"The Greatest Moments in Seventies Movies"
Yes, it was a tacky decade, filled with leisure suits, toe socks, and shag
carpets. But as far as movies were concerned, the '70s were a golden age of good
taste. With the studio system apparently gasping its last gasp, a new breed of
maverick directors -- with names like Scorsese, Coppola, Mazursky, and Polanski
-- found themselves enjoying unprecedented creative freedom. For the the first
time, truly adult material was making its way on screen, with movies about
grown-ups. Of course, it was also the decade that invented the Event Movie
(ground zero being Steven Spielberg's Jaws), but then, that's a story for the
next decade... - Mark Harris
April 7, 1970: Midnight Cowboy and True Grit duke it out
A new breed of cowboy was taking over, and John Wayne was none too happy. These
were the hippie desperadoes like Easy Rider's Dennis Hopper, who, on Oscar
night, sat in front of Wayne in an irreverent, oversize Stetson. The
counterculture was revitalizing Hollywood, and although Wayne beat Cowboy's
Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for Best Actor, that night Best Picture went to
Cowboy, John Schlesinger's X-rated male-hustler opus. For Schlesinger, who'd
encountered resistance within his own production crew ("They were very
disparaging of the film," he says), the victory was especially vindicating.
July 2, 1971: Shaft breaks the color barrier
Racial strife was news, MGM was in trouble -- only a cat like John Shaft could
save the day. With a cool lead in Richard Roundtree and an Oscar-winning song by
Isaac Hayes, Shaft ushered in blaxploitation and the image of the African-
American superman. "It was the first time a black man was in charge -- that
appealed to a large audience," says Roundtree, who thinks the subsequent hand-
wringing ("Black Movie Boom -- Good or Bad?" The New York Times asked) was
silly. "Fred Williamson [Black Caesar] once said, 'I make films that are to the
point: I hit someone and knock them down. Everybody understands that.'" But to
Roundtree, Shaft's big score was that suddenly "on TV, white guys were wearing
leather and mustaches."
Dec. 19, 1971: "Singin'" turns ecstasy into evil in A Clockwork Orange
Is there any movie moment that perverts joy into revulsion like the "Singin' in
the Rain" rape scene in A Clockwork Orange? "Our script said nothing more than
'He kicks her and generally causes mayhem,'" recalls Malcolm McDowell, who
starred as "droog" Alex. "I had to do so much kicking because Stanley [Kubrick]
wanted the people to fall backwards perfectly. After a week, when we were about
to give up, he said, 'Gee, Malc, can you dance?" So I wound up improvising
exactly what you see. Stanley phoned New York and bought the rights [to the
song]. That was his real strength -- he was willing to wait." But why did
McDowell have Gene Kelly on his mind? "When Alex is raping," he says, "he's at
his most euphoric. 'Singin' in the Rain' is Hollywood's most euphoric moment."
Dec. 22, 1971: Clint Eastwood gets down and Dirty Harry
When it was released, critics carped that Dirty Harry was a fascist,
neoconservative manifesto. They weren't too far off, but the movie's signature
scene, in which Eastwood's .44 Magnum-wielding Det. Harry Callahan toys with a
hapless African-American robber -- "You've gotta ask yourself one question: Do I
feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" -- stands as one of the great moments in cop
films, though rife with racial and political overtones. Actually, Harry's
director, the late Don Siegel, was a liberal -- with a perverse sense of humor.
"He was a rascal, having Callahan going after a bank robber who happens to be
black," chuckles Lalo Schifrin, who scored the film. "Today, they wouldn't do
that, but [Siegel] loved to be provocative."
