CALLERI: The 1960s return in three movies that offer vital points in history

Julianne Moore is Gloria Steinem (left) and Bette Midler is New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug in “The Glorias.”

Many steps led to the counterculture that took hold in the United States in the 1960s, but some of the seeds were surely planted in 1953 with the appearance of Marlon Brando’s sullen rebel Johnny Strabler in “The Wild One.” It was more than just a movie about a motorcycle gang.

A small-town girl asks Strabler: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” He replies: “Whaddaya got?” Actor Brando was a rebel unto himself.

Evan Hunter’s 1954 novel, “Blackboard Jungle,” which became a popular movie in 1955, continued the theme of disaffected youth. The old ways of teaching couldn’t match the new ways of thinking by high school students.

The kids were not alright. They weren’t merely being rambunctious. They were actively seeking different ways to express themselves. Most of a generation of young people began balking at doing the expected thing.

First came the Free Speech Movement. This epic student protest took place during the 1964 - 65 academic year on the University of California at Berkeley campus under the informal leadership of Berkeley graduate student Mario Savio. His most famous words, spoken at Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964, were: “Put your bodies upon the gears.”

Mounting demonstrations began against the war in Vietnam. Fierce fighting flared in Chicago as police charged into protesters during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968.

The feminist movement voiced a rallying cry of equal rights for women, which ultimately led to the powerful slogan, and title of a book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Gay rights roared into view on June 28, 1969, the night that saw the beginning of days-long rioting against on-going police harassment of gay men and lesbian women inside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. This action was influenced by an electrifying 1968 play, “The Boys In The Band,” which depicted gay men as friends at a birthday party, an activity that, astonishingly, had never before been seen culturally

During all of this, the Vietnam war was much more than a flashpoint for protests. Its existence influenced art, literature, theater, dance, and rock and roll. The Rolling Stones’ most overtly political song is 1968’s “Street Fighting Man.”

Protesting students were murdered at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, leading to intense campus demonstrations and the shut-down of hundreds of institutions of higher learning across the United States. Administration buildings were seized and a domino effect of college closings stunned the nation.

It’s pure serendipity that we now have three movies, which are outgrowths of this revolutionary period in American history.

The films are “The Glorias” (iTunes and Prime Video), as well as “The Boys In The Band” and “The Trial Of The Chicago 7,” both on Netflix.

“The Glorias” tells the story of Gloria Steinem, the women’s rights icon and founder of Ms. Magazine. Directed by Julie Taymor and written by her and Sarah Ruhl, the smart movie uses a storytelling device I enjoyed.

Steinem’s biography, “My Life on the Road,” has been turned into a time-hopping, film that glows like a pop art daydream. In “The Glorias,” Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays Steinem as a little girl in Ohio. Lulu Wilson is the teenage Gloria. Alicia Vikander portrays Steinem between the ages of 20 to 40, and Julianne Moore takes command from there. Even Steinem herself, now 86, shows up.

Taymor and Ruhl have the wonderfully acted versions of Steinem interact with one another, often on a bus, in scenes filmed in black and white, as the outside world rolls by in full color. It’s a clever and informative way to reveal biographic details and influences. Bette Midler pops up as New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug. All-in-all, a superb movie. By the way, did you know that actor Christian Bale is Steinem’s stepson?

“The Boys In The Band” is a stellar version of the groundbreaking play, which was filmed before in 1970. Directed by Joe Mantello and written by Mart Crowley (the play’s author) and Ned Martel, the new movie is equal parts funny and dramatic, and always alive. It may be an artifact about the way things were in 1968, when gay men feared public disclosure, finding camaraderie and comfort as friends, but it’s a stunning artifact. The single set, a duplex apartment in the West Village, is used perfectly.

Every actor shines. Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchinson, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins each has their commanding moment in the spotlight. The vibrant, good-looking film jolts and surprises in many ways.

Director-writer Aaron Sorkin’s wickedly Marxian (as in Groucho, Harpo, and Chico) “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” has a bit of the prankster in it. This would please Abbie Hoffman (deliciously acted by Sacha Baron Cohen), one of the seven men who were put on trial in 1969 by the federal government for numerous crimes, including, it often seems, conspiracy to upset the apple cart, all arising from the protests at the aforementioned 1968 Democratic convention.

Presided over by the quick-tempered Judge Julius Hoffman (a brilliant Frank Langella), the trial was a three-ring-circus that riveted the world. Sorkin’s multi-layered writing is at its peak. The acting by the ensemble cast is sublime.

All three movies are suitable for adults and smart teenagers and well worth your time.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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