The Middle Aged Force Awakens: Historical Change and the Movies

Star Wars

In all of the excitement and publicity leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens last December, did you ever think about how strange it was that this was such an eagerly anticipated movie? I’m not referring to concerns that the J.J. Abrams sequel wouldn’t or couldn’t live up to expectations, or skepticism about whether the new movie would live up to the first (anxieties that largely vanished after the first screenings ended). I mean the fact that The Force Awakens is a sequel to a movie that opened in 1977, thirty-eight years ago! That’s over a quarter of a century; in terms of the history of cinema, that’s almost a third of the time that movies have even existed. It would be remarkable enough that Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace appeared over twenty years after the original, but forty years?

In today’s post, I want to talk about what the Star Wars phenomenon tells us about movie history; specifically, our ideas about what we think of as historical change and progress in relation to the movies, and how there can be more than one way of understanding and assessing the significance of different kinds of changes in that history. Let’s start with a point of comparison by thinking of the movie culture when Star Wars opened in 1977. Can we imagine a similar sequel to a movie from forty years earlier that would have gripped the public imagination in the mid-1970s? Let’s take the biggest blockbuster from the late 1930s, and one of the biggest of all time: Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming 1939).

Actually, Hollywood—and before that Macmillan, the novelist Margaret Mitchell’s publisher—were dying for a sequel to the massive hit movie, but Mitchell was not interested. Around the time the original Star Wars opened, plans were being made and money was being spent (about $200,000, according to this story from the LA Times in 1989) to bring a sequel to Gone With the Wind to the big screen, but they couldn’t overcome the inherent fickleness and and difficulties of getting any such big project off the ground, even given the potential pay off.

But would there have been a massive pay off at the box office? There’s no way to really know, of course, and so much would depend on whether the resulting movie was any good or not, however we define “good.” A look at the top ten grossing movies of 1977, however, raises some interesting questions in retrospect:

1977 Movies

We see here a grouping that is typical of Hollywood in the 1970s: a mix of screen spectacles (Star Wars; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; The Deep; the war movie A Bridge Too Far; the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me) and smaller character studies (The Goodbye Girl; Annie Hall). The eventual Best Picture winner was Woody Allen’s radical revision of the romantic comedy, Annie Hall, a movie that was both a critical hit and a box office success.

saturdaynightfeverBut what about a genre-bender like Saturday Night Fever, a movie that exploits the late 70s disco craze but is also a gritty story about a working-class Italian American family? Saturday Night Fever combines music and dancing with an intense character study, and by doing so shows the influence of what has come to be called the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The movie features location shooting, complex psychological conflict, and a desire to ground its story in a very particular social context and environment. In short, Saturday Night Fever follows other “New Hollywood” movies in sharing a sensibility that valued a kind of realism defined by characters alienated from the America they found themselves in and engaged in a search for meaning and purpose that often remained just out of reach. It’s a movie that uses the new freedoms in terms of language, subject matter, and graphic imagery brought about by the switch to the ratings system in 1967 as a further means to claim “realism” (as well as a way to attract movie audiences away from their television sets).

American searchers: Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
American searchers: Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s a sensibility, in fact, that we can see even in many of the “blockbusters” on the list. Steven Spielberg’s science fiction epic Close Encounters, for example, for all of its special effects is as much about a single mother searching for her lost child and a middle-class dad going through a mid-life crisis precipitated by his own “close encounter” with an alien presence. The movie ends not with a battle but with communion, suggesting that our fascination with life on other planets may really reflect our own desire to comprehend the meaning of our life on this one. In Screen Ages, I argue that Star Wars, the movie that supposedly signaled the end of New Hollywood, is itself a New Hollywood film in its focus on flawed, funny, and bickering characters.

Just a couple of kids trying to find their way in this crazy old galaxy.
Just a couple of kids trying to find their way in this crazy old galaxy.

In this particular cultural and historical context, how would a sequel to Gone with the Wind have played? Part of what made the New Hollywood “new” was how this sensibility I’m describing contrasted with older Hollywood filmmaking. Simply put, while Gone with the Wind remained popular in 1977, it also seemed “old fashioned” in a couple of ways related to how the New Hollywood grappled with the idea of “realism.” The first way is formal: the grand presentational style of acting and mise-en-scene in Gone with the Wind, from the soaring music to the (to 1970s ears) declamatory line deliveries–“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”—seems a world away from the Method-influenced, “anti-classical” style of 1970s movies:

Compare this scene with Tony Manero (John Travolta), the aspiring dancer from Saturday Night Fever having dinner with his family, a scene that also involves a discussion of having enough food on the table:

There’s a sense in which these movies seem to be operating in two different cinematic universes, and no matter how far, far away it is, the universe—and acting styles–of Star Wars are closer to Tony Manero than Scarlett O’Hara.

