«A Dissertation Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies and Research in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of ...»
THE DEPICTION OF THE WORKING
CLASS IN AMERICAN FILMS OF THE
Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies and Research
in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
Doctor of Philosophy
Robert Alan Marcink
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
© 2009 by Robert Alan Marcink
All Rights Reserved ii Indiana University of Pennsylvania The School of Graduate Studies and Research Department of English We hereby approve the dissertation of Robert Alan Marcink Candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy ________________________ _________________________________________
Thomas J. Slater, Ph.D.
Professor of English, Advisor ________________________ _________________________________________
Ronald Emerick, Ph.D.
Professor of English ________________________ _________________________________________
Mike Sell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Timothy P. Mack, Ph.D.
Dean The School of Graduate Studies and Research iii Title: The Depiction of the Working Class in American Films of the Counterculture Era Author: Robert Alan Marcink Dissertation Chair: Dr. Thomas Slater Dissertation Committee Members: Dr. Ronald Emerick Dr. Mike Sell The Depiction of the Working Class in American Films of the Counterculture Era explores the rendering of the working class by Hollywood between 1967 and 1982. This dissertation discusses how this unique and volatile epoch was interpreted by Hollywood, and how the roles of working-class characters evolved with the shifting economic and political landscapes. The dissertation also demonstrates that although Hollywood temporarily experimented with some new models and narratives as it encouraged fresh creative talent in the early 1970s in a period known as the Hollywood Renaissance, the film industry never strayed too far from its roots. As the country moved back to the right in the early 1970s, Hollywood quickly returned to a more classic and conservative cinema. As this work demonstrates, this return was best reflected in the rendering of the working class.
In addition to exploring how working-class characters evolved with the times, this dissertation also explores how film informed the working class view of itself. For example, the work discusses how a film like Rocky (1976) reinforced and perpetuated some workingclass views at a time when the working class felt threatened by change.
The dissertation begins by exploring the history of the working class in American film. Then, by drawing on the works of film scholars and cultural critics, it explores Hollywood’s creation of the binary of the working class vs. the counterculture that emerged in the late 1960s. This binary, while generally successful at the box office, also helped to
This project would not have been possible without the support and guidance of two very important and distinct groups. One is my academic family, and one is the family headed by my father and mother.
I would first like to acknowledge my great gratitude to Dr. Thomas Slater, whose advice and gentle prodding encouraged me and inspired me throughout the development, research, and writing of this dissertation. Dr. Slater guided and nurtured me along the way, and in doing so he brought out the very best in me.
I am also grateful to my committee members, Dr. Ronald Emerick and Dr. Mike Sell, whose enthusiasm for the project helped to give me the confidence I needed to pursue it and to see it through to fruition. Both of them offered me valuable advice and feedback throughout all stages of the project, and they share credit in this final product.
Finally, I would like to thank my immediate family members for all the support they have given me throughout the years. My parents, brothers, and sisters have never wavered in their belief in me. They have never questioned my decisions, even when they may not have completely understood them, and they have always been there to provide me with whatever support I needed at the time.
A special thank you goes out to my father, Eugene P. Marcink, Sr., and my mother, Madeline Marcink, a thank you that cannot be overstated. In 1991 when I decided to leave my career as a journalist to return to school with an eye towards landing a college teaching position, they stood by me. Without their support, moral and financial, I may never have found my way into this beautiful new life. My father did not live to see this moment arrive, but I take heart in knowing that he firmly believed this day would come.
Introduction THE WORKING CLASS IN AMERICAN FILM: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FIRST 70 YEARS
1 THE LATE 1960S: THE PRIVILEGING OF THE COUNTERCULTURE
In the mid- and late 1960s, it was not uncommon to walk down the street of any major city of America and witness a verbal confrontation between protesters and a member of the working class. This scene became so common, in fact, that the two groups would often react reflexively towards each other, barely taking the time to make eye contact. Subjects of protest ranged from the Civil Rights Movement to nuclear disarmament to the war in Vietnam to the women’s rights movement, but they all elicited the same response from some passersby. Morris Dickstein describes just such a scene in his book about the sixties, Gates of Eden. He writes, “The social abyss between protesters and hard-hats gave their relationship a purely abstract, mythmaking character” (257). He recounts one particular exchange in New York during the late 1960s that illustrates this phenomenon: “A group of craggy, burly longshoremen on their way to work began heckling some of the protesters with comments like ‘Get washed, hippies!” and ‘Take a bath!’ A typical moment, except that in this case the immediate objects of their scorn were some impeccably groomed suburban matrons” (257).
