The Movies That Mattered

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1. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—This is the mother of all baby boomer movies, the one that gave definition to the angst of an entire generation of suburban white teenagers. The high school students portrayed in Nicholas Ray’s film were born before World War II, but in their alienation and just plain misunderstoodness, they presaged scores of characters that followed, establishing the theme that many a movie targeted at the boomers would continue to stress: If there’s something wrong with your life, it’s probably your parents’ fault.

James Dean (who was 24 when he played a 17-year-old in this film) was the ultimate misunderstood teen—and an actor whose image remains misunderstood today. Time has blurred our memory of this performance as well as his starring role in East of Eden , which was released the same year; his characters have now been lumped together with his fellow Actors Studio alumnus Marlon Brando’s biker chief in The Wild One (1953), who, asked what he was rebelling against, replied, “Whaddaya got?” Dean, in his first two films, wasn’t rebelling against anything ; he was desperately trying to find his place in the middle class. The teenagers upon whom Dean had the biggest impact more than likely didn’t end up as beatniks but in the Peace Corps.

No movie released in the entire decade contained more baby-boomer icons. In addition to Dean, the film featured Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, and Nick Adams.

2. Picnic (1955)—I don’t know if William Inge’s play Picnic is a work of genius, but Daniel Taradash’s screenplay, directed by Joshua Logan, who also directed the Broadway production, comes close. One of the most underrated films of the 1950s, Logan’s Picnic , more than Inge’s play, has an undercurrent of sweet sadness, simultaneously elegiac for a small-town America that was already starting to disappear and evocative of the restlessness that was chasing Americans to the suburbs in the mid-fifties. William Holden’s amiable postwar drifter jumps off a train in a small Midwestern town, trying to hook up with an old college buddy, played by Cliff Robertson. (Holden got into school on a football scholarship.) But it’s too late: Holden’s character has already missed the boat on the wave of prosperity rolling through the country and is fated to travel the backwaters of the American dream. Kim Novak must choose between them. American women in the 1950s wanted to believe they’d have gone with Holden, but that’s because in real life they opted for Robertson.

3. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—This film reflected a vivid antisociety ethos much of the generation was embracing in the late sixties and gave it authority by a quite lovely summoning of another time. Bonnie and Clyde is at once the most American movie of its era and the one that incorporated European New Wave sensibility into American films. The screenplay, by David Newman and Robert Benton, was spiced by Robert Towne. Curiously, the director, Arthur Penn, who already had a critical and commercial hit with The Miracle Worker five years before, would never again reach the artistic heights of this film. The editing by Deedee Allen set the standard for the next generation, as did the Depression-evoking cinematography of Burnett Guffey. The addition to the soundtrack of bluegrass by the legendary Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs kicked the orchestral pomposity of period soundtracks to hell. The film made stars of Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder (in a memorable cameo as a man kidnapped by the gang and then taken for a joy ride), and, perhaps the signature filmmaker of the boomer generation, Warren Beatty, who both produced and starred.

Bonnie and Clyde stunned both critics and the film industry in 1967. Within a few years of its release, it had become so influential (particularly its slow-motion dance-of-death scenes) that it seemed dated and pretentious. Now, nearly four decades later, as the memory of most of the films that followed in its wake have dimmed, Bonnie and Clyde seems fresh, invigorating, and still shocking. If you have any doubts, watch it back to back with the film that won the Oscar for best picture that year, In the Heat of the Night.

4. The Graduate (1967)—The sacred cow of baby-boomer movies, The Graduate was released almost exactly in the middle of the boomer time span. Seldom has a film been so in tune with its audience: The cutrate alienation of Dustin Hoffman’s college graduate, Benjamin Braddock, is simply a given, as is the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the previous generation. (Benjamin’s anguish is made glamorous by a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.) Future generations should know that not all of us who grew up in this period bought this movie whole; many of us would have dumped Katharine Ross’s Elaine in a flash for a chance to be debauched by Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson.