Stylishly directed by the singular Richard Rush, a filmmaker who is equal parts entertainer and provocateur, the campus-unrest dramedy Getting Straight has taken a lot of flack over the years for being too glib and polished. After all, the movie engages such inflammatory topics as drugs, sexual liberation, and student protests against the Vietnam war. Yet even though film historians are unlikely to classify Getting Straight as one of the essential counterculture movies, Rush does a great job of capturing a moment from a romantic viewpoint. Specifically, he makes with-it college students seem cool and sexy by showcasing charismatic stars, flashy camerawork, rebellious attitudes, and sharp dialogue—even if, in order to propel his story, he also exposes the ways in which these characters can be hypocritical, ridiculous, and self-important.
The brisk narrative concerns Harry Bailey (Elliot Gould), a graduate student/Vietnam vet who’s pushing 30 and feels as if he’s outgrown campus activism. Determined to finish his master’s so he can begin a teaching career, Harry tries to steer clear of political demonstrations that are erupting around his campus. Alas, Harry’s beautiful girlfriend, Jan (Candice Bergen), is deeply involved in activism, so she’s part of the very chaos Harry wishes to avoid. The purpose of this storytelling gimmick, of course, is to make Harry choose between apathy and involvement—while also forcing Jan to examine whether she’s committed to political causes for meaningful reasons or simply because flipping off the Establishment is fashionable.
Working from a script credited to Ken Kolb and Robert Kaufman—but likely co-written by Rush himself—Rush does a bang-up job on Getting Straight, his first studio feature after cutting his teeth on a series of wild biker- and drug-themed exploitation pictures. Rush and cinematographer László Kovács use a fluid camera style combining long lenses, probing movements, and sneaky zooms to create a sense of tension and vitality; one feels as if the very world is being torn asunder by campus conflict. Even the casting feeds into the central theme of generational clashes spinning out of control. With his bushy hair and walrus moustache, Gould bridges youth and maturity, his bitchy line deliveries underlining his character’s constant exasperation. Bergen, conversely, provides a complicated and glamorous vision of entitlement meshed with idealism. (That being said, the movie’s portrayal of women can be a little dodgy, with Jan sometimes coming off as a needy narcissist with bourgeois sensibilities.) Meanwhile, supporting characters played by Jeff Corey and Harrison Ford represent, respectively, conservatism and the apolitical stance.
Inevitably, the picture climaxes with a full-on riot—after all their debating, joking, and speechifying, the characters in Getting Straight must face the test of civil disobedience with real consequences. And while it’s true that Getting Straight may ultimately be little more than a lavishly produced snapshot of a fraught era, Rush and his team deserve credit for exploring a trend when it was still central to the national conversation.
Getting Straight: GROOVY