The New Hollywood (1967 - 1975)

London Look (40mm, Kodak CineStill)

Topping any list of greatest screenwriters is Robert Towne. As of this writing Towne is eighty-three and still kicking, a member of that small club of artists widely recognized in their lifetime as all-time greats.

He was born in 1936 and grew up in the working class fishing community of San Pedro, south of Los Angeles. He spent his apprenticeship years writing crappy genre movies in the late 1950s and early 1960s before helping sculpt the new cinema through screenplays like Chinatown (1974), for which he's best known, and in moviemaking collaborations with dudes (mostly dudes) like Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, and Tom Cruise.

To understand why Towne is so revered requires some deep dives. I've been reading scripts, and the dude is worthy of the reputation. But it's maybe helpful, out front, to talk about when he was writing. Craftsman that he was, Towne was also the beneficiary of a moment of seismic transition in Hollywood, which dawned just as his B-movie apprenticeship (and his twenties) came to a close. He graduated right into the dawning of a period that's now revered as the most consequential of modern cinema: The New Hollywood.

I stumbled across a 2009 Ph.D. dissertation on Towne (yeah, he's that important) by Elaine Lennon, and it's from her research and insights, along with some Google worm-holing, that I'm mostly cribbing. As a relative Hollywood late-comer (my book and magazine writing has unlocked a skinny submarine hatch into the industry, which I'm in the process of wriggling through) I found this hugely educational. It's also helped me place the current moment of transition in Hollywood in a larger continuum. Finally, it's given me some great perspective on audience and the relationship between storytelling and the cultural moment. High falutin stuff.

The New Hollywood came out of a half-decade of turmoil in the industry, which lasted from around 1960 to 1966. Basically, a cultural revolution was underway in society at large, audiences for movies were changing, but studios were still making big epics of the sandal and sword variety. "The Sixties," Lennon writes, "was the era when Hollywood fell behind -- in every way possible: aesthetic, commercial and technological. Instead of setting trends, for the first time it was following them."

Not to say there weren't some hits. The era saw The Sound of Music (1965), to name one biggie. But it's hard to look at that movie and divine anything particularly insightful about the times. And the few big earners were decidedly the exceptions. "By 1962, when studio revenues had slid down to 900 million dollars (their lowest ever), the big epics were still being ground out," explains Lennon. Audiences were becoming more youthful and less culturally homogenous. Lennon quotes historian Thomas Schatz to explain the conundrum: "Without the massive numbers and shared traits which could identify this subculture as a 'mass', as a specific public, standardizing products for that audience would be difficult indeed."

Those turbulent years set up a period of experimentation and artistic risk taking. The industry had to try something, anything, to reach audiences, and studios began turning away from the bread and butter epics and toward some great filmmaking. This is the era of the auteur, the great directors. But the actors were just as important in differentiating the New Hollywood from the old. "James Monaco surmises that the changing face of American cinema in the 1970s was as much to do with the casting of unpredictable types as any other contributory factor," writes Lennon.

Nicholson characterizes that turn away from the macho type. If you're trying to sum up early 1970s cinema in a photo, just take a still of Jack from Five Easy Pieces (1970) (that one written, incidentally, by Carole Eastman under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce). Nicholson's character, Bobby Dupea, even serves as a fitting metaphor for the changing landscape in film and culture. A former piano prodigy once adorned in refinement but living a narrow life, Dupea is now a drifting roughneck, unsettled in a broad, unsettling world. The veil's been lifted. Society is fucked. The dude can't get a goddamn piece of toast because it's off menu.

Towne and Nicholson were friends. I always marvel upon learning that greats were friends before they were great. It always feels like such cosmically ordained coincidence, though obviously there's much more to it than that. After hacking it in B movies, Towne, like Nicholson, had learned the craft and was ready to make his mark just as studios were casting broad nets for new visions. One of Towne's earliest artistic success came when he polished the script for Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 

According to Ellis Amburn in his biography of Warren Beatty: "Although Towne had not yet done a major screenplay, he’d doctored so many scripts that he knew the ins and outs of the film industry, and was viewed as a precocious master at manipulating the system. Amusing, soft-spoken, discreet, self-assured and persuasive, he called himself a 'relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game.'"

Warren Beatty, then a young star with lots of pull and an intense desire to find his kind of roles, enlisted Towne to do a rewrite of the original script for Bonnie and Clyde, which was written by Esquire journalists and film neophytes Robert Benton and David Newman. You can read more about the specific changes Towne introduced in this terrific 2006 post on sensesofcinema. The short version is that Towne at once introduced more reality into the screenplay and heightened the tension between the characters by sublimating Clyde's homosexuality, which was overt in the original script, making him impotent, and turning the entire narrative on the frustrated, unfulfilled relationship between he and Bonnie.

That kind of below-the-surface character work would become a staple of Towne's, and indeed a staple of the era, with it's "unpredictable" leading men. Bonnie and Clyde, along with The Graduate, which came out the same year, was like a starting gun for The New Hollywood. It transformed Towne from a journeyman script hack to a sought-after writer leading the way in Hollywood's reinvention.