New Hollywood, often referred to as the “American New Wave,” is used to describe a movement in American film history from the 1960-1980s. It was known for the rise of a new generation of young, film-school-educated, countercultural filmmakers, directors, actors and writers. This creative group spoke to audiences in ways that Golden Age era directors were struggling to achieve. The result was a decade or so of bold experimentation turning out some of the most creative and memorable classics in mainstream American cinema. Some of the most notable directors from this time include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Woody Allen. A new brand of cinematic artistry was taking place during this era, and this group of talented and bold directors led the way.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a Hollywood dominated by musicals and historical epics like Gone with the Wind. Hollywood experienced a shift into New Hollywood as early as 1957. But before the era was in full swing, audience share continued to decline and had reached disturbingly low levels by the mid-1960s. Studios were struggling to captivate audiences successfully, and costly production flops were revealing this. Movies like Tora Tora Tora and Hello Dolly failed to replicate the success of The Sound of Music. The studios were feeling the strain of the lack of return and unpopularity of these productions. So, what was going on that lead to the shift in entertainment taste and participation? Well, part of this loss of revenue was due to the demographic change that was emerging in the 1960’s. Baby boomers were coming of age. A shift was occurring where a majority of viewers were going from a middle-aged high school educated audience to a younger, more affluent and college educated audience. The younger audience was drawn to European films, and Japanese films, a different flavor or entertainment than the older audience was used to experiencing.
If an industry is struggling, it normally means it’s time to get innovative, and Hollywood needed a change to stay afloat. The desperation felt by studios during this period of economic downturn led to innovation and risk-taking, allowing some of the classic movies we know and love today to take shape. In an attempt to capture that audience which found a connection to the “art films” of Europe, the studios hired a mix bagged of young filmmakers and allowed them to make their films with relatively little studio control. This was the first time the fil-makers had this amount of autonomy. This, together with the breakdown of the Production Code in 1966 and the new rating system in 1968, set the scene for New Hollywood. Films went against the standard “Hollywood ending” theme. Happy endings and riding off into the sunset were a thinking of the past. By the mid 50’s films had a new major competitor, the television. With the rise of TV, studios needed some novelty to help fill those seats in theaters and show why movies were still better than TV. As TV started getting better and better, fewer people were going to the movies. It was cheaper and more convenient to stay at home. Something new and innovative was going to have to draw consumers back out to the cinema. And this is where the new era took Hollywood by storm. New Era movies were bloody, violent, sexual, and they pushed the limit on language and taboos. They were the counter-culture answer to decades-long conservative Hollywood.
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, released in 1967 and 1969 are often cited as the first New Hollywood films. They were made by big studios and featured several of their hot young stars, and yet they had violence, sexuality, and a dark tone that owed more to European cinema than anything the Golden era would have produced. This was a new flavor of cinema that sent a positive shock through the industry. Bonnie and Clyde was a massive hit. The film swept up young audiences, proving there was indeed a market for movies about young people, for young people. The film grossed over 50 million dollars against its 2.5 million budget. Easy Rider was as successful as Bonnie and Clyde. Grossing 60 million dollars against its $400,000 budget, they did well on their return. Some of the most well-known movies produced included, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Annie Hall, just to name a few.
The Graduate is another classic from the new age era. This risqué film starred Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as a young man with no idea where his life would take him. A recent college graduate, he had no ambition and no certainty. His parents push for him to attend graduate school and advance into a suitable career. He soon comes under the seduction of older woman Mrs. Robinson but is also pressured to pursue her daughter Elaine who was more age appropriate. You know what they say, idle hands are the devil’s playground. Directed by Mike Nichols and aided by an iconic soundtrack by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, highlighting their hit song “The Sound of Silence,” The Graduate represented a trying time for young people. With post-graduate life, there was pressure to get a job, start, a family, get more education, and figure out your path in life. Those who were struggling with next steps or were feeling overwhelmed could quickly identify with Benjamin.
