Hippies and radicals, back of the (cultural) bus
Students of the 1960s and 1970s are familiar with the long-haired, bearded hippie figure, as seen in photos from the Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, and represented by John Lennon on the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969). Likewise, they are familiar with strident leftists along the lines of Abbie Hoffman, the Black Panthers, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Such students could be forgiven for asking: why weren’t there any such figures starring in Hollywood fiction films of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Did Hollywood engage the counterculture at all? Certainly, films like The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and Getting Straight (1970) were and are widely understood as made for, and even exploitations of, the disillusioned youth of the “Age of Aquarius.” Armed with this information, students have a right to be surprised that films like these present precious few hippies that look like Rasputin and fewer sympathetic figures that declare allegiance to the principles of what was then called the New Left. What happened? Why, when the counterculture was in its heyday, were its representations so different in (presumably liberal-minded) Hollywood films? Why did American film studios wait until ten years after Woodstock, with the musical Hair (1979), to make a fiction film that represented hippies as fully realized characters?
From today’s perspective, it is easy to overestimate late 1960s Americans’ sympathy with the New Left. In 1972, Frank Armbruster published The Forgotten Americans, a study that included more than fifty tables of morality/values questions, charting Americans’ attitudes (or what they told pollsters) from the 1940s to the then-present. Over-reductively, majorities of Americans supported government solutions even as they opposed some of the 1960s’ more radical ideas (forced busing, tax-supported birth control information).1 Todd Gitlin’s history of the New Left claims that majorities of Americans, as late as 1967, did not favor American withdrawal from Vietnam.2 Were young people looking for change? Yes. Were they necessarily looking to the counterculture or the New Left? No. Knowing this, studios well understood that audiences might well have little to no appreciation for hippies or radical leftists. The new films by young filmmakers of the late ’60s and early ’70s often employed a bit of sleight-of-hand, designed to be just hip enough to impress the college students without turning off more conservative audiences. But this simplifying summary does not really explain the biases and perspectives that made the highly lauded, post-Bonnie and Clyde (1967) art films what they were — and weren’t.
In the 1960s, young adults demonstrated steadily more fealty to attitudes and morals that can generally be characterized as both liberal and libidinous, as sympathetic to raciness, radicals and racial-integration movements. If the studios were not to ignore every press source, they had reason to believe that young adults would prefer style and content that was more thematically challenging than 1950s’ fare. While young adults were not the only thing changing in the 1960s, they spearheaded the new and unprecedented. For cinema, they were both the crucial audience and the real-world version of what was being represented. In perhaps too neat a comparison, young people were to the 1960s what the era’s nascent star-actors were to films: not necessarily the ones pulling the strings, not always, but the ones that bore the burden of representation, of identity, of legitimizing the latest thing. It is actors — not directors or anyone else — that appear on the covers of magazines to compel people to see films, particularly if the film is considered difficult to market.
There are excellent biographies of many of the major new filmmakers of the period, including Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Less noted, but no less indispensable, are the “anti-stars” of the period, and thus I would like to spend some time here exploring their influences and propensities. Other historians have already discussed the major directors; most of them have ignored the irreplaceable star-actors of the period. One who hasn’t, Dennis Bingham, writes:
A massive generational turnover, the likes of which had not been seen since the coming of sound, took place in only a few years — roughly 1967-71. It gave these ‘New Hollywood’ actors opportunities for lasting power as producers, directors, or actors as auteurs. They displaced a generational cohort that, in the youth wave and the collapse of the mass-audience blockbuster, lost the bankability many of them had owned for two decades or more. Among these were Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, William Holden, Jack Lemmon, Marlon Brando, and James Stewart.3
Histories of the period have made clear that this era marked the rise of the “anti-star” (a term coined by a 1969 Time cover featuring Dustin Hoffman) — the everyman who supposedly looked more like a man on the street than a chiseled star like Rock Hudson or Charlton Heston. Cued by the phrase “anti-star,” some historians see stars as almost superfluous in this period; however, the films of the time that earned money and Oscars all had at least one preexisting star headlining them. Star-actors, as has been the case throughout Hollywood history, were in fact not only necessary but functioned as privileged synecdoches for navigating the contradictory modes of resistance and traditionalism inherent to their films and America’s wider discourse. To examine the historical influences, then, of the late ’60s everyman is to understand more than the absence of hippies and radical leftists; it is to begin to see why and how Hollywood — and to some extent America — changed but also remained the same during this time.
