By the late 1960s, Hollywood had been infiltrated by psychedelia as a recreational pastime (pot, LSD, peyote were already in wide use among the film set by the late 1950s). How that mindset translated to the screen was another story. Sometimes good, sometimes so bad it was good, sometimes just bad. Jim Allen offers a roster of cinematic psychedelia, in the first of a 2-part series for PKM.
A longhaired, love-beaded Peter Sellers presides over a swinging ’60s party where the guests get pie-eyed on hash brownies. A dosed Jackie Gleason experiences an acid trip involving the disembodied head of Groucho Marx, and eventually declares, “I want a flower.” A ponytailed Jack Nicholson is psychedelic bandleader Stoney, engaged in a cosmic rap session with high-flying Jesus lookalike The Seeker, played by Bruce Dern.
Trailer to Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968): featuring Jackie Gleason on acid, with commentary by Tim Leary by Sammy Davis Jr.:
A lot of things came out of Hollywood in the hippie era that can only be explained with the catchall justification, “It was the ’60s.” Some of those things were outlandish, exploitative, and laughable. Some were powerful, poignant, and timeless. But they were all fascinating in their own way, especially if you’ve got a soft spot for late ’60s/early ’70s counterculture.
With the arrival of the hippies, freaks, flower children, or whatever appellation you prefer, pop culture became consumed by all the trappings of the movement — psychedelic rock, male hirsuteness, free love, LSD, communal living, Haight-Ashbury, sociopolitical protest, sitars, bare feet, you name it, it was reflected in every form of media, and film was far from the exception.
The movie industry’s response to the Age of Aquarius encompassed slap-dash indie productions and big-budget studio projects; unknown actors and marquee names; small, personal stories, and sprawling epics; campy near-parodies and dead-serious dramas. Together they tell the story of how the great American medium reflected the biggest cultural sea change of the 20th century, engendering a mixture of belly laughs, gut punches, and wistful tears along the way, from the mainstream success of the trenchant Easy Rider to the exploito obscurity of The Love-Ins and beyond.
There would be no psychedelia if it weren’t for psychedelics, and the LSD-aided mind expansion that inspired so much of the ’60s counterculture popped up in plenty of films at the time, especially on the bad-trip end of the spectrum in cautionary tales. But a few movies made the ups and downs of acid their focus.
Indie auteur supreme Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip was pretty much the granddaddy of them all, not to mention a forerunner of Easy Rider, the ne plus ultra of hippie movies. Both films star Peter Fonda, also include Dennis Hopper, and bear a suitably turned-on soundtrack. But instead of confining the acid trip to one memorable scene as Easy Rider did, Corman framed his whole film around it, as hip TV commercial director Fonda ensconces himself in a fabulously freaky pad to take his maiden voyage with buddy Bruce Dern as his guide. The visuals accompanying Fonda’s extended trip are appropriately out there, but the film’s attitude towards acid experimentation is relatively evenhanded.
The Trip came from American International Pictures, Hollywood’s legendary low-budget B-movie merchants, and was one of their comparatively classier features. But 1971’s The Psychedelic Priest was more typical of their gung-ho sensationalism. The story of a clergyman who gets dosed and leaves the church behind to find himself, its origin seems archetypal. Director William Grefe told an interviewer that producer Terry Merrill called him and said, “Bill, the hippie scene is what’s happening. Get out here. I want you to direct this movie.” Grefe was literally paid in trading stamps, worked with no script, and hired hippie non-actors right off of the Sunset Strip. The result is a glorious piece of period schlock so amateurish even AI didn’t bother releasing it (the movie finally saw daylight as a DVD in 2001).
Something Weird’s trailer for The Psychedelic Priest:
The Big Cube (1969) was bankrolled by much deeper pockets: Warner Bros/Seven Arts, and even included Oscar winner George Chakiris and a star from Hollywood’s golden age, Lana Turner. The production values may be a step up, but the anti-freak, acid-scare message is as bluntly bludgeoned as anything ever to close out a grindhouse double feature. Chakiris is a sociopathic-but-charming hippie chancer gold-digging his way into the heart of Turner’s stepdaughter, using LSD as his secret weapon.
