The question of where the momentous artistic energy generated by the late 1960s would lead must’ve loomed large in the minds of Hollywood executives as they witnessed the dismantling of the studio system and rise of the American auteur. What kind of institution would the Academy become after awarding the X-rated Midnight Cowboy Best Picture? Would grafting the European director/creator model across the pond be successful? Coppola, Friedkin and Stallone, among others, responded with a resounding affirmation, driving the Hollywood into the American New Wave, where freedom reigned and masculinity was on hyperdrive.
In what might now appear to be an obvious sequence of events, the result of handing full control to driven young men was a barrage of dark, brooding films borne out of and reflecting the tenacity of male bravado. The liberation and enlightenment of the previous decade extended an invitation for directors who had grown up with film already a part of their cultural DNA to take matters into their own hands in the 1970s. Thus, crime, war, heists and boxing remained at the forefront of American cinema, albeit in radically different approaches than before. Instead of mindlessly adopting prefabricated concepts, these directors brought their unique visions to the foreground with films that are more nuanced, focused and intimate than those of past generations.
Having grown up in a filmic landscape and absorbing the identitarian progressiveness of the ‘60s, they understood the dramatic needed to be rooted in the personal, not the bombastic. Now more than ever, film and filmmaker found themselves inextricably joined and each film appeared as an artistic limb of its creator rather than a retreading of genre conventions. Conditioned to view life in cinematic terms, they heralded a new wave of storytelling that redefined the notion of the epic on exhilarating new terms.
Patton (1970), though a sprawling WWII epic, registers more as a character study in the grandiose ways of the titular general than the “war movie” it might’ve been, had it been produced a decade earlier; the spotlight rested entirely on George C. Scott’s performance, without which the film would fall flat. Similarly, Gene Hackman, with his everyman looks and emphatic lack of glamour, and director William Friedkin’s eye for everyday darkness steered The French Connection (1971) away from an average crime film into a thrilling dive into a heroin-charged underworld.
The Godfather (1972) and its much-lauded Part II (1974) broke ground in its portrayal of family drama, albeit of a more violently organized nature, as an epic. Though key scenes like the juxtaposition of a christening with a mass assassination and the image of the infamous horse’s head stand out in memory, it is the often tense, often casual exchanges between the Corleone extended family that most register with audiences. With the star-studded, overwhelmingly macho casts performing at the height of their abilities, Francis Ford Coppola’s saga of an established enclave caught in generational flux spoke more about the ways in which lives and relationships change than about an Italian-American crime syndicate.
This trend of masculine cinema continued throughout the decade and across genres. The old-timey caper, The Sting (1973), took place in an entirely male-dominated rat-race just as The Deer Hunter (1978) followed the return of three steelworkers from the war in Vietnam. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), based on Ken Kesey’s countercultural indictment of psychiatric facilities, banked on Jack Nicholson’s Alpha anti-hero finding ways to help his fellow male patients, to the annoyance of their female nurse, while boxing classic Rocky (1976) placed Sylvester Stallone’s heroic muscles at the center of its narrative, a more obvious idolization of the masculine ideal.
Even the decade’s less obviously male-driven films situated themselves firmly in the masculine camp. The idea of female independence as a threat to neurotic masculinity informs every scene in Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen’s sharp examination of a relationship gone wrong. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), a then-revolutionary tale of divorce and child custody, is still undoubtedly the ex-husband’s story, as he grows into his new caretaker role while Meryl Streep wanders offscreen.
The achievement here, of course, is the staggering amount of American inventiveness throughout the decade. The 1970s effectively brought Hollywood to its proper rank as a bastion of thought-provoking cinema ready to stand with the European heavyweights that dominated the ‘60s. Still, despite releases like Cabaret, Nashville, Grease and Carrie, there was little in the way of female-centric films during the decade that saw the rise of slasher films, Star Wars and Roger Moore’s boyish James Bond, a gaping wound the ‘80s would also struggle with closing.