“We blew it.” The line, delivered by Peter Fonda’s Captain America to Dennis Hopper’s buckskinned Billy in their counterculture collaboration Easy Rider (1969), endures as the film’s most famous — and most inaccurate. A Columbia Pictures release, this woozy biker trek across the U.S., animated by heavy drugs and hippie logic, was a critical and box office smash, and had rival studios scrambling to replicate its success. Universal’s Lew Wasserman, like most of the old guys running the studios then, may have been baffled by the movie’s freaky appeal but didn’t let his geezer tastes get in the way of making money: The same year that Easy Rider was released, he started a “youth division” at Universal, appointing Ned Tanen, a 38-year-old music executive at the time, as its head. Metrograph’s “Universal in the ’70s: Part One” brings together seventeen films (all on 35mm) distributed by the company during the high holy years of New Hollywood. Some are more directly affiliated with Tanen than others; all reveal idiosyncrasies and risks almost inconceivable in any studio-backed production today.
One of the first titles on Tanen’s docket was Taking Off (1971), directed by Milos Forman, the Czech New Wave paragon who immigrated to the U.S. following the Soviet invasion of his homeland in ’68. Forman’s inaugural film in his new country, this freewheeling, affectionate satire about terminally square parents and their restless kids announces its unorthodox structure from the start: Two pubescent girls in star-spangled attire sing a duet; they’re part of a throng of hopefuls (all female) awaiting their turn at the mic for a record label audition, an oblique but always vitalizing sequence that Forman returns to throughout the film. (The folkie crooners include Carly Simon and Kathy — a/k/a “Bobo” — Bates.) Milling around the aspirants is big-eyed Jeannie (Linnea Heacock), a fifteen-year-old chronic runaway from suburbia. Her repeated flights from home send her inept mom and dad (Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry), newly minted members of the Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children, to track her down in East Village luncheonettes and in upstate New York — a trek that includes a detour to catch the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. It’s one of the many incongruous, hilarious, sometimes unnerving set pieces in Taking Off, a film that proves the utter folly of trying to bridge the generation gap — never more so than when Jeannie brings home her Manson look-alike boyfriend for dinner.
Heacock, a nonprofessional discovered while hanging out in Washington Square Park with her pals, never acted in another film. Just a few years older than Taking Off‘s adolescent escapee, Laurie Bird, one of the principals in Monte Hellman’s stripped-down road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), another early release from Tanen’s youth unit, scarcely had a longer career: She appeared in only two other films before ending her life, at age 25, in 1979. In Hellman’s movie, Bird is known only as “the Girl”; she may be nameless — and lacking the celebrity of her co-stars (catatonic rockers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, garrulous cult actor Warren Oates) — but her wilted-flower-child anomie gives the film its most haunting quality.
Two titles in the Metrograph retrospective are emblematic of the neurasthenic-heroine genre then ascendant — quasi-avant-garde portraits of mentally fractured women whose instability is mirrored in each film’s disjointed sense of time. Jerry Schatzberg’s debut feature, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), reflects his queasy ambivalence toward the fashion industry, where the onetime photographer for Vogue and other upscale glossies got his start. Faye Dunaway (the director’s real-life ex) stars as supermodel Lou Andreas Sand, now living in an isolated shack on Fire Island following a spectacular crack-up in New York. “I am a woman. Is that so wrong?” the fragile beauty asks, half-aware that the answer, in her profession at least, will always be “yes.” Inveterate maximalist Dunaway savors lines like this one, making an already flamboyant pronouncement even more rococo.
More austere — and more acerbic — is Frank Perry’s 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion’s merciless second novel, Play It as It Lays, published two years earlier. (Didion wrote the screenplay with her husband, John Gregory Dunne; it was their second script collaboration, following the 1971 Schatzberg-helmed junkie drama The Panic in Needle Park, a 20th Century Fox release.) Walking through the Last Year at Marienbad–type grounds of a mental clinic, Maria (rhymes with pariah), cannily portrayed by Tuesday Weld, calmly states via voiceover, “I try to live in the now.” But grim episodes from the past — which follow no chronological order, with some memory-shards lasting mere seconds — consume her, and us: ghoulish Hollywood parties, tennis-court pickups, abortions in Playa del Rey, visits with her severely disturbed young daughter. “I know what nothing means, and keep on playing,” the anhedonic antiheroine says, typifying the film’s strange restorative nihilism.
Not every movie in the series is so bleak. Michael Schultz’s Car Wash (1976) follows the workday highs and lows of a multiracial crew of automobile polishers in L.A.’s Westlake neighborhood. Filled with nonstop clowning and dopey jokes, Schultz’s busy comedy also features one of the best soundtracks of the era, thanks to Rose Royce’s supernal disco-funk title track (and others by the group, plus “You Gotta Believe,” by the cameoing Pointer Sisters, who share their scene with Richard Pryor, in the first of three films he’d make with Schultz). And the movie may also claim the most indomitable heroine in the Metrograph retro: the fabulously gender-nonconforming Lindy, superbly played by Antonio Fargas, whose comeback to a homophobic co-worker still stands as one of the fiercest reads of the Seventies — or any other decade.
‘Universal in the ’70s: Part One’
January 25–February 6
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