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The Movies That Mattered

June 2024
6min read

10 films that helped shape a generation

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.

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.

10. Girl, Interrupted (1999)—Based loosely on the real experiences of upper-middle-class girls at a private mental hospital in the 1960s, the pretensions of this immensely popular film were exposed by the Newsday film critic Gene Seymour, who referred to it as “Snake Pit 90210.” Winona Ryder stars as the central character, a girl from a privileged home who, as the film would have it, is driven to emotional distraction by social and political hypocrisies. The smugness of the film’s conceit is blown away by Angelina Jolie in one of the most ferocious performances given by an American actress in the decade. For once the Oscar voters got it right, giving her the award for best supporting actress, though in truth Jolie isn’t supporting anyone; she is the film. Her Lisa is in part a victim of repression, a terrifyingly intense and intelligent young woman with no intellectual or emotional outlet who has no comforting illusions. Jolie is the one element in the film that really does belong back in the sixties, when Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway were given chances to play women characters of unprecedented honesty and complexity.

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