The new everymen included people like Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Gene Wilder, and Robert Duvall. I name them “Rough Rebels” because they were more rebellious against institutions than the rough stars of classical-era Warner Bros. films, yet also rougher in appearance than the famous 1950s rebels — Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. In his study of 1950s stars, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, Steven Cohan goes to great lengths to explore the performative nature of male performers, but there are at least two aspects that he does not name as performative — whiteness and youth. For Cohan’s stars, being young (in some cases) and white is apparently something that just comes naturally, that isn’t produced through any particular effort. The Rough Rebels, however, both performed and complicated dominant notions of youth and whiteness. In the following two sections, I situate the Rough Rebels’ “youth” and “ethnicity” as part of their unique historical circumstances of the 1960s — and also something that prevented them from representing their era’s more progressive leftists and flower children.
Youth and Alienation
The ideas of feeling apart from society and judging it to be absurd were hardly new to the 1960s. In the American cultural pantheon, Thoreau’s Walden, from 1845, was a crucial antecedent, particularly because of its association with (and minting the phrase of) civil disobedience. A century later, after two devastating world wars, French writer-philosophers took up the idea of hopelessness with a vengeance, most famously Jean-Paul Sartre, often associated with existentialism, and Albert Camus, who reintroduced the Myth of Sisyphus, which concerns the futility (and necessity) of human effort, to a new generation. According to Anderson, 1960s college students declared preferences for Sartre and Camus, and said they related to J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, who despised phonies in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ken Kesey’s Randall McMurphy, who fought against the combine (i.e., society) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Joseph Heller’s Yossarian, who exposed the base hypocrisy of the military in Catch-22 (1961), and even Robert Heinlein’s literally alienated eponymous character in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).6 These books reflect a pre-Johnson administration absurdist sensibility that was more formative for the Rough Rebels than the more wholly disillusioned counterculture.
For Menand, these peers included Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and the writers of the New Journalism (he names Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Hunter Thompson) who “took America and its weirdness as its great subject.”10 Kerouac presented a potent vision of detachment, yet kept his humor as he scoured America looking for hope. Famously, in both book and film, The Grapes of Wrath‘s Tom Joad ended his odyssey by saying “I’ll be there”: he’d be wherever social justice was being abridged. But Kerouac’s characters would be anywhere, fatalistically hoping for something better, and never finding it, instead laughing about the futility.11
Even at the height of the movement, younger Hollywood talent was looking less to radicals and hippies and more to men like Kerouac, Feiffer, and Bob Dylan. In 1963, The New York Times treated Dylan as a curious but isolated phenomenon; in 1965, the same paper reported that “every new songwriter is trying to imitate him.”13 In a more recent collection of essays, scholars concur that Dylan articulated absurdism more than alienation. Kevin Krein and Abigail Levin align Dylan with Sartrean existentialism and critiques of materialism, citing “bitter” lyrics from “Dylan’s best-known song, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,'” from 1966.14 Writing about “Dylan’s skepticism about the ability of any ideals and institutions to give us freedom,” Jordy Rocheleau finds Dylan’s “sensitivity to authoritarian tendencies in social movements and ideals [and] suspicion that protest itself is controlled by the system that it rebels against.”15 For Elizabeth Brake, contending with the famous Dylan lyric “to live outside the law you must be honest,” Dylan rejects all forces limiting independence, including government, friends, lovers, and “suggests an idea of self-realization, the necessary condition for which is detaching from society.”16 For Brake, Dylan had to laugh while he kept society at arm’s length. For Martin Van Hees, “Even the idea that humans are responsible for making their own small changes for the good now seems to have vanished. Tragic fate really has got the upper hand now, and the possibility of affecting it seems to have disappeared.”17 Dylan may have expressed hope in the early 1960s, but by 1968, he expressed only futility and reflexive suspicion of protest.
Dylan, like many folk singers (e.g., Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger), and Kerouac, like other original Beats (e.g., Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs), sympathized with the poor and downtrodden, but came from a place of white (and ethnic, New York-based) male privilege. Dylan’s lyrics were almost never about true penury or deprivation; his scathing criticisms of American institutions came from relative affluence. Likewise, On the Road vouchsafed the alienation of a middle-class man with enough money to afford a soul-searching road trip. Furthermore, both Dylan and Kerouac were known for satirical jokes that kept their work from being understood simply as assaults against any establishment. Dylan and Kerouac (and Andy Warhol, in the new “pop art”) permitted the humor-loving middle-class to be part of an emergent absurdism that shouldn’t be confused with the more Dionysian aspects of the counterculture. By 1969, Bob Dylan had disavowed the counterculture too many times to name. Right up to his untimely death in 1969, Kerouac went on talk shows (like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line) to rail against the hippies for getting his ideas wrong.
