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The New Hollywood era, also known as the American New Wave, the Hollywood Renaissance and the auteur period, is when the swinging Sixties arrived in Hollywood. It was marked by the rise of a new generation of young, film-school-educated, countercultural filmmakers -- directors, actors and writers alike -- whom Hollywood felt could speak to the new generation of young people in ways that their older stars could not. By this point in time, Hollywood was desperate to hold onto any remaining scrap of relevance in an era that saw its dominance of American pop culture pulverized by the trifecta of TV, foreign cinema and independent film. And so, in a last-ditch, Hail Mary pass, they granted these young artists unprecedented freedom to realize their visions in ways that past Hollywood filmmakers could never have imagined. The result was one of the largest creative explosions that the American film industry has ever seen, and which profoundly affected the way in which Hollywood operated into the present day.

The rise and fall of the New Golden Age

The point that is often given for the beginning of the New Hollywood era is the collapse of the Hays Code in the mid-'60s. The Code had already lost its primary reason for being in 1952 when the US Supreme Court declared film to be a protected art form under the First Amendment. By the '60s, major studios had forced it to bend to approve "special exceptions" for critically-hailed, challenging fare, like The Pawnbroker with its short scene of plot-relevant nudity and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with its equally plot-relevant harsh language. Furthermore, when the Code tried to hold its ground with the sexually explicit film Blow Up in 1966, MGM simply defied it and released a film that proved a critical and box office smash hit.

Seeing the writing on the wall, in 1968 the new boss, Jack Valenti, replaced the Code with a much more liberal system of moral guardianship, the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) film rating system. Unlike the Hays Code, which only allowed sorta-edgy content that, today, would probably qualify for a PG (or a very light PG-13), the MPAA rating system created a compromise between anti-censorship artists and the Think of the Children crowd by establishing four tiers for films: "G" for family-friendly films, "M" for films with potentially disturbing subject matter that were still determined to be all-ages appropriate, "R" for films that were deemed objectionable for children to view, and "X" for explicit and potentially offensive movies. "M" was changed to "GP" (and later "PG") in the early '70s due to audience confusion as to whether "M" or "R" was a higher rating. A modified version of this system is still in effect today, with the main changes being the addition of a "PG-13" rating between "PG" and "R" in 1984 (in response to graphic violence in PG films like Temple of Doom and Gremlins), and the replacement of "X" with "NC-17" in 1990. [1]

With the floodgates opened, the benefits started pouring through almost immediately. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Cool Hand Luke, The Producers and Easy Rider broke countless taboos, earning immense critical acclaim and box office returns in the process. Realism and immersion were major themes in such movies, a backlash against the Spectacle and artificiality that defined the studio system. A symbol of this emphasis on realism was the choice of many filmmakers to shoot on location -- not only was this now far less expensive than shooting on set due to advances in technology, it also heightened the feeling that the people on screen were in a real place. In addition, such films were infused with sexuality, graphic violence, drugs, rock music, anti-heroes, anti-establishment themes and other symbols of the '60s counterculture that would've been unthinkable in mainstream American cinema just a few years earlier. Many New Hollywood filmmakers openly admitted to using marijuana and psychedelic drugs, furthering their popularity in the general climate of the '60s. In addition, the rigid white bread cliche of the movie star was challenged with the rise of actors who forced the parameters open like the black Sidney Poitier and the Jewish and Adorkable Dustin Hoffman who hit it big by being seemingly nothing like any major movie star before.

The success of New Hollywood's early films caused the studios to grant almost complete creative control to these filmmakers. As The Seventies rolled in, such films as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Roman Polanski's neo-Noir Chinatown and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver were released to not only near-universal critical acclaim, but also massive ticket sales, earning their studios boatloads of cash in the process. For a time, it appeared that this strategy was paying off big time, and that Hollywood was finally out of its post-war slump.

