Near the end of his book "American Film Now," critic James Monaco makes a key point about entertainment in the 1970s: Somehow, when nobody was looking, the "movies" metamorphosed into "film."
The evidence is everywhere. Universities offer degrees in film; magazines publish learned articles on the subject. Not many years ago, just a handful of film books could be tracked down by the dogged enthusiast; today every cornerbookstore has a bursting cinema section.
The average filmgoer has felt the full effect of this transformantion. Violence and sex have soared in Hollywood productions, often on the argument that "serious" subjects must be "explored" in motion pictures. Technical resources multiply every year, inspiring a kind of technological warfare among filmmakers, who rush madly for new gadgets that may not be necessary to their projects. A new generation of directors, chock full of cinema savvy, concoct enormous and spectacular effects -- leaving out nothing but the old- fashioned human values that used to be a main reason for going to movies.
Despite these changes, audiences have gone on flocking to the same type of films their parents favored 40 and 50 years ago. Of the top five films during the 1970s, all have strong elements of action and suspense. "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are science-fiction yarns that attracted large family audiences. "The Exorcist" is a horror melodrama, "Jaws" is an adventure thriller, and "The Godfather" is a gangster epic. Any viewer from the '30s would be comfortable with those categories.
New trends also surfaced during the '70s, however. According to conventional Hollywood wisdom, movies about sports are box-office poison. Try telling that to the maker of "Rocky" or the "Bad News Bears" or "Slapshot." More old wisdom: Stay away from politics. More refutation: "All The President's Men" and "The Seduction of Joe Tynan." Even science fiction was considered a marginal genre until "Star Wars" and its progeny.
Success did not follow all the trends of the early 1970s. The "disaster" movies that started with such a bang -- "Airport," "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno" -- soon mellowed into the docudrama suspense of "Dog Day Afternoon" and the overripe romance of "Hurricane." The "youth" craze of "Easy Rider" and "Dealing" grew into the middle-aged drama of "Save the Tiger" and "Harry and Tonto." Even the backward glances of "Nicklelodeon" and "The Last Tycoon" gave way to the noisy nostalgia of "Grease" and its ilk.
Through it all even the last vestiges of the "star system" vanished entirely. Celebrities such as Burt Reynolds or Ingrid Bergman couldn't rescue such mediocrities as "A Matter of Time" (Bergman) from box-office ruin.
To fill the vacuum, filmmakers inherited the mantle of superstardom. In previous decades only a smattering of directors were known to the public, Alfred Hitchcock chief among them. During the '70s, even casual filmgoers learned to recognize such names as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman.
Blacks and women made significant strides during the 1970s. With such films as "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Let's Do It Again," Sidney Poitier attracted large "crossover" audiences and helped put black cinema -- directed by blacks as well as starring blacks -- on the map. Unfortunately, the excitement soon bogged down in the cheap action formulas of "blaxploitation" pictures starring black celebrities from the sports world and often directed by white filmmakers. Still, black performers managed to establish themselves more firmly than ever as major movie talents, including such gifted personalities as Cicely Tyson, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor.
Women also improved their lot, on both sides of the camera. Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Tewkesbury, Joan Darling, and Jane Wagner were among the women to direct major productions during the 1970s, ending decades of masculine dominance in the filmmaking field. Other women wrote major screenplays, from "The Fortune" by Adrien Joyce (the pen name of Carol Eastman) to "Rich Kids" by Judith Ross -- a former TV writer who signed herself J. A. Ross back in the days when women weren't "supposed" to write westerns.
The "buddy movie" fashion of the 1960s gave way to films with strong and central female characters. In some cases theses were mere "female buddy" pictures, but many were clear steps forward for the image of women in film -- even when the movies were made by men, such as John Cassavetes's "A Woman Under the Influence," Herbert Ross's "The Turning Point," and Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman."
It is to the credit of the 1970s that such modest and serious movies managed to be made. Yet during the same decade Hollywood generally tended to pin its hopes on fewer and fewer projects, looking for the largest possible returns on the fewest possible investments. Along the way, movies may not have gotten more profound, but they have gotten much bigger -- with such pictures as "Apocalypse Now" and "Moonraker" costing more than $30 million apiece. In such cases, the advertising budget alone can exceed the total cost of a smaller film.
In any event, Hollywood is going into the '80s with the biggest budgets and most massive machines in its history. It remains to be seen to what uses these resources will be put.