The late 1960s kickstarted a tidal wave of creativity that splashed into the 70s. With the large shakeup of the old studio system, and radical and fresh material becoming profitable, several exciting new voices emerged from this era with a stunning pedigree. Yet the sharp left turn the film industry took in the 80s with a priority focus on big budget spectacles shunned several of these new wave directors into a creative dead zone.
While some (Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg) still managed to be prolific and relevant to this day, and others (Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin) consistently worked before petering out decades later, for others, the dropoff was immediate. Let’s examine a handful of these forgotten talents who sadly lost their way due to drugs, hubris, or indifferent studio heads.
1. Hal Ashby
Pre-80s Career: After having Oscar-winning success as Norman Jewison’s go-to-editor, Hal Ashby made the transition to directing feature films with a flawless run of movies, starting with the endearing black comedy “Harold and Maude” (1971) and wrapping up at decade’s end with the Peter Sellers drama “Being There” (1979).
He had a knack for getting the best from his performers, and a unique relevant talent that quickly cemented him as one of the top voices of ‘New Hollywood’. Other particular highlights included Warren Beatty’s sex comedy “Shampoo” (1975) and the devastating post-Vietnam love story “Coming Home” (1978).
Aftermath: The 80s became a turbulent time for Ashby as he grew heavily reliant on drugs, with his behavior and his health waning (he collapsed while making a Rolling Stones concert film). A string of messy and compromised flops followed that were a sad shadow of his former glory, and he quickly landed the reputation of ‘unemployable’.
Lowlights included “The Slugger’s Wife” (1985), a misguided Neil Simon adaptation, and the Robert Blake rom-com “Second-Hand Hearts” (1981). By decade’s end, he attempted to turn things around by getting sober and turning to more genre-friendly material, but it was too late and he died from cancer in 1988.
Exception to the Rule: Ashby’s last proper feature film, “8 Million Ways to Die” (1986), was a rare foray into genre material for the desperate director. Based around Lawrence Block’s rough-edged ‘Scudder’ character, Jeff Bridges took on the role with impressive panache as a deeply traumatized recovering alcoholic.
One feels that Ashby (just having kicked addiction himself) channeled his own demons through the character, and several refreshingly honest scenes play out from the reliable actor.
Unfortunately, the rest is fairly standard ‘cops and robbers’, a trapping that Ashby had avoided throughout his entire career, but he regardless made the best of it, with an sweaty and intense finale and a fun villain played by Andy Garcia. It hardly sits with his best work, but it’s a solid mid-80’s action/thriller with some better than average performances.
2. John Milius
Pre-80’s Career: The self-proclaimed ‘Zen Anarchist’, John Milius was a larger-than-life force amongst the ‘movie brat’ circle, rising up the ranks and becoming the most prolific screenwriter of the 70s; “Dirty Harry” (1971) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) are his peak credits.
His move to feature directing is less recorded but no less worthy of celebration; his gritty biopic “Dillinger” (1973) and moving surf drama “Big Wednesday” (1978) have both enjoyed earned cult reputations over the years, and his colorful persona cemented him as a powerful force in the industry.
Aftermath: Milius’ jingoistic panache gelled with the early 80s, as his fierce fantasy epic “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) and anti-Communist wish-fulfillment “Red Dawn” (1984) are incredibly entertaining pieces of macho nonsense.
But after a handful of expensive failures that studios either took away from him, or which failed to connect, along with a change in conservative attitudes within the Hollywood elite, Milius felt blacklisted and retreated into mostly writing jobs for hire or TV work, with little freedom to express his own eccentric but loving brand of testosterone philosophy. The man hasn’t directed a feature since 1991, and his remained largely reclusive since his stroke a few years back.
Exception to the Rule: Whilst the majority of his TV work lacked his sharp former knack behind the camera, his role as the creator and producer of HBO’s “Rome” is the strongest from his later, weaker period.
A shockingly mature take on history, the mini-series might have seemed dated in the shadows of its successor “Game of Thrones”, but there’s no denying it was a radically exciting take on a worn-down tale that displayed the unique Milius flavor that his other recent credits have lacked.
3. Peter Bogdanovich
Pre-80’s Career: Peter Bogdanovich, a former film critic, landed a job directing the clever and haunting genre movie “Targets” (1968), yet it was the masterfully executed “The Last Picture Show” (1971) that catapulted him to the title of cinematic ‘wunderkind’, with the movie rightfully taking a spot in the classic films category.
He could do no wrong with a string of loved hits, old-fashioned stories told with a modern aesthetic, including “Paper Moon” (1973) and “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), but eventually his highbrow attitude and scandalous offscreen dalliances with certain starlets led to a massive backlash against his films.
With a handful of strong movies that have been revalued in retrospect – “Nickelodeon” (1976), “Saint Jack” (1979), “At Long Last Love” (1975) – they regardless took a massive beating at the box office at the time, and Bogdanovich stumbled into the new decade with his reputation on the rocks.
