By the 1970’s, the United States had reached a cultural breaking point fueled mainly by the fallout of an assassinated president and an unpopular and aimless war. Film-goers were no longer responding to feel-good escapism, and their wallets demanded more challenging options when purchasing their tickets. The filmmakers of the seventies that spearheaded the response to this increasing demand for more invigorating content would go on to solidify themselves as true legends. They commanded the bravado of this new Golden Age in Hollywood with passion, taking on themes and styles that would have been uneventful in decades prior, impacting the film industry and our culture as a whole for years to come.
The first of these is William Friedkin, whose films The French Connection and The Exorcist were not only major cultural phenomena at the time of their release (particularly the latter), but also influenced their respective genres in highly inventive ways. Friedkin’s naturalistic and subtle approach to building tension and suspense is what makes his films so damn good. In 1971’s The French Connection, we witness a conventional cop thriller through Friedkin’s lens, which at the time, was highly unconventional. Beginning with the casting of Gene Hackman in the lead role of Detective Doyle, Friedkin was set on grounding his story in as much realism as possible. Here is a character struggling with his own personal issues, burying himself in his work to the point of obsession. Hackman’s casting was a total break from the expected Warren Beatty or Cary Grant type, paving the way for other unconventional — yet inspired — action leads such as Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson.
Friedkin’s follow-up to The French Connection — which won Best Picture and earned him his one Best Director Oscar — was 1973’s The Exorcist, written by William Peter Blatty, based on his own wildly popular novel. This was a huge undertaking for Friedkin, having just come off the success of The French Connection, but he delivered with virtually no disappointment. The film was a hit, and deservedly so. In what could perhaps be easily considered a superior film to its predecessor, The Exorcist was victorious on all fronts, forever imprinting the horror genre with its terrifying realism. There are several moments, from the grotesque exorcism scenes, to the arrival of the titular character himself, that have stood out as key influences for the horror genre to this day. However, revisiting this film leaves you wondering why and how the genre lost its footing in recent years. The Exorcist is devoid of any cheap jump scares or trivial moments. It is a singular, fully-actualized vision from an expert filmmaker.
While most of the film owes most of its cohesiveness to Linda Blair, the actress playing the possessed Regan, it is undoubtedly Friedkin’s creative diligence that makes The Exorcist an undisputed classic. Everything, from the exquisite lighting, to the wonderful practical makeup, beautifully and effectively serves the story told. The sound work is key, with its subtle and sparse use of discordant tones to punctuate the building tension. This, coupled with the cinematography and nuanced performances, make for a brooding tone that slowly lures us in, and we believe that yes, anyone of us could in fact become possessed by the devil.
The next legendary filmmaker whose work we will analyze is writer/director Bob Fosse. His films Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz, while each decisively distinct, all share a certain kinetic energy that only Fosee knew how to tap into. 1972’s Cabaret explored the bohemian underground of World War II era Berlin, fairly dark subject matter veiled by vibrant musical numbers and a doomed love triangle. It is Fosse’s break from convention that truly defines this film. As a musical, it thoroughly works, but as a romance with music in it, it works even better. Each musical number — mostly set in the cabaret club — punctuates and comments on the surrounding plot. The film teeters on the verge of being a parody of itself, with its silly tongue-in-cheek tone. However, Fosse’s execution is so confident that this playfulness absolutely works.
Liza Minnelli is the stand-out performer here as the eclectic Sally, dancing and singing her way to Oscar gold. It is her loose allure that makes the film such a pleasing watch, and effectively bridges the gap between the cheeky romance and the musical-numbers-as-commentary that Fosse so often employs in the film. The most harrowing and effective instance of this, however, is the one song that does not take place in the club. It is sung by a young German boy, whom we find out — slowly, as the camera zooms out — is a Hitler youth. The vigor with which all the surrounding audience members join in is absolutely terrifying, undoubtedly so today as it was in 1972. It is these moments of reflection that stand out the clearest in Cabaret: of us watching a scene of an audience. The way the Nazi rise is depicted in the film is that of complacency, the most dangerous stance imaginable. It all unfolds in the background, as the main players fall in and out of love, and we, the audience, simply sit and watch.
1974’s Lenny is Bob Fosse’s attempt to chronicle the life of pioneer stand-up Lenny Bruce. The mosaic style of editing coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the titular character make for a quite a successful attempt. Hoffman’s absolute command of the screen led him and Fosse to become leaders of this new and raw approach to filmmaking that audiences of the seventies were clamoring for. Lenny, while not strictly accurate in the details, was somehow a strikingly realistic film. It truly captured the feelings of that early stand-up experience and the terror of pushing the existing boundaries of accepted taboo.