March 15, 1972: Francis Ford Coppola's family jewel, The Godfather
The wedding. The horse's head. The "I believe in America" speech. Don Corleone's
wheezing collapse in the garden. Sonny's tollbooth dance of death. Coppola's The
Godfather is such a compendium of magnificent scenes, such an encyclopedia of
killer dialogue, sumptuous settings, and mighty acting, that it's impossible to
whittle the magnum opus down to one moment. The moment is the movie -- its
existence a triumph of art and commerce. Calling it a Mob movie is like calling
The Odyssey a guide to the Greek islands. "It's all about honor and loyalty and
family," explains James Caan, best known as ramrod Sonny Corleone. The Godfather
cast felt like a family; on the set, everybody eased into a Cosa Nostra
hierarchy. Caan, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall bonded like brothers. And nobody
doubted who was the Don. "Every now and then, Marlon Brando walked by," says
Diane Keaton, "and it was like you were looking at a god." Forever after, Ozzie
and Harriet would sleep with the fishes: The Corleones became America's first
family. "I have friends who still have Godfather nights twice a year," Caan
marvels. "They make pasta and the whole family watches The Godfather. It's nice
to be a part of that."
Dec. 12, 1972: The Poisedon Adventure makes catastrophe trendy
Long before Titanic and Speed 2 set sail, there was this cruise from hell.
Grossing a then-staggering $93 million. The Poisedon Adventure was the original
supertanker of disaster films, and the thrilling/campy apex of the trend that
ran from 1970's Airport through 1974's The Towering Inferno. "It was a rather
scary shoot, always being covered in oil and going through rooms on fire," says
Oscar-nominated Shelley Winters, whose zaftig Jewish grandma, Belle Rosen, saved
the day (but not herself) with an underwater rescue. "I was supposed to swim to
where Gene [Hackman] was trapped, release him, and push him to the escape hatch.
But I took my time and when he came up, he screamed, 'You tried to drown me!'"
Aug. 1, 1973: American Graffiti launches nostalgia -- and careers
The tag line read, "Where were you in '62?" But '73 marked ground zero for the
ensemble cast of Graffiti, since that was the year Candy Clark, Cindy Williams,
Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul Le Mat, and Harrison Ford -- all
unknowns -- went over very, very big in George Lucas' paean to teen hot-rodding,
the movie that began a nostalgia craze that lives on. "The only person with any
kind of name was Ronny Howard," says casting director Fred Roos of the ex-child
star then known to the world only as Opie. "And The Andy Griffith Show had been
off the air two, three years. He was nowhere." From here on, the whole group
racked up career mileage at top speed.
Dec. 26, 1973: The devil goes into heavy rotation in The Exorcist
It's one thing to stretch as an actress; it's quite another to perfect a 360-
degree head swivel. But 14-year-old Linda Blair's self-possession as the
bedeviled Regan MacNeil earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the
Academy and gasps from audience members who watched her turn (and turn) in a
movie that's still unparalleled in its ability to terrify. As for the ever-
present green vomit, "they went through a variety of different formulas and
brews looking for the right color and texture before they came up with using pea
soup," says Blair. "I wold look in the mirror and just whine, 'Why are they
making me look like a monster? I want to be a princess.'" How about a scream
Feb. 7, 1974: Blazing Saddles lets it rip
When Mel Brooks decided that what Hollywood really needed was a dose of baked
beans, the result was a fragrant campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, a prototype
for the kind of movie that continues to stink its way to box office success.
Brooks could be elegant too -- this article wouldn't be complete without a
mention of his spectacular '74 horror spoof Young Frankenstein -- but it was
Saddles' bodily blasts that ignited, no pun intended, a generation of gross-out
movies. "The amazing thing is that the scene was less than a page of script,"
says Andrew Bergman, who cowrote Saddles. "All it said was 'Cowboys eating beans
around a campfire. Loud farting ensues.' Mel did the rest.
June 20, 1974: Faye Dunaway finds darkness on the edge of Chinatown
It may have looked like a simple neo-noir detective story, but Chinatown was one
of the most subversively perverse films ever lensed. When Dunaway delivered
screenwriter Robert Towne's most wrenching line -- "She's my sister... she's my
daughter" -- audiences were left as stunned as Jack Nicholson after his
involuntary nose job. What audiences didn't see, though became almost as
famous: the behind-the-scenes brawl between Dunaway and director Roman Polanski.
