Bored with blockbusters? Why Hollywood needs another Bonnie and Clyde moment

This weekend marks 50 years since the release of the film that shook up studios and ushered in a new wave of auteurs including Coppola and Scorsese. Does the complacent Hollywood of 2017 need a similar shock?

We will never know the contents of Warren Beatty’s head once it became clear he had cued Faye Dunaway into wrongly naming La La Land this year’s best picture at the Oscars. Rooted centre stage, the cast and crew of the real winner, Moonlight, filing by, he wore the horrified blank stare of the veteran actor suddenly unable to remember his line. Or perhaps he found himself a happy place – lost in thoughts of Bonnie and Clyde, the transformative crime movie whose 50th anniversary was the reason he and Dunaway were there anyway.

In truth, that was a bit of Academy flimflam. Released in August 1967, Bonnie and Clyde didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, losing to In the Heat of the Night and the elegant heft of Sidney Poitier. But in the half century since, the influence of the true-ish story of public enemies Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has never stopped rippling. Throw in The Graduate, out four months later, and you have the vanguard of what would be called “New Hollywood”. Like a flicked switch, it changed the movies – leading an onrush of struttingly glorious films that caught the mood of youth, made by directors, not executives, filling screens with sex and violence, ambivalence and auteurist flourishes.

For proof, watch out for the Melvillean mass of 50th anniversary pieces about to be published. Once The Graduate has been and gone, next year you can set your watch by the tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the queasy genius of Rosemary’s Baby. Then in 2019, it will be the turn of Sam Peckinpah’s charred and bloody Wild Bunch, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. And so we will keep going until we reach the breakthroughs of pups such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.

A persuasive school of thought has it that the years between 1967 and 1979 – maybe we draw a line at the upriver freakout of Apocalypse Now – were the best American cinema would ever have. Whereas the state of the art now can look like the moment before the revolution. The Hollywood of 1966 was bland and besieged, studios throwing vast sums at puffed up spectacles that found audiences ever more prone to washing their hair. For anyone who has spent the last six months avoiding The Mummy and King Arthur, the scene may seem familiar. Every year has its clunkers, of course – but the existential nag of “what are we doing here?” feels louder every time you enter the cinema. A new New Hollywood would have no end of takers.

Dunaway and Beatty at the Oscars in February.
Passing on the torch? Dunaway and Beatty at the Oscars in February. Photograph: Phil McCarten/Ampas/EPA

To the studios of the early 60s, Hollywood was the movies, and vice versa. But New Hollywood came out of broader horizons, with youthful Manhattan thrillseekers turning to movies made thousands of miles from America, the adventures of the French New Wave. The writers of Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Benton and David Newman, were just that kind of hip kid – before the great Arthur Penn was hired, their first choices as director were François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

The other ingredient was the socio-political something in the air, the bloody churn of Vietnam, riots across the US, the psychedelic moment. None of that was up on screen. Yet still no one saw New Hollywood coming. Bonnie and Clyde stole up on the culture in a way it would be impossible to do today, with a zillion truffle-hunter content providers tracking movies from their first pitch. Moonlight, the definitive surprise package, won the Oscar this year having been first tipped to do so while still being edited. The immediate response to Bonnie and Clyde were reviews deriding it as lowbrow sleaze, and a release schedule of Texan drive-ins.

But it became a pop culture smash – Dunaway’s beret the autumn’s fashion must-have. What audiences saw that critics hadn’t was the ticklish idea behind the violence; that it could be funny and ugly, and that sex was simultaneously all that mattered and no big thing (note for the record that the favourite movie of the sexual revolution had an impotent hero). It was a song played on the offbeat, a “gangster film,” Robert Benton said, “about all the things they didn’t show you in a gangster film.” The same counter-intuition informed the casting of The Graduate, the hunk at the heart of Charles Webb’s source novel played by the nebbishy Dustin Hoffman. As one film closed with a wall of bullets and the other an uncertain stare into the future, a particular type of movie – all square jaws and sunset endings – looked redundant. In remembering how to talk to young audiences, American movies grew up. Films held two thoughts in their head at once. The day was saved.

