It was the early 1970s, Hollywood was in turnaround. The old guard was nearing the end with some young turks taking the stage. Each started making small films, worked in other roles, or worked in television; but were ready for their close-ups as feature directors with the new decade. The new wave included Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, Robert Benton, Bob Rafelson, and Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin.
Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature was Targets (1968), made for about $130,000, with Boris Karloff in a minor role. The film, which Bogdanovich wrote and directed, concerns a sniper who first kills his family, then is confronted by the Karloff character at a movie premier. After he was given a copy of the novel, Bogdanovich sought to make his next film, The Last Picture Show.
Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed several films in the late 1960s and got his big break co-writing Patton (1970), which won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. This set the stage for his being hired to write and direct The Godfather.
William Friedkin directed several films at the end of the 1960s including The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and The Boys in the Band (1970). Friedkin was living with Howard Hawks’ daughter at the time and recommended that Friedkin make a good chase film. Based on the novel, that film was The French Connection.
The Last Picture Show (1971), based on the Larry McMurtry novel, was one of the best films of the year. It was a coming of age film set against the passing of an era. This was a broad canvass of characters and stories, yet Bogdanovich pulled it off, and it made him a red-hot director. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (Bogdanovich for writing and directing), winning two acting awards.
He followed this with another big hit the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972), and then Paper Moon (1973). Bogdanovich had three hits in a row, an ascending record of success. His next series of films, of his own choosing and development, were disappointments. By the end of the decade his star had cooled and other directors had passed him by.
The Godfather (1972) could be the most important film of the 1970s, it was both commercially and critically successful, and was won for Best Picture, Best Actor and a writing award for Coppola. He moved on to The Conversation (1974), before returning with Godfather II (1974), which may have been a rare case of a sequel exceeding the original film. The path to Coppola’s next film, Apocalypse Now (1979), was long and littered with problems, both for the film and Coppola himself. The end result was mixed, a hit but nowhere near the Godfather films. Coppola would continue to make films but would never again have the clout or artistic success as he enjoyed in the 1970s.
The French Connection (1971) had a great chase scene, almost as good as Bullitt. The film had a gritty and realistic quality, perfect for the story of detectives stumbling onto a heroin smuggling case. The film won Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Director) and made Friedkin the director of the moment. His next choice, The Exorcist (1973), was a best seller. Again, a homerun, the film was the most talked about film of the year, and nominated for 10 Academy Awards. Friedkin would write his own ticket, unfortunately, he chose the wrong project, a remake of The Wages of Fear, called Sorcerer (1977). The film was hugely disappointing. Friedkin’s career would never have the same arc, his films competently made but never big hits. Younger directors learned his style and passed him by.
Bogdanovich created an authentic style, often filming in black & white to underscore the period time-frame of his stories. He was also a writer, and there was a frankness to his storytelling. His exception was What’s Up Doc?, a homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s. He could also be self-indulgent and totally misjudge audience taste.
Coppola, also a writer, liked to do deep into his subjects. The Godfather films told expansive stories, across generations and had great exposition, bordering on allegory. His films strive for great authenticity of culture and nuisance, and grit and realism, no expense spared on detail. Coppola gambled on layering his stories to make a cohesive and popular film. In the 1970s, he mostly gambled correctly, although The Conversation, for its technical competence, did not make for a popular film. Later on, after a string of disappointments, he became mostly a gun for hire, one films that weren’t worthy of his reputation.
Friedkin was the star of action and suspense. Back to back masterpieces established his career and also set him up to fail. Friedkin laid out his films in careful detail of story elements, like jigsaw puzzles. Beyond the car chase, The French Connection was a great cat and mouse game, a mystery played out as a detective story. Normally, films without characters of empathy, particularly the lead, are not very successful, but the Popeye Doyle character was interesting enough to be an exception to the rule. The Exorcist expanded on a strong story, a scary visceral experience. Not just a horror film, but also a skillful mystery film. Instead of carefully using his new power and fame, Friedkin gave it away by picking a very unsuccessful film. His career never recovered and his films never again showcased his talent.
Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin were the most successful directors of the first half of the 1970s. Their films were deeply personal and most reflected their styles. These films made money, earned top awards and established cinematic styles that other filmmakers followed. These films showed their devotion to the material and their love of the film; they were students of the medium. When Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin were on the mark, there were no better filmmakers.
In the 1972, Paramount approached all three to form a production company making films of their choice, called The Directors Company. They were given freedom to make their own films provided they stayed within a certain budget. Three films were made: Paper Moon, The Conversation and Daisy Miller. Only Paper Moon was a hit, the other two were considered disappointments. Disagreements between the principals and Paramount led to the disbandment of the company. A great idea but the reality of business and three people who didn’t really want to be in business together never gave this company a chance.
The 1970s was the decade of too much money, too many drugs too much self indulgence. These three filmmakers went from journeyman to superstars, quickly. What set them apart from other filmmakers was their ability to dial into the changing pulse and emerging tastes of film audiences. With the success of these films, Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin could write their own tickets. And they did.