Recalls Nicholson of the hair-trigger feud: "Faye had a flying hair, and Roman
reached out and plucked it. Why this incident set everybody off, I don't know.
But it was nothing deeper than that."
Nov. 11, 1974: Al Pacino delivers the kiss of death in Godfather II
From the re-creation of a turn-of-the-century Lower East Side that gave
mainstream America its first look at Robert De Niro to the immaculately plotted
split narrative, the amazing thing was, they did it again. And above it all was
Pacino's tumble into fratricidal evil -- pounded home by a flashback coda. "When
they wanted [Brando] to come back to do that scene, he said under one condition:
Fire the head of the studio!" says James Caan, who was paid the same amount for
the final sequence ($35,000) as for the entire first film. "That's why we used
his shadow. Swear to God." Even without Brando or the first film's grosses, The
Godfather Part II -- the only sequel to win Best Picture -- stands alongside its
predecessor as a masterwork.
June 11, 1975: Robert Altman's Nashville introduces the company of many
When someone uses "Altmanesque," it's usually Nashville they have in mind. With
24 characters, interweaving story lines, and aspirations toward tragedy and
satire, Altman's Nashville wrote the book on sprawling ensemble pieces. It was
about movieland as much as Music City, and its dovetailing of proto-Clintonian
politics and entertainment was spookily prescient. "Contrary to popular belief,
there was a script," says writer Joan Tewkesbury. "But everybody was invited to
bring something, like potluck." Ronee Blakley's breakdown and Lily Tomlin's
sign-language emoting were main course enough to earn them Oscar noms, but
Tewkesbury's favorite improv was Gwen Welles' ill-prepared striptease: "When she
pulled the socks out of her bra, I thought I'd die -- it was so poignant, so
dumb, so absolutely believable."
June 20, 1975: Steven Spielberg accidentally brings great white hope in Jaws
If it weren't for a little filmmaking phenomenon known as "the happy accident,"
Spielberg might still be directing episodes of Columbo. In fact, the making of
Jaws remains a primer on how not to make a movie: The film's $4 million budget
soared to $9 million; the shooting schedule on Martha's Vineyard ballooned from
55 to 159 days; crew members were even calling the movie "Flaws." Worst of all,
Bruce -- Spielberg's mechanical great white shark -- just wasn't working. "The
first time we tested the shark," says coproducer David Brown, "it sank to the
bottom of Nantucket Sound, and we figured all of our careers went down with it."
In hindsight, Spielberg says that being forced to show as little of his
malfunctioning man-eater as possible made the movie more Hitchcockian. Of
course, no one knew that at the time. Says Brown, "When we held a test screening
in Dallas, we honestly didn't know if people were going to be scared or laugh."
It was the former reaction -- and plenty of it -- that turned Jaws into the
highest-grossing film in history (until Star Wars).
Nov. 19, 1975: Jack Nicholson feathers his Cuckoo's Nest
Who could blame the cast of Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for
going a little stir-crazy? "We spent days in the Oregon State Mental
Institution," says Nicholson. As McMurphy, the charming rabble-rouser who winds
up in the loony bin, Nicholson cooked up a psychological duel with one of movie
history's creepiest monsters: Louise Fletcher's icy, repressive Nurse Ratched.
The unforgettable climax? Pushed to the brink, Nicholson throttles his evil
caregiver till she turns blue. For both actors -- Fletcher, a first-time
nominee; Nicholson, a four-time loser -- Oscar was in the bag. Says Nicholson:
"I pretty much knew I was going to win."
Feb. 8, 1976: Robert De Niro is hailed in Taxi Driver
The mean streets of 1970s New York hardly seem recognizable in today's G-rated
Giuliani era. But when Taxi Driver debuted at Manhattan's Coronet Theater,
Gotham audiences took one look at Martin Scorcese's neon Sodom and Gomorrah and
recognized it as their own. And coasting into this apocalypse was De Niro's
self-appointed vigilante loner Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet vowing that "some
day a real rain'll come and wash all this scum off the streets." Of course, the
movie's -- and perhaps the decade's -- most famous line was Travis' paranoid
"You talkin' to me?" mantra in front of the mirror. But according to Taxi Driver
screenwriter Paul Schrader, the infamous come-on was ad-libbed by De Niro:
"There was a comic who worked the delis in New York at the time, and he would
walk up to tables and say, 'You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?' And Bobby had
seen this guy and lifted the riff and used it in front of the mirror." Our
thanks to the unknown comic, wherever he is.
