Is Current Cinema as Good as the Romanticized 1970s Golden Age?

By  · Published on November 10th, 2014

Open Road Films/Columbia Pictures/ Art by FSR

Nightcrawler opened last week to strong admiration from critics (like this), but there was an unsettling note of uniformity in their praise. Most of the acclaim heaped on the film, as well as its lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, focused on a single point of reference: the 1970s. Critics favorably compared the film’s critique of the media to Network, while some described its lead character Lou Bloom as a prototypical New Hollywood anti-hero, some amalgam of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy).

Preston Jones of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram called the film a “Taxi Driver for the TMZ age,” while Peter Howell of the Toronto Star suggested that director Dan Gilroy was “out for the contact high of that Mean Streets vibe,” and those are only two on a large pile of comparisons.

But Nightcrawler isn’t alone in age-evoking responses. These days, simply referencing the ’70s in a review is a way to signify a film’s excellence. Nobody ever writes, “The movie was so terrible it could have come out in the 1970s.” Instead, we romanticize that era as the best cinema ever had to offer and hold it up as a standard to which modern-day studios, with their perceived cookie-cutter, test-driven approach to mainstream filmmaking, can only aspire. But is that really true? Or are the films being made today of equal – and in some cases, better – quality than those of the past?

The qualities of the ‘70s-era classics that we often cite when talking about a film like Nightcrawler are 1) an unlikeable or unsympathetic lead character, 2) an ambiguous moral landscape, and/or 3) some sort of political or social commentary. But those weren’t the only values of that era. While the young guns of New Hollywood were breaking ground, American moviegoers were still flocking en masse to the same kinds of crowd-pleasing, big budget movies that we bemoan today as evidence of how far we’ve fallen.

Disaster movies were a huge trend, with films like The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, and The Towering Inferno putting up big box office numbers. James Bond was still a worldwide success; half a dozen of Roger Moore’s additions to the franchise were released that decade, and they routinely placing among the highest grossers of the year. And the late ’70s birthed the era of much-maligned sequels. Jaws 2 and Rocky 2 both finished in the top 5 in their respective years. Oh, and guess what the top-grossing film of 1970 was? Love Story, the incisive political treatise that immortalized that famous counter-cultural sentiment, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

In other words, while New Hollywood was burgeoning, Old Hollywood was still hanging around. Like now.

Yes, there were young directors making exciting, ground-breaking cinema, but there were also tame studio movies that took no risks and were rewarded with huge profits. The films of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and others are the ones that have lingered in our memory but theirs were not the most popular films of the decade (The Godfather and its sequel aside). Since it’s difficult to judge an era of cinema while in the midst of it, maybe the “Golden Age” of cinema is not actually that different from our own.

These days, A-list Hollywood actors routinely break from safe studio work and put their star power behind project that would not feel out of place in the ’70s. They speak to the darker impulses of our era through unlikeable protagonists and provocative political content, and although they rarely top the box office, they make an indelible impact on our society. It would have been very easy for Hugh Jackman to keep playing Wolverine for the rest of his life, but he decided to jump headfirst into Prisoners, a morally ambiguous meditation on vengeance. You can read Leonardo Dicaprio’s decision to star as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street as Oscar-chasing, but there was never really a chance he would win the award for playing someone so morally grotesque. Same goes for Christian Bale, Ben Affleck and George Clooney in American Hustle, Gone Girl, and Michael Clayton. Without a Hollywood star attached, these films probably would never have been made or, at best, would have had lower profiles and struggled to find an audience.

Of course, New Hollywood was driven by directors, not actors, but today, we have enough brilliant, thought-provoking working directors to rival that era’s Hall of Fame roster. The difference is in their process. What made the 1970s exciting was that studio chiefs were so desperate to attract young audiences that they gave enormous budgets and creative freedom to these young directors. Today, the studio system is far more repressive, which has forced filmmakers to seek other means. Some still work within the traditional studio system (David Fincher, David O. Russell), while others generate their own material but use major distributors (Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino). A few have rejected the studio system almost completely (Mark Duplass, Richard Linklater), while, of course, several of those New Hollywood legends are still producing quality, original content of their own (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick).

Even our era’s most commercial films are far more substantive than those of the 1970s. While superhero movies are turning disappointingly generic, they are still more political than the commercials films of the ’70s and ’80s. You could make a case that the most salient critique of the War on Terror and the myth of American exceptionalism is contained in the Iron Man and Captain America series. The Hunger Games franchise is a hyper-political text aimed at young adults, and their interest in such substantive fare isn’t surprising given the “children’s stories” they grew up with; this generation came of age during the golden age of Pixar animation, when The Incredibles and Wall-E were providing social commentary to children and adults alike.

The list goes on. Some of the most resonant films of the last five years would feel right at home amidst the early works of Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and the rest: Inside Llewlyn Davis, Zero Dark Thirty, The Social Network, The Master, Mud, There Will Be Blood, and Linklater’s Before series.

While it is always good sport to complain about the state of Hollywood filmmaking, it’s equally important to view the past accurately. In this case, it is plain to see that the movies we long for aren’t actually that different from the one’s we have right in front of us.