Woody Allen is one of the most successful Hollywood legends of all time. His success began during the new era, and it has been said that his hit movie Annie Hall pretty much defines much of success and career projection. What made “Annie Hall” stand out was its impact on the romantic-comedy genre, although, it wasn’t the typical rom-com people were used to. While some critics called the movie awkward, it truly depicted many of idiosyncrasies of relationships and the different stages that a couple goes through. Neurotic comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) connect at first, but their relationship dissolves over time. They are attracted to each other but later learn they are not meant to be. Annie and Alvy are opposites, and that’s what makes this film go against the typical Hollywood love story. Plus, there isn’t really a happy ending, but one that many people who had been through or were going through difficult relationships could relate to. Since his directing debut in 1966, Allen has written and directed over 40 films. He has been one of the most creative American filmmakers of the last 50 years directing on many topics, mostly involving love, philosophy, death and comedy. At the 40th Academy Awards, both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” were up for several awards, competing against each other for Best Picture of the Year. Both lost to “In the Heat of the Night.” Both films had multiple actor nominations with Estelle Parsons winning Best Supporting Actress for “Bonnie and Clyde.” Mike Nichols won Best Director for “The Graduate.”
The American horror genre was pushed to new limits during the New Age. Films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist, and Carrie all worked hard to restore the original nature of the genre. Meanwhile, on the other side, blood-drenched flicks like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shocked viewers with their brutality. These later films showed that the new age was stretching boundaries and what kind of cruelty and violence would be allowed in the cinema. We see much of this brutality in horror movies today, keeping viewers tense and on the edge of their seats.
A major shift in the New Hollywood filmmakers brought to the art form was a that much of the films were focusing on real life and some relatable. During the Golden age where studios and large sets were the mainstream, stars were remote, lofty figures and unrelatable, yet entertaining for the time. The Motion Picture Production code put restrictions on racy or inappropriate content, and while film makers in the golden age found ways around these rules, explicit content was strictly frowned upon and did not make its way to the screen until the new age directors had fewer rules, more freedom, and more ability to take risks.
Realism in films was made possible when film rating systems were changed in the Motion Picture Association of America, and movies were shot outside of grand studios and sets. Being able to shoot on location was made possible with advancements in film technology. With technology like the Panavision Panaflex Camera, filmmakers could shoot 35mm camera film in various places without being held back. Location shooting was cheaper and faster than the Golden Age of film, and directors had to learn fast what realistic shooting locations would resonate most with audiences. There was a stark contrast between the realism in the New Age compared to the studio shooting from the Golden era. Films took on a new feeling of relatability and connection.
When we look back at history, it is clear the 1960’s was a cultural revolution in many parts of society. Music, literature, politics, sex, and race made their marks in various ways during this era. There were riots, protest, and people were looking at America in a critical way, and things were being questioned and evaluated in a way that had not been experienced since the end of the Second World War. And these conversations took a short amount of time to transition to the movies. There are a lot of things which led to the arrival of New Hollywood in the 70’s. In a time of cultural change, many people use the movies or entertainment to funnel their experiences or see a representation of what is happening around them. Many of the films left a true mark on the decades on the new age of Hollywood and the years to follow.
Many of the directors and young actors from the New Age are now considered Hollywood legends. Young American filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were a part of the transition Hollywood experienced. We still watch many of their movies today, and they are referred to or referenced in new movies often is subtle ways. If you get excited at the statement “In a Galaxy Far Far Away…,” you can thank the New Age of Hollywood and the explosion of creative risk-taking that took place. Star Wars was a movie that broke the box office when it was released and continued to be a box office record-setter for years to follow. The film grossed over $700 million worldwide and produced countless lines of action figures, comics, t-shirts, books and cereal. Star Wars would forever change the connection between merchandising and films. The New Age of Hollywood and the explosion of creative risk-taking that occurred changed the face of Hollywood forever.