Fifty years ago this week, MGM released what was meant to be the next Easy Rider. Here was a movie about campus radicals taking direct action, based on a widely read and “legit” book. It had a cast of beautiful young people and quirky freaks. It came with hit tunes from underground artists of the day, written by an anointed genius playwright, directed by a newcomer with modern vision and it was coming to these shores after winning an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
It was a total flop.
Few think about the critically maligned box office dud The Strawberry Statement today, and if it ever comes up, most shoo it away as a botched attempt by Hollywood to cash in on protester chic. But while it’s certainly far from a masterpiece, a quick dismissal is hardly justified: If nothing else, the film is a museum quality example of how raw political energy can get neutered in adaptation. One can also note the racial gaps that nostalgic Boomers overlook when fondly recalling the protests of their youth, the cumulative effect of which has led, in part, to the need for people to take to the streets today. And also, though it’s easy to roll your eyes at toothpaste commercial revolutionaries, if you can compartmentalize that criticism, the movie is actually kinda fun.
The Strawberry Statement is a loose adaptation of the playful, slim volume of the same name by 19-year-old James Simon Kunen, a sharp-yet-sarcastic kid at Columbia University who ended up eyewitness to one of the larger campus occupations of the day. A number of factors contributed to the event, including the discovery that the school had quiet ties with Department of Defense think tanks, the building of a gymnasium in a public park that further displaced the adjacent Black community in Harlem and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Kunen, ostensibly a jock on the crew team, has a vague sense of wanting to do the right thing, or maybe it’s just the gravity of history, but something sweeps him up with “the pukes” that end up taking over buildings and, eventually, getting arrested. The title is both a play on Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement and a tweak on something a Columbia official (Vice Dean Deane, believe it or not) said in response to a question about the student body’s democratic agency. “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on an issue is like telling me they like strawberries,” he opined, which, considering the kandy-kolored vibe of the era’s counter-culture, was just too delicious a quote not to end up the name of a very successful book.
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (whose later credits include Rocky, The Right Stuff and GoodFellas) hired playwright Israel Horovitz to adapt the book. Horovitz was a leading voice in cutting-edge theater at the time. His 1966 one-act The Indian Wants The Bronx was a downtown sensation that introduced audiences to Al Pacino and John Cazale, and his surrealist 1967 play Line would eventually become a mainstay of Off-Broadway. To direct the film that they hoped would connect with The Pepsi Generation, they looked to television and found Stuart Hagmann, whose credits included a few episodes of Mannix and Mission: Impossible. He was also a top creator of Don Draper-period television commercials, eventually bringing us this truly bugnuts ad for The Church of Latter-day Saints:
The cinematographer, Ralph Woolsey, worked on the 1966 Batman. The combination made for a spry, swirling visual style with plenty of rapid-fire editing that instantly brands this movie with a 1970 expiration date. In other words, the movie has quite a look.
They couldn’t shoot at Columbia, so they moved to a fake name college in San Francisco, even though the specifics of New York’s neighborhoods are key to the story. Bruce Davison, exuding a young John Denver look, is the de-Jewed James Simon Kunen (now just named Simon) and Kim Darby (hot off True Grit) is cast as the revolutionary chick that gets him into the whole protesting scene. Darby is a good actress, but couldn’t possibly look more square — I can’t tell if this bit of casting makes The Strawberry Statement brilliant, or if it’s the perfect example of its tone-deafness. Perhaps it’s both.
Also in the cast as some of the assembled weirdos are Bud Cort and Bob Balaban, both of whom are named Elliott (Cort is also on the rowing team, and wants to go to demonstrations to meet girls, while Balaban is one of the lieutenants of the operation who is already burned out on revolution and is going through the motions for reasons that aren’t quite explained). In the mix as well is young Jeannie Berlin, who has the look down, but when she opens her mouth is all New York irony. She gets the best laugh of the movie when, upon hearing that reinforcement protesters are making their way to the already supply-depleted building, she groans, “now that the Mau Maus are here we’re gonna need more orange juice.”
The bulk of the picture is Davison and Darby falling in love, with counter-culture activity as background. Horovitz’s dialogue (some yanked straight from the book) is abundantly clever white noise, jazz riffs of then-current events done up in the patter familiar to the “sick” comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. This is pure mid-century Jewish jive, and wholly out of place with the sunshine daydream S.F. vibe that was about to mutate into the wide-eyed new age scene.
Importantly, the movie takes breaks for what are basically musical numbers. Set to previously released tracks by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Thunderclap Newman and more Neil Young, there’s a lot of Davison romping around the streets and, in one scene, tussling with police at the site of a soon-to-be-demolished playground used by “those little Black kids.”
In a tweak from the book (and true events) Simon’s university is going to build an ROTC building in the nearby African-American community. Columbia’s plan was to build, on public land in Morningside Park, a gymnasium that the University’s neighbors could use only half of. Thanks to the area’s weird topography, the locals would enter down low, out of sight, and through what was essentially a back entrance. This was a Jim Crow project in Manhattan in the era of Civil Rights and, understandably, was a huge issue. As such, the occupation that happened at Columbia began as an operation between both Black and white groups, but after the first night, there was a split. The Black groups were focused primarily on ending the construction project, and felt the whites were too scattershot, with more general anti-war, New Left aims.