Nov. 14, 1976: Network's newscaster Peter Finch sees the light
By the mid-'70s, plenty of films had taken potshots at Hollywood. But
vivisecting the TV jungle was fresh. And in those pre-cable, pre-Fox, pre-Jerry Springer
days, so was screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's nightmarish vision of a
pandering news program scored with variety-show music and hosted by profanity-
spewing anchor Howard Beale (brilliantly acted by Peter Finch, who died of a
heart attack before he could accept his Academy Award). Though a surprise hit
and quadruple Oscar winner, Network didn't much impress veteran 60 Minutes exec
producer Don Hewitt. "I don't know of any great impact it had," he sniffs.
"Aside from my saying on occasion 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it
Nov. 21, 1976: Sylvester Stallone's Rocky loses
His face bleeding, his eyes swollen shut, Rocky Balboa will forever be the
emblem of pained defeat. It defied all logic to permit a film's hero to lose so
brutally. But all that mattered to audiences was that Rocky went the distance,
got the girl ("Yo, Adrian!"), and turned Sylvester Stallone, an unknown actor
and first-time screenwriter, into a real-life champ. Of course, Stallone's self-
choreographed bouts weren't the toughest battles. With a starless cast, the
indie film's budget was so tight, Stallone's then wife, Sasha, sewed his
costumes. "I bought my own glasses and the fuzzy hat," recalls Rocky's true
love, Talia Shire. "That's what made it special. We were willing to do anything
to make the film work."
April 10, 1977: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton deck the Hall
With Annie Hall, Woody Allen sabotaged the romantic comedy -- and came up with
something a lot funnier and more romantic. "I knew it was a fantastic part,"
recalls star Diane Keaton, whose elegant tomboy style made her the Me Decade's
Katharine Hepburn. "But I don't think I visualized how inventive it was -- till
I saw it, of course." The creative coup de grace: Allen and Keaton swap neurotic
chitchat while a series of subtitles reveals what they're really thinking about
each other (Woody: "I wonder what she looks like naked?). For a brief moment,
brains and whimsy prevailed: Annie beat out Star Wars for Best Picture.
May 25, 1977: Star Wars' F/X blasts other movies to smithereens
The music he liked. But everything else in Star Wars was "completely cheated,"
says George Lucas ruefully. "The only way I was able to make it in any sense
epic was editorially. I cut together a lot of little pieces so fast, you
thought there were a whole lot of people. There weren't." Poor master magician
George: He saw crummy smoke and mirrors where the rest of the world saw bona
fide magic. Audiences didn't give a gundark that the hopped-up torque of the
blaster-spattered space-battle scenes was a desperation move. They just got off
on speed. So did Hollywood when the early grosses rolled in: $100 million in
three months (quaint now, hyperspatial then). The dark side? A stampede toward
feel-good, dumbed-down action flicks that wiped out grittier fare, at least
until indies rematerialized a decade later. Lucas bristles at that rap: "It's a
myth," he insists. But he shouldn't underestimate the power of the Force.
