Many movie aficionados and critics alike consider the 1970s to be the best decade in film history. Jaws, Chinatown, Cabaret, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather and its sequel all premiered in that time period. 1976 alone yielded these classics: All the President’s Men, Network, Rocky, Taxi Driver, Carrie, Marathon Man, The Outlaw Josie Wales, The Omen, Mikey & Nicky, and The Bad News Bears.
So, what was it about the 70s that produced such a bumper crop of great films?
It was a period of tremendous upheaval in America, of course, and such periods overflowing with drama are always good for dramatists. Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights, gay rights, the sexual revolution, drugs, abortion—what wasn’t a big deal? The youth movement brought about a range of diverse voices, too, all wanting to be heard, all anxious to challenging the status quo. And that went for those in Hollywood, too.
Screenwriters, peddling their stories during that time, couldn’t help but get into the groove. Times were changing quickly, on the big and small screen. John Wayne was shot down in The Cowboys, the devil possessed a child in The Exorcist, and Love Story began with the heroine’s death. Even mainstream fare like Rocky saw the hero lose the big fight at the end. What was going on here? The rules were being rewritten and audiences were eating it up.
It would behoove today’s screenwriter to not worry about what sold last year, but to look for ways to write something fresh, avoid clichés, twist around the tried and true tropes, and ignore so many rules. In other words, act like you’re writing for the screen in 1976, not present day.
And to further the point, here are three films that busted a lot of norms in that vaulted year, proving that it’s always good to zig while others zag.
There’s an old adage in Hollywood, usually attributed to producer Sam Goldwyn, that if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky didn’t care for such advice. He believed in delivering angry messages to the world through his stinging and often political scripts. His diatribe against the decline of America may have hit its zenith in 1976 when he penned Network. That film is a scathing indictment of television news, corporate overlords, the entertainment industry, and the dumbing down of the American audience. Chayefsky pulled no punches, ignoring Goldwyn’s advice and screaming his message from the rafters.
How did audiences accept his message, one that was essentially a slap in their face? Quite well, thank you very much. Network became a big hit and Chayefsky won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
What was his secret sauce? Why did his acid make for such a secret sauce? The answer: it was served up as a dark comedy.
Of all styles of comedy, dark comedies are the rarest. Yet, during the cynical 70s, dark comedies were very much in vogue. M*A*S*H, The Candidate, The Last Detail, The Stepford Wives, and Being There were all smart, brutal critiques of America. And Network may have been the snarkiest of them all.
In that dark comedy, Chayefsky pulled off two nifty tricks that have seldom been equaled. First, he diagnosed America as a hopeless patient, dying on its diet of mediocrity and fame worship. Second, he wrote a dark comedy that never acted like one. He and director Sidney Lumet managed to tell such a tale as if it was a 70s drama. The entire cast was filled with serious, even grave actors. And despite the craziness in the story, it was played straight.
That’s no small feat considering that the plot has network newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) go insane on air and get exploited for ratings by entertainment chief Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway). She ends up turning his news show into something you’d now see regularly on cable news, a side show with carnival barker as host, nutty guests spouting about, and an audience eating it all up in a cult of personality.
How the two heralded actors kept a straight face, I’ll never know, but Diana mounts William Holden’s old newsman for sex as she’s fantasizing about the Beale show getting a 30 share. She climaxes because of numbers, not her partner’s prowess. It’s outrageous and hilarious, yet it’s played quite straight, one of the keys to comedy. Chayefsky understood that and ensured that Network played as a dark comedy while never telling the audience it’s a comedy. It’s quite a coup, as is yelling from a soap box and packing them in.
Today’s thrillers and actioners have fallen into something of a rut. Spies, superheroes, and assassins can be thrilling, but these are the go-to leads in countless such films. It’s wearing pretty thin, no? Screenwriter William Goldman thought it was already threadbare in 1976, so he did something about it with his script for Marathon Man.
In that thriller, Goldman’s hero wasn’t some dashing, handsome, gentleman spy, but a nebbish grad student named Babe (Dustin Hoffman). That character never wore a tux or a sleek wardrobe. In fact, he spent most of the story in a ratty bathrobe and pajama bottoms. No slippers, even.
Goldman avoided more clichés as his story went on. Babe didn’t get the girl at the end, instead she was killed for being a double spy. Babe didn’t get to quip wise while henchman batter him, à la Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, Babe screams for his life when the villain drills a healthy front tooth of his full-bore without anesthetic.
The dentist villain may very well have been Goldman’s coup de grâce. Dr. Szell was hardly your typical movie villain, even if he was a Nazi. No, Szell was a 75-year-old relic from WWII who traipsed to America to recover some diamonds. Played by the estimable Sir Laurence Olivier, Szell is bald, walks like a rickety stick, and wears prescription lens that look like magnifying glasses. Goldman, Olivier, and director John Schlesinger turned Szell into one of film history’s greatest bad guys.
Goldman showed screenwriters that villains had to surprise, even if they’re Nazis. So don’t write another Russian drug lord, write a villain who breaks the mold. The 70s gave us a lot of new takes on villainy, from a black vampire (Blackula), to a Disney Imagineer (The Stepford Wives), to a child who cannot control his tricycle (The Omen). Being bad is a state of mind, and in the 70s, being bad was very, very good.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS
Who says writing children’s stories have to go the Disney or Pixar route? Kids aren’t always precocious little urchins, doing adorable things, searching desperately for a lost parent. Sometimes, they’re obnoxious and toxic brats who are only searching desperately for a beer. That was what screenwriter Bill Lancaster and Michael Ritchie came up with in 1976. The result? The Bad News Bears.
Ostensibly, the story of the film concerns a down-on-his-luck, retired minor leaguer (Walter Matthau) who gets talked into coaching a team of misfits for a California little league. Hilarity ensues, but little of it is in that patented sweet Disney way. Instead, this collection of kids act more hostile than most of Charles Manson’s recruits. They not only usurped the family comedy, they usurped the typical sports film offerings.
What made the film revolutionary as well were the multi-dimensional kid characters, often conveying traits a million miles from adorable. These kids were brats: profane, disrespectful, itching for a fight, and drinking and smoking underage. Even the possibility of adolescent sex snuck into the corners of this film, only rated PG at the time. It was scandalous, outrageous, and deplorable.
But boy (and girl), were they recognizable. The kids of the 70s, after all they’d been through, looked like this, not Leave It to Beaver. These kids were products of broken homes, neurotic parents, and troubled neighborhoods—a true reflection of their times. The film was a monster hit and spawned a number of sequels, and they did so because they were of the time.
Indeed, the 70s were such a magnificently edgy and progressive time for the industry, George Clooney used to give out DVD sets of his picks for the 100 greatest films of the 70s. And he had trouble getting it down to just 100. He knew the 70’s were the greatest decade ever for film. And now you do, too. Try to put a little 1976 in what you’re writing this year, won’t you?
*Feature image by Jeff York