If you haven't been to the movies lately, you may be missing something. Slowly but surely, individualism is making a comeback in Hollywood—and not a moment too soon.
In movies, as in books and plays, individualism is dramatized in the form of a hero. A hero portrays man as strong, confident, efficacious, possessing free will and conscience, and acting in pursuit or defense of his values.
Throughout the silent era and into the 1930s and '40s, heroes dominated the movie screen. You had to cheer for the indefatigably cocky Cary Grant in Gunga Din, the incorruptible Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the stolid John Wayne of Stagecoach.
The morbid soul-searching of the postwar years shaded the Hollywood product to the darker tone of films noir, Freudian westerns, and brooding character studies. In the late '60s and early 70s, the trend toward moody fatalism reached its climax, and the term "antihero" was coined to denote pop culture's apocalyptic vision of the individual propelled by fate to inevitable destruction. The screen's antiheroes went off to find America and got blown away (Easy Rider), or went off on a crime spree and got blown away (Bonnie and Clyde), or went off their rockers and started blowing other people away (Joe).
It might be argued that the counterculture's Beattys, Fondas, and Nicholsons were individualists, since they rebelled against a "conformist" society. But blind rebellion is not individualism. Living for kicks, as did Bonnie and Clyde, is no substitute for rational self-interest and no prescription for enduring happiness. Dropping out to do your own thing, à la Easy Rider, doesn't amount to much when your "thing" consists of getting stoned, drifting aimlessly, and hanging out at a hippie commune.
In the '60s the medium was the message, and the message was this: Life sucks, and there's nothing you can do about it, so either live for the moment or give up.
Fortunately this is the '80s, and they just don't make 'em like they used to. The turning point might have been All the President's Men, which dramatized one of the few positive notes struck in Watergate—that the individual, acting logically and fearlessly, can make a difference. Or it might have been Jaws, in which man versus nature became a metaphor for good versus evil. Or Star Wars, the space opera about freedom-fighting rebels that the critics said couldn't be taken too seriously, except that some people took it seriously enough to see it 25 times.
By the start of the '80s the public's message to Hollywood was coming through loud and clear: Give us something—and somebody—to cheer for. Antiheroes had gone the way of bra burnings, be-ins, and dinosaurs. Fatalism was out. The individual—taking charge of his life, meeting challenges, achieving goals—was in.
The people who put Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel The Natural on the screen in 1984 understood this. In both book and film the central character, baseball star Roy Hobbs, is offered a lucrative sum to "fix" a championship game. In the book, he accepts; he blows the pennant, only to be found out by the press and reduced to public disgrace. "Say it ain't true, Roy," pleads a heartbroken hero-worshipping kid as Roy walks away, consumed by "his overwhelming self-hatred." But in the film, integrity wins out. Roy refuses the filthy lucre, then steps up to the plate to hit a game-winning homer.
An upbeat ending is a natural these days, along with heroes fighting for personal goals while bucking fate, the odds, and bureaucratic bad guys.
Some films emphasize the fun of chasing profits. A ragtag band of eccentrics fights off the corrupt Hack Bureau and steers the broken-down D.C. Cab company out of the red. College professors, stripped of their research grants, learn to make it as professional Ghostbusters despite the bungling interference of the EPA. An ambitious teenager gets mixed up in some Risky Business and learns a lesson in the theory and practice of entrepreneurial capitalism.
Other films stress courage and honor—The Right Stuff tor any hero. An honest cop puts his life on the line to protect an innocent Witness to police corruption; a renegade cop takes to the air in Blue Thunder to stop a neo-fascist government plot; and four gunslingers ride into Silverado to challenge a lawless sheriff.
Still others treat us to the always welcome spectacle of an active mind triumphing over the seemingly inexorable workings of fate. Matthew Broderick uses his wits to save the world from a runaway computer's War Games and to rescue a knight and his Ladyhawke from a terrible curse, while Michael J. Fox rewrites history—for the better—in a complicated scheme that takes him Back to the Future. And wily old Captain Kirk uses every trick in the book in The Search for Spock (Star Trek III)—and does so not for any altruistic motive but for his own sake, "because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many."
Audiences once again cheering for heroes should be cause for good cheer outside Hollywood as well. Movies, after all, both mirror and mold public attitudes. The fact that so many of today's films celebrate ingenuity, initiative, courage, dedication to a positive goal, pursuit of personal happiness, and loyalty to a sensible moral code means that the American public still wants to see those values on the screen—and, let us hope, still wants to live by them.
Douglas Borton is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. Watch for Death Squad and Man from Tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Hooray for Hollywood!".