Bright Lights Film Journal

“You Know Billy, We Blew It”: Historical Influences on the “Rough Rebels” and How the Counterculture Was Excluded from Hollywood

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?

These questions have complex answers, but one essential point is that even (and especially) newer filmmakers chose to engage the young and alienated without recourse to hippie imagery or stridently leftist rhetoric. The Graduate and Easy Rider were tremendous successes among young college students without truly explicit representation of the counterculture — and the films that followed in their wake did not generally try to push that particular envelope any further. By the time Tom Wolfe declared the end of “radical chic” in 1971, it was hard to tell if Hollywood had missed its chance or had actively abetted a trending away from the New Left. The newer hit-making filmmakers had specific influences, preferences, and priorities that were certainly different from, say, a Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello film like Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), but were also different from radicals like Jerry Rubin and Huey Newton, as well as from the so-called flower children. When historians overgeneralize that American film studios gave younger filmmakers the “keys to the kingdom” in the late 1960s, they elide the fact that the new directors, writers, and stars were more career-oriented than their contemporary press often admitted, their influences were not really countercultural, and their films’ priorities were not as radical as is sometimes supposed. Not to put too fine a point on it, the youth-oriented films of the period were generally as concerned with hipness and irony as they were with disillusionment and disenfranchisement. This essay means to trace some of the historical reasons for this.

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.

Historians of this movement, including Robin Wood, David Cook, and Thomas Elsaesser, have identified at least five crucial antecedents: 1) prestige films from Europe; 2) the breakdown of censorship; 3) studio tumescence; 4) increased societal sympathy with leftist movements; and 5) the influence of television. Was the journey from these five historical trends to the Hollywood Renaissance inevitable? (I join with other scholars in preferring this term over the less specific “New Hollywood.”) If it were, one might have expected a very similar movement to have arisen in the early 1930s, when the first four of these five conditions existed. In fact, in many ways, it did, according to Robert Sklar in his book City Boys. One key difference was that the 1930s were defined by economic crisis, and the 1960s were instead boom times for the American economy. In the early 1930s, in response to current events, gangsters were the figures that some feared and others cheered; in the late 1960s, in response to current events, a similarly polarized response greeted younger adults in revolt. “Everyman” representations were sine qua nons in both cases; ostensibly new recourses to realism, through gritty performative styles, worked to obviate tensions that the films introduced. In other words, because we could watch Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), and marvel at the “lived-in” and “guttural” performances of their lead actors, the films maintained stature as pieces of art that anyone could appreciate without manifesting any sympathy for organized crime. Hollywood has used publicity to similar effect throughout its history; still today, the Oscar race and particularly its actors are presented as reasons to see films (e.g., quoting a critic that says something like, “Yes, it glorifies serial killers, but what great performances”).

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

As Bingham’s comment suggests, films like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970) were hardly going to star Bob Hope and Doris Day; new faces were needed to assure young audiences that someone was speaking for and to them.

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

As Terry H. Anderson explains in his history The Sixties, by the end of 1964, young people were interested in both Berkeley’s Free Speech movement and the civil rights movement, particularly after a couple of white (Jewish) college students were slain while trying to register voters in Alabama. Before most Americans had heard of Vietnam or Watts, before younger people could not “trust anyone over 30,” then, young adults were (at least seen to be) interested in degrees of dissent and pleasure beyond what their parents had presented. Then, mere months after President Lyndon Johnson had won one of the most convincing landslides in electoral history, he was loudly excoriated by his former supporters for the post-Gulf of Tonkin buildup. Two years after the March on Washington, one year after the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act, and six months after the murder of Malcolm X, the Watts uprising may have represented a tipping point for the civil rights movement. No longer could it depend upon the sympathies of the average white American; bitterness began to increase on both sides.4 By the end of 1965, the so-called “conflict” in Vietnam had reached the point of no return. Todd Gitlin wrote that “those young radicals moving leftward were already prone to a deep and passionate alienation from the whole ensemble of American normality, its racism and suburbs, its sexual hypocrisy and cultural fatuousness alike.” Alienation, for Gitlin, had become part of the young American identity.5 However, Gitlin was careful to aver that this alienation did not always translate to activism.

