Reevaluating the End of the New Hollywood Era, by Alexander Miller
When people discuss the “who, whats, and whys” regarding the demise of the New Hollywood era, there’s always a few token movies that are branded leprous in the eyes of critics and filmmakers. George Lucas, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, and even Steven Spielberg fell from grace with some clunkers at the end of the seventies, but Dennis Hopper, William Friedkin, and Michael Cimino’s directorial careers sustained the most damage with movies that flopped in their time but have undergone a renaissance in recent years.
Dennis Hopper’s passion project The Last Movie went out of control with a frenzied drug production in Peru. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear) went over budget and performed poorly at the box office. However one film, in particular, would take most of the blame for ending the directors era – Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a notorious flop in the history of box office bombs and one of the many nails that shut the coffin on the New Hollywood.
What do all these films have in common? They were all products from renowned directors who had final cut, they all tanked at the box office, and are all branded as the films that killed the era of artistic freedom where so many directors flourished during the New Hollywood.
It’s hard to say if Dennis Hopper’s The Final Movie was responsible for the end of the New Hollywood, but the excessive runaway budget and crushing theatrical run were the hairline cracks in the hull of the “directors’ era.” Financial loss can be a damaging blow to a director’s career, but financial loss enabled by having final cut dealt a critical blow to Hopper and the creative freedom won by him and his contemporaries.
Hopper’s famous flop was a passion project conceived with Rebel Without a Cause writer Stewart Sterm. No one was interested in their high-concept art film, but after the success of Easy Rider, giving Hopper final cut seemed like a smart thing to do; trust the directors with the creative side, and who’s to say that Dennis won’t make another multi-million dollar hit?
Well, The Last Movie was anything but that; despite earning accolades in Europe, the film had a short (two-week officially but it was screened as Chinchero in drive-ins) theatrical run and the excesses of its director during and after the shoot exiled Hopper from Hollywood for over a decade. Looking at the film now, which few have done giving the hissing bad reviews it received, The Last Movie is a flawed, compelling look into the creative process. After the stories of cocaine-fueled lunacy, and navigating through the frenzied editing of the film, Hopper was inspired to recut the movie because of Jodorowsky commented it was “too conventional.” 18 months later, he looks like he was trying to impress Jodorowsky. The story has a genuine passion driving it, and Dennis Hopper could have assembled a superior version than what we have today, but The Last Movie is an allegorical canvas. Some look at it and see an incoherent, and pretentious mess, others view a compelling self-referential Western that is a morality play and meditation of the creative process. Unlike Heaven’s Gate and Sorcerer, The Last Movie is still relegated to curioso status, and a resurgence is unlikely. But there’s no telling what the future holds, and maybe time will be kinder to The Last Movie.
Thanks to the vigilance of William Friedkin (who had to sue Universal and Paramount) and a growing fan base, Sorcerer got a Blu-ray release in 2013, and the film finally received the restoration it deserves. Sorcerer failed to reach an audience upon its opening; many allege this to the fact that it was contending with Star Wars for viewership, other critics dismissed it from the outset for various reasons. Some said the film lacked developed characters (ironic seeing as it’s first act is devoted to doing just that); others claimed it was too surreal and pretentious. Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a work of art that is tonally comparable to that of this years smash hit Mad Max: Fury Road with its mature themes and absence of exposition and hammy dialogue. It may have taken 36 years but Sorcerer has gotten some of the attention it deserves. Hopefully, the accolades will grow it will get more.
Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was a Razzie-winning disaster referred to as one of the worst films of all time; now it’s resurfaced and restored in the prestigious Criterion Collection. Yet debates continue (despite a spine number) on the merits of Cimino’s epic film Heaven’s Gate. Production on the movie had cartwheeled out of control in almost every facet. The budget nearly quadrupled, starting with $12 million ending with $44 million. Cimino rattled sabers with studio brass throughout. Under pressure to meet the holiday deadline, the frenzied editing process turned out a cut further sabotaging any chance Heaven’s Gate had to survive. The chronicle of Heaven’s Gate, from pre-production to its recent revival is a story unto itself, but the headlines that clobbered the film put the film in the morgue before anyone could assess its merits without intervention of the bad press that haunt the film to this day. Its effect on the “directors era,” following the films mentioned above, put sheep’s blood on the door the New Hollywood and the creative autonomy that permeated it.
With the benefit of hindsight and a newly restored director’s cut, Heaven’s Gate reintroduced Cimino’s epic to new generation of moviegoers wearing the badge of an unjustly tried film. Despite the imperfections that linger in the haze of this sepia-toned retread of Americana, Heaven’s Gate is a striking masterpiece. It stands as a sweeping epic in the spirit of John Ford’s idealized West with the political and modern sensibilities of a corrupt bureaucracy responsible for government sanctioned killing of innocent people. The design of the film evokes the period with excruciating detail (another component that hurt the director) – wardrobe, props, and sets flawlessly photographed by VIlmos Zsigmond carry enough weight to sway the most vehement naysayers of the film.
It’s easy to blame a director whose excess is not excused (but occasionally pardoned) for the scope and splendor he achieved. Heaven’s Gate wasn’t the only runaway production at the time of its production; we forget that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was known prior to its release as “Apocalypse When” in the headlines. Had it tanked, Coppola might have a different reputation in Hollywood (his own trial would come about a few years later with One From the Heart). Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, another film that went over budget and was nicknamed “Flaws” by the cast and crew, but those films won in the public’s perception. The Last Movie, Sorcerer, and Heaven’s Gate lost. Are they bad movies for going over budget, and tanking at the box office? Some critics will say yes; I disagree. The Last Movie is an idiosyncratic meta movie from one of Hollywood’s more erratic talents. Sorcerer is a personal favorite from Friedkin, it might not exceed The French Connection or The Exorcist, but it’s on that same shelf. Heaven’s Gate is a personal favorite that I revisit constantly, spanning days from my clunky double VHS, to the scratchy MGM DVD and now the finalized Criterion Blu-ray.
Was the New Hollywood going to last forever? Probably not. Times change and so do movements. Was it strictly the fault of a few directors whose grasps exceeded their reach? In some respects yes. Lest we forget that almost famous every filmmaker from this time helmed a flop. Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love is unwatchable, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York is just terrible, but they recouped their damaged profile with a string of successful films. Friedkin, Hopper, and Cimino could not bounce back as well or as profoundly as their contemporaries. Too bad, because their alleged worst films are in some ways their best.