Another interesting aspect of Psycho was Hitchcock’s insistence to exhibitors that absolutely no one be admitted to the theater after the film had begun. By exerting this degree of control over his audience, Hitchcock managed to dictate not only every aspect of the film itself, but also the conditions under which it was viewed. Finally, Psycho marked, in a very important sense, the beginning of the end for the Motion Picture Production Code. Contemporary audiences are by now accustomed to the current rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 to classify the content of a film; when Psycho came out in 1960, the Production Code was theoretically still intact, all films were subject to the code in a supposedly uniform manner, and films were not individually rated. Many traditional reviewers, accustomed to Hitchcock’s intricately plotted thrillers of an earlier era, reacted violently to the film, dismissing it as a cheap shocker of no distinction. But younger audiences embraced the film for its visual daring, its unexpected plot twists, and the brutality of its mise-en-scène.
In 1966, Warner Bros. released Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with a budget of roughly $7 million. Adapted from Edward Albee’s play, the film had a great deal of censorable language, much of which Nichols refused to cut. Finally Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, crafted a solution: one phrase, “screw you,” would be removed, but the rest of Albee’s text would remain intact. The film was released with a Code Seal, with the sole prohibition that it was designed for “mature audiences only,” which in some theaters meant under eighteen not admitted; in other, more conservative areas, no one under twenty-one.
But the real death knell for the MPAA Code was the American release of Antonioni’s Blowup, just a few months after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Antonioni’s film features full frontal female nudity, drug use, and profanity, and the MPAA told the distributor, MGM, that even with cuts the film would be nearly impossible to approve. To get around this, MGM created Premiere Sound Films as a front company to release the film; since Premiere was not a signatory to the Code, they were not required to adhere to it. Both films were enormous commercial and critical successes and demonstrated that audiences were tired of being told what they could and couldn’t see on the screen.
Shortly thereafter, the old Code was abandoned. In 1968, the MPAA instituted the rating system as we know it today with G, PG (briefly known as GP), R, and X ratings to classify a film’s content. In 1984, the PG-13 rating was created for Garry Marshall’s comedy The Flamingo Kid and John Mil-ius’s violent thriller Red Dawn; after that, the PG-13 rating was used on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and several other near-R rated films that year. In September 1990, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating to replace the X rating, which was then consigned to films that were sheer pornography. The first NC-17 rated film was Philip Kaufman’s sexually explicit Henry June (1990), about notorious writer Henry Miller and his wife, based on a book by their friend Anaïs Nin.
Other adventurous American films of the period included British director John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), a sleek thriller starring Lee Marvin as a mobster mysteriously resurrected from the dead who systematically works his way to the top of an organized crime syndicate in search of a bundle of money owed him from a robbery gone wrong. Casually killing and maiming his opponents as he searches for the loot—in one instance he tosses a particularly obnoxious villain off a hotel balcony with nary a backward glance— Lee Marvin’s Walker is a combination of Orpheus and Avenging Angel. Boorman directs the film with an obvious debt to Alain Resnais, as the past and present fuse together in a maelstrom of violence.
John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) became the first film in history with an X rating to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; today it would probably be an R. Schlesinger’s tale of failed hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and his erstwhile pimp, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), also captures, for better or worse, a part of New York now gone forever: Forty-second Street’s grimy chain of movie theaters where prostitutes, junkies, winos, and drug dealers congregated with impunity, creating a sub-cultural city-within-a-city in which violence and money ruled. The area has now been cleaned up and made tourist-friendly, but the movie captures the real grime and danger of the place and reminds us that not everyone in Manhattan lives in a penthouse apartment. As a tale of despair and sadness and yet, in the end, hope, Midnight Cowboy is a one-of-a-kind film, which brings to life a vision of Manhattan as an earthly hell, populated by people who will do anything to get out of the city and “the life.”
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) was a countercultural hit, with the first wall-to-wall rock ’n’ roll sound track in Hollywood history.
Shot for a bit less than $350,000, partially financed by co-star Peter Fonda’s trust fund, and photographed in a mix of 16 mm and 35 mm for a grainy, funky look, the movie made biker movies respectable and transformed what might have been a routine genre picture into a compelling tale of a per’s Easy Rider (1969), a film that spelled the personal cross-country odyssey. Mike Nichols’s The end ofthe optimism of the 1960s. Graduate (1967) exposed the alienation and uncertainty of youth in an exploitational adult world and made an overnight sensation out of Dustin Hoffman. For many, The Graduate, with its signature Simon and Garfunkle sound track, is one of the most influential American films of the 1960s, one of the few to deal sympathetically with the plight of young adults trying to make their way in the modern world. Audiences flocked to see both films; Easy Rider grossed more than $30 million in the United States alone.