The best word to describe the ’70s would be chaotic. Various sociopolitical movements — including Civil Rights, women’s rights, anti-war, and sexual liberation — fought for assimilation within the national crucible during this tumultuous decade. The result was confusion, with Americans trying to find their own moral path along a road with many forks. During the ’70s, the divorce rate skyrocketed, the Cold War intensified, and Nixon’s mendacity increased. People may have been spending boogie nights on the disco floors, but the country’s overall mood was one of paranoia, pessimism, and dissatisfaction with elected leaders.
Bursting with ideas arising from the decade’s maelstrom, cinema in the ’70s exploded. Negative national sentiment gave rise to a body of films that challenged the status quo as never before. Advances in film technology gave filmmakers the ability to literally create new worlds and explore new realms of human experience. A looser ratings system allowed movies to display human sexuality with greater complexity and explicitness. The result was, quite possibly, the 20th century’s finest decade of film.
Of course this could have been a classic fifty but the five films chosen here are not necessarily the greatest films of the decade but each represent a seismic shift in our movie appreciation.
All the President’s Men (1976)
Most people know the general plot line of All the President’s Men. Two newspaper reporters, Woodward and Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively) are morally upright journalists sussing out Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal. A fascinating combination of idealism and cynicism, All the President’s Men places a nation’s outrage at its political leader within a satisfying cinematic framework in which truth is uncovered and the offender is punished. In a larger context, the film imposes a moral order onto a chaotic event (the fact that America’s president initiated a burglary and lied to the nation about it) and in doing so, reassures the viewing public that “the truth will out.”
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s brutal classic about a New York cabdriver-turned-psychopath is also a film about imposing order on chaos. Admittedly, cabbie Travis Bickle’s ideas of morality and punishment wouldn’t quite jibe with those of most sane citizens, but his mental disintegration is certainly analogous to the confusion of the times. Taxi Driver’s presentation of the rebellious anti-hero also marked a turning point in American cinema. No longer did films have to present a palatable, romantically agreeable lead character. Instead, cinema could probe the ugliness within the human psyche to an extent hitherto unimagined.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Tony Manero, the protagonist of Saturday Night Fever, is also trying to make sense of his world. A none-too-bright boy looking for a way out of his tenement-bound life, Tony (played with remarkable insight by John Travolta) only has to enter a nightclub and hear that familiar disco beat to settle the chaos in his head. On the dance floor, he’s a smooth Romeo who understands a woman’s needs; off it, he’s a mediocre lover and misogynist. Espousing homophobia and a hatred of women is Tony’s way of staving off the confusion he feels over the fact that the world is changing and there may be no place for him. And what happens to Tony when the music dies? You won’t find the answer in Fever’s laughable sequel, Staying Alive.
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
In contrast to the other defining films, Last Tango in Paris depicts characters purposefully pursuing chaos rather than trying to make sense of it. When widower Paul (Marlon Brando) pursues and seduces art student Jeanne (Maria Schneider) he is seeking oblivion. Their sexual “tango” is obsessive, cruel, and destructive. While relationships of this sort had been written about in books, never before had they been depicted so centrally and excruciatingly in mainstream cinema. Tango’s nihilism perfectly reflected the Zeitgeist of a world threatened by nuclear war. And viewers exiting the theater were rightfully shocked and upset by what they saw.
Star Wars (1977)
Moving out of the realm of social ills and into a bold, new cinematic future, Star Wars was probably the most influential film of the ’70s. Using technological advances in film effects, it depicted new worlds on-screen, the likes of which had never been seen. Who can forget that first look at the Death Star or the breathtaking aerial fight sequences?! Taking its cue from film serials of the ’30s and ’40s, Star Wars presented a blatantly clear good guys vs. bad guys paradigm. Looking at the film now, the plot seems resolutely old-fashioned and exceedingly militaristic, and The Force smacks of New Age philosophies, but Star Wars’ simple belief that right triumphs over might will always provide solace in a world that daily grows more complex.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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