Trailer for Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967):
THE GENERATION GAP
The cultural conflicts of the generation gap were greater in the late ’60/early ’70s than any other time in American history. And the film industry itself was a prime example. Even as some studios began to follow the lead of the record labels by hiring house hippies, most of the films focused on the era’s youth culture were made by the dreaded over-30 crowd. When it was the “right” middle-aged director, like Dennis Hopper or (believe it or not) Clint Eastwood, it didn’t matter. But with more garish affairs, the culture clash inherent in the very approach to production made the movies not just documents of the conflict but the products of it.
Roger Corman, already in his 40s when good old American International released his Gassss in 1970, played the “don’t trust anybody over 30” trope for laughs (though not without some mordant subtext). The film envisions a hippie-friendly apocalypse where a nerve gas accident eliminates everybody older than 25. A pre-Harold and Maude Bud Cort cavorts with a young Talia Shire, Ben Vereen, and Cindy Williams in a loopy Hair-meets-Mad Max world.
Grefe was literally paid in trading stamps, worked with no script, and hired hippie non-actors right off of the Sunset Strip. The result is a glorious piece of period schlock.
Barry Shear was similarly fortysomething when he directed 1968’s Wild in the Streets, another AIP release. Reportedly shot in just over two weeks, it included Shelley Winters and Hal Holbrook as the grownups in a story that rides the razor’s edge between dark humor and over-baked exploitation. Christopher Jones plays a politically ambitious rock star who takes protest to a new level by getting himself elected President and enforcing LSD concentration camps for anyone over 30. A pre-fame Richard Pryor plays Frost’s drummer and resident black radical, Stanley X. The movie earned cult-classic status, partly for its soundtrack album, which actually generated a real-life Top 40 single with the great “The Shape of Things to Come,” written by ’60s hit makers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill and later covered by everybody from The Ramones to George Benson.
In parental-panic movies like Joe and Taking Off, square parents found both wish fulfillment and their worst nightmares played out. Before making the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman directed 1971’s Taking Off as a sort of Altman-esque farce full of deadpan humor, following parents in search of their runaway teens. Along the way the parents get their minds opened about sex and drugs and even catch an Ike & Tina Turner gig.
Before John Avildsen got his Oscar for directing Rocky, he made Joe (1970), which is the polar opposite of Taking Off. The unrelentingly dark drama was the first legit feature for low-budget soft-porn purveyors Cannon Films, and the film premiere of Susan Sarandon. Played by Peter Boyle, Joe is a working-class reactionary who eggs on the upper-class father of hippie chick Sarandon to retrieve his wayward daughter and handle her drug-dealing hippie cohorts with extreme prejudice, as it were. Made on a shoestring by a director who reportedly wasn’t even in the union yet, it became a critical and commercial success, and stirred the darkest desires of a certain segment of the populace, who could be heard in theaters cheering Joe’s violent retribution against the hippies.
Christopher Jones sings “Shape of Things to Come” in a scene from Wild in the Streets:
MANIC HIPPIE DREAM GIRLS
For all the members of the Greatest Generation who were at odds with the hippies, there were apparently some who had an itch for closer relations. The film trope codified in the 2000s as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had its forebears in the Age of Aquarius, and every middle-aged man with the hots for hippie chicks could see himself on the big screen, in roles that ranged from ridiculous to sympathetic, as his fantasies were played out before him.
Peter Sellers played the idea for laughs (as he did so brilliantly with everything else) in 1968’s I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, a Warner production co-written and co-produced by Paul Mazursky. It’s title a reference to the historic avant-gardist renowned for her pot brownies, the film follows Sellers’ straight-laced lawyer as he’s led into a groovier lifestyle by a fetching flower child young enough to be his daughter.
