Category Archives: Loving the 1950s

The 1950s weren’t all “Eisenhower conformity versus greaser-rock ’n’ roll,” but let’s face it, those were the interesting parts. Well, those and the movies the decade produced—which, thanks to the need to compete with television, were getting bigger, wider, odder, and more intense.

Hollywoodland (2006)

A surprisingly spry biopic of actor George Reeves, whose unmeteoric career led to him playing Superman on TV (1952–58), and eventually to a suicide that might’ve been a murder. Ben Affleck, as Reeves, and Diane Lane, as Toni Mannix, a Hollywood producer’s wife and aging tramp, rise to the occasion, and the film is a bath in postwar semi-affluence. Ignore the Adrien Brody framing story if you can.

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Far from Heaven (2002)

Frank and Cathy (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) are the perfect 1950s couple: he’s a successful businessman; she’s a beautiful, impeccable hostess with a flawless home, two well-behaved children, and a loyal housekeeper. The facade cracks when Cathy catches Frank kissing another man—and then finds solace in the sympathetic companionship of her gardener, a courteous, intelligent man who happens to be black. This movie is an homage to the Douglas Sirk dramas of the 1950s, right down to the typeface over the opening credits and the swelling Elmer Bernstein score, and it’s a dead-serious “women’s film” melodrama. Gloved hands, cocktails before dinner, crinoline skirts, and the ubiquity of casual prejudice—director Todd Haynes’s film is almost a deliberate attempt to make the nervy movie about the failure of middle-class surfaces that audiences should’ve had the chance to see in 1956, but that the studios were too timid to make.

Diner (1982)

Film poster for Diner - Copyright 1982, MGM
Film poster for Diner – Copyright 1982, MGM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barry Levinson’s debut film is a small masterpiece of social anthropology. Here he recreates the 1959 stuck-in-a-groove lifestyle of six Baltimore guys in their twenties, swapping yucks at the all-night eatery over gravied french fries, like they have since they were kids, and not being much more savvy than their childhood selves about adulthood or women. The semi-improvised banter is fascinating, and the clothes, norms, styles, lingo, and music are all on the money. Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rourke shine as they did only here, Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern have rarely had better roles, and Paul Reiser expertly energizes the ensemble with wisecracks. (The sixth guy, Tim Daly, is a relative dull straight man with dull girl problems.) Guttenberg’s slightly dull-witted Colts fanatic is getting married, and the guys collect in the midwinter, in their wool overcoats, to see if it’ll actually happen. If it sounds like a hundred other small movies from the 1980s on, you’re right—but this is the first of its kind, and it’s the best. (Incidentally, this movie also served as a significant “how to” lesson in chatty screenwriting for a young fanboy named Quentin Tarantino.)

American Graffiti (1973)

The year 1962 was still the 1950s in George Lucas’s small California burg, where, for some, Buddy Holly’s death marked the end of something grand, and the looming threat of the draft and Vietnam meant that something else entirely was on its way. How could the antiseptic overlord of the Star Wars industry have thunk up something so charming, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, and humane? A 1970s masterpiece, this film marks the beginning of an entire culture phenomenon: retro cool.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Cropped screenshot of Natalie Wood and James D...
Cropped screenshot of Natalie Wood and James Dean in the trailer for the film Rebel Without a Cause (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A key film, sprouting from the middle of the decade and masterfully drawing the battle lines for what would later become known as “the generation gap,” but more than that: Nicholas Ray’s temple-pounding James Dean saga doesn’t glamorize the 1950s; its milieu is lower-middle-class, and its social web is stretched to the tearing point. There may not be a clearer emotional portrait of mid-century America.

The Wild One (1953)

English: A photograph promoting the film The W...
English: A photograph promoting the film The Wild One depicts actor Marlon Brando. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marlon Brando, in a leather jacket and on a motorcycle, scaring the bejeezus out of honest small-town folk with his lawless, devil-may-care youthfulness. The movie in which Brando, when asked what he’s rebelling against, merely answers “What’ve you got?”