Directors of the 70’s: Still Showing ‘Em How It’s Done

There's still room at the table for the masters!

One can easily imagine Paul Thomas Anderson, the Brothers Coen, Kathryn Bigelow, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky or Alexander Payne sitting in theatres in the seventies and eighties and watching the work of the masters of their generation, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Terence Malick, or Francis Ford Coppola. The aforementioned artists revolutionized American cinema, paving the way for new fresh ideas and younger directors to emerge in the business and work their magic. Just a few years earlier, Coppola, Allen, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Friedkin were students themselves in cinemas, enjoying the works of john Ford, William Wyler, Chaplin, Elia Kazan or David Lean. The previous generation always impacts the generation to follow, but the impact of the directors of the seventies has been staggering. During TIFF this year George Clooney referenced the work of Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet as having been hugely influential on his career, both as an actor and a director. Many films of the last few years have felt like seventies pictures, in their daring and storytelling, in the manner they allow the actors to evolve the story, giving us substance over style.

What I find thrilling about the some of the films coming this fall is that they have been directed by many of those seventies masters, now in the twilight of their careers still doing vital and important work. That they are working at all is in some cases something of a miracle. Contrary to Quentin Tarantino’s belief that filmmaking is a young man’s art, the old boys, now the elder statesman of the film business are showing they can give with the very best of them, in fact they might be the very best of them. The seventies were a decade of enormous change in cinema, when directors gained complete control of their art and made the films they wanted to make. Bruce Springsteen might have been rocking the airwaves while the Bee Gees introduced disco with “How Deep is Your Love,” but on screen all that existed was the work of Coppola, Lumet, Allen, Pollack, Malick, De Palma, Scorsese, Spielberg, Eastwood, Kubrick, Bogdanovich, Ashby, Polanski, Forman, Pakula, Benton and Cimino.

Only a handful of filmmakers were active into their eighties, Cecil B. DeMille among the most notable, but there was Clint Eastwood, not only active but one of the most important American directors we have. Armed with two Academy Awards for Best Director, and other nominations, two Best Picture winners, he will give us the biographical film J. Edgar, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history. The film has instant credibility just because of who is involved and becomes an instant Oscar magnet for the same reasons. The Academy loves Clint Eastwood, though not enough to nominate him for Best Actor for his performance in Gran Torino (2008) or his direction of the sublime Bird (1988). Nonetheless, he and his film are a definite threat for the top prizes, as rumors circulate that DiCaprio is superb.

How will Scorsese astound us this time???

Martin Scorsese finally won that long elusive Academy Award for Best Director for his film The Departed (2006) which was also named Best Picture. When his good friends Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg walked onstage to present the Oscar for Direction, would it not have been terrible had another name been in that envelope? It was a very risky move on the part of the Academy, but also a testament to how much everyone in the business wanted this gifted director to win an Oscar. It seemed downright shameful that Kevin Costner and James Cameron had Oscars for Direction and Scorsese did not. HIs body of work remains extraordinary, though one must confess if they are being entirely honest, there are years when Scorsese has been inconsistent. For every Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) there is a The Color of Money (1986) or Bringing Out the Dead (1999)…good films not great ones. In fairness they cannot all be home runs, but with Scorsese there is such an expectation for greatness with his work, he has spoiled us through the years. His new film is based on a children’s book, and promises to be different from anything he has ever done. Hugo looks beautiful in the trailers, though I worry about the decision to be a 3-D film, as Scorsese has never resorted to gimmicks in his work.

William Friedkin has been working in TV for some time after his career fizzled out in the years after Cruising (1980) and Sorcerer (1977) the latter his famous vanity project, a remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953). He’s back with Killer Joe, a strong picture I screened at TIFF that is as dark and nasty as anything I have encountered in a screening room in the last ten years. It could be enough, if not worthy of Oscar attention, at least allow studios to take a second look at the Oscar winning director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973).

What happened to the great film master??

Francis Ford Coppola made four of the greatest movies ever made in a ten year-span. Through 1972-79, Coppola gave us The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), an astounding pout put for any director in such a short time. The Godfather: Part II (1974) is arguably the greatest American film ever made, and Apocalypse Now (1979) remains a staggering achievement. Yet in the years since his work has been spotty at best, either sappy and awkward as with The Outsiders (1983), bold and visionary, as with Rumble Fish (1983), great entertainment, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or just God awful, which described Jack (1996). AT TIFF this year he made it clear he no longer needed the studios to make his films as his “day job” (said with an ironic smile) allowed him to finance his own films. Coppola’s multimillion dollar wine empire has allowed him to settle his many debts, and operate as his own studio these days. So that long coveted financial independence from Hollywood he once dreamed of is very much a reality. How sad the films he is making are not in the tradition of great Coppola. HIs latest Twixt is a dreadful, juvenile horror film that came to him in a dream, and yet provides audiences with a ninety minute nightmare…it is terrible.

And Spielberg, once the whiz kid who loved to make big movies with so much heart is now a serious director able to tackle deep subjects with a matter of fact attitude and stunning beauty. Schindler’s List (1993) remains his greatest work, Saving Private Ryan (1998) a visceral masterpiece, Munich (2005) his most underappreciated masterpiece, cool and distant, Minority Report (2002), astounding, and the frothy and fun Catch Me If You Can (2002) all proving his immense gifts as a director. This fall he will give us the film adaptation of War Horse (2011) the story of a young man and the horse he allows into duty during the First World War, and the search he goes on to find his prized animal. Spielberg and war? Oscar anyone?

And finally, Woody Allen, Oscar winner for Best Director for Annie Hall (1977) and Best Screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) has made a film a year since 1976. Sometimes two. There have been masterpieces, there have been good films and some duds, but they are always interesting to watch. His latest work, released this past summer, Midnight in Paris (2011) was a lovely valentine to Paris and love that could and should land the seventy plus year old director in the Oscar race. Joining Allen with another summer release could be the mysterious Terence Malick for his film The Tree of Life, though I am thinking the Academy has already cooled off on that film.

Interesting and exciting that the young men I grew up on, are not the elder statesman of the business, and showing the young guys how to tell a story. Makes me smile. How deep is their love indeed. 

  • Jim Wilson

    That was a really good read John, thanks.