The Maneros arguing at the dinner table still seems more a part of our own present-day cinematic sensibility than does the conclusion of Gone with the Wind, even given all the intervening developments in terms of CGI technology, superhero movies, and the return of 3D. Here’s another food-related example from a far more recent movie, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, based on the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man in Oakland, California murdered by the police in the BART station of the movie’s title. In this scene, Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler’s critically-acclaimed hit Creed) helps out a young woman in the grocery store where he works:

In Oscar Grant, we can see a 2013 version of the style of character played by John Travolta thirty-six years earlier, with some differences that illustrate the second way that the sensibility of Gone with the Wind seems out-of-place with 1970s film culture: its attitudes and assumptions about race, ethnicity, gender, and class. It’s not that Gone with the Wind indulges in racist stereotyping (although it does) and a movie like Saturday Night Live doesn’t (which wouldn’t be true, either). It’s also not the case that this more contemporary movie sensibility has somehow transcended race. It’s that issues of race, racism, ethnicity, and gender are more foregrounded as unsettled issues in movies like Saturday Night Fever than in Gone with the Wind. Saturday Night Live foregrounds working class Italian American identity as central to its story, but in experiencing the movie, we are aware that this representation is itself open to questioning and debate. Are the Maneros realistic or a stereotype of ethnic identity? Whatever your own conclusions (and they remain a source of debate about the movie), questions about race and ethnicity are pushed front-and-center in ways that Gone with the Wind wanted to avoid.

Race and class are similarly foregrounded in the scene from Fruitvale Station, presented simultaneously as a “problem,” a source of humor, and even an occasion for bonding. As viewers, we are made to think about how our own racialized identities are effecting our reactions to this simple scene centered on cooking advice. Now is this same racial consciousness at operation in the original Star Wars, with its white main characters and bad guy all dressed in black (and voiced by the African American actor James Earl Jones)? I would argue yes, in that it’s a question that we ask about Star Wars in ways that we don’t about a movie like Gone with the Wind. Or maybe more accurately, that we answer very differently.

We’ve been trained to cut racism in the earlier movie some slack by saying, “that’s just the way things were back then” (even if that’s ultimately a cop-out) than we are a movie after the emergence of New Hollywood. After all, Star Wars debuted in the same year as two Michael Schulz movies featuring Richard Pryor, Greased Lightning and Which Way Is Up? And we can see how the same awareness of gender as an issue (again, which is a different thing than a commitment to gender equality) animates both Star Wars and Annie Hall.

American GraffitiIn American Graffiti from 1973, the surprise hit movie from George Lucas that enabled him to go on to make Star Wars, the world of 1962, only eleven years earlier, is depicted as strange and foreign as Tatooine and Alderaan. Traditionally, Hollywood likes to portray movie history in terms of technological development, as in the classic Singin’ In the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen 1952), which similarly views the silent era of moviemaking as quaintly archaic and old-fashioned (complete with directors wearing jodhpurs and shouting through megaphones), even though The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland 1927) opened only twenty-five years before.

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But in many ways what hasn’t changed in Singin’ in the Rain since the silent era is just as if not more important: there is no more racial inclusiveness in Singin’ in the Rain than in The Jazz Singer (even if thankfully Gene Kelly is not in blackface). And the love story seems just the same as it might a quarter century earlier. The twenty-year age difference between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds is treated as perfectly natural, while just two years earlier in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950), the twenty-year age difference between the (older) Gloria Swanson and the (younger) William Holden is regarded as grotesque and laughable.

Over the hill at 50. In Sunset Boulevard from 1950, the idea of a romance between the 32-year-old William Holden and the 50-year-old Gloria Swanson was depicted as ridiculous.
Over the hill at 50. In Sunset Boulevard from 1950, the idea of a romance between the 32-year-old William Holden and the 50-year-old Gloria Swanson was depicted as ridiculous.

In terms of technology, there have been radical changes from Star Wars to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, most significantly in terms of digital and computer-based imagery. Yet what binds these two movies in terms of their mutual post-New Hollywood sensibility seems ultimately more important than their technological differences. “Progress,” in this case, has more to do with how we measure our grappling with representations of racial and gender inequality, in the OscarsSoWhite hashtag spurred in part by the exclusion of Ryan Coogler’s Creed from this year’s Best Picture consideration. It’s our ability to change this social dimension of Hollywood and our film culture that will mark the next dramatic change in Hollywood sensibility, not the next technical leap.