‘Star Wars’ turns 40: Not everybody is celebrating – USA TODAY
“Star Wars” was released 40 years ago this month. Video initially done by NorthJersey.com.
WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Who could say a bad word about Star Wars?
Not a million fans who grew up playing with Han Solo action figures, throwing their trash into R2-D2 wastepaper baskets and wearing Princess Leia pajamas.
Today, many of us can no more imagine life without Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Darth Vader, Yoda, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Emperor Palpatine and Lando Calrissian than we can imagine life without indoor plumbing.
Is it possible, even thinkable, that anyone could have — say it all together, Star Wars fans — “a bad feeling about this”?
Possible, it is.
Star Wars, which was released 40 years ago this month — on May 25, 1977 — is practically the definition of a pop culture game-changer. Whether the change was good or bad is another matter.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” says Gregg Biermann, who teaches film studies at Bergen Community College in Paramus.
“I can watch a popcorn movie like everyone else,” Biermann says. “But my own prejudice is for art films and films that have more to digest, that have a more complex moral outlook.”
Many, to this day, blame Star Wars for driving these subtler kinds of films off America’s multiplex screens.
“I would argue that the 1970s was a golden age,” says Neel Scott, who teaches film history and film production at Ramapo College in Mahwah.
“It was this one period where you had this widespread blossoming of American personal cinema,” Scott says. “I think Jaws, in 1975, was the beginning of the end. And then certainly Star Wars.”
Tell that to hardcore Lucas buffs who know every last factoid about Ewoks, Tauntauns, Banthas, Wampas, Wookiees, Tuskens, protocol droids, TIE-fighters, and the Forest Moon of Endor. Tell it to your Uncle Carl, who still thinks it’s funny to breathe heavily into his hands while intoning, “LUKE, I AM YOUR FATHER.”
Tell it to Jeff Moffitt of Waldwick, a hardcore fan since the age of 11 who won a trophy in 2015 from Lucasfilm for The Lesser Evil, a short Star Wars fan film he produced and starred in.
“I remember seeing Star Wars in the theater in 1977, when I was only 11,” Moffitt says. “It was awesome. You really believed you were in this other galaxy far, far away. Obviously, I’ve seen it multiple times since then.”
Those are the kind of fans that turned the original Star Wars — now officially known as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope to distinguish it from seven (so far) theatrical sequels, prequels and spinoffs — into a $307 million domestic-grossing behemoth. In the process, they utterly changed the rules of how Hollywood films are made and sold.
“It accelerated the degree of greed in the movie business,” says Leonard Maltin, the Teaneck-born film critic whose Movie Guides are standard reference works. (He hosts a weekly podcast at Nerdist.com, and posts reviews and musings on film at leonardmaltin.com.)
“The notion that you could get young people to come back to the movie theater again and again and again, and pay a fresh admission fee every time, was new,” Maltin says. “It inspired the studios to aim higher. Their attention was on these blockbuster films that could pay off in this spectacular way.”
Because of Star Wars, franchises and blockbusters rule Hollywood. Because of Star Wars a disproportionate number of releases are aimed at males between the ages of 12 and 24. Because of Star Wars, big-film releases coincide with the school year schedule, and reach their climax during summer vacation — “summer blockbuster season.” Because of Star Wars, each big summer “tentpole” movie is liable to open on 4,000 screens, and have a hundred product tie-ins.
Because of Star Wars, the yearly movie calendar is full of sequels, prequels, reboots, and spinoffs: the Indiana Jones series, the Harry Potter series, the Avengers series, the Fast and Furious series, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and on and on.
But a long time ago, and in an America far, far away, Hollywood was not like this.
As a matter of fact, the eight years leading up to the release of Star Wars in 1977 is regarded by many as a kind of renaissance for American movies.
A ‘golden window’
“There was this one window in the early 1970s, this golden window, when the studios were dazed and confused by the success of Easy Rider, and they embraced a new generation of talented filmmakers.” Maltin says.
Quick Hollywood history lesson: By the late 1960s, the major studios that had ruled the roost since the days of the silents — MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, RKO — were in their dotage. Many were bankrupting themselves on expensive flops like Cleopatra (1963) and Doctor Dolittle (1967). Others were being acquired by big conglomerates like Gulf & Western (Paramount) and Kinney (Warner Bros) that had little knowledge of or interest in film. Nobody, it seemed, knew how to make movies that connected with an audience anymore.
In the midst of all this, Dennis Hopper made a low-budget film called Easy Rider (1969) with hippie heroes and a rock-and-roll soundtrack, that was a monster hit. Clearly, these crazy kids were onto something.
