A year we couldn’t refuse
Looking back on 1972's sizzling summer of film
It’s July 22, 1972. You live in Greater Boston and want to see a movie. This means going to a theater. How retro, readers of a certain age might think, adjusting their fedora as they reach for another LP to put on the turntable. No, how necessary. DVDs don’t exist. VCRs cost thousands of dollars. The “web” is plural and inhabited only by spiders. Yes, it’s true, there are plenty of movies on TV, but even with a UHF antenna you’re lucky to get reception on a dozen channels. Worse, the movies they show have almost as many commercials interrupting them as Sonny Corleone has bullet holes at the end of the causeway scene in “The Godfather.”
Ah, wait, “The Godfather” — now you’re talking. Then or now, it’s an offer no moviegoer can refuse. Francis Ford Coppola’s movie was playing at no fewer than 17 theaters here 40 years ago. Considering that it opened in April, this is pretty impressive — though not surprising. How could the greatest Hollywood epic since “Gone With the Wind” not have legs at the box office? In fact, “The Godfather” was well on its way to overtaking “GWTW” and “The Sound of Music” as the top-grossing film of all time. And its reviews were no less stellar than its financial performance.
Obviously, any year that saw the release of “The Godfather” deserves an honored place in movie history. But 1972 was a pretty good movie year generally. Also playing in Greater Boston were Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy,” and “The Candidate.” With Robert Redford as the telegenic title character, it concludes with one of the best lines in any American political film: “What do we do now?” John Boorman’s “Deliverance” opened a week later
It was also a very strange movie year. How strange? Consider just the letter P: “Pink Flamingos” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” Alas, Divine never got to play the lead in “The Shelley Winters Story.” Or consider “The Godfather.” There in what may well (otherwise) be the finest acting ensemble in Hollywood history is Al Martino — not even Vic Damone, but Al Martino. No wonder Marlon Brando slaps him. Stranger yet, Coppola wouldn’t win the best director Oscar — it would go to Bob Fosse, for “Cabaret.”
As a blend of quality and strangeness, “Cabaret” is hard to beat. It’s one thing for a musical to be nihilistic, kinky, and feature Nazis. It’s quite another for Liza Minnelli to be firing her howitzer talents at such point-blank range. Her Sally Bowles isn’t so much performance as historical reenactment. It’s Judy Garland’s revenge, redemption, or both.
The sex in “Cabaret” is fairly tame, actually, in the context of 1972, the only year when hard-core pornography made it into the list of 10 biggest-grossing films in the United States. There were two porn movies, in fact. “Behind the Green Door” was number four and “Deep Throat” (a title soon to enter the history books, after Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons affixed it to Bob Woodward’s secret Watergate source) was number six. Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated cartoon, “Fritz the Cat,” being at number 10 almost seems like an afterthought. Even elderly directors were testing barriers. “Frenzy,” beside being Hitchcock’s best film since “Psycho,” is easily his most sexually explicit, with its serial killer-rapist villain. Woody Allen couldn’t have picked a better year to release his adaptation of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.”
Allen starred in another movie in 1972, “Play It Again, Sam,” an adaptation of his play (he didn’t direct). It wasn’t a bad year for comedy. Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid” boasts two top-notch supporting performances, from her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, and Eddie Albert. And while “What’s Up, Doc?” doesn’t come close to matching its inspiration, “Bringing Up Baby,” it does have one of the all-time great kickers (two of them, actually).
Robert Benton, who wrote the “Doc” screenplay, with David Newman and Buck Henry, made his directorial debut, with a western, “Bad Company” (co-written with Newman). Its cast of late adolescents, headed by a 22-year-old Jeff Bridges, had a younger equivalent in “The Cowboys,” where John Wayne leads a group of schoolboys on a cattle drive. It’s best remembered today as one of the rare movies in which the Duke dies. Bruce Dern does the deed — New Hollywood kills off Old Hollywood?
A surprisingly large number of pretty good westerns came out in 1972: “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Joe Kidd,” “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.” Two of the best, both directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Steve McQueen, are set in the present but they’re definitely out West and have the feel of westerns: “Junior Bonner” and “The Getaway.”
Hollywood’s newest genre, blaxploitation, continued to flourish, with “Across 110th Street” and the sequel “Shaft’s Big Score.” Pam Grier, who’d qualify as the Mother Courage of blaxploitation if Mother Courage were foxy, was in “Hit Man” and “Cool Breeze.” A very different view of the African-American experience could be found in “Sounder” and Diana Ross’s film debut, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Also making his film debut that year was a young Samuel L. Jackson, 11th-billed in “Together for Days.” (No, I’d never heard of it before, either.)
The masters who had dominated foreign film in the ’50s and ’60s were little seen. Ingmar Bergman had “Cries and Whispers” and Luis Buñuel “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” but François Truffaut (“Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me”) and Federico Fellini (“Fellina Roma”) were not at the top of their game. A younger generation had come to the fore in Germany. Werner Herzog (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”), and Wim Wenders (“The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty”) all released notable features.
The foreign film made in 1972 that mattered most around here came from Jamaica. “The Harder They Come” arrived at the Orson Welles Cinema in spring 1973 and became the most popular movie to play at that much-lamented institution during its 17-year history. That reggae-soaked crime story thus took its place as a Cambridge film favorite beside “The King of Hearts,” which 40 years ago was amid its five-year run at the Central, three-quarters of a mile down Massachusetts Avenue from the Welles.
Looking at the movie ads from 40 years ago, two things stand out: how many drive-ins there were (cheap gas, the tail end of the baby boom) and how many revival houses. There were no fewer than 14. Think of them as a happily dispersed multiplex (not that that term existed then): from the Welles and Central, both twin screens, to the Exeter, in Back Bay, to the Brookline-Plaza.
Ticket sales don’t lie. People were drawn to old movies — which weren’t necessarily all that old. In addition to “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “To Have and Have Not” (1944), more recent releases were playing on July 22, 1972: “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” (both 1967), “Take the Money and Run” (1969), and “Gimme Shelter” (1970) — and that’s not counting any of the several foreign movies showing that day. William Faulkner (whose Hollywood credits included “To Have and Have Not”) didn’t have the movies in mind when he wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But the sentiment certainly applies.
Which brings us back to the pulp-epic miracle that was and is “The Godfather.” Perhaps American film has never been so wondrously poised as in 1972 between the presence of the best of its past and the innovativeness of the best of its present. That balance is evident in “Cabaret” reimagining the musical and “What’s Up, Doc?” aping screwball comedy and Hitchcock coming back, with “Frenzy,” his first movie in three years and biggest hit in a decade. Supremely, it was “The Godfather,” monumentalizing the gangster picture
Definitely not a bad way to spend two hours and 58 minutes on July 22, 1972 — or, for that matter, 40 years later.
Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeen