedonism.
The presentation of hippies as figures claiming to be enlightened, whilst secretly harbouring few interests beyond physical pleasure is also a stereotype that has endured throughout several films. They range from the sinister, such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, that presents a commune that promises an escape from the banalities of ordinary life through sex and companionship but functions as little more than a masquerade to keep John Hawkes’ cult leader sexually gratified. David Wain’s Wanderlust features a more comedic version of the same sort of concept, with Justin Theroux’s long-haired, far-out charmer proving to be a materialistic fraud. Thus, regardless of tone, Hollywood seems unable to resist perpetrating the same negative ideas about hippies that have persisted for decades.
Or has the free love era been more influential to filmmakers?
Conversely, the hippie movement produced some of the best music of the past century, with many iconic figures being immortalised through film. Perhaps the most popular is Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock. Wadleigh’s work was met with critical acclaim, and nominated for two Academy Awards. While it is somewhat unconventional in that it is a documentary, not a drama, these prestigious award nominations indicate a high appreciation for the hippie movement, be it in regards to their music, aesthetics or values. Indeed, the date of this piece, and the fact that the nominations were from years ago, may suggest that recently the relationship between Hollywood and the Hippie may have soured; however, the fact that in 1996 it was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in America negates this, proving that a positive relationship between Hollywood and the Hippie has endured the test of time.
Whilst the characters of Baz Luhrman’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! are not hippies of the long-haired, unwashed, protesting-against-nuclear-weapons variety, Luhrman’s characters most definitely indulge in the Bohemian lifestyle. The majority of them are willing to sacrifice everything for their art, and furthermore, Christian and Satine—the protagonists—are willing to sacrifice everything, including their art, for love. It can be argued that love was at the epicentre of the hippie movement, and thus, Luhrman’s film presents hippie sensibilities within Hollywood, and indeed presents them in a positive light. These characters do not fall into the aforementioned negative stereotypes, yet the influence of the hippies can still be seen within them.
Hollywood is rife with films that celebrate and appreciate this popular subculture. To claim that these characters are consistently dismissed as stereotypical and undesirable tropes is to overlook the rich culture and revolutionary ideals that the Hippies provided—whether it is by viewing them as clichés or disregarding their influence.