Alas, it was not to be. Over time, the filmmakers of New Hollywood, free from studio control and being showered with heaps of praise, started to let their egos get the better of them. Their films started to go from masterpieces to self-indulgent messes that were hopelessly over-budget, weeks, months or years behind schedule, and worst of all, nothing that anybody wanted to watch. Disasters like Coppola's 1982 bomb One From the Heart, Michael Cimino's notorious 1980 flop Heavens Gate, and others turned many of the shining lights of New Hollywood into Fallen Creators virtually overnight. At the end of it all, United Artists (the studio behind Heaven's Gate) had gone bankrupt and had been sold to MGM, and studios were once again reining in their directors before things got any worse. The first buyouts of studios by outside forces began during this time, as corporations not only saw that Hollywood was big business, but that, in their currently troubled state, the studios were ripe for hostile takeover.

If you want blood... you've got it!

The auteur filmmaking of New Hollywood was a phenomenon chiefly relegated to the major studios, institutions that could afford to finance the production of these blockbusters. For those who couldn't make it in Hollywood... well, the Hays Code was gone, the Moral Guardians were neutered, and moviegoers were demanding much edgier and more graphic content, so you can guess what happened. The above-described "auteur period" is only one of the two phenomena associated with filmmaking in the 1970s; the other, as Quentin Tarantino and his ilk have so masterfully taught us, was the explosion of B-grade exploitation films. Whole new sub-genres abounded in American cinema, from "Blaxploitation" targeted at newly-empowered (but still largely ignored by Hollywood) African Americans in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, to wild martial arts and Wuxia action films imported from Hong Kong with Bruce Lee becoming a cinematic legend with only a handful of films. Famed low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman -- who mentored many of the big talents of the auteur period -- spent the prior decade developing a sweeping body of work famous for the frugality of its production, and continued to produce films even after he stopped directing in 1971.

The American horror genre entered a new golden age of creativity. On the Hollywood side of the genre, such films as Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist and Carrie all worked hard to restore the artistic respectability of the genre, winning critical acclaim that few horror films have achieved since. Meanwhile, on the indie side, blood-drenched flicks like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shocked viewers with their brutality, and helped to prompt the development of the MPAA film rating system as a replacement for the Hays Code. Italian cinema played a major role in the growth of the genre, with such visionaries as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava all heavily influencing the direction that the horror genre would take well into the '80s.

In conclusion

While the New Hollywood era lasted less than a decade and a half, it had a profound impact on how Hollywood operated. To put it in as few words as possible, New Hollywood was the era in which, at least in America, cinema finally secured its status as True Art after decades of fighting for acceptance alongside literature, theater and music. The old studio system, in which the producers had the ultimate say in everything that happened on set and backstage, was gone for good. Even after the studios pushed back against the excesses of bloated-headed "visionaries" and Executive Meddling returned to prominence, the idea that Hollywood writers and directors have the right to control their work and make movies for the art was something that stayed in the American film industry, as evidenced by such Blockbuster Age of Hollywood filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. The output of the era, like that of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is often put through the Nostalgia Filter, with some saying that it was the last truly classic decade for American cinema.

At the end of the day, the lessons learned from New Hollywood, both good and bad, would be put to use by the studios -- and their new corporate owners -- to start the real Hollywood renaissance. At least, for their profitability...

Notes

  1. The "X" rating, unlike the others, was never trademarked by the MPAA, meaning that producers of pornographic and exploitation films often slapped it onto their own films (along with ratings like "XXX") in order to increase their marketability. As a result, the X rating came to be associated almost exclusively with skin flicks and grindhouse schlock, to the point where more "respectable" films that would have qualified for X ratings (like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) were released unrated instead in order to avoid the stigma, at the cost of reduced exposure. The name change to "NC-17" was designed to get rid of this problem; unfortunately, theaters and advertisers placed the same restrictions on NC-17 rated films as they did on the old X rated films. The first mainstream film to try and buck this, Showgirls, flopped horribly at the box office, and the rating quickly got the same porno/grindhouse stigma as X before it. To this day, no major theater chain will carry an NC-17 film.
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