Generation Clash: ‘The Happening’

happosterAccording to the film history books, 1967 was a seminal year for the Film School Generation because of three movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate. The films’ departure from the conventions of Hollywood’s classic narrative style in story and technique combined with their counter-culture perspective was considered revolutionary. Because of their critical and box-office success, this trio of high-profile films announced to the world that there was a new sheriff in town.

However, other films released that year were just as modern and provocative, including Point Blank, Fearless Vampires Killers, Two for the Road, and In Cold Blood. Even fluff such as Thoroughly Modern Millie seemed modern in its self-reflexive comedy and spoofing of the musical genre. It is also important to remember that in 1967 the studios were still releasing conventional Hollywood movies with big-name stars and happy endings, such as War Wagon, Camelot, Barefoot in the Park, and Doctor Dolittle—hopelessly out of date in any year!

While it is helpful for film history books to draw a clean line between traditional Hollywood and the Film School “brats”, in truth, the era was much messier. The conventions of the old and the innovations of the new were not so clearly delineated, nor did they seamlessly merge. Instead, they often clashed or awkwardly overlapped. One of the clumsiest attempts to address the aesthetics and themes of the 1960s is The Happening, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of Summer Under the Stars: Faye Dunaway. Released in March 1967, The Happening represents Dunaway’s second film, though she may have shot it before Hurry Sundown, which was in theaters a month earlier. I recommend The Happening, not because it is a good film but because it is a fascinating—if inane—marker of its era.



In the vernacular of the 1960s, a happening was a gathering of like-minded people whose only purpose was to live in the moment, whether they were jamming to music, painting bodies, or coming together to bond as a generation. The term originated in the art world during the 1950s and referred to inter-media performances with nonlinear narratives and interactive participation from the audience. In the movie, no happening is ever depicted onscreen, though it appears one has just ended when the film opens. Perhaps the act of watching the film constitutes a happening for the audience, which would be the hippest aspect of the film. It’s downhill from the title.



The Happening follows a group of four hipsters who are contemptuous of everything, even each other. The film opens as Sandy, played by Faye Dunaway, wakes up in a Florida forest, along with dozens of other youths recovering from the happening. She looks over at Sureshot, the handsome if shiftless young man whom she met at the party. With no direction, plan, job, or purpose, Sandy and Sureshot team up with Taurus and Herby, two fellow partiers who are even more reckless than they are. After chasing a group of kids playing war, they accidentally run inside the Miami mansion of millionaire businessman Roc Delmonico who assumes they are there to kidnap him. The four go along with this idea, lead Roc to his car, and drive away with him.

At this point, the storyline makes a left turn in a new direction by focusing on Roc, who is loosely affiliated with the Mob. Despite being connected, he cannot get any of his associates to pony up the money for the ransom. Even his wife, Monica Delmonico, sees her opportunity to be rid of her husband and refuses to pay. Roc takes the kidnapping into his own hands and decides to make his associates and wife suffer for their lack of loyalty to him.



Every aspect of the film seems like a collision of the past generation and the youth movement, or old-school Hollywood and the new breed. I can’t decide if this clash of generations was the point of The Happening, or merely an attempt to attract audiences from both sides of the much-discussed generation gap. While a clash or collision of ideas, imagery, and styles can be innovative because it provokes thought, here it is mere pile-up of mismatched elements. The pairing of disaffected youth with a mobster from another era seems interesting on the surface because both archetypes are outsiders to conformist mainstream America, but that similarity is never mined for possibilities. Instead, the disillusioned Roc and the four crazy kids act like they are in two separate movies.



I found it difficult to consistently identify or sympathize with any of the characters. Because the opening shot is of Sandy in close-up, we are inclined to identify with her and experience the story through her eyes as she attaches herself to a trio of misfit males. However, this becomes increasingly difficult for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the four young adults are simply unlikable—downright alienating in their petty acts of rebellion and meaningless stunts. Sandy repeatedly makes statements that reveal her shallow perspective: “I hate all my friends,” “Maybe I’ll feel something,” “Another day and nothing is going to happen,” and, my favorite, “Let’s go steal the bear from the zoo.” She and her three cohorts never have a sincere moment; they seem to be constantly performing, playing at being defiant and nonconformist. Are we supposed to relate to their malaise, because the world is corrupt and conventional? Or, are we supposed to be critical of these characters, and by extension, their whole generation?

