Cynicism, paranoia, chaos was the dominant film in New York in the 1970s. But there was a counter-movement.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Busy streets and dirty apartment corridors. Revolver fights and car chases. Gangsters, street gangs, city eater, widespread corruption. Plain-clad officers chase suspects through alleys and knock them meaningless. This was the dominant film in New York in the 1970s, and the all-is-lost vibe produced countless masterpieces imbued with cynicism, paranoia, and chaos, from The Godfather and Mean Streets to Dog day afternoon and Taxi driver to the end of the decade milestones as All the jazz and The warriors. A friend calls them “burning trash cans” because regardless of the plot, they would probably contain at least one picture of a bunch of guys warming their hands over a burning trash can.
But there was a counter-movement in the 70s that produced almost as many images as doom and gloom. These movies were not about bad streets, but about clean streets. That does not mean the settings were immaculate, but the worldview was more rosy. A character can be sprayed with mud or even lose a wallet to a robber. But these setbacks would not be presented as indications of broader sociopolitical failures, much less a lack of faith in the American dream; they would be depicted as the kind of events that could happen anywhere and that hurt less because they happened in the largest city in the world.
Comedies and romances were the vanguard of pure street cinemas. Adaptations of Neil Simon’s stage comedies about white ethnic chatbox New Yorkers were a mainstay and generated hits such as Plaza Suite (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1975), and Goodbye girl (1977). The number of Midwest moves inspired by the latter (from the central romance down to the protagonist’s spacious Upper West Side apartment) is erratic.
And while the 70s are considered a macho, often ugly decade, the city was at the forefront of films that put smart, independent women at the center of their stories. Jill Clayburgh starred in the 1978s An unmarried woman, about a socialist in the Upper East Side who divorces her unfaithful husband (Michael Murphy) and navigates the sexual politics of the time. Actor-director Mike Nichols poured battery acid on rom-com expectations with the 1971s Carnal knowledge, but his former comedy partner Elaine May demonstrated a much lighter (though no less sardonic) touch the same year with A new magazine, a romance starring Walter Matthau as an outraged Manhattan playboy who has to get married to avoid cravings; May is the heir, he romances and plans to kill (yes, it really is a comedy – and it also takes place in Queens and on Long Island). The divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer seems the strange film out here, as it is certainly as bitter as it is sweet, but it is certainly a clean-street film par excellence, and the long middle section where Dustin Hoffman’s suddenly single father has to learn to take care of his son (Justin Henry) is what made it a huge hit. It’s a little feel-good parent-child love story.
As man-driven blaxploitation crime dramas and action adventures made their mark on the box office in the ’70s, filmmakers also secured funding for black-and-white romances and musicals, including 1974’s Heartbreaker with Reality Claudine, with Diahann Carroll in the lead role as a single mother on welfare and James Earl Jones as the garbage collector she falls for; 1976s Glimpses, a glossary on the history of Supremes (moved from Detroit to Harlem), who played Philip Michael Thomas as a Berry Gordy-like character and Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith as the sisters he guides to stardom; and Lady Sings the Blues, a biopic by Billie Holiday that received an Oscar nomination for Diana Ross.
Literally hovering over the rest was the first studio-produced superhero epic, Superman: The Movie (1978), who starred Juilliard-educated Christopher Reeve and inspired countless future films’ (ET, Hook, The Aviator) night flight sequences. Superman probably set the scene for 80s pictures like Ghostbusters, Tootsie, My Favorite Year, and Scrooged, who treated New York as a magical place where charming and incredible things happened. The “I HEART NY” campaign really started here.