Ten years after the first publication of On the Road, in the beginning of 1967, the Dylan-Kerouac brand of restless, hip, wry alienation had not really been seen on film screens. That would soon change, and when it did, many of Dylan and Kerouac’s pro-male, anti-female biases would also come to the fore. As early as 1973, in Popcorn Venus, Marjorie Rosen noted that films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy actually extended patriarchy, even more than films had done before, partly through more explicit representation and partly by not favoring the domestic.18 As Dennis Bingham wrote in another context, “An irony of the male left, as reflected in postwar art especially, is that rebellion against the dominant order is too often blindsided by a misogyny and phallocentrism that ensure the order’s continuation.”19 This prejudice was one more aspect that the Rough Rebels would borrow from the Beats and folk-rock music. But an even more important one was a sort of rumpled, un-madeup style that served as coding for ethnicity.
It was Michael Novak, in Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972), who confirmed that ethnic identities were always distinct sources of pride and identification.21 But Novak is sometimes willfully misread by the anti-assimilationist, and he went on to write that “individuals in our society tend to develop a plurality of cultural roots . . . From Jewish traditions, we learn both a psychiatric and sociological sophistication . . . From black culture, Indian culture, from the multiple Catholic cultures, from the cultures of Asia and of Latin America we appropriate other cherished values.”22 The American White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are rarely as homogeneous as they are portrayed, and indeed other ethnic groups are not simply subsumed, but do affect and change them. Novak is careful to historicize, and to identify a “resurgence of ethnic consciousness” by the late 1960s. Novak and Gleason and Andrew Greeley (see below) all confirm that this era was a uniquely privileged time to assert ethnic identity, and for other Americans to affirm that assertion. At the same time, the Hollywood studios were not about to cast Bruce Lee or Jim Brown in films like Easy Rider or The French Connection (1971). The Rough Rebels were just ethnic enough not to seem out of touch.
There is a danger regarding essentializing white “ethnicity” per se. Different groups have different roles in the American consciousness. (For example, with the exception of the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, Polish-Americans have never seen much overt representation by Hollywood, perhaps partly because Chicago is not in Los Angeles.) One example that Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan use to distinguish between Jews and Irishmen regards New York City laws against housing discrimination. In large numbers, Jews are firmly in favor of such laws, while Irishmen are firmly against them.25 Yet even as Glazer and Moynihan parse the varying interests and characteristics of five groups (Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish), they see certain commonalities, particularly when positioned against WASP, or “old-stock” American perception: “The ethnic group in American society became not a survival from the age of mass immigration but a new social form.”26 They are clear that there is a danger in presuming that ethnic groups have no shared history, characteristics, or ways of reflecting each other. Certainly in Hollywood history, going back to at least the Marx Brothers, ethnic groups were pointedly assembled together. Ethnic groups sometimes were asked to perform in similar ways, as Naremore writes: “As a general rule, Hollywood has required that supporting players, ethnic minorities, and women be more animated or broadly expressive than white male leads.”27 The Rough Rebels, as simultaneous lead actors and character actors, tended to complicate this truism.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic complicate my thesis by opposing Segal and Negra. In their essay “Imposition” (1997), they suggest that pluralism and inclusiveness as defined by Michael Novak may not be seen by everyone as a zero-sum game. “The reformer’s plea demands attention and possibly reallocation of resources. But everyone has problems. What about mine? If we can characterize the outsider group’s complaints as unexceptionable and ordinary, any urgency in addressing them of course dissipates.”28 From this perspective, movies about the problems of white ethnic men may, instead of invoking solidarity with blacks, in fact do just the opposite by proving that white problems are just as valid. Andrew Greeley implied as much when he wrote that white ethnics (he named, first, Jews, Irish, Italians, and Polish people) were substantially alienated by the progressive movements of the ’60s.29 It may make the most sense to see Hoffman, Nicholson, Gould, Hackman, Duvall, Wilder, and Sutherland as liminal figures, ethnic palimpsests upon which several historically charged meanings can be mapped. The point is that their stardoms were unimaginable without the events of the 1960s, and perhaps impossible without Sidney Poitier coming just before them.