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.

Barbara Klinger wrote that Jack Kerouac influenced the figures I call Rough Rebels. On the Road, published in 1957, is based on Kerouac’s journals of road travels from the late 1940s. Kerouac tried to capture a hardscrabble life that was already then fading from popular memory, more hobo than bohemian, as immortalized in the Dust Bowl photos of Dorothea Lange and the John Steinbeck book of 1939 (and John Ford-directed film of 1940) The Grapes of Wrath. When Kerouac told a radio interviewer, “You know, this really is a beat generation,” it had nothing to do with music; he was describing the feeling of being beaten down by life.7 For Louis Menand, the characters of On the Road were “restless, lonely — beat” and wanted to get away: “Everyone has an irresistible urge to get to Denver or San Francisco or New York, because there will be work or friends or women there, but, after they arrive, hopes start to unravel, and it’s back in the car again. The characters can’t settle down except when they are nowhere in particular, between one destination and the next.”8 For Omar Swartz, Kerouac suggested “that there was no unity, no collective identity to which every American had to proclaim his or her loyalty.” Yet Swartz saw readers of On the Road finding some amity in what he termed social deviance: “In short, readers who are affected by Kerouac’s book learn a vocabulary and an attitude to help them focus their discontent and to gain the support of others who feel the same way. Readers of the novel are taught their alienation has roots in a problematic and systemic world and that, in their alienation, they have ideological peers.”9

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

Jules Feiffer negotiated a new mythology for young adults in Time when he said, “There’s been a shift in focus of movie heroes and movie stories. Out of this shift came the possibility of careers for the likes of [Elliott] Gould, Alan Arkin and Dustin Hoffman. What really happened is that Hollywood is trying to update its mythology, and these are the stars of the new mythology.”12 Feiffer’s cartoons, appearing in the Village Voice, Playboy, and The New Yorker, are often seen as hipster touchstones. The cartoons were known for a sort of bemused take on the worst offenses of the day, for good-humored alienation. Feiffer had good reason to promote the Rough Rebels. Dustin Hoffman’s profile was called Feifferesque by no fewer than three reviewers of the period. Elliott Gould starred in the Broadway version of Feiffer’s first play, Little Murders, and acquired the property. When Feiffer described that “shift,” both Little Murders and his next script were in production — Carnal Knowledge, with Jack Nicholson. But Feiffer’s cartoons were never as radical as the Black Panthers or SDS — they were instead disillusioned but jokey. As an influence over the Rough Rebels, Feiffer was more absurdist than seditious. This was a crucial distinction.

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.

In films like Five Easy Pieces, Getting Straight, M*A*S*H, and Carnal Knowledge (1971), the Rough Rebels hew much closer to Dylan and Kerouac than to the sentiments expressed by radical 1960s leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale. One might say that they were following scripts or directors, but they were also mobilizing the wry personas they used in contemporary interviews. Richard Dyer, among many others, has written extensively about how films use actors’ personas for signification. To oversimplify, the Rough Rebels would make very clear their “hip” credentials in interviews as a way to “sugarcoat the pill” of their thematically challenging films. The very hair of the lead actors seemed to confirm their liminal positioning: mop-top, and long enough to bother someone like John Wayne, but hardly bold by the late sixties. Some of the actors’ dialogue could easily have been pulled from Dylan songs or Kerouac chapters, as when Peter Fonda says to Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider: “You know Billy, we blew it.”

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.


