In 1976, novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe published an essay on a phenomenon that had been overtaking American society for years, inspired by his book titled The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening.
“The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self,” Wolfe wrote.
The “Me” Decade—an era overemphasizing the individual over society, which led to the practice of personal transformation over political or collective transformation.
Although assigned to the ’70s, Wolfe’s definition might as well be a definition of our times.
How does one find and keep love during a moment in history that seems to push us further into understanding ourselves, our desires, our fears, and our needs, instead of others’?
Despite being plagued by political messages, hard-to-like protagonists, and not-so-happy endings, the ’70s romantic movies have a lot to offer when answering this question.
New Hollywood’s honest portrayal of romantic and sexual dissatisfaction through a critical—and often comedic—lens demands us to look not only inwards, as we’re accustomed to, but outwards, for love.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Or the orgy that couldn’t happen.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice follows Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol Sanders’ (Natalie Wood) transformation as individuals and as a married couple after they attend a 24-hour retreat that is supposed to help attendees understand what love is all about.
Love, they decide, is being radically honest—it is asking yourself “What do I feel?” every few minutes and expressing it to your partner. Therefore, when Bob cheats on Carol and confesses it, Carol thanks him for having shared something so personal.
Bob and Carol force their new beliefs on their less liberal, married, and long-time friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon). Despite the film’s poster and the many foreshadowing scenes toward a foursome, Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice never end up having the orgy the film seems to promise, a choice that received much criticism at the time of its release. And yet, the movie was never meant to celebrate the ideology Bob and Carol adopted in the retreat, but rather satirize their faux enlightenment.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice will make you laugh just as much as it will make you consider the disillusionment and moral crisis that follows Bob’s initial mantra: “We’re supposed to experience everything!”
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Viewers have wrongly believed the title makes a misogynistic allusion to the protagonist’s encounters with multiple women, referring to them as the “five easy pieces.” In reality, the title is a subtle reference to a piano book composed of five basic songs that Bobby (Jack Nicholson) owned and mastered as a child, never daring to learn anything else despite his early musical talent.
This clue hints at the type of person our antihero Bobby is. He goes through life fleeing at the slightest challenge or demand for growth, resulting in an irremediable alienation from life and others.
Rayette (Karen Black) is Bobby’s faithful girlfriend, a woman who sticks to him like glue despite his many efforts to push her away. He cheats, lies, humiliates her, manipulates, and then leaves her like she is nothing. He runs away from his family, friends, and talent. Yet he can never accomplish what he truly wants, which is, of course, to run away from himself.
Nicholson’s acting is superb as a man who struggles to find any type of connection between himself and others. But like any man, he still yearns for love. In a poignant dialogue between Bobby and one of his romantic interests, Catherine (Susan Anspach), Bobby faces the reality that he is undeserving of what he cannot give..
“If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love for his friends, family, work, something—how can he ask for love in return?” Catherine asks. “I mean, why should he ask for it?”
If there exists a prototype for the “man-with-commitment-issues,” then it is Warren Beatty in his role as George Roundy.
George is an L.A. hairdresser who sleeps with so many women throughout the movie that the average viewer may be unaware it takes place over the course of just 24 hours. Yet the movie is not about George’s skills as a ladies man, or the women’s reactions as they discover they have been juggled by the promiscuous hairdresser. It is about the intersection between sexual and political hypocrisy, according to co-writer, producer, and protagonist Beatty.
Shampoo takes place during the 1968 election. While George has dreams of opening up his own hair salon and criticizes those in power, he spends his day going from woman to woman, instead of participating in the political event that would result in Richard Nixon’s re-election.
He experiences a crucial moment in history that his character and others similar to him only understand moments too late.
Simultaneously, George is only a few hours too late to be with the woman he truly loves. When he finally makes up his mind about her, he rushes to propose to her, only to find out one of the powerful, wealthier, and more conservative men he criticized had done so first, moments ago.
The failures in George’s love life and political life go back to his inability to make a choice. A heartbreaking scene in which his girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), finally confronts George about his multiple affairs captures the essence of this modern man: “I’m trying to get things moving,” he says, to which Jill screams back: “You never stop moving! You never go anywhere!”
Annie Hall (1977)
The romantic comedy that revolutionized the genre and perhaps Woody Allen’s magnum opus features Alvy Singer (Allen), who tries to explain to himself, and us, why his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) did not work.
“The, the other important joke for me is one that’s, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s wit and its relation to the unconscious.” Alvy says as an introduction to himself. “And it goes like this—I’m paraphrasing: Uh … ‘I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’”
This joke sets the base for his character. He hates L.A., the sun, and non-intellects, to name a few. Annie, on the other hand, is an open-minded, less educated, and warmer character who depends on Alvy’s approval for most of the relationship.
Once Annie develops an identity of her own and decides she wants to move out of New York and develop her singing career in L.A., Alvy is left to question what went wrong.
Although centered in relationships, this semi-autobiographical movie—Allen started off as a stand-up comedian and was married to his co-star Keaton, among many other shared character traits—is deeply tied to its sociopolitical context. While Annie represents a younger, more open-minded generation, Alvy represents resistance to change—both sides are taken seriously, yet one is eventually outgrown by the other.