Common wisdom is that no matter what films win Oscars, cineplex offerings today don’t hold a candle to the blockbusters made when the creatively ambitious ’60s generation took over Hollywood’s major studios. Or are we just viewing past cinema through rose-colored glasses? Check out how these mega-favorites from the 1970s and ’80s withstand the test of time.
Wall Street (1987)
It would be so nice if Oliver Stone’s blockbuster about insider trading were as dated as the enormous mobile phones its characters wield, but that’s simply not the case.
Chomping on a big cigar, Michael Douglas stars as Gordon Gekko, a stock market shark whose mentee, the young trader Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), is so eager for success that he’ll sell out his union organizer dad (Martin Sheen, Charlie’s real-life father) for a key to Wall Street’s back rooms.
The film’s boxy suits, bleached-blond permanents, and blackened catfish may no longer be in vogue (though they’re super fun to ogle), but the hazards of conspicuous consumption and corporate greed endure as blisteringly hot topics.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Harrison Ford proved an irrepressible force as tough-guy anthropologist Indiana Jones in this 1936-set adventure pic about a magical ark sought by the United States as well as the Nazis.
With Steven Spielberg at the helm and a script conceived by Star Wars creator George Lucas and written by The Big Chill director Lawrence Kasdan, the film earned Oscars, mundo box office, and nearly unilateral critical raves. Though it’s still a fun ride today, neo-colonist attitudes and gross caricatures of Arab, Indian, and Chinese people read as the worst kind of Western arrogance.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
The Seventies weren’t just the “Me Decade.” They were also the divorce decade–so much so that this film’s title became a catch phrase for a generation of kids with complicated custody arrangements.
Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman play Johanna and Ted Kramer, a separated New York couple who find themselves en route to finding a custody arrangement for their young son in a brutal court case. As the ad exec forced to embrace hands-on parenting when his stay-at-home wife takes off, Hoffman has more to work with than Streep does—we get why she leaves her solipsistic hubby but not why she abandons her kid. But themes of female and male liberation remain painfully germane today, especially when it comes to issues of childcare.
An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Director Paul Mazursky’s documentary-style drama about Erica (Jill Clayburgh), an Upper East Side mother and gallery assistant whose hubby leaves her for a younger woman, is only dated in the way a really terrific time capsule can be considered dated.
Wandering through Soho when it was still an artist’s mecca rather than a millionaire’s playground, beating pillows in consciousness-raising groups, and wielding small glasses of Chablis in singles bars (whatever happened to singles bars?), Clayburgh paints a fabulous portrait of female liberation.
By the time she chooses her newly hatched independence over a suitor’s offer to whisk her off to the boonies, the film feels freshly defiant of what even now is Hollywood’s standard happy ending for women.
Animal House (1978)
When John Landis made this box office bonanza of a frat-boy comedy, he didn’t break the mold. He made the mold for dozens of films about the antics of hard-drinking college dudes with secret hearts of gold.
The problems? All the imitators lack Animal House’s ’70s comedy dream-team credentials, including actors John Belushi and Kevin Bacon and screenwriters Harold Ramis and National Lampoon founder Douglas Kenny.
Belushi’s eyebrows still are objects of wonder, but the casual gay bashing, jokes about date rape and the fetishization of African Americans ring hollow today.
All The President’s Men (1976)
Alan Pakula’s chronicle about reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s exposure of the Watergate cover-up has grown more relevant for the same reason that Spielberg’s The Post, a semi-prequel about The Washington Post’s decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the Nixon Administration, was hastily released last year.
But overlooking Men’s searing timeliness, the film is spare, even-handed, and stunningly insistent on the democratic necessity of a free press. Plus: the on-screen duo of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman sizzle like Hepburn and Tracey.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Who can forget Robert De Niro as Travis Bickler, the ex -marine whose sleeplessness forces him into driving a cab at night? Or a teenaged Jodie Foster as an underage prostitute, decked out in a ratty fur and a hauntingly blank facial expression?
All neon reds and yellows, Martin Scorsese’s ode to the underbelly of 1970s New York City persists as the gold standard of films about urban indifference and modern loneliness. Sure, Paul Schrader’s screenplay, very loosely adapted from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, introduces the basest attitudes about race, women, and sexuality.
But the film doesn’t endorse such hatefulness so much as cite it as the decline of Western Civilization. This portrait of a dangerously angry white male could be stripped from today’s headlines.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
When director Milos Forman died earlier this year, he was best remembered for his Academy Award-winning adaptation of counter-culture maven Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel.
About a psychiatric ward uprising led by crazy-like-a-fox statutory rapist McMurphy (Jack Nicholson at his most rakish), the drama set the mold for the “asylum picture”; cue Girl Interrupted, Shutter Island, and Awakenings. And—fun fact—a young Michael Douglas nabbed his first Oscar as the film’s producer.
Decades later, the film still looks spectacular, but its reductive attitudes about mental illness haven’t aged well, nor has its strongly Freudian misogynistic streak. Louise Fletcher may have nabbed an Oscar for her sadistic Nurse Ratched but it’s a hateful portrayal of female power.
The Godfather (1972)
When it first hit theaters, Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel about an Italian-American crime family was heralded as not just great but groundbreaking.
Today, with its pitch-perfect performances, storytelling, and cinematography, it’s still widely considered the greatest mafia movie of all time.
The good news? While attitudes about race and gender have progressed since the Corleones first ruled movie theaters, old-world values of home cooking, family loyalty, and loan-sharking still captivate.
When in doubt: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli!”
Love Story (1970)
Director Arthur Hiller’s star-crossed romance about two pretty Harvard graduates (Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal) was as financially successful as its antecedent, Erich Segal’s best-selling novel.
That never stopped critics from sniffing their noses at it, though, and today the film seems even sillier. Think stilted banter, soppy montages, and kaleidoscopic cinematography, not to mention a catchphrase—“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”—that Oprah would promptly discard along with last season’s pashmina.
So how to account for the film’s continued popularity? McGraw and O’Neal were awfully pretty, and those Irish knit sweaters looked wonderfully cozy in the snow.