There are many myths that film nerds hold dear and close to their hearts, even though they’re demonstrably not true. Martin Scorsese can do no wrong. Duck Soup tanked at the box office. And Star Wars, or, more recently, superhero movies ended all art in Hollywood forever. This last one is so common, even nerds like Simon Pegg are espousing it. And it’s staggeringly wrong.
Here’s the myth, more or less. Depending on who you ask, one movie, usually Easy Rider, demonstrated to Hollywood that profound artistic statements could not only win Oscars, but make boatloads of money. This, combined with the collapse of the studio system, touched off an artistic renaissance in the late ’60s and early ’70s called New Hollywood, as brilliant filmmakers were given complete leeway to make the serious films they’d always wanted to.
Then, Star Wars came out and ruined everything. Hollywood rediscovered that dumb movies could make money, and stopped funding the geniuses. As a story, it’s got everything; high culture, low culture, the belief in a golden age, lots of recognizable names like Scorsese, Coppola, and so on.
And it’s a very durable myth. You don’t have to go very far to find people insisting the reason we don’t get fancy art movies these days is because of you damn kids and your superheroes. The problem is, it’s pretty much total crap if you know your film history.
The Screwing Of George Lucas
First of all, Star Wars was a product of New Hollywood. Most people forget George Lucas’ debut was in 1971 with THX 1138. It’s mostly known these days as a source of Star Wars in-jokes, but it’s worth seeing just to understand that once George Lucas was, reasonably, held up as a cinematic genius. If this movie had found an audience, Lucas’ next job would have been Apocalypse Now.
Unfortunately for Lucas, it was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, who had a massive ego and no actual ability to manage a movie studio. So, his profound personal statement got thrown in a dumpster and essentially forgotten.
Fortunately for Lucas, Coppola was smart enough to distract him from the movie’s troubles by daring him to write a mainstream movie… which would turn out to be American Graffiti, and which Coppola also produced. That success managed to, narrowly, get Lucas a deal with Fox to make Star Wars… a movie Fox only paid for because they thought Lucas might move on to more “substantial” filmmaking. So, what about all those “substantial” filmmakers? What were they up to?
Great Filmmakers, Bad Movies
They were making movies like this:
That’s At Long Last Love, directed by film critic and two-time Oscar nominee Peter Bogdanovich. Yes, that is Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Yes, they are singing. And there’s a lot more where this came from.
Between 1975 and 1980, some of the greatest filmmakers of the New Hollywood era used their clout to put out some of the worst movies you will ever see in your life. Let’s start with the closest thing film nerds have to a Messiah figure: Martin Scorsese. He used all the critical goodwill and studio clout from Taxi Driver to make New York, New York, a musical where De Niro beats Liza Minnelli for being more talented than he is. Woody Allen directed Interiors, the first of his many failed attempts to be Ingmar Bergman. Roman Polanski spent 1977 in court before fleeing to France to avoid getting banged up on child molestation charges.
The slightly more obscure directors were, if anything, delivering worse movies. John Boorman made the unintentionally hilarious The Exorcist II. The director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, made Sorcerer, a remake of a French thriller nobody wanted, and followed that up with the awful gay serial killer movie Cruising. Sam Peckinpaugh’s career deteriorated so much he was reduced to directing a movie based off the song Convoy. Just to cap it off, in 1980 Robert Altman delivered Popeye and Michael Cimino used every scrap of cred he got from The Deer Hunter to put out Heaven’s Gate, one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history.
It’s not all bad: Raging Bull, Annie Hall, Apocalypse Now, Days of Heaven, Bound For Glory, and Manhattan all came out in those five years. But that wasn’t enough.
A Long Time Ago, In A Filmmaking Era Far, Far Away
I get the nostalgia for the American New Wave; some truly great films unexpectedly came out of Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and you’ve got some great directors delivering their best work. But the reality is, Star Wars is getting passed the buck for cinematic crimes it never committed. The American New Wave undid itself, and it’s time we stopped blaming Star Wars for it.