And so began a time when, as the novelist and film historian William Bayer put it, anybody with long hair and love beads could get a Hollywood contract.
“It opened up a hole for (these filmmakers) to go through for a while, and that closed eventually,” Biermann says.
The too-short period that followed, chronicled by Peter Biskind in his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, was an era where a group of talented young filmmakers completely rewrote the rules of Hollywood.
Their films had anti-heroes as heroes (Taxi Driver, 1976), dialogue that sounded overheard rather than delivered (Nashville, 1975) moral complexities rather than platitudes (The Conversation, 1974). They experimented with story, style and syntax.
And because this was the first generation of film-school brats — “film studies” as a university course barely existed before the 1960s — they were also big on referencing and, if possible, subverting the old Hollywood formulas. Chinatown (1974) was a reworking of old film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon. Paper Moon (1973) riffed on 1930s screwball comedies. The Godfather (1972) and its sequels spun off of old gangster films.
“You had people going to the movies, and studying movies,” Biermann says. “People were interested in European art films, and thought they could bring that to Hollywood. And they did, for a short period of time.”
These so-called “New Hollywood” films were not like today’s low-budget indie flicks that play film festivals and — if they’re lucky — get picked up by niche distributors. The counterculture films of 40 years ago were mainstream productions, released by major studios. Some of these tyro directors had huge hits, including Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist, 1973).
Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Bob Rafelson, Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn, Michael Cimino and Michael Ritchie were among the other crown princes of this new Hollywood aristocracy. So were two highly promising young directors — Steven Spielberg and George Lucas — who are often blamed for bringing it down.
Many call Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) the film that launched the summer blockbuster era. In some ways it was. It was certainly released in summer (June 20). And it was certainly a blockbuster ($260 million domestic gross).
But Jaws, though it sold soundtrack albums and posters galore, was never anything like the marketing bonanza of Star Wars, with its toys and pillow covers and lunch boxes and trading cards and comic books and tie-in novels and collectible figures and record albums and shampoos and colognes and curtains and watches and T-shirts and soft drink cups and wall clocks and pajamas.
When the Hollywood money men saw the cash rolling in, their eyes lit up like light sabers — also, of course, available as a toy.
“It goes beyond being a movie, because all these synergistic things happened with it — the toys, the shirts, the cups from McDonald’s,” Biermann says. “All those marketing things.”
Star Wars defenders have pushed back against the notion that 1977 film was the kudzu that choked off Hollywood’s youth revolution.
For Lucas, they point out, Star Wars was a personal, experimental film every bit as much as Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) or Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). It was full of the usual film school in-jokes— references to John Ford’s The Searchers and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and old Flash Gordon serials. It was almost entirely ignored by its studio, 20th Century Fox, prior to its release. Almost nobody knew about it before it hit the theaters.
“Fox had no faith in the film,” Maltin says. “Theater owners had no interest in the film. The success of the initial film came because of the enthusiasm of the cash-paying customers.”
It was the audience that discovered Star Wars, the audience that turned it into a monster hit, the audience that demanded tchotchkes that manufacturers frantically tried to supply. Star Wars was, in the beginning, an organic, audience-driven phenomenon — as eccentric and flukey in its way as Easy Rider.
It was what happened in the wake of Star Wars that really changed Hollywood — when the studios set out to do, on purpose, what George Lucas had stumbled onto by accident.
It didn’t help that around this time, some of the Young Turk filmmakers, intoxicated by their success, were starting to release expensive “personal” epics like Sorcerer (Friedkin, 1977) and Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980) that flopped every bit as badly as the old Cleopatra. From a business standpoint, at least, you can’t entirely blame the bean-counters who said in effect, if we’re going to drop a bundle, let’s bet on a sure thing.
“The whole idea of the blockbuster arrived somewhat by accident,” Biermann says. “Star Wars has these lines around the block. You get to the point where you say, we don’t have to make a lot of little art films when we can pour all our resources into one big thing that has a proven track record.”
The result is the Hollywood we know now, the Hollywood of explosions and effects and franchises and sequels and old TV shows recycled into movies.
Which is why Maltin, though he himself likes Star Wars (three and a half stars in his Movie Guide), can’t help but sound wistful about the brief, brilliant 1970s era that was zapped into oblivion on May 25, 1977: the day George Lucas brought his Death Star to town.
“What I find dispiriting about today’s blockbusters is that they seem to be manufactured,” Maltin says. “Their success is not always based on merit.”
Follow Jim Beckerman on Twitter: @jimbeckerman1