Aftermath: With several subpar attempts at capturing that old magic, including “Illegally Yours” (1988) and “Noises Off…” (1992), and even a desperate attempt at to make a sequel to “The Last Picture Show” (1971) called “Texasville” (1990), Bogdanovich had a hard time after the 70s, and it started to strain the quality of his work.
He did enjoy commercial, award-winning success with “Mask” (1985), but it was short-lived as his public battle with the money men led to him getting shunned once again. Since then, Bogdanovich has heavily retreated to TV work or as a respected film historian, with his prestigious pedigree nowhere near close to what it was.
Exception to the Rule: Bogdanovich isn’t as cut-and-dry as the rest of the directors on the list; he has a few notables that could land in this category. Firstly, “Mask” was seen as a comeback for him, although the film itself hasn’t held up well over time, representing the director at his most schmaltzy. Also, his rom-com opus “They All Laughed” (1981) is a fun and well directed piece of fluff that was written off due to the controversy surrounding the death of starlet Dorothy Stratten.
Still, the honor goes to the “The Cat’s Meow” (2001), an ode to old Hollywood on the brink of change; the ensemble is strong and Bogdanovich’s loving direction makes it a fine watch.
4. Bob Rafelson
Pre-80’s Career: A man of many talents, Bob Rafelson co-founded the pop group “The Monkees”, but was also behind the innovative 70’s production company BBS Productions, which was largely responsible for the new direction in which cinema was headed.
Rafelson moved into directing with the psychedelic comedy “Head” (1968) before delivering the nuanced “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), one of the definitive movies of the 70s and featuring a breakthrough performance by Jack Nicholson. Critical plaudits and an exciting reputation quickly followed, and he continued his run of bitingly original character dramas with “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972) and “Stay Hungry” (1976) that solidified him to continue as a prominent filmmaker on the scene.
Aftermath: Rafelson went into the 80s without the pedigree of BBS behind him (which had closed its doors) and with cinema in an entirely different place. Every film he made appeared to decline in quality; “The Postman Rings Twice” (1981) and “Black Widow” (1983) were solidly directed, if shallow and ill-received thrillers.
Even teaming up with old friend Nicholson more than once, with the terrible comedy “Man Trouble” (1992) and the by-the-numbers noir “Blood and Wine” (1996), failed to spark that old magic and he’s toiled away since in TV and DTV thrillers without much fanfare.
Exception to the Rule: The ambitious and lush adventure movie “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) brings the epic scale and true life spectacle the genre requires, yet never sacrifices Rafelson’s character drama strengths as he depicted the lead adventurers (played by Iain Glen and Patrick Bergin) as haunted and alienated by their experiences abroad.
It was a lifelong passion project of Rafelson to make this movie and it shows. While the film was well received at time of its release, it has grown highly forgotten, which is sad as it brings to it a delicacy and maturity that is sadly absent from the genre today.
5. George Lucas
Pre-80’s Career: It’s strange to think of now, but George Lucas was a ‘wild card’ in the 70s; when his contemporaries were trying to radically appeal to the new zeitgeist with offbeat dramas, Lucas went against the grain.
His distinct voice emerged with the dystopian sci-fi film “THX 1138” (1971), a film that’s gained cult momentum over the years, but at the time was wildly unloved for its inaccessible tone and genre trappings. He had more success with the warmly nostalgic hit “American Graffiti” (1973) and that little-known follow-up called “Star Wars” (1977) – a wild gamble at the time that paid off handsomely and changed the industry overnight.
Aftermath: Highly frustrated with the rough edges of technology in his day, Lucas stepped back as a director and focused on developing effects, scripts, and producing. The majority results were great – the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies, “Labyrinth” (1986), “Kagemusha” (1980), but some were better left forgotten, like “Howard the Duck” (1986) and “Radioland Murders” (1994).
It wasn’t until the advancement of CGI in the late 90s that he became interested in stepping back into the director’s chair, announcing he would direct a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Well, we all know how that turned out – it was a passionless, illogically plotted overload of CGI that basically soured the once good name of the franchise.
It felt as if the director had lost the pulse of what made the series worthy in the first place, and many vocal critics felt the same way. Lucas grew tired of the Internet trolling and the exhausting nature of directing, and has stepped into semi-retirement after selling Lucasfilm to Disney.
Exception to the Rule: Well, it’s a difficult task to search for a diamond in the rough amongst Lucas’ post 70’s filmography, since there’s not much to choose from. As a producer, “Willow” (1988) tends to get a bad rap as a formulaic “Lord of the Rings” ripoff that’s better than most remember.
From the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) isn’t half-bad, with a bleak take on the kid-centric mythos and a plot that finally pays off the extraneous exposition. Still, it’s a far cry from the franchise’s former glory, and suffers the silly flaws Lucas had stumbled with from the other films.