This week sees the release of one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’ve avoided reading about the film, as I want to be surprised by what Tarantino has been cooking up, but I know that it takes place in the title location during the late 1960s. This sounds like fertile ground for a movie narrative, as Hollywood was undergoing great change at this time. The late 60s found the American movie industry at a crossroads. The old studio system was in its death throes, though it was still producing the sort of superproductions that had been big hits earlier in the decade, albeit to diminishing returns. The masters of the studio system had either retired (John Ford, Raoul Walsh), were on their way out (Howard Hawks, William Wyler), or were trying their best to accommodate the zeitgeist with films that acknowledged topical issues, the formal innovations of new European cinema, or both (Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Wyler). The breakout success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider signaled the rise of a new, youth-oriented cinema, which would give way to the so-called New Hollywood movies of the 1970s.
These five capsule reviews from the Reader archives consider this period of transition. The first two represent holdouts of an older Hollywood cinema, the third represents an example of a movie that straddles different types of filmmaking, and the last two represent new directions for American filmmaking. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point is something of an outlier, as it’s the work of a foreign director brought to Hollywood with the expectation that he’d bring new formal devices with him. (Another fine example of this phenomenon can be found in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop.) Still, in delivering an outsider’s perspective of American culture, it points to the novel depictions of our country that would define U.S. cinema in the subsequent decade.
Doctor Dolittle Whimsical fluff (1967) that weighs in on the far side of 50 tons; it’s so clumsy and pounding that taking a child to it might be grounds for a visit from family services. Rex Harrison retains a bit of his innate charm as the Victorian doctor who chats with little people in animal suits, talks his way through a grating assortment of Leslie Bricusse songs, and heads for the South Seas in search of a substandard Muppet named “the Great Pink Sea Snail.” Anthony Newley, Samantha Eggar, and Richard Attenborough are among the other responsible parties; Richard Fleischer, a long, sad way from the sharp films noirs he specialized in, is the director. —Dave Kehr
Funny Girl Barbra Streisand in her 1968 film debut; she plays the Ziegfeld comedienne Fanny Brice, who also happened to be the mother-in-law of producer Ray Stark. Streisand is stunning, but the film is a trial, particularly when the music disappears somewhere around the 90-minute mark and all that’s left is leaden melodrama. William Wyler directed (it was his next-to-last film); the musical numbers were staged by Herbert Ross. With Omar Sharif, Walter Pidgeon, Kay Medford, and Anne Francis. —Dave Kehr
Topaz The most abused of Hitchcock’s late films. I like it overall, but the cast (John Forsythe, Frederick Stafford, Karin Dor) and the pace are problematic. Hitchcock decided to film the Leon Uris spy novel without clear-cut dramatic leads, and the various vignettes cover a lot of ground and guilt. Few directors are capable of this kind of structural experimentation so late in their careers, and Hitchcock deserves much credit for his audacity. Ultimately, the film leads to the highly expressive narrative complications of Family Plot. —Dave Kehr
Zabriskie Point Though Michelangelo Antonioni’s only American film was very poorly received when it was released in 1969, time has been much kinder to it than to, say, La Notte, which was made a decade earlier. Antonioni’s nonrealistic approach to American counterculture myths and his loose and slow approach to narrative may still put some people off—along with the uneven dialogue (credited to Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, and the director)—but his beautiful handling of ‘Scope compositions and moods has many lingering aftereffects, and the grand and beautiful apocalyptic finale is downright spectacular. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, and Rod Taylor. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
M*A*S*H The movie that made Robert Altman famous (1970)—a somewhat adolescent if stylish antiauthoritarian romp about an irreverent U.S. medical unit during the Korean war (the TV sitcom it spawned practically reversed the spirit of the original). The film also helped launch the careers of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, and subsequent Altman regulars Rene Auberjonois and John Schuck, and won screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. an Oscar. But the misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy and the original use of overlapping dialogue. This is still watchable for the verve of the ensemble acting and dovetailing direction, but some of the crassness leaves a sour aftertaste. With Tom Skerritt, Fred Williamson, and Bud Cort. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v