How ‘Mad Men’ Appropriated the Ethos — and an Icon — of ’70s Cinema

Amidst all of the con-man shenanigans and cancer drama of this week’s Mad Men, there was one tiny, throwaway detail that gave this viewer a surge of delight. As Don lounges in his motel room while awaiting the leisurely repair of his car, chatting with his young doppelganger Andy, he casually sets down the paperback he’s been enjoying and, hey, wouldn’t you know it, it’s The Godfather. The show’s always taken great pains to put the books of the moment in the hands of their characters, and make no mistake, a paperback of Puzo’s bestseller is a snug fit for the mid-1970 timeframe. But from our vantage point, The Godfather is more than a motel paperback — it’s one of the great movies of the 1970s, and its appearance in Don’s hand plays like a subtle acknowledgment of the debt Mad Men has always held to the cinema of the era.

Back in 2013, as the show was amping up for its two-part seventh season, creator/showrunner Matthew Weiner made a particularly splashy hire for his final writer’s room: Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne. Towne is a name synonymous with the so-called “New Hollywood” period of (roughly) 1967-1980: buddy to Warren Beatty, frequent player in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and credited writer of Chinatown, The Last Detail, and The Yakuza. But he was also one of the best-known and most reliable script doctors of the era, brought in to do quick passes and one-off scenes for the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Parallax View, The Missouri Breaks, and — circle of life! — The Godfather. The scene he wrote for the latter film, in which a father nearing the end of his life passes on his personal disappointments and hopes for the future to his son, was echoed in the letter from Betty to Sally in Sunday’s episode.

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"

The period after his ‘70s heyday wasn’t as kind to Towne. Though he made a few underrated gems (Tequila Sunrise, Personal Best), he was famously replaced as director of his passion project Greystoke, his Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes was a disappointment, and he spent much of the ‘90s on Tom Cruise’s payroll, churning out the profitable but impersonal likes of Days of Thunder, The Firm, and the first two Mission Impossibles. The latter was one of only two screenwriting credits for Towne since the turn of the century, so if he was a prestige hire for Weiner, there’s also little doubt he could use the work (and the cachet).

Weiner had done this kind of thing before; Frank Pierson, who penned Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, and The Anderson Tapes (among many others) held the same position as Towne — “consulting producer” — for the third, fourth, and fifth seasons, and even nabbed a writing credit himself (Towne did not). And in a way, bringing such ‘70s legends into the mix just makes sense for Mad Men, a show that gathered enormous cultural capital and a fervent following in spite of the fact that it so often confounded expectations and steadfastly refused to please its audience. With its antihero characters, deliberate pacing, bizarre narrative detours (and, occasionally, dead ends), and general riskiness, Mad Men bucked the conventions of popular television in much the way that the films of the ‘70s whipped back against the dull, calculated safety of the studio boondoggles of the ‘60s.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in "Shampoo"

And the most interesting Towne/Mad Men connection point is Shampoo, the acclaimed 1975 picture that he penned with star Warren Beatty for director Hal Ashby. This scathingly funny comedy/drama was, likewise, set in the late 1960s, concerning a handsome con artist who screws his way into something resembling a discovery of his own, long-neglected soul. Shampoo’s setting differs from Mad Men’s, lounging in sunny California rather than hustling in New York, but it’s surely no coincidence that Towne’s first Mad Men episode was the Cali-obsessed “Time Zones,” and the subsequent half-seasons have pulsed with the promise of that other coast, of the freedom and ease it represents.

But by choosing to set their story in the recent past, in 1968 rather than the 1970s in which the film was made, Towne, Beatty, and Ashby were doing the same thing as much of contemporary cinema, and what Mad Men has followed their lead on: burning the 1960s to the ground. And its conclusion — which finds the man at its center morally whole but unquestionably, bleakly alone — may be the best guess yet as to where the series will land.