By John H. Foote
Having always maintained that 1974 was and remains among the greatest movie years in the history of film, I was delighted to find this book which explores the arts scene in L.A. Not just film, which is exciting enough, but music which was about to undergo a massive change and television, the evolution of the small screen evolution about to become seismic.
This often spellbinding (yet often disappointing) new book written by Ronald Brownstein is like a roller coaster ride through the late sixties and early seventies, even slipping beyond 1974 to explore how what happened would have an impact on the future of the respective art form. Its great strength is its exploration of television in the seventies, when great shows like M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Maude were beginning or peaking, their social commentary hitting audiences hard, but in the funny bone too. The images brought to mind are fondly recalled 50 years later.
Mary Richards laughing uncontrollably at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, Radar entering the OR and announcing Henry Blake was dead, Sammy Davis Jr. suddenly, without warning, kissing racist Archie Bunker, Maude struggling with the decision to have an abortion, and after marrying in a ratings juggernaut, Rhoda divorces Joe. We sat in front of the television watching these moments in rapt attention never realizing the art form was evolving in front of us. Yes, great comedy was happening, but tinged with social commentary and sometimes tears. No one knew Henry Blake was dying until Radar said the words, the reactions were real. Now in fairness two takes were needed, but the reactions by the second take had sank in, it was even more powerful.
This where the book is at its best.
Also strong is the rise of certain artists performing at L.A.’s famous, and infamous Troubadour night club. It was here Elton John exploded into the American mainstream with “Crocodile Rock”, and Linda Ronstadt began her ascension to the top of music through the seventies. This was one year before Time and Newsweek adorned their covers in the same week with Bruce Springsteen declaring each music critic had seen the future of rock and roll. That gives an idea of how fast art can change.
Where I felt the book lack was in its study of film in 1974.
I believe, and always have, that 1974 is one of the greatest years in film history, just bursting with great cinema. Brownstein focuses a lot on Chinatown, a masterpiece, and The Godfather Part II, arguably the greatest American film ever made, but misses what was really happening in 1974. Disaster films ruled the box office, with Earthquake! and The Towering Inferno drawing in huge audiences. The latter film, about a giant skyscraper on fire had an all-star cast and was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture! Nothing about either. Nor is there anything about Young Frankenstein, the greatest parody of the decade, directed and written by Mel Brooks. Absent too is the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, which very quickly found an audience underground, and went all the way with it.
Francis Ford Coppola dominated 1974 with his small intimate film The Conversation, made for less than a million dollars, winning the Cannes film Festival and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Coppola was nominated by the Directors Guild for that film, and his Oscar winning The Godfather Part II, his masterpiece. Very little about Coppola dominating the decade. Four films? All Best Picture nominees, all Directors Guild nominees? The final chapter explores Oscar night, little else.
Missing too is Bob Fosse’s Lenny, which placed the director in direct competition with Coppola again for Best Director again, after besting him with Cabaret (1972) and it would happen a third time when the two went head-to-head in 1979 with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Fosse’s All That Jazz.
So while I loved the book’s detailing of the world of television going through their greatest changes, and the music scene, I think the ball was dropped with the movie section.
Still a hell of a read. Not to be ignored.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.