Though the Rough Rebels’ publicity crowed that they would have been relegated to “ethnic roles” in decades past, some of them were barely “ethnic” at all. But their lived-in, character-actor faces situated them between the mainstream and the deviant, at a serendipitous historical moment. Many events of the 1960s might be named as fostering more ethnic awareness and pluralism, from the beginning of forced school busing to the Second Vatican Council’s advocacy of pluralism to Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur to the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision striking down “miscegenation” statutes in Loving v. Virginia. Philip Gleason identifies two events from 1965 that precipitated new degrees of ethnic identification: the Civil Rights Act and the immigration law that eliminated national origins from selection criteria. Gleason finds that the “white ethnic” movement was a reaction to these two changes as well as a reaction to the Black Power movement: “[I]t was systematically promoted as a way of defusing white backlash. The danger that white working-class resentment of black pressures would intensify racial strife had been recognized as early as 1964. But not until 1968, after the black legitimization of ethnicity,”20 (emphasis his) did whites begin to encourage use of “something-American” labels. Gleason names as determinative the two Consultations on Ethnic America in June 1968 and the 1970 National Project on Ethnic America, all of which were principally sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, and promoted (to secure funding) as efforts to reduce racial tensions — they were named Depolarization Projects. The Rough Rebels benefitted tremendously from these trends — they appeared “white ethnic” enough to seem au courant.

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.

For Ronald Segal, “The Irish and the Jews, indeed, go far toward explaining the persistence of popular faith in the American creed.” Regarding the former, Segal cites the prodigious success of the Kennedys, the immigrants becoming “virtually synonymous with the police,” and the Irish Catholic Church’s evolution from British persecuted to wealthiest and largest church in America. Regarding the latter, Segal cites the influence over all New York City institutions, including “art, entertainment, fashion, advertising, the communication of news and ideas.”23 For Segal, the generalized success of Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans are proof that the promise inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty can be made reality. One might add that Jewish-Americans, as prominent leaders of the counterculture, as victims of the Holocaust, as winners (by association, anyway) of the Six-Day War, also had a rare and unique claim on the American imaginary by 1968. Irish- and Jewish-Americans had recently and famously been killed in the service of American values (the Kennedys and the freedom riders), giving their representations the authority of blood. From this perspective, the Irishness of Nicholson and the Jewishness of Hoffman and Gould serve to rescue the American Dream at its most embattled, or perhaps, in their disillusionment, to demonstrate the depths to which that dream has become corrupted. (Nicholson, Hoffman, and Gould were the most prominent and most-profiled Rough Rebels at least until The Godfather came out in 1972.) Per Diane Negra’s explanation of the Irish-American “form of discursive currency” open to commodification, certain ethnicities may actually seem more American than the apparent White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal, because their appearance represents the Horatio Alger myth of hardscrabble success more than a WASP’s appearance can.24 While the Rough Rebels of course preserved many privileges of whiteness, still their apparent immigrant heritage suggested some degree of authentic struggle which the films mobilized as part of their claim on underdog representation. Basically, they connoted America’s immigrant story, suggesting successful assimilation even — especially — as they represented the ostensible death of the American Dream at the end of the 1960s.

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.

Mark Harris connects the peak of Poitier’s career to a campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for greater inclusiveness and to general cultural movements of the period. According to Harris, “Dick Zanuck was caught flatfooted” when Fox’s D-Day film, The Longest Day (1962), was criticized for not including a single black soldier.30 Poitier won an Oscar in early 1964, but critics began to complain, like Joseph Morgenstern in Newsweek, who wrote, “Poitier, who could be ruling the roost if parts were handed out on the basis of talent instead of pigment . . . ”31Variety wrote about a common joke in the mid-1960s: “It has become much too ironic to [rewrite] the part for a white actor if Sidney Poitier is not available or not interested.”32 This was directly related to sexuality, as Calvin Hernton made clear in 1966: “Why can’t Sidney Poitier . . . make love in the movies? . . . By desexing the Negro, America is denying him his manhood.”33 A year later, Poitier agreed, talking about white producers and studio heads: “So they have to make him — the Negro — kind of a neuter . . . You put him in a shirt and tie . . . you make him very bright and very intelligent and very capable . . . then you can eliminate the core of the man: His sexuality.”34 Novak makes it clear that different ethnicities can not be directly compared, but nonetheless the “ethnic everymen,” the Rough Rebels, can be seen as a reaction to Poitier’s career, to its discursive potential and its limits. While Poitier might have been “denied his manhood,” the Rough Rebels would insist on theirs, playing shirtless love scenes in early films (like >The Graduate, Five Easy Pieces, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). Because these generally exceeded narrative demands (meaning the scenes could have been done with shirts on without changing the story) it was almost as though the Rough Rebels were verifying their whiteness, or off-whiteness, as sufficient for stories that would respond to the times.

