The Roots of Modern Hollywood: The Persistence of Values in American Cinema, from the New Deal to the Present

The Roots of Modern Hollywood: The Persistence of Values in American Cinema, from the New Deal to the Present

by Nick Smedley


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ISBN-13: 9781783203734
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 12/15/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Nick Smedley is an independent film historian specializing in Hollywood cinema. He is the author of A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933–1948.

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The Roots of Modern Hollywood

The Persistence of Values in American Cinema, from the New Deal to the Present

By Nick Smedley

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-375-8


The failure of American liberalism and the cinema of despair: Hollywood in the 1970s

Richard Nixon and the end of American liberalism

The 1970s were a watershed in recent American history. After the development of a brand of liberalism uniquely American under the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, the politics of the country abruptly changed with the narrow election victory of Richard Nixon in 1968. Kennedy and, more importantly, Johnson were the political heirs of the architect of New Deal liberalism in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). FDR had introduced America to a modified style of European social democracy, with public housing programmes, job creation, welfare benefits, unemployment insurance, and so on. He had been able to do so because the devastating impact of the Great Depression on millions of Americans had widened the political debate. Issues that had previously been taboo in American politics became respectable – most critically, the notion that government could intervene in the economy, and that it could initiate social engineering through legislation and the political process. While European governments had been experimenting with such ideas from the late nineteenth century, America had proved far more resistant to tampering with the capitalist system. Roosevelt changed all that, introducing Americans to the concept of an interventionist government with a comprehensive programme of social reform. In the 1960s his legacy was picked up and developed by President Johnson, who implemented significant reforms in public housing, education and civil rights.

The arrival of Richard Nixon in the White House in 1968 signalled the end of Johnson's expansion of FDR's political programme. America, at the end of the 1960s, was a country undergoing turbulent change. The broadly consensual nature of American politics began its slow journey towards today's vicious and divisive approach to governing the nation. Equally, the apparent harmony and shared values of American society began to fragment and, for the first time in American history, the sense of promise in America's future faltered. There were many reasons for these changes but two critical factors were the emergence of a student movement, which, at first, appeared politically engaged; and the progress of the war in Vietnam. One of the factors leading to the election of Nixon was the perception among some voters that the forces of 'anti-Americanism' were gathering strength. While liberal intellectuals welcomed the activism of campus demonstrations, the beginnings of the women's movement and Black Power, for many Americans this was all part of a breakdown in traditional values. Opposition to the Vietnam War was seen as unpatriotic. The lack of respect for authority inherent in the student protests added to the sense of disquiet. Meanwhile, in South-East Asia, the war was going horribly wrong, and the clear demonstration of the limits of American military power was unwelcome news at home.

The narrow election victory of Richard Nixon in 1968, and his resounding triumph in 1972, presented serious problems for the American left. The New Deal coalition of southerners, Catholics, the white-urban working class, rural communities and urban intellectuals was unravelling. Many elements of this coalition were switching to the Republicans, and would continue to do so as the decade progressed and the American economy declined. The resurgence of the right was accompanied by a crisis of liberalism, as the Democrats fragmented and turned in on themselves. For many, this period marked a disillusion with the political process, and an end to the belief that social reform could be achieved through it. The counterculture's brief flirtation with radical politics soon petered out, and young people became politically disengaged. Hippies advocated dropping out, rather than campaigning on social issues. For many students and youths, political institutions were corrupt, boring and 'square'. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 removed two of the most charismatic and dynamic liberal leaders, and replacements of their calibre were not to appear.

As the decade wore on, things did not improve for American liberalism. Some of the social changes were depressing for those who had hoped for permanent improvements from the Johnson legacy. People left the cities and moved to the suburbs, leaving behind urban wastelands that soon descended into crime and poverty. Inflation rose and unemployment rose along with it. American manufacturing went into decline, and more and more people became dependent on welfare. Although Nixon was destroyed by the Watergate scandal and forced to resign in August 1974, the narrow election victory of Democrat President Jimmy Carter in 1976 did not herald a new optimism. His inept and unpopular governance cemented the pervading pessimism, and the economy continued to founder. While Nixon had ended the American involvement in the Vietnam War in 1972, the legacy of American weakness endured. Carter's inability to deal with the capture of American hostages in Tehran was further evidence that the period of American greatness was passing into the shadows. For the first time, there was a serious questioning of America's destiny and its assured dominance in world affairs.

In these developments, one can find strong parallels with an earlier period in American history, a period that also saw a crisis of confidence among American liberals. After the death in office of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, there was then too a resurgence of the American right. After more than a decade waiting in the wings, the Republican Party found new strength and swept to victories in both houses of Congress in elections held after the end of the war. Although Harry Truman, a Democrat, surprised most people with his presidential victory in 1948, his reign was hampered by his lack of control in the Senate and the House of Representatives. His attempted liberal programme was completely derailed by the rise of Communism abroad and the concomitant anti-Communist movement at home. As would happen 20 years later under Nixon, left-leaning citizens were too easily portrayed as unpatriotic and communist sympathizers – 'unAmerican' as they and their activities were soon to be branded. Again as would happen later, there was a sense of pessimism about the liberal cause, and a lament at the apparent lack of moral purpose in American life. In the later 1940s, just as in the 1970s, American power was shown to have its limitations, patently unable to stop the advance of Communism in Eastern Europe and South-East Asia.

Hollywood's response to the decline of liberalism

I have written elsewhere about the prevailing liberal idealism found in so much of Hollywood's output in the 1930s and 1940s. Hollywood has for long attracted creative personnel from the left-leaning side of the political spectrum. The messages in the films they make are more often than not embedded in narratives that are entertaining and superficially bland, but the criticism of capitalism is no less powerful or pervasive for that. In the 1940s, Hollywood film-makers had responded to the crisis of liberalism by creating some of America's most bleak and downbeat films, films that offered a lament for the decline of moral values. Other films used fantasy formulations to show viewers that the higher moral tone of the New Deal period could still be found, but no longer through the endeavours of ordinary people in America. It required the intercession of divine or spiritual forces. In 1970s America, Hollywood film-makers responded to a similar crisis of liberalism by creating some of the most pessimistic and anxious films ever to emerge from that industry, films that offered no hope and rejected the happy endings that had till then characterized American cinema. Some of these films are among the greatest achievements of modern Hollywood.

In the 1970s, film directors had far more latitude than their 1940s' predecessors to describe graphically what they saw as the complete collapse of American liberal values, and they made the most of the opportunity. The end of the 1960s was, accordingly, as much a watershed in the history of Hollywood as it was in the history of American politics. One reason for this was the way in which the predominantly liberal community in Hollywood reacted to the election of Richard Nixon. The inherent left-leaning stance among film-makers coincided with a recognition in the film industry of the commercial opportunities offered by a burgeoning youth market. There was a deliberate attempt by studio executives to make films that would appeal to the new counterculture. The desire to widen the appeal of films in this way was given additional impetus by the decline in the system of censorship, which had begun to unravel in the 1950s, and continued to decline as the 1960s wore on. Thus, the new American cinema could include more explicit treatment of sex and violence, and could explore the anti-authority and anti-establishment rhetoric associated with the hippy culture. Films about drug experimentation began to appear, portraying soft drugs as a positive experience, as opposed to the historical idea that drugs led to debilitating addiction and the breakdown of family structures. The rise of independent film producers, working outside the studio system (while continuing to seek finance from the major players), gave further scope for new perspectives. New film-makers joined the community: men who were interested in more controversial subjects than had been tolerated in the corporate culture of the big studios.

For some contemporaries, the 1970s appeared to herald a new era in American film, a more mature, harsher, 'European' style of movie-making. Similar sentiments had been expressed by industry observers and practitioners in the 1940s, and the parallels between the two eras are striking. Although widely seen, then and now, as a departure from the more conservative, celebratory films of the 1950s and earlier 1960s, the 1970s was not in fact the first time that Hollywood artists had distanced themselves from the direction of American politics. Back in the post-war years of the 1940s, American directors and writers had evoked a sense of despair and pessimism in a series of films noirs and fantasies that acknowledged the end of liberal hopes at that time. The circumstances in American political and social life were, in many respects, similar 20 years or so later. The response of Hollywood in 1968 and after had its roots in a history of alienated liberal idealism, last expressed so purposefully in the 1940s. In that earlier period, the shift to more sinister and cynical films had not been a permanent change. The crisis in American optimism passed and, in the 1950s and 1960s, America had recovered its sense of assured destiny and Americans – and Hollywood liberals – moved on. But in the 1970s, something fundamental occurred. The idealistic celebration of all things American has, for some film-makers, never since been recaptured.

