The Movies That Mattered

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One appealing aspect of The Graduate to first-generation boomers is that the story was left open-ended, offering no hint of what the young characters’ commitment to each other might be. Wisely, the director, Mike Nichols, who won an Oscar for this film, and the screenwriter, Buck Henry, never attempted a follow-up. (Though in Robert Altman’s 1992 insider comedy about Hollywood, The Player , Henry does pitch a sequel to the producer, played by Tim Robbins: Mrs. Robinson, now wheelchair-bound, is living with Benjamin and Elaine. “It’s dark and weird and with a stroke,” Henry tells Robbins.)

5. The Candidate (1972)—Michael Ritchie’s film about an idealistic but shallow young politician (slyly portrayed by Robert Redford) was the first to undermine the well-meaning but self-satisfied set of mind upon which so much of Democratic politics of the sixties and seventies was based. Weak on political satire, The Candidate works best as a catalogue of boomer attitudes and assumptions.

6. American Graffiti (1973)—A long time ago in a galaxy far away, George Lucas was a genuine filmmaker and not a technician or merchandiser. His best and most personal film is set in 1962 in small-town California as a high school senior class gets ready to face life after graduation just as the country is on the verge of the Vietnam War, racial strife, and assassinations. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Candy Clark, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Paul Le Mat, and a promising newcomer named Harrison Ford, American Graffiti is the most affectionate tribute ever made to the first great era of rock ’n’ roll and its power to create community in an otherwise cultureless society. Think of it as a flip side to Rebel Without a Cause.

7. Shampoo (1975)—God created a boomer paradise and called it Southern California circa 1968. Hal Ashby’s sexy, witty, smart farce is set in Beverly Hills on the eve of the 1968 presidential election and a Nixon-Agnew victory that would sour the dreams of a generation. Warren Beatty plays George, a straight hairdresser who wants to settle down but doesn’t know how. Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn are the girls he can’t decide between and doesn’t know how to be worthy of. Robert Towne’s screenplay artfully weaves sex and politics into a seamless fable that, in the words of Pauline Kael, is “about the bondage of the universal itch among a group primed to scratch”—the baby boom generation in a nutshell. The first-rate cast includes Lee Grant, Jack Warden, and Carrie Fisher.

8. Animal House (1978)— John Landis’s film marked the beginning of gross-out comedy as well as drawing the exact line where boomer films veered off into what Tom Wolfe would name the Me Generation. In retrospect, what is remarkable about Animal House —except for John Belushi, who looks as if he were living on raw meat—is a total absence of any political overtone whatsoever. A couple of the characters are concerned about the draft, but none of them seem to have much of an opinion about the war in Vietnam. During the few years from the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate to Animal House , movies aimed at boomers went from politically centered to hedonistic, from “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” to “Toga! Toga!”

9. The Big Chill (1983)—A disillusioned (and uncredited) Kevin Costner slits his wrists, and his old college friends gather and reminisce about how everything has gone downhill for their generation since Watergate. The popularity of Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to liberal piety is only partially explained by the brilliance of the cast, which includes Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and Tom Berenger. The film wants to have it both ways; the characters flout their New Left credentials while rooting for their alma mater’s football team on TV—something that if they had actually been involved in New Left politics, they would have been loath to do while they were in school. The real nerve the film touched was how a generation of yuppies had become nostalgic for a radical chic it had never fully embraced in the first place.