Woodstock. McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Klute. Dirty Harry. A Clockwork Orange. What’s Up, Doc? The Candidate. Deliverance. Super Fly. Scarecrow. Enter the Dragon. Mean Streets. Badlands. The Exorcist. Blazing Saddles. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Uptown Saturday Night. Night Moves. Dog Day Afternoon. The Man Who Would Be King. All The President’s Men. The Outlaw Josey Wales. The Late Show. Oh God! The Goodbye Girl. Straight Time. Superman. Going In Style. The Great Santini. That astonishing list of 1970s films — iconic, intelligent, commercial yet daring — is much of the legacy of John Calley, who died Tuesday morning at age 81.
Calley served as head of production at Warner Brothers from 1969 to 1980, during which time the studio released all of the above films, and many more. When he first got the job, according to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Calley drew up a list of twenty or so directors with whom he wanted to be in business.” Calley saw his job, in that auteur-driven period, as someone who empowered directors; consequently, some of the finest filmmakers of the period (Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman, Nichols, Friedkin, Pollack, Pakula, Boorman, Malick, Poitier, Penn, Lumet, Eastwood, Bogdanovich) flocked to Warners to work for him.
Film writers and film fans spend so much time lamenting the incompetence of “the studios” and “the executives” that it is easy to render them into faceless, nameless villains of art. That’s too reductive, not to mention ignorant of a figure like Calley, who oversaw one of Hollywood’s most productive studios during one of the town’s greatest periods, and did so with an eye on both art and commerce. Tributes to the man are flooding film sites today; David Poland sums them up best with this line: “To leave this world beloved is a wonderful thing. To leave this business beloved is a fucking miracle. John Calley was that kind of miracle man.”