Subsequent years, like younger siblings, tend to get ignored. Consider 1969. Books have been written about the sea-change that 1967 saw in Hollywood: “Bonnie and Clyde”; “The Graduate”; not one, not two, but three hits starring an African-American leading man, Sidney Poitier. Many more books have been written about the sea-change that 1968 saw all over the world: Tet, Paris, Prague, Chicago.
So where does that leave 1969? It had at least one world-shaking event — a world-leaving event — the Apollo 11 moon landing; and the movies saw even more of a cultural revolution that year than 1967 had. It’s just that that revolution now seemed less noticeable, like students with long hair and businessmen with wider neckties.
Also the revolution was far from complete. On the list of top-grossing releases in 1969, the road-show blunderbuss “Hello, Dolly!” sits between a counterculture landmark, “Easy Rider” (number three), and the wife-swapping comedy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (number five). The old Hollywood was still glowing, still crowing, still, kind of, going strong. That between-two-worlds condition is what makes the movie landscape of 1969 look so interesting 50 years later.
On the one hand, Hollywood produced a Che Guevara biopic, “Che!” On the other hand, a dreamboat like Omar Sharif plays the title character — and Jack Palance (that’s right, Jack Palance) plays Fidel Castro (that’s right, Fidel Castro). A big-budget musical version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” bombed. The quietly subversive “Goodbye, Columbus” (Ali MacGraw’s big-screen debut) had the year’s ninth-largest grosses. You want to know what kind of year 1969 was? An adaptation of a Philip Roth novella was a big hit.
The top-grossing movie epitomizes how much of a Mixmaster 1969 was. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was traditional: a western, a buddy movie, with star power to burn (Paul Newman plays Butch, Robert Redford Sundance). It was also anything but traditional: consistent larkiness, the switch to South America, that freeze-frame ending. Try to imagine John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart yelling “I can’t swim!” or goofing around on a bicycle.
It screens July 25 at the Coolidge, as part of the theater’s Summer of ‘69 series.
Of course, prior to 1969, imagine John Wayne playing up the size of his gut or falling drunk off his horse. Both happen in “True Grit” (the year’s seventh-top-grossing film). Let’s see the Coen brothers top that. Wayne’s performance as Rooster Cogburn won him his first and only Oscar.
Actually, in 1969 terms, “True Grit” qualifies as a traditional western. At least it does compared to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968, but its US release a year later), Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” and “Easy Rider” (which screens at the Coolidge Aug. 8). True, that one’s not a western. But the main difference between Peter Fonda’s Captain America and Dennis Hopper’s Billy and Butch and Sundance is that they ride motorcycles instead of horses and don’t have to travel to Bolivia to learn the hard way that muzzle velocity can taketh away as well as giveth. Oh, and in a nice bit of 1969 interweaving, Hopper shows up sixth billed in “True Grit.”
The other genre that nicely demonstrates the divided nature of 1969 is the musical. There was even a musical that was a western, and vice versa: “Paint Your Wagon.” Surely, in no other year could a big-budget musical have starred Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. The movie is almost as dreadful as you’d expect. Thankfully, it’s Harve Presnell who sings the musical’s big number, “They Call the Wind Maria.” Also, in fairness, Clint does a passable job with his slightly breathy tenor on “I Talk to the Trees.”
“Alice’s Restaurant,” the most of-its-time 1969 musical, wasn’t a musical in any traditional sense. The 1969 musical that most wanted to be of its time was Bob Fosse’s film-directing debut, “Sweet Charity.” It screens at the Coolidge Sept. 5. Viewers of FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” will be familiar with it. The next movie Fosse directed, “Cabaret” (1972), would star Liza Minnelli. She had her first top-billed movie role in 1969 with “The Sterile Cuckoo,” a very 1969 sort of title. It earned her her first Oscar nomination.
Even before coming to the screen, “Sweet Charity” was a study in style straddling. The Broadway original was based on Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” (1956) but with a book, speaking of odd couples, by Neil Simon. (Yes, Fellini had a 1969 release, “Fellini Satyricon” — the dolce was definitely off the vita.) The ostensibly hippest number in the movie, “The Rhythm of Life,” features a Nehru-jacketed Sammy Davis Jr. Oh yes, 1969 sure was something.
“Sweet Charity” was one of two big movies that year with a prostitute protagonist. The other was the very (very) different “Midnight Cowboy,” starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as a very (very) different version of Butch and Sundance: buddy movie, yes; western, no. It screens at the Coolidge Aug. 1. Despite its X rating and the title character being a male hustler — or perhaps because of those facts — the movie won the best picture Oscar, and only “Butch Cassidy” sold more tickets. How popular was “Midnight Cowboy”? First lady Pat Nixon attended an unpublicized screening at the White House.
As so often, the canary in the cultural coalmine was comedy. Bob Hope (“How to Commit Marriage” ) and Jerry Lewis (“Hook, Line & Sinker”) were still cranking ’em out. The Hope title sounds like a geriatric version of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” — different Bob, of course. In contrast, Woody Allen made his solo debut as writer-director, with “Take the Money and Run.” And Robert Downey Sr. wrote and directed what was likely the year’s single most outrageous movie, “Putney Swope.” Robert Downey Jr.’s wildest behavior as Tony Stark looks tame by comparison with the goings-on in his dad’s “Mad Men”-apalooza racial satire.
It may be that the real onscreen measure of what a whipsaw year 1969 was isn’t a film as radical as “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s confrontationally fact-and-fiction feature set amid the rioting outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention (it screens at the Coolidge Aug. 22); or as radical in a different way as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!,” Marlon Brando’s favorite among his own performances; or as radical in an Andy Warhol way as “Blue Movie,” his first widespread commercial release.
That between-two-worlds condition is what makes the movie landscape of 1969 look so interesting 50 years later.
No, it would be two franchise movies. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was the first James Bond film without Sean Connery as 007 — and, as it happened, the only one with George Lazenby. Right there you have 1969: continuity and disruption. Or there’s “Change of Habit,” which would turn out to be the last Elvis movie. He plays a ghetto doctor (yup). The female lead is Mary Tyler Moore (yup again). She plays a nun (biggest yup of all). Also in the cast, sixth billed — just like Dennis Hopper in “True Grit” — is Ed Asner.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.