At the end of the Vietnam War and the middle of the Sexual Revolution, 1975 marked a profound change in the films people wanted to see.
Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
The 1970s saw a huge cultural shift, especially in America. The Vietnam War raged and finally ended. Roe v. Wade was decided. The Gay Rights Movement began in earnest. Nixon resigned. Disco was born, and so was punk. It was a decade of seeing things differently, and Hollywood reflected this change in perception back on its audience. A particular turning point was the very center of the decade, 1975. Let’s take a look at some of the most groundbreaking and beloved films of that year.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Beginning as a London stage show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was adapted for film soon after. While at first fantastically unsuccessful, the film soon took hold as a cult classic. A love letter to B movies, sexual freedom, and self-expression, it rose above all but certain obscurity to become a lasting emblem of a certain period and feeling. Does the fact that Fox broadcast a live version of the show last year mean that its counterculture message has finally entered the mainstream, or that it’s just become uncool? There are arguments for both. But in 1975 and for years after, it provided a haven for lovers of the weird, the beautiful, and the unconventional, teenage me included.
But while RHPS‘s proud otherness was mostly consigned to midnight showings and fan interaction, 1975 produced another distinctly queer story that won over fans, critics, and awards shows alike.
Dog Day Afternoon
Fresh from the acclaim of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Al Pacino and John Cazale chose to star in a completely different kind of film. Based on true events, the film tells the story of John Wojtowicz, a man who holds up a bank with his friend Sal. It starts as an enjoyable and unexpectedly funny tale that lures the viewer into regular tropes of masculinity — what could be more manly than Michael Corleone robbing a bank? But very far into the film, it’s revealed that Pacino’s character is robbing this bank to pay for gender reassignment surgery for his wife, a trans woman. I wasn’t alive in 1975, but I’d like to think more than one audience member surprised themselves admiring the masculine bravado of a character who turned out to be queer. I’m sure it’s still happening today.
Another strong thread through DDA is its deep mistrust of authority. Wojtowicz spends the entire film in a literal standoff with the police, and his position finds a lot of sympathy in the crowd of bystanders that gathers outside. At the end of the Vietnam War and with Nixon freshly resigned, audiences could see themselves in that crowd, feeling that mistrust was deeply warranted, whether of the police, the government, or, as in this next film, the head of a questionable institution.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of few films to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. But while it may have been a darling of the establishment, at its core is the triumph of the human spirit through the rejection of authority. Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy is a little bit of a sonofabitch, but you’d be hard-pressed to root against him. The obvious villain is Nurse Ratched and her indomitable thirst for submission. After so many decades of high school English readings of Kesey’s book, it’s dangerously tempting to dismiss it. But it’s vitally relevant today, and in 1975 it was still fresh and indispensable in an America that felt so wary of its government.
Not all of the year’s rejections of authority were straightforward, and not all of them were serious. 1975 also marked the beginning of worldwide acclaim for some of history’s biggest and best subversives of comedy.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1975 saw the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group’s first feature film. For four seasons they’d garnered success on the BBC with the sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but with this film, they launched into international fame and revolutionized comedy. And they did it with a largely plotless King Arthur epic, of all things. Any nerd worth their salt can trot out the Knights Who Say Ni bit at parties (I am one of these nerds), but the reverberations of what Holy Grail began can still be felt four decades later. This is the year that Monty Python proved to the world that comedy that can be self-aware, bizarre, intelligent, and of course, silly.
As far as revolutions and unheard voices go, giant fish don’t quite fit into the equation. I just have to accept that. But it’s impossible to talk about 1975 and not bring up Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s first smash success. Thirty years old and with only one (poorly received) feature film under his belt, Spielberg managed to helm the biggest US box office success to date. And that film was a big killer animal feature that was riddled with production and budget problems. It’s hard to think of Spielberg as an underdog, so instead maybe we can think of him as a young and raw talent that gained some rightful recognition and subsequent creative control. Jaws garnered Spielberg the clout and the funds to launch one of the most impressive directorial careers ever. And it inspired a generation to hate and fear the beach. That’s not too shabby.
1975 had plenty of other releases — Kubrick’s groundbreaking Barry Lyndon, the sharply satirical Shampoo, and Neil Simon’s comedy The Sunshine Boys are some standouts. It was a year of technical achievement in filmmaking, yes, but it was also a watershed moment in storytelling. For fear of wading too deep into spoiler territory (though after 43 years, what’s a spoiler, really?) none of the above films have very happy endings. 1975 was a turning point in the way audiences saw themselves and the world, and while it was honest, it wasn’t especially rose-tinted.
But that honesty of expression sent waves through the future of film, revolutionizing the kind of stories that would be told and the way in which they would be told. And that’s why 1975 was the best year in movies.