Hollywood and the cinema of despair: first stirrings

One of the first film-makers out of the stocks was Mike Nichols, with his classic, The Graduate (Nichols, 1967). Although released almost a year before Nixon's election, the film anticipated the increasingly sceptical attitude in Hollywood to American corporate and capitalist culture. The opening credits sequence shows Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) arriving home from college after graduating. As the credits roll, we see Ben moving on a series of travelators across the airport, a blank expression on his face. His journey seems protracted, somehow without purpose. He is going nowhere, or at least nowhere interesting. He is vacant, detached from his surroundings, in that way many of us are when negotiating the passage from the arrival gate to 'the real world'. Immediately, then, the film prepares us for Ben's journey to nowhere, his transition from the hope and promise of university life to the emptiness of American society. In what follows, Ben finds himself unable to move seamlessly into an executive career, and he becomes more and more indolent, with no sense of direction. In this state of mind, he is deflected from forming a relationship with a pretty girl of his own age, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Instead of finding a 'natural' partner, he is seduced by the empty pleasures of his parents' generation when he stumbles into an affair with a woman old enough to be his mother, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Although a common adolescent fantasy, being inducted into the mysteries of sex by an older woman is not presented in the film as a positive experience for Ben. It complements his purposeless existence. It is empty and devoid of emotional contact. The two hardly speak. Ben always addresses her respectfully as 'Mrs Robinson', emphasizing the gap between her position as a representative of the more formal, older generation, and his status as the younger man: the hope of a better future. The film is a very early entry in the genre of Hollywood's films of anxiety and despair, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the movie ends with a conventional happy ending. Ben finishes his flirtation with Mrs Robinson and the values of his parents' generation, rescues Elaine from 'the wrong marriage' to a boy who subscribes to those same values, and takes her away on a bus. Yet the film does not end in a wholly conventional fashion. As the young couple sit in their seats, smiling at their escape, the camera focuses in on them and holds on their faces for an oddly uncomfortable time. Not speaking, each lost in their own private thoughts, Ben and Elaine's expressions turn from relief mixed with celebration, to contemplation and, finally, to a hint of concern or anxiety. The future may not be certain for the next generation, after all.

While Mike Nichols' film seemed to anticipate some of the more aggressively critical films of the next few years, the agenda was set out even more clearly in 1969. The alliance of anti-Nixon liberals in Hollywood and the emergent youth culture were brought together brilliantly in Dennis Hopper's directorial debut, Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969). Hopper had acted in minor and supporting roles throughout most of the 1950s. In the later 1960s he appeared in various youth-oriented films exploring the new drugs scene. Finally, at the end of the decade he got the chance to bring his own concepts to the screen, co-writing Easy Rider with Terry Southern, co-producing it with fellow star Peter Fonda, and taking the directorial helm. In many ways this film is the defining moment in Hollywood's journey back to a cinema of despair; the moment when the watershed in American political life finds its reflection in American cinema. Hopper plays Billy. Fonda plays a character called Wyatt (significantly known by the nickname, Captain America). The two young men drive their motorcycles across America from California to New Orleans, picking up on the way a drunken, failed lawyer with liberal leanings, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). Not much happens – the film is part road-movie, taking in the American landscape as a metaphor for finding the soul of the country. Billy and Wyatt encounter various people on the way, including aggressive rednecks and police officers who harass them, and hippy communes whose naïve philosophy irritates Billy. The film reverses the classic American mythology of the journey West to find fame and fortune, sending the two 'heroes' east, as though bouncing back from the end of the line. If the nineteenth-century maxim, 'Go West, young man' symbolized America's ever-expansionist destiny, full of optimism and hope for a better life ahead, then Easy Rider's eastbound traffic showed that the journey had, in the end, been pointless. Arriving in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the two men make a drug deal and blow the money on hallucinatory drugs and hard partying. On the way back home they are senselessly shot by some rednecks in a truck.

The film explicitly stems from the emerging youth and student culture, and challenges the conformity, materialism, intolerance and bigotry of American life. At one level, Easy Rider simply shows two non-conformists trying to exist in an America that will not tolerate non-conformity. The emerging counterculture must be crushed. But the film is more complex than that – the two ageing 'youths' are drug dealers who make a lot of money and plan to retire to Florida (thus completing their eastward movement across the continent). In this sense, our two heroes are no different from the society that is being criticized – they are simply attempting to live the American dream and manipulate the capitalist model to their own material ends. They have no wider, altruistic aims, and they do not appear to have any alternative to offer. 'We blew it', says Billy at one point, in one of the most famous lines in the film. Does he mean that America blew its chances of a better-arranged social order, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which American political leaders and the people have chosen to construct American institutions and social structures? Or does he mean that he and the hippy movement blew their chances of making those necessary changes because they were too insular and self-obsessed?


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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The failure of American liberalism and the cinema of despair: Hollywood in the 1970s

Chapter 2: The disappointment of the liberal renaissance: Hollywood in the Clinton era, 1992-2000
Fantasy in the 1990s
Exemplar film 1: Groundhog Day
Exemplar film 2: The Truman Show
Author's interview with Peter Weir
Introduction to the published screenplay of The Truman Show, by Peter Weir

Chapter 3: The rise and fall of the Republicans: Melancholy meditations on America's destiny, 2000-2012
Film noir for the new millennium
Exemplar film 3: Collateral
Author's interview with Michael Mann
Exemplar film 4: Michael Clayton
Author's interview with Tony Gilroy

Chapter 4: The enduring appeal of pacifism: Hollywood and American global imperialism, 1978-2010
The pacifist tradition
Exemplar film 5: In the Valley of Elah
Author's interview with Paul Haggis

Chapter 5: The creeping advance of feminism: Hollywood and the changing role of women in America, 1970 to the present
The feminist debate
Two-faced woman - Julia Roberts as the incarnation of the American woman
Exemplar films 6 and 7: Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich

Bibliographical Essay

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