Symkus column: Happy (and not so happy) 50th anniversary wishes to these movies
For this second entry in a three-part series of films celebrating big anniversaries, we tip the hat to - or issue a warning about - some of those that have already turned or will be hitting 50 this year. There’s a great deal of agreement in camps ranging from film scholars to movie nuts that the 1970s was an astounding era for filmmakers and actors, during which they took artistic chances, ignored boundaries, let creative juices flow.
Throughout that decade, the variety of choices just kept expanding. Think of: “All the President’s Men,” “American Graffiti,” “Animal House,” “Annie Hall,” “Cabaret,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Eraserhead,” “The Godfather,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Mean Streets,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Rocky,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Star Wars,” “Young Frankenstein” ... it’s the list that could go on and on.
No one knew the cinema scene would be blown open to this extent. But it all started in 1970. So, not saying that I’m right or wrong, and just relying on personal tastes, here are some thoughts on films released that year. Between cable TV, internet library services, and streaming platforms, they’re all available for viewing.
MOVIES TO WATCH AND WATCH AGAIN:
“M*A*S*H” - It’s an acronym for a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, within which Robert Altman set his fast-talking, wisecracking dark comedy about doctors drinking, womanizing, playing golf and saving lives in the Korean War.
“Woodstock” - From the look and sound of it, there were as many movie cameras and tape recorders as there were concertgoers at the three-day festival in the Catskills. There are fantastic performances (The Who) and insightful chats with folks who helped make it happen (the Port-O-San guy).
“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” - Just after his violent “The Wild Bunch” and just before his violent “Straw Dogs,” Sam Peckinpah made this (much less violent) charmer of a Western about a man who discovers water in the desert, goes after the bad guys who stranded him there, and finds romance.
“Brewster McCloud” - Two Altman films in one year? Absolutely! This one flopped because it was too weird for general audiences, but it’s a great sort of weird, about a young man’s dream of flying - with mechanical wings strapped on - and how he would kill to achieve that dream. It’s also about the little known “third Wright Brother.”
“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” - It’s not a sequel to “Valley of the Dolls,” but it is an outrageous account of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, as told via the teaming of softcore porn director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Roger Ebert). Best line of dialogue: “This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”
MOVIES TO EXPERIENCE AT LEAST ONCE:
“Start the Revolution Without Me” - Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder play two sets of twins, from different classes, who are mixed up at birth, and reach adulthood during the French Revolution. There’s plenty of bawdy humor, swordplay and social commentary.
“Women in Love” - Director Ken Russell, working with Larry Kramer’s adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, brought a new sort of intimacy to the screen in the telling of the relationships between two sisters and two best friends. Also: Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for it, and a memorable scene has Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in a nude wrestling match.
“Gimme Shelter” - Ostensibly about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour of America, this sticks mostly with the tragic events at that tour’s end: the concert at the Altamont Raceway. There are some terrific performances by the Stones, and others, and directors the Maysles Brothers know their way around documentary making, but this comes across as the nasty cousin of “Woodstock.”
“Five Easy Pieces” - Not long after directing episodes of “The Monkees” as well as the group’s psychedelic film “Head,” Bob Rafelson got more serious with this searing tale of a failed concert pianist-turned-oil field worker, his questions about the meaning of life, and his dealings with women and family members.
“Little Big Man” - Dustin Hoffman’s character, Jack Crabb, 121 years old at the film’s start, settles into flashback mode to tell the story of his life, going back to his capture by members of the Cheyenne tribe when he was 10, and up to his return to white society as an adult. This is a true epic - funny, serious, political, and humanistic. And Chief Dan George is great as Old Lodge Skins.
MOVIES THAT ARE OVERRATED:
“Airport” - Too much soap opera-style drama between characters who are stuck on a plane beset by weather problems and a bomber.
“Catch-22” - The choppy anti-war, anti-authoritarian parody, despite a bravura performance by Alan Arkin, strongly suggests that Joseph Heller’s challenging novel was un-filmable.
“Myra Breckinridge” - The Gore Vidal novel about a sex change operation and life in Hollywood is fun; the movie adaptation tries too hard to be too hip.
“The Owl and the Pussycat” - Barbra Streisand’s aggressive prostitute character is so far over the top, she makes the film annoying to watch.
“Love Story” - Manipulative, cloying, depressing.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.