The Magnificent 60s – The Book

My formative years in terms of movies coincided with the rise of the critic and the auteur theory, promoted by Andrew Sarris, which valued directors far higher than actors, dramatically changing the existing status quo. Critics like Sarris developed their own pantheon of artists who could be considered great and routinely ridiculed those actors or directors who did not come up to the mark or whose works occasionally fell short of the lofty standards thus set.

Critics liked nothing better than to hail a new unknown talent – and be the first to do so – and regularly found fault with films that had big budgets. In short, they set out to pulverize popularity. In a separate endeavor academics found a new way of looking at films, deciphering in movies particular previously unforeseen aspects, epitomized by Peter Wollen’s seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969). If ever a small picture turned into a big hit it was always, it was claimed, down to the efforts of critics who championed the movie. More importantly, critics were a law unto themselves.  Movies the public loved were often the very ones that critics and academics disdained. As a consequence, the universal question on critical lips was how could the public be so foolish and why were they so gullible?

That meant I was often a puzzle to myself. How could I enjoy a picture that apparently lacked critical merit? Or had no redeemable features according to those who knew best? It was a paradox that I have enjoyed to this day. I am not talking here of films “so bad they are good,” a category invented to accommodate a particular guilty pleasure such as the Ed Wood portfolio, or of films deemed “camp classics” like Valley of the Dolls (1968).

In fact, Valley of the Dolls is a good place to start in the critic vs. public divide. Here was a film based on a novel the literary critics of the period derided (although more recently its merits have been reassessed from a feminist perspective) and turned into a big-budget film with an Oscar-nominated director that the film critics of the period also vilified. The book was a bestseller and movie a huge hit. Public and critics were at an impasse. Were the public misconceived or, worse, duped, into devouring book and movie? 

When I wrote my book on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) I discovered that that movie had not been generally well received either by the critics or the public but that it had turned into the most popular western of all time, courtesy of endless repeats on television and a considerable number of reissues, where other movies in the genre termed classics fell far short of such universal appeal and adoration – except as far as critics and academics were concerned.   

So when I came to look at the best films of the 1960s – a period of which I am inordinately fond – I decided I would in a sense ask the public. After all, box office is nothing more than a public thumbs up or thumbs down. My concept would mean cutting out the middle man.

I would go going straight to the public vote, determining popularity from box office receipts. We are not talking here about people who watched a movie for free on television years after it first came out and saw a version reduced in size, scale and sound and which in some cases had been trimmed for censorship reasons or to fit in with the advertisements. Instead, I am referring to this decade’s moviegoers willing to slap down their hard-earned bucks, take time out of their schedule, their effort maybe involving hiring babysitters or shelling out for transportation and parking and whatever.

In a sense there is something supremely egalitarian in that approach in that the people who pay to see movies are the ones whose box office dollar ends up funding new pictures and without whom there would be neither popular not unpopular films. So this assessment of the Top 100 Movies of the 1960s is based purely on the public’s response to a given film through the simple act of paying to go and see it. That act turns into the movie’s box office and that underpins this book.

This was the decade of legend. It spawned many of the greatest films ever made. Studios made more money than ever before, movie budgets ballooned and stars received record sums. As the auteur theory grew in influence, directors were feted. Businesswise, it bridged the old studio system where high numbers of movies were cranked out every year and the new approach where production was reduced in the expectation of creating the equivalent of today’s “tentpoles.”

Films made on a scope not conceived since Gone with the Wind (1939) became routine, arriving in theaters nearly every month, some so spectacularly successful they set the template for the future blockbuster. New genres such as the spy picture, driven by the James Bond phenomenon, came out of nowhere. Other moribund genres, previously restricted to low-budget or B-picture status, such as horror and sci-fi, reached new heights thanks to bigger budgets and top-name directors.

While every genre thrived, the decade will be remembered particularly for musicals like The Sound of Music (1965) and historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and an explosion of British movies.  It was also the era of “the little films that could,” low-budget pictures such as Lilies of the Field (1963) and Charly (1968) whose success far exceeded expectation. This epoch of dramatic change saw the industry embrace different attitudes to sexuality, violence and racism, adopt alternative release strategies and reassess movies’ ancillary value.

A new generation of stars emerged. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Peter Sellers, Clint Eastwood, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, Raquel Welch, Omar Sharif and Lee Marvin formed the new elite. But that was not at the expense of existing stars. The post-war and 1950s generation retained – and in some instances expanded – their appeal.

Into that category fell Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston and Frank Sinatra. And although Gary Cooper and Clark Gable died early in the decade, studios still counted on the box office prowess of pre-war contemporaries like John Wayne, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn and until his retirement in 1966 Cary Grant.  

However, the “star system” had vanished and studios no longer invested millions annually on training new talent. Although in the 1950s Yul Brynner, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson had graduated from smaller-scale new talent programs, by the 1960s they were largely defunct although occasional attempts were made to revive the concept. Occasionally, television might throw up a new prospect – a Steve McQueen or James Garner – but most new stars, as far as the public was concerned, came from nowhere. One minute you had never heard of them, the next they were everywhere, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood in particular falling into this category. Where the previous system had relied on steady grooming, now stars were born in an instant. One picture was all it took. 

Behind the camera was a parallel situation. The old-stagers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, David Lean and Carol Reed were joined by post-war debutants such as Robert Aldrich, Robert Wise, Stanley Kramer and Stanley Kubrick.

The newer crop graduating from television included John Frankenheimer, Robert Mulligan, Sam Peckinpah, George Roy Hill, Franklin J. Schaffner, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Norman Jewison and Sydney Pollack. They were augmented by the British New Wave of Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson and by later additions like Peter Yates.

European directors welcomed into the Hollywood mainstream included Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up, 1966) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) while foreign-made pictures like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) made massive inroads into the box office and helped create a different artistic sensibility. While French New Wave films were mostly confined to arthouses, many of their techniques in storytelling and especially editing were embraced by Hollywood directors.

Studios began the decade in financial turmoil, MGM and Twentieth Century Fox on the verge of bankruptcy, production decimated and attendances in terminal decline. As had occurred at the start of the 1950s, studios gambled on a bigger throw of the dice, this time with 70mm big-budget roadshow, movies that paid little heed to budget strictures. The roadshow aimed to woo audiences away from the encroaching maw of television, to give big-screen lovers something that small-screen producers could not match, and at the same time reinvigorate the moviegoing experience.

First run big city theaters already generated far greater revenues than cinemas further down the food chain and now studios intended increasing the box office take further by hiking prices. Big city center cinemas would offer an experience unparalleled in the modern cinemagoing age. Roadshows were shown in the separate program format so you could not just slip in and out to suit yourself. And the movie started with a fanfare, an overture that could last up to ten minutes, giving you time to take your seat, and there was an intermission to let you stretch your legs, use the facilities or refuel.

The whole experience, what with souvenir programs on sale and babysitters to be hired, and maybe cocktails or dinner beforehand, was an event. And movies had never been events of any regularity. The prior moviegoing ethos was that it was a habitual part of your life. You popped into your neighborhood theater as you might go bowling or visit a bar. There was nothing fancy about it. It was just what everybody did. Or had done – until television became the way you spent your evenings, staring at a tiny box in the corner which lacked widescreen or color or 3D or any of the other gimmicks that for a time in the 1950s stopped the decline in theater attendance.

This book defines this decade in an entirely new way, not with reference to the critics, but as viewed by the public. Although you may find many critical faves here, you will find as many films that defined the public/critical divide.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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