Anthony Quinn costars as Roc Delmonico, and just as the character takes over the kidnap operation, Quinn’s energy and charisma help him steal every scene he is in. Plus, Roc’s common-sense observations on the kooky kids seem to sum up the viewer’s attitude, especially 40 years after the hippie movement has come and gone. However, are we supposed to sympathize with Roc, who is crushed and pathetic when he realizes no one loves or respects him, or be critical of his conventional, bourgeois lifestyle?

hapsupremesThe kooky kids try to intimidate Roc with their slangy, hip jargon . They speak in a beatnik-style patter as a group, with one character picking up the beat and phrasing of a sentence from the previous. They use this hip-speak as a weapon to annoy Roc, who accuses them of playing games and warns them to stop their “jazzy talk.” Are we supposed to feel alienated from this strange group, or should we see them as hip and cool like the jive-talking Brando in The Wild One? Whatever the intent, there is nothing to relate to about these characters, nothing admirable in their nonconformity. The four are so annoying that I found myself agreeing with a line Roc tosses at Sandy, even though it is antithetical to everything about my personality: “Why don’t you clean yourself up and marry some guy.”

The actors in the cast are an interesting mix of old-school stars and young turks from the new generation. On the verge of her breakout success in Bonnie and Clyde, Dunaway would become a premier actress in the movies of the Film School Generation. Through their work on television, Michael Parks, who costars as Sureshot, and George Maharis, who plays Taurus, earned their star images as actors associated with rebellious youth. Parks had starred as the trouble-making title character in the tv flick Bus Riley’s Back in Town, while Maharis starred as the Brando-esque Buzz Murdock in Route 66. In addition to Quinn, traditional Hollywood was represented by glamorous Martha Hyer as Monica, Oscar Homolka as an old-school mobster, and Milton Berle as Roc’s business partner. Roc tries to take Taurus under his wing for a career in organized crime, but the two ultimately don’t mesh, a situation that sums up the lack of chemistry among the actors in this film. Robert Walker Jr., who plays Herby, is an odd bridge between the two generations. As the son of movie stars Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones, he grew up in the last days of old Hollywood. However, he attended the Actors Studio and embraced the Method, aligning him with the new generation of actors. Unfortunately, Herby is the least developed character in the film, and Walker’s presence is barely felt.



At the time, much was made of the title tune because it was sung by The Supremes, Motown’s high-profile girl group. But, the song has little connection to the driving harmonies of the rhythm-and-blues-flavored Motown Sound. Instead, the superficial pop stylings of “The Happening” sound like some Hollywood exec’s idea of the modern music “the kids” were listening to.

The Happening’s failings are all the more interesting because it was co-scripted by Frank Pierson, who wrote three of the best films of the Film School Generation—Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, and Cat Ballou. The latter was directed by Elliot Silverstein, who was also responsible for The Happening. Cat Ballou also combined convention and innovation as well as old movie stars and new Method actors but with much more success. Despite its frustrating shortcomings, The Happening still makes an interesting viewing experience because it captures a confused Hollywood in transition.

I had intended to post this prior to its airing on TCM, but my computer crashed just as I was about to post it. If anyone did see it, I would appreciate your views; if you did not see it, you can see the entire film, or as much as you can take, on Youtube.

16 Responses Generation Clash: ‘The Happening’
Posted By Lulu : August 18, 2014 2:45 pm

Here’s a clip of the last time Diana Ross performed “The Happening”! This was at Madison Square Garden in 2000:

Posted By swac44 : August 18, 2014 3:09 pm

Camelot tried to update itself with “with-it” casting in the form of Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero instead of its (presumably bankable) Broadway stars Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and (OK, maybe not) Robert Goulet, with equally awkward results, although I still have a soft spot for it.

Posted By Andrew : August 18, 2014 3:38 pm

Now this is the sort of movie Hollywood should remake. (Either set in the sixties or now.) There has to be a good movie in there somewhere. Old school gangster vs modern youth, gangster revenge in brutal life and death vs the youth’s commitment to ennui, street smarts vs education, truth vs manipulation. Cast actors with big on screen persona’s like Anthony Quinn.

Posted By swac44 : August 18, 2014 3:55 pm

Suddenly I’m reminded of Otto Preminger’s Skidoo which mixed gangster nonsense with youth-oriented LSD-tripping weirdness. I enjoy the film, and its bonkers all-star cast, but I’m sure for all the wrong reasons. Love that Nilsson soundtrack though.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 18, 2014 4:20 pm

Swac44: I have also seen SKIDOO, which was a beloved movie among cinephiles in Chicago for all the wrong reasons. It is much crazier, which makes me more forgiving of it.

Andrew: I like your idea of a remake. There are some cool elements in the movie for sure.

