By 1967, the commercial and political impact on Hollywood of the sixties counterculture had become impossible to ignore. The studios were in bad shape, still contending with a generation-long box office slump and struggling to get young people into the habit of going to the movies. Film historian Jon Lewis’s new book Road Trip to Nowhere examines a ten-year span (from 1967 to 1976) rife with uneasy encounters between artists caught up in the counterculture and a corporate establishment still clinging to a studio system on the brink of collapse. Out of this tumultuous period many among the young and talented walked away from celebrity, turning down the best job Hollywood—and America—had on offer: movie star.
Road Trip to Nowhere elaborates a primary-sourced history of movie production culture, examining the lives of a number of talented actors who got wrapped up in the politics and lifestyles of the counterculture. Thoroughly put off by celebrity culture, actors like Dennis Hopper, Christopher Jones, Jean Seberg, and others rejected the aspirational backstory and inevitable material trappings of success, much to the chagrin of the studios and directors who backed them. In Road Trip to Nowhere, Lewis details dramatic encounters on movie sets and in corporate boardrooms, on the job and on the streets, and in doing so offers an entertaining and rigorous historical account of an out-of-touch Hollywood establishment and the counterculture workforce they would never come to understand.
Jon Lewis is the University Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at Oregon State University. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles.
The following passage on the controversy around Oscar Night 1975 is excerpted from Road Trip to Nowhere: Hollywood Encounters the Counterculture
Oscar Night 1975: Hollywood Discovers Vietnam
Counterculture Hollywood is fairly framed by two memorable Oscar nights: 1968 and 1975. The 1968 ceremony took place on April 8, bookended by the late-January Tet Offensive in Vietnam (a battle that made clear to many Americans that the Vietnam war could not be so easily won) and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a weekend in August that fueled mounting anxiety over irreconcilable divisions between Democrat and Republican (and, eventually, between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon), and between young and old, hip and square, dove and hawk (i.e., anti-v. pro-war) as well.
The 1975 ceremony took place just twenty days before the fall of Saigon. The war was by then nearly over, but only and finally getting a first airing-out in Hollywood. The big moment of that night came when the ex-model Lauren Hutton and the TV comedian Danny Thomas took the stage to announce the award for Best Documentary Feature: “and the winner is . . . [Peter Davis’s] Hearts and Minds.” It was a moment everyone in attendance had been waiting for. And as anticipated the producers of the film were not about to be good winners.
On behalf of the production team, Bert Schneider accepted the award, reading aloud a telegram from the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks, thanking the U.S. antiwar movement “for all they have done on behalf of peace.” Schneider was speaking on behalf of the industry’s politically progressive majority. But his speech struck plenty in attendance as, even though the war was nearly over, a bit too much too soon.
Telegrams—it’s 1975, so Western Union was the format du jour for sudden outrage—arrived fast and furious. Frank Sinatra took the stage to read a message on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS): “We are not responsible for any political utterances on this program and we are sorry that this [that is, Schneider’s speech] had to take place.” The Academy had put the words in Sinatra’s mouth. But to be fair: Sinatra and his cohost Bob Hope agreed with them.
Lurking just off-stage and waiting for Sinatra to come their way were Shirley MacLaine (Sinatra’s costar in Some Came Running, Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 film) and her brother Warren Beatty. MacLaine went first: “You said you were speaking for the Academy. Well, I’m a member of the Academy and you didn’t ask me!” Then Beatty, with ample snark: “Thank you Frank, you old Republican.” It proved to be a watershed moment: the New Hollywood colliding with the old—AMPAS trying to be balanced and fair and failing yet again to be everything to everyone (or to be anything to anyone), because in 1975 balanced and fair was no longer possible.