A working-class hero is something to be:
class in 70s U.S. cinema

by Peter Steven

Review of Derek Nystrom's Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Part one: a visual essay

Manhattan’s “Hard-hat riots” of May 1970 featured construction workers, a sea of American flags, and signs reading “Impeach the Red Mayor.” Joe, directed by John Avildsen in 1970, launched the decade with a reactionary and violent tale that managed to exploit the animosity between so-called “hard-hats” and the anti-war movement. ... ... The film shifted the debate about the war, then raging within the Professional Middle Class, onto class conflicts, pitting a bitter, angry, blue collar man against hippies and young people of ‘privilege.’

Sociologists Barbara and John Ehrenreich noted the media’s dubious notion in the 1970s of “working-class authoritarianism.”

Derek Nystrom argues that the leadership of Hollywood’s old blue-collar unions, centered in NABET, were proud of their work in Joe. In part, they identified with the character and perhaps saw parallels with the young-brat directors dismissive of Hollywood’s methods of standardized filmmaking.


D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) tells an eloquent story of how capitalist speculation in food prices affects the working-class. In Griffith’s melodramatic style, the Wheat King falls into his grain silo and is buried alive.

The Jungle (1914) based on Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel, dramatized the life of Chicago’s meat-packing workers, most of whom were immigrants. The film is lost.   Our Daily Bread (1934) by King Vidor, one of Hollywood’s best directors, remains one of the very few films in dominant cinema to depict collective labor. This poster gives it a comic look but the film was remarkably serious and positive toward the workers’ efforts.

Working-class women occasionally got sympathetic treatment in the 30s and 40s. Hollywood stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Sylvia Sydney, often sought out such roles because the characters provided more dramatic material.

In 1934 John Qualen and Paul Muni played mine workers desperate to organize in Michael Curtiz’s Black Fury. Qualen made a specialty of playing slightly comic though dignified Scandinavians from the 1930s through the 1950s.

  Barbara Stanwyck as a working woman on the way up in Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937). In contrast to the previous shot, here she receives the full Hollywood glamor lighting.  
Butterfly McQueen didn’t get much choice in roles. Here, as often, she plays a comic maid, in Mildred Pierce (1945). Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) created brilliant, now iconic images of 20th century factory work. This famous shot illustrates alienation, speed-up, and that cog-in-the-wheel feeling. Salt of the Earth (Herbert Biberman, 1954), produced by blacklisted Hollywood veterans, remains significant for its multi-racial cast, its revolutionary politics, and its emphasis on women in the working-class.
Burt Reynolds specialized in a new working-class sub-genre of the 70s, the “Southern.” In Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) Jack Nicholson flees his life of privilege as a concert pianist to try his hand within the working-class as an oil rigger. The film uses Nicholson’s rough, often crudely sexist, depiction of an oil worker as a foil to his character’s upbringing—sensitive, artistic, and caring. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa became one of the most recognizable working-class heroes of the 70s. This scene early in Rocky (1976 ) shows him in a Philadelphia neighbourhood store awkwardly talking to the clerk, played by Talia Shire. Both are depicted in this cluttered, hemmed-in environment as unfashionable ugly ducklings. His boxing dreams may provide a way of getting out.
Were these working-class characters of the 1970s best understood as products of middle-class fantasy about that class?
In F.I.S.T. (Norman Jewison, 1978) Stallone combines his trademark scenes of violence ... ... with a sympathetic portrait of industrial union organizing.  
Sally Field’s portrayal of a southern textile worker in Norma Rae was directed by the veteran left-winger Martin Ritt, in 1979. Nystrom argues that the film ... ... “served as a politicized recasting of the Southern’s narrative and setting.” Some reviewers at the time derided the film for dwelling on the romantic, extra-marital, sub-plot involving a northern (Jewish) labor organizer played by Ron Leibman. Field’s other Southern character of the period made her ... ... a side-kick, along-for-the-ride extra to Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit (1977). The film launched a blue-collar outlaw-trucking cycle, mostly set in the South. Many of the films featured new strains of country music sung by angry white men and lyrics such as “Take this job and shove it.”

Nystrom argues that along with Norma Rae, the comic fantasy 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins, 1980) offered one of the better representations of working-women at the time. The clever casting of Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, icons of country music, TV, and film helped the film become very popular, even in the face of fierce hostility from male critics.

  Blue Collar, directed by Paul Schrader in 1978, portrayed auto workers in Detroit with sympathy and some nuance. Uncharacteristically, two of its three leads were African American. ... ... Conventionally it blamed the auto union as much as management for the men’s troubles. In the film Richard Pyror created the most complex character of his career.
In Saturday Night Fever, one of the 70s biggest hits, John Travolta quits his job in a paint store in order to escape Brooklyn, become a disco dancer, and cross the bridge into Manhattan. ... ... Tony Manero’s coiffed hair and white polyester suit reflected an authentic Brooklyn working-class subculture at odds with the predominant dressing down of middle-class youth.  

Go to review on page 2

To topPrint versionJC 54 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.