- Woody Guthrie, Warts-and-All:The Biopic in the New American Cinema of the 1970s
If you want to make a Woody Guthrie movie that is solidly commercial, you have to have somebody kill him in the end.—Hal Ashby
The New Hollywood Cinema (1967 to roughly 1976) is the most common name given to a cycle of inventive, risk-taking, modernist, and revisionist American films, with innovation to match that of any national cinema's "new wave."1 Studio System Hollywood had been gradually crumbling since the late 1940s, but its final collapse came at the end of the 1960s, as unexpected youth-powered hits—Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H (1970)—coincided with expensive, ruinous musicals and war epics—Doctor Dolittle (1967), Paint Your Wagon (1969), Tora, Tora, Tora (1970)—creating a chaotic yet fertile environment. The demise of the Motion Picture Production Code brought about a "New Freedom of the Screen." The studios, most of which had been sold to non-show-business conglomerates, possessed little sense of what young audiences, formed in the crucible of social upheaval, wanted to see. They turned to new directors, not all of whom were "movie brats" like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. A few were older journeymen such as Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. Overall, the era was transformative. American movies would never be the same because of it. However, it was also transitional. The "renaissance" turned out to be merely a phase, a means by which the industry moved from the old studio system to the global industry that began to take definite shape in the late 1970s and hardened into formula during the 1980s.
The 1970s were the best of times for American cinema. But they were the worst of times for the film biography, better known as the biopic. The watchword, the one by which the 1970s New Hollywood lived and ultimately died, was "genre." The American film industry had been organized around genres almost from its beginnings, but the New Hollywood paid special attention to genre as an index of the [End Page 68] changes in the culture. The Wild Bunch (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) were seen as "Vietnam Westerns," even though Hollywood almost entirely avoided making films about the War until five years after U.S. involvement ended. Neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Night Moves (1975) evoked Watergate and the nation's disillusionment with its institutions, as did the "anti-musicals," Cabaret (1972) and Nashville (1975). Todd Berliner, in a study of genre in the 1970s, lists twenty films in which the American film industry "challenged the narrative orthodoxies of its own tradition" (Hollywood Incoherent 4-5). Only one of them, Patton (1970), is a biopic.
George F. Custen argued that biopics of the studio era were metaphors for the studios themselves; the genre signaled Hollywood's willingness to make socially responsible and respectable entertainments. In the 1950s the biopic veered from what Custen, citing Leo Lowenthal, saw as idols of production and tilted heavily toward idols of consumption (6). This meant entertainers or sports figures rather than statesmen and scientists; anti-heroes, not heroes; warts-and-all, not celebration. Biopics, like other historical films, were far less able to create metaphors for politics because they took actuality as their raw material. They had to represent politics to some degree in order to be true to their biographical subjects. Modern epics, such as Patton, confronted the political positions of their subjects. George S. Patton (George C. Scott), as has been widely noted, could be seen by hawks or doves on Vietnam as either the right kind of general to win a war or as an embodiment of everything that is wrong with war and the military mind set. Patton came across as a complex anti-hero in a warts-and-all movie.
With these exceptions, however, biopics in the 1970s appear mired in conventions that hadn't been rethought in a generation. While other genres were being revised in the 1970s, the biopic lay largely stagnant. Fewer film...