Film scholars have found whiteness to be coded. In Richard Dyer’s essay “White” (1993), he writes, “The emphasis on the visible and bounded . . . has to do with the importance of fixity in the stereotyping of others — clear boundaries are characteristic of things white (lines, grids, not speaking till someone else has finished and so on), and also what keeps whites clearly distinct from blacks.”35 Sean Redmond takes this theory even further, claiming that star whiteness
suggests that white people are, or can more readily be, light/spirit, especially in relation to black people whose physical embodiment roots them to earth or to the libidinal forces of nature that come from below . . . However, not everyone who is white can access such iconic forms of perfection. This is because white people have to be imagined as “ordinary” (everyday) people too if their failure to enter the “hall of fame” is going to be attributed to their own shortcomings, rather than to social and political inequality. The potential ideological tension here is displaced by suggesting that some white people are more extraordinary than others (white trash people, for example). In the pantheon of white idealization, social class, gender, age, nationality and personal attributes, including skin tone, hair color, face, physique and “rarefied and magnified emotions” are all called upon to justify this extraordinary white versus ordinary white dichotomy.36
If Dyer and Redmond are right that white means lightness and fixed spatial relations, and black means earth and relative chaos, it follows that some sort of off-white suggests a little bit of danger, a slight skewing, a canted angle that tweaks representations without truly challenging them. If this is true, the Rough Rebels’ relative ethnicity implied a sort of skewing, an authenticity not unlike the jittery cameras of our own time.
Armbruster, Frank E. The Forgotten Americans: A Survey of Values, Beliefs, and Concerns of the Majority. New Rochelle, NY: The Hudson Institute, 1972.. [↩]
- Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995. [↩]
- Bingham, Dennis. Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994, pp. 6-7. [↩]
- Anderson, Terry H. The Sixties. 3rd Edition. New York: Longman Books, 2006, pp. 69-75. [↩]
- Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995, p. 71. [↩]
- Newman, David. “Man of the Year: 25 and Under,” Time, December 22, 1966, pp. 23-32. [↩]
- Menand, Louis. “Drive, He Wrote.” The New Yorker, October 1, 2007, pp. 74-80. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 75. [↩]
- Swartz, Omar. The View from On the Road: The Rhetorical Vision of Jack Kerouac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, p. 31, p. 73. [↩]
- Menand. “Drive, He Wrote.” For Menand, “Kerouac showed writers how to stretch a canvas across an entire continent. He made America a subject for literary fiction; he de-Europeanized the novel for American writers.” [↩]
- This might also be characterized as the difference between modernism and post-modernism. [↩]
- Uncredited. “Elliott Gould: The Urban Don Quixote.” Time, September 7, 1970, p. 29. From the Margaret Herrick Library collection, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles. [↩]
- Sherrill, John. “New Troubadours,” The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1965, pp. 11-15. [↩]
- Krein, Kevin, and Abigail Levin. “Just Like a Woman: Dylan, Authenticity, and the Second Sex,” in Bob Dylan and Philosophy, ed. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006, pp. 53-65. [↩]
- Rocheleau, Jordy. “‘Far Between Sundown’s Finish An’ Midnight’s Broken Toll’: Enlightenment and Postmodernism in Dylan’s Social Criticism,” in Bob Dylan and Philosophy, ed. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006, pp. 66-77. [↩]
- Brake, Elizabeth. “‘To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’: Freedom in Dylan’s Lyrics” in Bob Dylan and Philosophy, ed. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006, pp. 78-89. [↩]
- Van Hees, Martin. “The Free Will in Bob Dylan,” in Bob Dylan and Philosophy, ed. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006, pp. 115-123. [↩]
- Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973, p. 341. [↩]
- Bingham, Dennis. Acting Male, pp. 113-14. [↩]
- Gleason, Philip. “American Identity and Americanization,” in Concepts of Ethnicity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 129. [↩]
- Novak, Michael. Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. New York: MacMillan, 1973. [↩]
- Novak, Michael. “Pluralism in Human Perspective,” in Concepts of Ethnicity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 43. [↩]
- Segal, Ronald. The Americans: A Conflict of Creed and Reality. New York: The Viking Press, 1968, p. 157. [↩]
- Negra, Diane. The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 18-19. [↩]
- Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1963, p. 4. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 5. [↩]
- Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, p. 43. [↩]
- Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. “Imposition.” Hein Online: Wm. & Mary L. Rev, 1993. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=info:kQ6tHbpcGfcJ:scholar.google.com/&output=viewport&pg=1 Accessed June 25, 2009. [↩]
- Greeley, Andrew. “The Alienation of White Ethnic Groups,” in Why Can’t They Be Like Us? New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1971, pp. 153-66. [↩]
- Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. New York: Penguin Books, 2008, p. 43. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 335. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 375. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 279. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 329. [↩]
- Dyer, Richard. “White,” in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge, 1993, p. 148. [↩]
- Redmond, Sean, in “The Whiteness of Stars: Looking at Kate Winslet’s Unruly White Body” inStardom and Celebrity, eds. Sean Redmond and Su Holmes. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007, p. 265. [↩]