Oct. 20, 1977: Magnetic Video releases the first movies on tape
It all started in Farmington Hills, Mich. Mesmerized by an oversize doohickey
called the VCR, Andre Blay persuaded Twentieth Century Fox to license 50 films
to his company, Magnetic Video Corp., for the paltry sum of $300,000. The rest
is history. Video demand soared (M*A*S*H was Magnetic's most popular title), the
words "rewind" and "pause" seeped into the vernacular, and a $17 billion
industry was born -- incalculably altering the way people watched movies in the
process. "I kept telling my employees that when Mummy and Daddy start stopping
to pick up a movie after work, they could start planning their retirement," says
Blay, who eventually sold his company to Fox and is now retired. "And it
Nov. 16, 1977/May 25, 1979: Close Encounters and Alien define the look of
Something is out there -- but is it friend or foe? The late '70s brought us two
unforgettable possibilities. Species Spielberg -- bulbous heads on Audrey
Hepburn necks -- were actually little girls in body-warping suits. Species
Scott -- spawned from some unholy shark-cockroach copulation -- was designed by
Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Alien director Ridley Scott was also inspired by a
documentary about beetles that bury their eggs in live woodgrubs. "Hideous," he
says, "but a great idea." Since then, descendants of both have populated Men In
Black, Independence Day, and The X-Files. "When you're looking into the bigger
alien mythology," says Files creator Chris Carter, "you have to bow to what
others have imagined."
Dec. 16, 1977: John Travolta gives us the Saturday Night Fever
Disco was never louder or prouder, polyester pants never whiter or tighter. When
Tony Manero took the stage to "You Should Be Dancing," a young Brooklyn man
transcended his limitations, dance music turned into a national craze -- and a
23-year-old Englewood, N.J., actor named John Travolta became a star. To prepare
for Saturday Night Fever, Travolta hit New York clubs with instructor Deney
Terrio (who would go on to host the series Dance Fever). Though he would spend
300 hours rehearsing, Travolta was initially spooked. "He called me and said,
'You guys better find someone else for the movie, because there's no way I'm
going to be able to do those steps," director John Badham remembers. "I just
tried to calm him down." Travolta, it turns out, just heated us up.
July 28, 1978: John Belushi shares his food in Animal House
It took just five seconds. Belushi yelled "Fooood fight!" and everyone on the
set of National Lampoon's Animal House tossed their cookies... and pudding,
fries, etc. The scene wrapped in two takes, but, as set decorator Hal Gausman
recalls, "it took hours to clean up." It was worth it. "The movie had a huge
impact," says coproducer Ivan Reitman. "We'd come through a decade of protests
and campus activism. That scene was a signal to have fun again." Belushi's
charisma certainly helped. As director John Landis puts it, Bluto Blutarsky "was
a cross between Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster."
June 1979: The Weinsteins form Miramax and unleash the indie era
It's such a fairy tale, it would almost make a perfect Hollywood movie... or
rather, a perfect low-budget indie. Once upon a time, a pair of unfashionable
rock-promoter brothers from Queens, N.Y., got the idea to distribute movies.
Armed with business cards for a company named after parents Miriam and Max,
Harvey and Bob Weinstein hopped a plane to Cannes because, says Harvey, "that's
were we heard people bought movies!" The bought the Brit comedy The Secret
Policeman's Ball and its sequel for $50,000, spliced the two films, released it
six months later -- and grossed $6 million. The happy ending? Says Harvey, "I
haven't needed a business card in 10 years."
Aug. 15, 1979: Robert Duvall loves the smell of napalm in the morning in
It may be as close as a movie production has come to the heart of darkness.
Apocalypse Now was over budget and behind schedule, and director Francis Ford
Coppola couldn't afford screwups. Still, he needed the famous scene in which
Lieut. Colonel Kilgore (masterfully played by Duvall) clears a beach with napalm
so he can watch a GI surf its waves -- a moment that epitomizes the brutality,
beauty, and terror of Vietnam. "If we messed up," Coppola says, "we'd have to
spend three or four hours for a second chance and we could only do two takes. We
started, rolling about five cameras. The jets appeared, the canisters dropped,
the napalm went off. After that I felt we'd reached a turning point, and things
would go better."
Dec. 19, 1979: Kramer Vs. Kramer does divorce American-style
No other movie more encapsulated the romantic reality of a decade in which the
divorce rate was higher than ever before. Still, Kramer, which won Oscars for
stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep -- a second choice after Charlie's Angels'
Kate Jackson -- was less about the heartache of a breakup than about the joy and
pain of single fatherhood. Not to mention the embarrassing moments. It took
three takes to do the scene in which Hoffman's son (Justin Henry) encounters
Dad's overnight guest (JoBeth Williams) nude in the hallway. "First the lighting
was wrong. Then I misdirected," recalls director Robert Benton. "It was tough
telling her 'You have to take your clothes off again.'"
