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joemcfadden
15th February 2022

History of Film: New Hollywood

From Bonnie and Clyde to The Godfather, what was New Hollywood? Find out here
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History of Film: New Hollywood
Photo: Martin Scorsese @ voicefilm.com

The Times They Are A-Changin’

In 1967, a bold new film burst onto American screens. Violent, graphic, and wild, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde represented a watershed moment for American film as it eschewed traditions and ushered in a new age of filmmaking – a movement that would come to be known as New Hollywood. 

New Hollywood was an American film movement primarily defined by a shift in control from the studio to the director. Gone were the days of extensive studio micromanagement, large scale productions, and the rule of the studio system. New Hollywood was ultimately about the freedom of the director to go out and tell the stories they wanted to tell whilst experimenting with new techniques and technologies to push the medium to its limits.

Debate surrounds the exact timeframe of New Hollywood but it is generally accepted to have begun with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and ended in the early 80s, with many critics like Peter Biskind citing Michael Cimino’s famous 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate as the film that killed off New Hollywood. Personally, I always point to 1983’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi as the end of the era because it represented the triumph of commercialism and marketing over art and personal expression; George Lucas gave into his dark side and let dreams of merchandising sales supersede his ideas for a darker, more dramatic conclusion to his epic space opera trilogy. 

Consolidating the Counterculture

Following Bonnie and Clyde’s ground-breaking, if controversial, depiction of outlaws and appeal of a ‘free’ lifestyle, Dennis Hopper’s acclaimed Easy Rider upped the ante by showcasing two bikers simply “Looking for adventure / in whatever comes [their[ way]”. Released in 1969, Hopper’s celebration of the 60s counterculture was a critical and commercial success and once again represented a core tenet of the New Hollywood philosophy. Instead of focusing on presenting a particular vision of America, Easy Rider merely pointed the camera at America and started filming.

The film’s plot loosely follows two bikers on a road trip across America after they complete a huge cocaine deal (indeed Hopper would later brag that he brought coke to Hollywood). However, where the films ingenuity lies in is how it presents the real attitude towards hippies and the counterculture at the time. On their adventure, the two bikers frequently encounter “normal” people who are hostile to their lifestyle and what the counterculture represents, which culminates in the film’s shocking climax. By pointing the camera at the America they were living in, and not the one they wanted it to be, Hopper and Fonda further demonstrated what filmmaking could be.

This style of filmmaking was key to New Hollywood’s success. It gave directors the freedom needed to tell stories about real people and contemporary issues that, up until the demise of the Hays code in the mid-60s, were previously taboo topics, unexplored in motion pictures. By opening up Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider arguably laid the groundwork for some of the most exciting films and notable directors in cinematic history.

Introduction to Film 101

One of the principal features of New Hollywood was that its directors were also lovers of film. Filmmaking had shifted from an insulated industry based on nepotism to a truly open and vibrant free-for-all. Crucially this period gave America’s youth the chance to make the films that mattered to them. Nicknamed the “movie brats”, many New Hollywood directors had grown up on a diet of cinema and came of age during the early rock ‘n’ roll era (mid-50s to early 60s). Directors such as Martin Scorsese and the late, great Peter Bogdanovich were cinephiles who were unrelenting in their desire to consume as much cinema as possible. Works by directors like John Ford, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawks inspired countless filmmakers and convinced them of the power of the motion picture whilst international film movements saw similar radical changes.

Foreign film movements like the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and the filmography of Akira Kurosawa provided inspiration in the early 50s and 60s as the studio system floundered. The Western had died, and the Epic no longer had the same appeal. It was under this context that studios and producers began to realise that audience’s desired more complex stories and thus New Hollywood came of age.

In what has been one of history’s best jokes, the real pioneer of New Hollywood was 1972’s The Godfather as the film gave director Francis Ford Coppola a revered status comparable to that of Don Corleone himself. Whilst films like Easy Rider and its companion Five Easy Pieces (1970) were controversial examinations of the counterculture, The Godfather was a return to the epic powers of fiction with a capital F, telling an epic story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone. 

Photo: Francis Ford Coppola, FICG.mx @flickr

After the commercial and critical success of The Godfather, studios were ready to take risks, leading to some of the most iconic works in the American canon. Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull pushed boundaries whilst films like Polanski’s Chinatown gave classic genres a new feel. Directors like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and William Friedkin were given a newfound freedom in selecting their works as the studios cashed in and creativity ran wild.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

As the 70s progressed, the counterculture died off, and America was hit with crisis after crisis. As such the New Hollywood era began to decline as well. The days of Easy Rider were seemingly over as pictures became darker and directors let their egos take full control. However, the late 70s also became an age of pioneering technology, seeing directors use new techniques and special effects to tell stories on a scale never seen before. The blockbuster was born with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and New Hollywood would never be the same again. 

Although Jaws represented a major shift for cinema, it wasn’t until a story about a farmer, a smuggler, and a princess came along in 1977 that New Hollywood was essentially over, whether it knew it or not. Debuting on May 25th 1977, George Lucas’ Star Wars was both the epitome and grim reaper of New Hollywood. By using pioneering technology to push cinematic boundaries and telling a story studio executives scoffed at, Star Wars was the epitome of New Hollywood. Destined to fail, the sci-fi flick’s runaway success changed film forever. Executives began to think about franchises and merchandising more than scripts and camerawork whilst auteurs were pushed out of the directors’ chair as studios scrambled to make the next big hit. 

“We blew it”

New Hollywood didn’t die with Star Wars but the writing was on the wall. Despite the magnitude of successful films from 1977 to 1983, it was clear that the age of the auteur was ending and, as Reagan took to the White House, it was time for the businessmen to take the reins. This was exemplified by the failure of Heaven’s Gate as it bankrupted United Artists and essentially scared studios off from taking big risks. 

Ultimately, New Hollywood was a period in American film that undoubtedly created some of the finest works ever put to screen and changed cinema forever. The background of the counterculture and the freedom afforded to writers and directors led to a tidal wave of creativity and inspiration that has not been seen in Hollywood since. 

It would be impossible to adequately summarise New Hollywood in this article alone. Indeed, every single film mentioned is worthy of entire novels and journals dedicated to discussing it. But what I’ve hoped to achieve in this article is to merely communicate my love of New Hollywood and why you should delve into this treasure trove of classics that has been inspiring generations for over 50 years.

For anyone who wants to learn more about New Hollywood then I’d highly recommend Peter Biskind’s excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Joe McFadden

Joe McFadden

Managing Editor (2022/23) | Highly Commended for Outstanding Commitment in the North (SPA Regional Awards 2023) | Highly Commended Best Arts & Culture piece in the UK (SPA National Awards 2023) | Shortlisted for Best Reporter in the UK (SPA National Awards 2021)

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