Like Fosse’s own Cabaret, Lenny uses live stage acts as narrative devices to comment on the narrative. Whatever Lenny happened to be speaking about on stage reflected the misfortunes of his own personal experience.The splicing and intercutting of totally different points in his life to build a cohesive story was all but unprecedented at the time of the film’s release. The effect was jagged, but Fosse was adamant about developing a unique style. This rapid-fire cutting culminates in a tremendous scene near the final act, featuring Hoffman’s Lenny tragically bombing a packed show while he struggles to stay conscious, nearly wrecked from copious drug use.
“Don’t take away my words. They’re not hurting anyone,” is a key line that appears at the beginning and the end of the film to accentuate and resonate the theme of censorship that strings this sparse story together. Lenny Bruce’s career became defined by his relentless mission to fight for his right to speak. Even his drug use could likely be linked back to his struggles and frustrations with the law and his willingness to keep fighting. Every witier or comedian that feels the freedom to include curse words or sensitive subjects in their work owes that freedom to Lenny Bruce. He paved the way, and Fosse gives us that story with feeling.
1979’s All That Jazz was Fosse’s take on the autobiography, dramatized and infused with musical numbers galore. Jessica Lange and Roy Scheider absolutely carry this film and save it from what could be an over-indulgent trainwreck. They are what makes the film work, with their strangely relatable allure and sensuality that bleeds from frame to frame. Lange’s enigmatic Angelique adds a much-welcomed thin layer of mysticism to the film, elevating it to this sort of fantasy that was unseen in Fosse’s previous work. Scheider’s Joe Gideon is a version of Fosse that is undoubtedly more interesting than the real one. He is much more of a mess and a bad person, and yet we sympathize with him, despite the adultery, the drinking, and the drug use. It is a triumph of film, and a performance.
The final filmmaker we’ll examine is Robert Altman, director of Nashville and M*A*S*H, two films that would inspire a long line of follow-up series and sequels. Altman’s background was in nonfiction and documentary work, so his decision to transfer his skill-sets directly to narrative work is visible in nearly every frame of these two films. The way he stages, directs, and blocks his actors makes us feel as if we’re not supposed to be witnessing these events. The feeling is that we are eavesdropping on true moments. The line delivery overlaps from one actor to another, and they whisper and misspeak. It is so natural and smooth, that we often forget we are watching a movie. This hadn’t really been done before Altman came around. Now, it’s pretty common for films to execute that naturalism, but Altman certainly pioneered and popularized it.
Nashville, released in 1975, submerged us in the musical world of the titular city, entangling us in its people and its politics. Unfortunately, Altman’s realism tends to hinder some sequences of the film. The coarse and unrefined structure of the film makes for certain scenes to feel unimportant and uninteresting, such as most of the stuff with out-of-town reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) and her big tape recorder. As a whole, the film certainly works, and the story of a city and a family’s devotion to music and performance is clear. However, it is these meandering subplots and side characters that don’t really go anywhere that knock the film down a notch in quality for me. Moreover, Altman’s decision to have an assassination occur in the final scene of the film only to be disregarded and dismissed by the ongoing concert is absolutely baffling to me.
1970’s M*A*S*H was Altman’s jab at the war in Vietnam, told through the veil of the war in Korea. Our main characters Hawkeye and Trapper John (played by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, respectively) have been drafted as military surgeons, and they just want to sleep around and party until they get to go back home. This forms the basis of the very loose story that fragilely holds the film together. Like Nashville, M*A*S*H tends to suffer from aimless subplots, and feels sort of episodic in nature. In fact, there’s really nothing truly cinematic about this film, which may explain why it made for such a successful television show. Altman successfully gives us captivating characters and very humorous moments, but they don’t really amount to anything bigger other than a solid whack at the military and the government’s mishandling of the situation in Vietnam.
Overall, these three directors undisputedly left their marks on the art of filmmaking. They each sought out to truly try something new, risking it all for the sake of cinema. They weren’t as interested in money or acclaim as they were with subverting expectations and introducing audiences to stories and methods they may have never encountered or experienced before. William Friedkin, Bob Fosse, and Robert Altman will forever be legends of the cinema, remembered and idolized by creators who will take their legacy and apply it to their own work. Film would not be what it is today without the risks that these men took in order to give us something genuinely new and interesting; something true.