Trailer for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas:
Made in 1972 and released the following year, Breezy was directed by Clint Eastwood, of all people. The age discrepancy between its main characters is even greater than that of the Sellers flick — William Holden was 54 and Kay Lenz just 19 — but this seeming male fantasy was written by a woman, Jo Heims, who was also the writer for Eastwood’s previous directing gig, Play Misty for Me. The depiction of the relationship between teenage hippie hitchhiker and fiftysomething divorcee is actually handled with striking sensitivity, and despite the potential for prurience, Breezy is a reflective, maturely rendered piece of work.
Hitchhiking is also the point of contact between Jack Lemmon and Laurie Heineman in Save the Tiger, another ’73 release. The encounter between the two isn’t the focus of the film, but it emphasizes the WWII vet’s alienation from the boomers. In post-coital repose, the pair plays a celebrity-naming game, and hers are along the lines of Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, while he’s immersed in the icons of a bygone era. Lemmon won an Oscar for his performance, and this powerful film is one of his finest moments, which is saying something.
Save The Tiger trailer, starring Jack Lemmon as “Harry Stoner”:
THE CAMPUS SCENE
College campuses were ground zero for the blossoming of the late-’60s/early-’70s counterculture. Music, protest, sex —young adults were pushing boundaries as much in the halls of higher learning as they were out on the streets. Some cinematic depictions of the era’s campus scene were more accurate than others, but they all tried to capture some of the turbulence of the time and place. The four best-known examples all came out in 1970, by which point the hippie ideal of peace and love had evolved into something harder and more jaded.
The seeds for 1970’s The Strawberry Statement came straight from the source: the 1969 memoir of the same title by James Simon Kunen, about his student experience at Columbia University during the notorious 1968 protests at the school. Playwright Isreal Horovitz (Beastie Boy Adam’s dad) adapted this into a fictional narrative. Director Stuart Hagmann was 27 at the time, closer to the age of his subjects than most of the directors putting lank-haired youths on the screen at the time. The story of a reluctant protester sucked into the sociopolitical vortex won a Jury Prize at Cannes but didn’t get much love from critics or moviegoers. The soundtrack album, which included Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” and tunes by Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash, had a longer shelf life than its cinematic companion.
Elliott Gould had come straight from Robert Altman’s sardonic Vietnam allegory M*A*S*H when he played a thirtyish Vietnam vet pursuing a master’s degree in education in Getting Straight. Another unlikely participant in student uprisings, his character had been a campus radical years before but was now struggling to effect change from within the system. As in all the other campus-protest movies, things get hairy when the fuzz enters the picture. Candice Bergen plays Gould’s militant objet d’amour. Director Richard Rush had also been at the helm of American International’s 1968 exploitation classic Psych-Out (more on that later), but showed himself capable of subtler, more sober statements here.
On the soundtrack of respected Old Hollywood director Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M., Melanie’s song “Stop! I Don’t Wanna Hear It Any More” hangs the hippie generation’s impatience with the status quo on a washing line for all to observe. But the movie adopts an unusual perspective for its sub-subgenre. It sympathetically follows the struggles of school president Anthony Quinn, a student-endorsed, old-school liberal, as he tries to reconcile the strictures of academia and the demands of his young constituency. Meanwhile, Michelangelo Antonioni followed his trendsetting Blow-Up by embedding himself in the American desert for Zabriskie Point. The campus unrest and cops-versus-students uproar is actually kind of a prelude to sun-soaked sex and adventure. Like The Strawberry Statement, today Antonioni’s movie is mostly remembered for its soundtrack album, which features bespoke tracks from Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead.
Zabriskie Point-Michelangelo Antonioni, trailer:
Stay tuned for Pt. II of this tale, featuring psychsploitation flicks, bikers vs. hippies, and more.
“Love Scene” instrumental by Jerry Garcia, for the soundtrack of Zabriskie Point:
For further research:
Some of the more sensationalistic selections mentioned here can be obtained from the video vaults of Something Weird.
Simon Matthews’ Psychedelic Celluloid does a good job of cataloguing the British side of this story.
Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls offers intriguing behind-the-scenes info on Hollywood’s hippie-era evolution.