Not only is this ignored in the movie (unless you listen very closely to some deep-in-the-mix, off-camera lines of inferential dialogue), but one can argue that the otherwise sympathetic heroes of The Strawberry Statement are “bad on race.” In one scene, after Simon gets socked in the jaw by a crew teammate and decides to win back-pats by saying it was from a cop, Balaban shows off Simon’s bloody lip to more senior members of the movement. One of them is a deep-in-concentration African American, and Simon later asks, “Who’s the spade?”
More surprising is the moment when Simon and Linda (Darby) are galavanting in the park and, just as they settle in for smooching, a pack of “urban youth” approaches. They aren’t all Black, but most are, and Simon and Linda begin whispering to one another about how she’s about to get raped. The scene ends with one tough looking guy smashing Simon’s camera, to the chagrin of others in the pack who seem to take a “why are you bothering these people” attitude.
I want to give this movie the benefit of the doubt and say that this is meant to be an indictment of the inherent racism that permeated even so-called leftist spaces, and that Simon grows from this experience. But I honestly can’t be sure. The scene, and the spade crack, are played for laughs, and it all makes for a discordant clang.
Later, when Simon confronts a dean, part of his list of demands is to “make room for some jet Black faces” at the school. It’s a little jarring, because there are no Black characters who get more than half a sentence of dialogue. There’s part of a montage, set to “Something in the Air,” when Simon, feeling young and free, runs down a block and tosses around a basketball with some African-American kids while the camera spins around, but that’s about it. The community is a prop, a topic for Simon and his peers to talk big beneath posters of Che Guevara. Watching this in June 2020 one can easily see how the campus movement so fundamentally failed Black America.
The final act of the film ditches the posturing and grows more urgent, as dozens of students sit in the center of a gymnasium, sing “Give Peace a Chance” and then get the snot knocked out of them by riot cops. The sequence is filmed for maximum terror, with brutality screeching on the soundtrack, but Hagmann’s pop sensibilities can’t restrain themselves. It’s like Busby Berkeley with police batons, and looks fantastic.
When The Strawberry Statement debuted at Cannes it tied for the Jury Prize. An ad in Variety on May 20, 1970, boasted, “This Summer all America will be talking about the most talked-about film at Cannes.” Critics from France, Italy, Belgium and Denmark (but not the U.S.) all gushed. Then the movie came out.
There were a few problems. For starters, it was third in a line of campus revolt films. February saw the release of Zabriskie Point, also from MGM, a long-gestating project directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a script by Sam Shepard and music by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia. The film begins with university protests and bickering activists in a much more serious (and realistic) version of what Horovitz wrote. The second half is a glorious, prurient psychedelic freakout in the desert. Like the dragon the suits were chasing, Easy Rider, it doesn’t feel like it’s about the counterculture, but a bona fide product of the counterculture. Yet for reasons I’ll never understand, this movie was a notorious bust. (Many critics have since come around on it.)
Similarly, a few weeks before The Strawberry Statement hit theaters, Columbia Pictures released Getting Straight, starring Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen. Gould is a returning Vietnam vet on campus to get his masters in education, and trying to update his Civil Rights-era activism to the more militant action of the day. (He’s also dealing with all the groovy chicks, man.) It was directed by Richard Rush, who previously made the dumb hippie-sploitation film Psych-Out that co-starred Jack Nicholson (cool!) and was produced by Dick Clark (what?). Getting Straight actually comes together nicely thanks to Gould’s touching performance, and was a substantial box-office winner that probably kneecapped The Strawberry Statement. (Gould played spoiler again the same year, when the counterculture military film no one saw coming, M*A*S*H, clobbered the adaptation everyone thought would be a hit, Catch-22. But, hey, why am I getting so hung up on what makes money, man? Square!)
While some counterculture movies did make an immediate impact on mainstream culture (and a lot of dough), they rarely were explicitly about the counterculture. Neither Bonnie and Clyde nor Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were protesting the Vietnam War. The most famous example (and one that gets a nice cross-promotion in The Strawberry Statement with both an image and a later sound cue) was MGM’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. At no point during production did Stanley Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke think they were making “the ultimate trip,” but the marketing department quickly realized that the dopers and freaks were the ones buying the tickets.
MGM was ready for The Strawberry Statement to be a repeat performance. According to contemporary reports, the publicists hyped it as “a gutsy film which tells what it is like to be part of the Now Generation, the Wow Generation.” And while such sentiments may make it seem as if this is only worth watching for kitsch value, there’s some actual magic in what actually came together.
Yet, Hagmann’s career in feature films never took off. He went on to make a television movie about tarantulas and one of the world’s most putrid McDonald’s ads.
As the 1970s progressed, New Hollywood absorbed the era of campus protests as their own Lost Cause, and that fatalism fueled what is among the best stretches of vital filmmaking that ever happened. But for a brief moment, the studios were misguided enough to think that a slicked-up spin on the push for social change was something that could make them a lot of money. It didn’t, but after being buried for 50 years, it remains something of a treasure.