Nineteen thirty-nine is known as the movies’ annus mirabilis, or wonderful year. Titles released in 1939 include “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “Ninotchka,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” and “Gunga Din.” And that’s not counting such celebrated, if over-ripe, entries as “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and “Beau Geste.” It was the high-water mark of the Studio Era.
Thirty-six years later something quite different took place: the movies’ annus venalicium, or market year. It was also the movies’ annus comoedia. But we’ll get to that later.
Even though four decades have passed, the marketing template first used in 1975 continues to rule in Hollywood. Summer blockbusters? No longer would the season be relegated to schlock and drive-in fare. The youth market as be-all and end-all? Baby boomers now had disposable income and baby boomers, unlike their parents, wanted to get out of the house. Saturation television advertising? That’s where the eyeballs were. Opening on as many screens as possible? Forget showcasing “prestige” titles, slowly building up interest in a single theater in a few cities and gradually expanding a release.
Now taken for granted, those approaches all seemed revolutionary in 1975. The revolution occurred with one movie: “Jaws.”
“Jaws,” which quickly surpassed “The Godfather” as largest-grossing movie of all time (a title it ceded just two years later to “Star Wars”) was the most important film released in 1975. The Studio Era had withered away in the ’60s, with the success of such movies as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider.” They had ushered in the New Hollywood, a period not just rich of artistic ferment but also commercial confusion. The first movie with domestic ticket sales of $100 million, “Jaws” pointed the way to a new era in which the mainstream, now tilted toward spectacle and special effects, reasserted its dominance with the likes of “Superman,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and so on.
This historical importance can make it easy to overlook just how good a movie “Jaws” is. It’s witty, scary, very well acted (by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw), and memorably scored. John Williams’s two-note bass ostinato is the ultimate oceanographic nightmare. Just as those two notes unmistakably announce the arrival of a certain large set of teeth, “Jaws” itself announced the arrival of a major directing talent, Steven Spielberg, something that his debut feature, “The Sugarland Express” (1974) had just hinted at.
“Jaws” was not alone in being a very good movie released in 1975. That annus was itself pretty mirabilis. The four movies nominated with “Jaws” for the best-picture Oscar were “Nashville,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Along with the first two parts of “The Godfather,” Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was the other New Hollywood epic. Its influence remains very much evident today, in the sprawling narratives of cable drama and the sensibility of Paul Thomas Anderson. It may be Altman’s most overrated movie, but that may say more about its critical reputation than how good it actually is. Judge for yourself on Sept. 24, when the Kendall Square Cinema has a special, one-night, 40th-anniversary screening scheduled.
“Dog Day Afternoon” showed how well old and new could mesh. Sidney Lumet had started directing in the early ’50s, on television. Al Pacino, along with Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, was one of the era’s defining male stars. A real-life urban crime drama (old) involves a sex-change operation and double-cross by the feds (new). An Italian bank robber from an outer borough leading a chant of “Attica! Attica! Attica!”? Only in the ’70s.
“Cuckoo’s Nest” finally got Nicholson the Oscar he should have won for “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” and/or “Chinatown.” The award was one of the film’s five major Oscars — picture, actor, actress (Louise Fletcher), director (Milos Forman), and adapted screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben). It was the first time there’d been such a sweep since “It Happened One Night,” in 1935. The only film to do it since has been “The Silence of the Lambs.”
As for Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” is it the most beautiful boring movie ever made or the most boring beautiful movie? It contrasts in almost every way with another 1975 release, John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” which shows just how rousing can be a period adaptation of a classic author (William Thackeray, for Kubrick; Rudyard Kipling, for Huston). Rousing “Barry Lyndon” is not. It won well-deserved cinematography, costume, and art direction Oscars, as Kubrick showed that, yes, movies could be shot by candlelight and the 18th century on screen might look the way you’d think the 18th century would have actually looked back then.
