Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence. An exception was the 1970’s, when Hollywood was indeed a font of popular films that aspired to, and on occasion attained, the status of something not unlike high art. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) were not “great” in the sense that one would apply that word to a bonafide cinematic masterpiece like, say, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). But their artistic purposes were self-evident, and to see them when they were new was to be persuaded—for a time—that American film had come of age at last.
In fact, however, the seeds of decline had already been planted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—the makers, respectively, of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). The commercial success of these films, with their simple-minded stories and elaborate special effects, led directly to the juvenilization of Hollywood. Once producers discovered that there were vast amounts of money to be made out of visually compelling, dramatically infantile big-budget movies aimed at an audience of teenagers, it was all but inevitable that they would soon be making little else. What followed was an industry-wide plunge to the lowest common denominator of popular taste—the same affliction from which network TV and commercial pop music are similarly suffering.