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.


The Rough Rebel or everyman figure that rose to prominence in Hollywood films of the late 1960s was a direct consequence of recent social changes that emphasized relative youth and “white ethnicity.” This figure was not to be confused with countercultural hippies or some of the more radical leftist movements. Instead, the Rough Rebel was aimed at attracting hip, if disaffected, college students, and thus tilted away from revolution and moved closer to absurdism. Instead of suggesting that the world could change, they promoted a more ironic alienation. Their hip attitude affected their films, though it would take several more essays to parse these effects. For now, it is enough to say that when we look back at perhaps the most creatively rich period in American cinema history — one that included The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, The French Connection, and The Godfather — we see less of the counterculture and more of what the Beats and Dylan had promoted: resistance that maintains a certain traditionalism and hip distanciation. Americans had told pollsters they disagreed with the New Left; the Rough Rebels and their Hollywood Renaissance were not only evidence that the filmmakers were listening, but also powerful forces that encouraged Americans to dismiss the New Left once and for all.

  1. Armbruster, Frank E. The Forgotten Americans: A Survey of Values, Beliefs, and Concerns of the Majority. New Rochelle, NY: The Hudson Institute, 1972.. []
  2. Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Anderson, Terry H. The Sixties. 3rd Edition. New York: Longman Books, 2006, pp. 69-75. []
  5. Gitlin, Todd. The Twilight of Common Dreams. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995, p. 71. []
  6. Newman, David. “Man of the Year: 25 and Under,” Time, December 22, 1966, pp. 23-32. []
  7. Menand, Louis. “Drive, He Wrote.” The New Yorker, October 1, 2007, pp. 74-80. []
  8. Ibid., p. 75. []
  9. Swartz, Omar. The View from On the Road: The Rhetorical Vision of Jack Kerouac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, p. 31, p. 73. []
  10. 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.” []
  11. This might also be characterized as the difference between modernism and post-modernism. []
  12. 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. []
  13. Sherrill, John. “New Troubadours,” The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1965, pp. 11-15. []
  14. 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. []
  15. 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. []
  16. 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. []
  17. 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. []
  18. Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973, p. 341. []
  19. Bingham, Dennis. Acting Male, pp. 113-14. []
  20. Gleason, Philip. “American Identity and Americanization,” in Concepts of Ethnicity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 129. []
  21. Novak, Michael. Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. New York: MacMillan, 1973. []
  22. Novak, Michael. “Pluralism in Human Perspective,” in Concepts of Ethnicity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 43. []
  23. Segal, Ronald. The Americans: A Conflict of Creed and Reality. New York: The Viking Press, 1968, p. 157. []
  24. Negra, Diane. The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 18-19. []
  25. Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1963, p. 4. []
  26. Ibid., p. 5. []
  27. Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, p. 43. []
  28. Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. “Imposition.” Hein Online: Wm. & Mary L. Rev, 1993. Accessed June 25, 2009. []
  29. 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. []
  30. Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. New York: Penguin Books, 2008, p. 43. []
  31. Ibid., p. 335. []
  32. Ibid., p. 375. []
  33. Ibid., p. 279. []
  34. Ibid., p. 329. []
  35. Dyer, Richard. “White,” in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge, 1993, p. 148. []
  36. 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. []