Kubrick wasn’t the only filmmaking master with a 1975 release. Akira Kurosawa won a best foreign language film Oscar for “Dersu Uzala.” Francois Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H” made Isabelle Adjani a star. Ingmar Bergman filmed “The Magic Flute” with a Mozartean glow instead of Bergmanian darkness. Theo Angelopoulos’s “The Travelling Players” braided Greek tragedy and Greek history, with the director’s trademark long takes and intricate tracking shots. On the subject of tracking shots, Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” concluded with one of the most remarkable in film history. During its 360-degree progress the murder of its hero (Nicholson) takes place — off screen, no less.
Having peaked in 1973 and ’74, blaxploitation had begun to fade, done in by overexposure, a changing political climate, and, yes, disco. “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold ” kicked butt in the classic blaxploitation mode. But most of the notable movies featuring black protagonists were outside the genre: “Cooley High” ; “Cornbread, Earl and Me”; Ralph Bakshi’s one-of-a-kind live action/animation feature, “Coonskin”; the over-the-top antebellum melodrama “Mandingo” ; Diana Ross’s second starring vehicle, “Mahogany” ; and the Earth, Wind & Fire-starring “That’s the Way of the World,” which easily had the best title song of 1975.
Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” declared the boom in Australian film that would do so much to enliven the late ’70s and early ’80s. Another Peter didn’t fare so well. Peter Bogdanovich’s career went off the rails with “At Long Last Love.” Burt Reynolds . . . sings? Worse, Burt Reynolds sings . . . Cole Porter? A very different sort of musical met with much great success. Although it took years of midnight showings to do so, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” went on to have the second-biggest grosses of any 1975 release.
Even though four decades have passed, the marketing template first used in 1975 continues to rule in Hollywood.
Sequels fared surprisingly well in 1975. Maybe it was the example of “The Godfather Part II,” from the year before? Having won a best actress Oscar for “Funny Girl,” Barbra Streisand played Fanny Brice again, in “Funny Lady.” Gene Hackman also reprised an Academy Award-winning role, for “French Connection II,” which sent New York police detective Popeye Doyle to Marseille. Sidney Poitier directed himself and Bill Cosby in “Let’s Do It Again” (the ultimate sequel title?), a sort-of follow-up to the previous year’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” also directed by Poitier and starring, yes, Poitier and Cosby. Peter Sellers had a career comeback with “The Return of the Pink Panther,” playing the role of Inspector Clouseau after an 11-year gap.
Both “Let’s Do It Again” and “Return” were comedies. Now we’re getting to 1975 as annus comoedia. It also saw the release of “Shampoo,” with Warren Beatty wielding a mean blow dryer, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Knights Who Say Ni, anyone?
The Pythons had started on TV. TV, as noted, played a key role in making “Jaws” such a hit. There were at least two other ways in which TV in 1975 would affect the movies. The second is what made that year an annus comoedia.
On Oct. 4, something called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” debuted on the Chicago PBS station. Originally, it aired monthly. Soon enough, that became biweekly, then weekly, and the title changed to “Sneak Previews.” The stars, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, would eventually move on to “At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” and then “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.” Movie reviewing hasn’t been the same since. Neither have thumbs.
A week later, “NBC’s Saturday Night” debuted. That was the original name of “Saturday Night Live.” No one realized it at the time, but American film comedy — even more than American TV comedy — would be transformed. Original cast members Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd would go on to have movie careers — and blaze a big-screen trail for numerous other cast members, from Bill Murray to Eddie Murphy to Adam Sandler to Will Ferrell to Kristen Wiig. And that’s not counting the dozen or so movies that originated as “SNL” skits, such as the pair each of Blues Brothers and “Wayne’s World” titles.
More important, “SNL” inspired a new conception of film comedy: looser, less organic or character driven, with a shorter attention span and more erratic rhythms, at once cruder and hipper (or at least more knowing). If Billy Wilder had been the presiding spirit of American film comedy for the past three decades, very soon it would be “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels. As much of an impact as “Jaws” and Spielberg have had on the movies, “SNL” and Michaels may have had more.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.