Sort of. The influence of New Hollywood was deeply lopsided, the hallmark shrug of doubt less durable than the wisecracks. In modern times, the most vocal heir to the aesthetic has been Quentin Tarantino, whose films at their best have the same livewire hum as Bonnie and Clyde – and at worst exactly the dimwit snigger of which Beatty and Dunaway were wrongly accused.

Tarantino also fits the profile of the classic New Hollywood auteur, hero of an uprising in which one set of white dudes were replaced by another, slightly younger set of white dudes. Hoffman’s Jewishness unnerved studios besotted with Robert Redford – otherwise, race was someone else’s problem. In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the gossipy history taken as the record of the era, Sidney Poitier’s status as a black superstar and the triumph of In the Heat of the Night fall somewhere between irrelevance and obstacle. “Safe,” Biskind called the film, no word more damning.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967): ‘Sidney Poitier was nudged to the margins of the Easy Riders narrative.’ Photograph: BFI

Long term, New Hollywood had a suitably downbeat ending. From the 80s onwards, the square jaws and sunsets were back, the studios returned to the wheel, the auteur surviving only as a cartoon cokey tyrant. Sex and violence were used to goose up formula scripts, art was for losers and the default tone was either life-lesson gloop (starring Meg Ryan) or stubbled pomposity (Kevin Costner).

It took a different kind of revolution to kill those films. What Beatty and Dunaway achieved in 1967, Lehman Brothers did in 2008, the financial crisis spooking the studios – or the conglomerates that now owned them. Overnight, the middlebrow, mid-budget awards-season fodder that had come to define “Hollywood” was judged a bad risk. For a decade since, the film business has been strictly binary, split between micro indies made for pocket change and studios turning out jumbotronic superhero serials.

The blockbusters restored one old Hollywood tradition, the continuing combos of X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy overseen by directors hired for being good at taking notes from executives. But in another sense, all is changed – the power behind the comic book movies lies with Marvel and DC, the studios now mere unloaders of other people’s product. And this is before we get to the bodies on the sofa under the cyclops gaze of Netflix. In 1966, New Hollywood had Hollywood to overthrow. Now, there may just be empty space.

Fifty years after Faye Dunaway picked up her pearl-handled Smith and Wesson, does Hollywood need bringing back from the dead once more? Again, yes and no. The studios may be shadows of their former selves, but American movies are in rude health. The strange thing is that after Sidney Poitier was nudged to the margins of the Easy Riders narrative, the rescue has been mounted by black film-makers – Jordan Peele, using a pinch of Rosemary’s Baby to pull in delirious crowds for Get Out, and Barry Jenkins, his Oscar for Moonlight coming after the world already fell for his movie.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.
Get Out (2017): ‘Cinema’s rescue has been mounted by black filmmakers.’ Photograph: Allstar/Blumhouse Productions

The $1.5m budget put up by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, was the closest Moonlight came to the system. The distributors were more upstart New Yorkers, A24, putting out a film made by a director who never had the standard grounding for young American film-makers in Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson. Instead, as a kid from the projects of Miami, Jenkins looked outside the US, to the pristine frames of Wong Kar Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien – and the same French New Wave that kickstarted Robert Benton and David Newman. New Hollywood, it turned out, lived on.

This time, though, the tone wasn’t bloody. Instead, there was a radical empathy, a sense of what it feels like in the nerve endings to be human – expressed in Jenkins’s signature close-up of a lonely boy gazing back out of the screen. Moonlight shares that with a cluster of new films, all of them focused on characters excluded from the mainstream, racially, generationally, economically. They’re there, too, in the movies of Sean Baker, director of last year’s Tangerine and the yet-to-be-released Florida Project, Anna Rose Holmer (The Fits) and the Safdie brothers (Good Time), whose grimy visual swagger is another nod back to 1967.

Like the makers of Bonnie and Clyde, their legacy won’t just be their own films, but films made by people young enough to be their grandchildren who pick up cameras because of them. For all the slapstick, on Oscar night 2017 Beatty and Dunaway passed on a torch. Even if they gave it to La La Land first.


Danny Leigh

The GuardianTramp

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