This caricature of members of the counterculture was not contained to the streets, either. As Peter Braunstein writes in Imagine Nation, to California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967 a “hippie,” the most recognizable member of the counterculture, was someone “who dressed like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah” (6).
As those words from Ronald Reagan imply, these regular confrontations did not exclusively involve the working class, although Reagan’s words were designed to mobilize opposition to the counterculture and to curry favor with the working class. There were surely times when a man in a gray flannel suit or a woman dressed in the latest Givenchy tossed an insult at the protesters. But highly publicized incidents like two that took place in New York City on May 8, 1970, when “hardhats” attacked youthful war protesters, and again on May 12, 1970, when “helmeted workers, carrying American flags, shouted pro-war... slogans” at war protesters and called for the resignation of New York Mayor John Lindsay (Bigart 1), turned the media spotlight towards the working class. When Hollywood later installed the counterculture as protagonists in a series of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was the image of the working class that most often made it to the screen.
One such scene takes place in Midnight Cowboy, which won the Oscar for best film of 1969. In the film about two small-time street hustlers, the two lead characters, Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Jon Voight), are briskly walking through the streets of New York as Ratso, who has just met Joe in a bar, is trying to convince the budding male hustler to let him represent him. They then encounter a small group of protesters carrying signs that call for nuclear disarmament marching in a loop on the sidewalk. As Ratso elbows his way through the crowd, he brushes aside one of the placard-carrying protesters and brusquely says, “Get outta here. Fuckin’ creep. Go to work.” Although the entire incident plays out in just a few seconds, this fleeting confrontation says much about the perception of the relationship between the counterculture and the working class in the late 1960s in America, a time when working-class sons were dying in a war 6,000 miles away while protesters, often the sons and daughters of the privileged, crowded city streets and commandeered college campuses to express their displeasure with their government. This scene is particularly telling because it shows that even two men on the margins of society, men who have emerged from the working class but are no longer part of the working-class culture, carry with them the same distaste for the counterculture as the hardhats that Dickstein and Bigart write about.i It was this binary—the counterculture vs. the working class—that made headlines and sold newspapers in the late 1960s, and it was this binary that came to dominate films of the counterculture era as Hollywood attempted to attract youth audiences to its films.
This dissertation will explore the treatment of the working class in Hollywood cinema during the brief explosion of youth-oriented films in the late 1960s and will then trace how the depiction of the working class changed as Hollywood returned to more traditional narratives and forms in the 1970s. This period ran roughly between 1967 and 1982, the year of the summer of love, until the first years of the Reagan presidency. I have chosen not to end the era with the election of Reagan because films that were in production during the final years of the Carter Administration did not reach the screen until the early 1980s. In the following pages, I will look at how Hollywood’s portrayal of the working class during this epoch helped to not only shape the way other people look at the working class, but also how the working class looks at itself. In doing so, I will also explore one overriding theme that is repeated in films throughout the era, whether they valorize the counterculture or the working class—the theme of community. It is this desire for community that inspired counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and it is the mourning of the loss of a more “traditional” community by members of the working and middle classes, and their desire to return to more “simple” times, that led to working-class movements in the mid-1970s. In both cases, these movements found a willing partner in Hollywood, which saw an opportunity to exploit the changing mood of the nation and bring audiences back to theaters in search of community.
But as we will also see, particularly as the epoch matures, Hollywood did not stray too far from its roots. It continued to rely on the cinematic trope of the rugged individualist in presenting its narratives of the search for community.
I have chosen this epoch because it represents a period of great change in American cinema and in America itself. Between 1967 and 1982 the nation moved first to the left and then back hard to the right, and with these changes in direction came changes in the depiction of the working class in Hollywood cinema. As I will show in the first part of this work, in films of the late 1960s the working class took a back seat to the counterculture, sometimes being ignored, often marginalized or ridiculed, and too often demonized as the foils for counterculture characters. In subsequent chapters I will show that as the country turned to the right during the 1970s with an economic downturn, the continuing war in Vietnam, an oil embargo, and Watergate adding to the nation’s woes, depictions of the working class evolved. Demonized at the beginning of the decade in a film like Joe (1970), the working class found itself valorized in mid-decade by Rocky (1976) and even romanticized to a degree in later films like Breaking Away (1979) and Four Friends (1981).
This study will be presented in four chapters, followed by an Epilogue. Because I will be explicating the evolution of the treatment of the working class in film during this era, I will present the films, for the most part, in chronological order, with each chapter representing a specific period within the epoch. Four basic tools will be provided to the reader in this Introduction. First, each chapter and its general contents will be outlined;