Virtually everyone is talking about Star Wars this month—even Hillary Clinton, who with all the subtlety of a guidance counselor desperately trying to relate to the kids threw in a "may the Force be with you" at last weekend's Democratic debate. At a time like this, it was inevitable that someone would bring up the old argument that the first Star Wars picture drove a stake through the so-called New Hollywood of the '70s. Rick Perlstein rose to the occasion with a Washington Spectator story headlined "Juvenilia Strikes Back: How Star Wars turned us into a nation of eight-year-olds."
Perlstein's piece actually contains two intertwined arguments. One gives Star Wars the lion's share of the blame for ending the New Hollywood era, a time when mainstream movies had more room for unconventional stories, anti-establishment themes, moral ambiguity, and a general sense of scruffiness. The second sees Star Wars as a harbinger of the rise of Reagan. We'll get to the Reagan bit in a moment. But first let's consider that '70s movie landscape.
There are three stories people tell about how the New Hollywood died. In the first, the massive success of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977 redefined the blockbuster, setting a series of changes in motion that transformed how the studios did business. In the second, movies like Star Wars and Rocky (1976) brought back straightforward storytelling and happy endings, signalling a shift from the frequently downbeat and experimental New Hollywood cycle. And in the third, Heaven's Gate (1980) went wildly overbudget but failed to find much of an audience, bringing down an entire studio in the process; at that point, power shifted firmly away from the director-artists and toward the studio suits. All three narratives end with the industry reoriented toward crowd-pleasing blockbusters.
While the Heaven's Gate debacle was mostly self-inflicted, the other two tales give more credit to an outside force (or Force) for the change. As Peter Biskind summed up the charges in his gossipy but useful book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg—the directors of Star Wars and Jaws, respectively—"returned the '70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet on European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-'60s Golden Age of movies….They marched backward through the looking glass, producing pictures that were the mirror opposite of the New Hollywood films of their peers."
There is truth to all three stories, though they can be overstated sometimes. (It's not like people stopped making movies with happy endings from 1967 to 1976.) Perlstein is essentially offering narrative #2: He contrasts Star Wars ("a pastiche of Old Hollywood clichés") and Rocky ("conventionally inspiring, and vaguely reactionary") with films like Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. With Star Wars' success, he writes, "the executives all but officially declared Hollywood's 1960s over. Beckoning audiences into air-conditioned theaters for pleasant, predictable, escapist fare was just the ticket."
That compresses history considerably—most historians would not pronounce the New Hollywood dead until Heaven's Gate hit theaters with a thud, and even then a few pictures developed under the old order would still be sneaking into projection rooms as late as 1981. But it's not a bad summary of one significant way that Star Wars influenced the industry. My main beef with this oft-repeated story is a fact it leaves out: Whatever Jaws, Rocky, and Star Wars did to destroy the New Hollywood, they're all manifestly a product of the period they helped overthrow.
Jaws is a character-driven movie whose actors were allowed to improvise, and its Watergate-era script gives a prominent place to a politician covering up a threat to the public. Rocky spends a lot of time just soaking in the world of working-class Philadelphia, and in its "happy ending" the hero actually loses his big fight. And for all that Star Wars is filled with callbacks to Flash Gordon and the like, it goes out of its way to build a world that seems as scruffy and lived-in as anything in California Split or The Last Detail; the damn thing may sound like a creaky old sci-fi serial, but it looks like a New Hollywood movie.
Perlstein, as I said, isn't just making an aesthetic argument. He has a political point to deliver too:
Was it escapism? Think of the recent history: from 1965 through 1973, massive American gunships rained so much ordnance upon North and South Vietnam that by one estimate the entire land mass could have been paved over an eighth of an inch thick with the metal from all the bombs. The planes took off from huge offshore aircraft carriers—you might even call them "Death Stars"—or from colossal air bases like Tan Son Nhat, by 1965 the busiest "airport" in the world. America had upwards of 500,000 soldiers stationed at a time in South Vietnam, equipped with all the best armaments the richest nation in the history of the world could supply, incinerating village upon village in which we were guests.
You might even call us the "Empire."
And yet we were somehow laid low by a scrappy band of guerrilla warriors, whose weapons were sometimes as crude as sharpened, Ewok-like bamboo spikes. They didn't defeat us by pin-pointing proton torpedoes into tiny exhaust ports, but it was close: you might say the slow, soiling defeat America watched on TV night after night looked a hell of a lot like the work of a "rebel alliance."…
Now, to be sure, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had sophisticated weapons too, provided by another empire. That was part of the complexity. But no wonder the man who erased that complexity—who granted us the imaginative power to reverse these polarities, and identify ourselves only and always with the scrappy rebels resisting an evil empire (and only two years after the fall of Saigon)—won more wealth than he could imagine. He gave us permission to stop growing up. George Lucas, I mean; though the formulation applies to Ronald Reagan, too.
The trouble here is that it's easy to imagine someone using the same examples to make the opposite argument. It's not exactly hard to see something subversive in inviting the audience to identify with a galactic Viet Cong. (That same sort of identification, incidentally, takes place in some '80s action movies with right-wing reputations, such as First Blood and Red Dawn.) Lucas himself, according to Biskind, saw the Emperor as a stand-in for Richard Nixon. I don't want to reduce the movie to any particular interpretation; I agree with my colleague Peter Suderman's comment that Star Wars "does not insist on any particular political point" and "offers a broad template onto which multiple ideas and interpretations can be applied." It is therefore constantly co-opted by tribes from every corner of the political map, each projecting itself onto the Rebel Alliance and its fears onto the Empire.
Something similar happens to many movies with vaguely anti-authoritarian sentiments, from conspiracy thrillers to slobs-vs.-snobs comedies. As Perlstein's friend Tom Frank pointed out after Harold Ramis died, liberals do not "own the imagery of subversion and outsiderness." You can even see this dynamic at work in some of those New Hollywood classics. The best ones usually had enough nuance and ambiguity to resist simple black-and-white readings, but that wasn't always the case. Perlstein calls One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a "deeply subversive, anti-institutional parable," and that it is; but its heroes and villains are marked as clearly as any in Star Wars. And while its political leanings are more concrete than Star Wars' sympathies are, it's worth noting that those leanings are more libertarian than liberal. (There's even a scene sticking up for patients' right to engage in economic transactions that leave them worse off.)
So did Star Wars spread revolutionary fantasies or did it co-opt them for the right? Was it a product of the New Hollywood, or did it help kill the New Hollywood off? In each case, the answer is "both of the above, and more."
Aesthetic cards on the table: I think the '70s may have been Hollywood's best decade. I think the '80s were Hollywood's worst decade. I like most of the New Hollywood pictures that Perlstein cites. I think Heaven's Gate is underrated but I'm not especially eager to watch it again. I think Jaws is by far the best Spielberg movie I've seen. I think Rocky is so-so. I think the original Star Wars is a fun little movie, but I'm not a big fan of the franchise that grew out of it and I'm way more interested in seeing The Hateful Eight than in eventually getting around to watching The Force Awakens. I have tried not to let these matters of personal taste interfere with how I present the history here. I reveal them in this footnote partly in the interest of full disclosure, but mostly to give readers something else to argue about in the comments.