BEST OF THE REST
Best on-screen nervous breakdown (male): Peter Finch in Network; (female): Gena
Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
Best off-screen nervous breakdown: Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now
Best aristocrat: Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal
Best twist ending: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Best debacle: New York, New York
Best date movie: Love Story
Best movie if you can't get a date: Carrie
Best wild-party scene: National Lampoon's Animal House
Best unsung performance: James Caan in The Gambler
Best couple (off screen): Warren Beatty and Julie Christie; (on screen): Woody
Allen and Diane Keaton
Best closing credits: M*A*S*H
Best Western: High Plains Drifter
Best place we wish we lived: The Lake Tahoe compound in Godfather II
Best dad: Robert Duvall in The Great Santini
Best mom: Cicely Tyson in Sounder
1. "I like to watch." - Peter Sellers (Being There)
2. "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." - Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II)
3. "Attica!, Attica!" - Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon)
4. "Oh, stewardess -- I speak jive." - Barbara Billingsley (Airplane!)
5. "You know what happens to nosy fellas, huh? Huh? Okay. They lose their
noses." - Roman Polanski (Chinatown)
6. "Hey, don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love." - Woody Allen
7. "Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his
country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his
country." - George C. Scott (Patton)
8. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." - Roy Scheider (Jaws)
9. "Say it! He... vas... my... boyfriend!" - Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein)
10. "The suspense is terrible. I hope it'll last." - Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory)
11. "Is it safe?" - Laurence Oliver (Marathon Man)
12. "You're mother's here, Karras. Would you like a to leave a message? I'll see
that she gets it!" - Linda Blair (The Exorcist)
13. "Oh, Frank... kiss my hot lips!" - Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H)
14. "Because when you're a call girl, you control it, that's why. Because
someone wants you.. And for an hour, I'm the best actress in the world." - Jane
15. "Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries." - John
Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
BEYOND THE TOP 10
A selective guide to some other '70s treasures
1. Women In Love (1970) Ken Russell's daring adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's
daring novel captures the charged sexuality of two eras, with Glenda Jackson and
Oliver Reed both stellar.
2. The Last Picture Show (1971) Shot in stark black and white, Peter
Bogdanovich's jaw-droppingly assured look at small lives in a small Texas town
remains a raw heartbreaker.
3. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) Klaus Kinski and director Werner Herzog team
for a trip into the darkest Amazon and the mind of a crazy conquistador hell-
bent for gold.
4. Sounder (1972), Conrack (1974), and Norma Rae (1979) In a cynical decade,
director Martin Ritt gave us three gentle but never sentimental tales of union -
- in all senses.
5. Badlands (1973) Terrence Malick showcases Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as
inarticulate lover-outlaws and makes spare, lean prose and beautiful poetry out
of the bleak Midwest.
6. The Conversation (1974) Gene Hackman is exquisite as a surveillance-whiz tape
master-turned-target. Pure genius from Francis Coppola -- the same year as
7. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Just another bank-heist flick? Not with the combo of
Sidney Lumet, the sweaty streets of New York City, and a young Al Pacino at his
8. All the President's Men (1976) Remember when reporters were good guys? Just
watch Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) take
down Tricky Dick.
9. Carrie (1976) Shrewd sadist Brian De Palma's fiery tale of telekinetic teen
revenge boasts torrid turns from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.
10. Small Change (1976) Francois Truffaut at his most tenderly humane, watching
a group of little kids stumble bruised but unbroken through childhood.
BEST PICTURE OSCAR WINNERS
1971 The French Connection
1972 The Godfather
1973 The Sting
1974 The Godfather Part II
1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1977 Annie Hall
1978 The Deer Hunter
1979 Kramer Vs. Kramer
- Entertainment Weekly, Sept. 24, 1999.
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