Posted By Moira Finnie : August 18, 2014 6:40 pm

Susan, I caught this movie very early on the day it aired on TCM (I don’t recommend it as an eye-opener). I enjoyed parts of it, but I must admit that the only actor who seemed to emerge unscathed (in my mind, at least) from “The Happening” (1967) was Anthony Quinn.

I felt that the struggling, talented younger actors were desperately trying to attract the camera’s attention, but that they were hopeless whenever Quinn chose to take center stage. His gravitas, sartorial splendor, and the touch of poignancy he brought to his cathartic extortion from all those he had previously trusted made this mess watchable for me.(I also kept hoping it would get better and more comprehensible, fool that I am).

The sad thing is that I have always liked Parks, Maharis, and Walker, though I find Dunaway a talented if chilling presence most of the time (exceptions: “Hogan’s Goat” and “Chinatown”).

I wonder if the huge financial and critical success of the comedy western, “Cat Ballou” (1965), made by director Elliot Silverstein just before this movie, may have contributed to what some frightened-but-desperate-to-be-thought-hip studio execs apparently believed was innovative and creative chaos on screen in “The Happening?” Silverstein would not be the first or last person whose career went awry due to a studio genuflecting in front of a success and giving someone greater sway than may have been good for them.

In any case, I enjoyed your piece on this film–and, as someone who has lost far too many files in computer meltdowns–you have my deepest sympathy for your loss.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 18, 2014 7:03 pm

Moira: I noticed the same thing regarding Quinn and the younger actors. I was disappointed in Parks, who I have always liked ever since a childhood crush. But, this movie is just a misfire from the word “go.”

Posted By James : August 18, 2014 8:04 pm

An interesting defense of Skiddo that I read once (and unfortunately, I don’t remember the film critic’s name), is that it was a counter-culture movie from the perspective of older types who don’t get the new generation, but are willing to try.

In other words, Perminger is admitting he’s old and doesn’t really get it, rather than pretending and faking (or exploiting) the counter culture. Interesting perspective. And, yes, Nilsson’s score is terrific. Though I think Milos Forman’s first American film, Taking Off, tells the “old folks trying to understand the 60s kids” story much better.

Posted By Moira Finnie : August 18, 2014 8:25 pm

“I was disappointed in Parks, who I have always liked ever since a childhood crush.” – Susan Doll

Get in line, girl! I think that the horrible dye job in “The Happening” affected Michael Parks’ ability to act. The best things that Quentin Tarantino has ever done is to tap the neglected talents of individual actors such as Parks in his films. Long may he wave.

Posted By Doug : August 18, 2014 9:26 pm

“Let’s go steal the bear from the zoo.” This brought to mind one of John Irving’s first books from the same era, “Setting Free The Bears”.
The kidnapping “Keep him, we don’t want him” is one more iteration of “The Ransom Of Red Chief”-I’m not sure if I’ve seen this movie or only heard of it. Faye Dunaway in that picture with Walker jr is stunning.
I’m with Moira-Michael Parks is an exceptional actor, and the work he’s done with Tarantino and Rodriguez is startlingly good.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 18, 2014 10:33 pm

Doug: That bear references is interesting. It makes more sense to me now.

Posted By CapraFan : August 18, 2014 10:35 pm

The remake should feature Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg kidnapping Humphrey Bogart — “Breathless” meets “The King of Comedy.”

Posted By swac44 : August 18, 2014 10:36 pm

James, that explanation for Skidoo makes as much sense as anything I’ve heard about the film. Still, the image of Carol Channing trying to seduce Frankie Avalon will haunt me to the grave.

It’s too bad Forman’s Taking Off isn’t better known (I had to get my copy from the UK … and it’s a Universal film). As a Buck Henry fan I’m happy to have it.

Posted By Blakeney : August 18, 2014 11:04 pm

“Nothing admirable in their nonconformity” That simple, brilliant phrase sums up how I feel about a great many 60’s films and their not overly veiled affectations. (Not to mention youth culture on the whole.) Silencing my inner curmudgeon now…

Posted By jojo : August 20, 2014 12:54 am

I too watched this while having my morning coffee. Initially, I thought it was going to be the hippie version of “Funny Games.” but unfortunately, it was nothing more than yahatciotc.* So yeah, some wasted potential there…

*yet another Hollywood attempt to cash in on the counter-culture.

Posted By Martha C. : August 22, 2014 1:35 am

I tried watching it this week as well. I have tried and tried over the years, with repeated viewings, to like this film, but I absolutely hate it. The acting, script, casting, etc. All bad. I’m a terrible writer, and wish I could put my dislike (hate) into words more clearly. But I can’t, so I’ll just leave it at that. Don’t like Skidoo (kind of hate) either. :(

Thanks for a great essay! Love your writing! :)

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