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Hollywood grew up 50 years ago, and it’s been getting younger ever since

Ever since 2002’s “Spider-Man” became the first movie to rake in more than $100 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend, major studios have embraced the superhero blockbuster as a profit-generating business model, spinning out one comic-book adventure after another – sequels, prequels, spinoffs and reboots. A third iteration of the Spidey franchise is slated to launch in 2017.

With this new focus, movies that come with their own line of toys a la “Star Wars” suddenly became the norm. And, while women also enjoy these films, Hollywood moved toward movies primarily targeted at men. That’s because fanboys will always be fanboys, including adults who can’t resist the chance to feel like a kid again while seeing their predominantly male childhood idols brought to life in IMAX 3-D splendor.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, 50 years ago, the film industry was becoming increasingly dedicated to making mainstream movies aimed squarely at grown-ups of both genders who hungered for more sophisticated fare. Thanks to societal and cultural upheavals that would define the ’60s – a sexual revolution driven by the arrival of the birth control pill; the rise of the civil rights and women’s movements; and the post-British Invasion influx of Swinging London’s sounds, styles and sensibility – 1966 can rightfully be declared the year that Hollywood grew up.

A half-century ago, most Tinseltown titans were content to allow the still-nascent rival medium of TV to be the primary domain of such escapist entertainment as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Bewitched” and, yes, “Batman” – which failed to take off as a companion quick-buck feature film that same year. But networks, with their watchdog censors, couldn’t satisfy viewers over the age of consent who wanted to witness life in the unfiltered raw – complete with cursing, nudity, free love and taboo topics like abortion and substance abuse, topics that didn’t exist in family rooms before the arrival of cable. As a child growing up in Buffalo, I recall driving through the downtown theater district and being fascinated by the lurid neon marquees alerting passersby that triple-X movies, along with more serious explorations of mature subject matter, were awaiting inside.

Back then, studios were more willing to promote female movie stars along with their male cohorts. This stands in contrast to today, when the Blake Lively-dominated shark-attack thriller “The Shallows” is considered a “surprise” hit after it took in a solid $16.7 million when it opened, while the Matthew McConaughey-led action drama “Free State of Jones” flopped after taking in only $7.7 million. Meanwhile, studios knew what they were doing in 1966 when they put out four films featuring red-maned firecracker Ann-Margret.

It’s true that there were still lingering vestiges of the staid 1950s a decade later, considering that John Huston’s “The Bible” (which showed Adam and Eve au naturel) and the epic adaptation of James Michener’s best-seller “Hawaii” were the year’s top-grossing films.

But the third most popular movie of that year, which opened in late June, not only featured the decade’s most notorious cinematic couple – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, paired for the first time since 1963’s “Cleopatra” – but also was immersed in sexual innuendo, naughty words, excessive alcohol consumption and adultery.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was based on Edward Albee’s four-character Broadway play propelled by a series of scorching verbal confrontations between two married couples. In one corner, there was George (Burton), a bitter middle-aged university professor, and his combative wife, Martha (Taylor). In the other stood ambitious new faculty member Nick (George Segal) and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis). After a campus party, the already-soused quartet get together in the wee hours at George and Martha’s home. They proceed to consume massive quantities of booze until dawn, while engaging in such games as “humiliate the host,” “hump the hostess” and “get the guests.” All goals are duly achieved.

Instead of being censored, however, the Motion Picture Association of America allowed “Virginia Woolf” to be the first movie to earn a Production Code seal of approval. The film also helped shepherd in the M rating (Suggested for Mature Audiences). That move led newly appointed MPAA chief Jack Valenti to eventually drop the antiquated Hays Code that dated back to the ’30s, which blanched at the very thought of “excessive or lustful kissing.” Instead, the industry switched to a ratings system similar to the one used today, whose purpose was mainly as a parental guide to content. In other words, expression, and not suppression, was the goal.

Rather than condemning director Mike Nichols’ highly grown-up film debut, Oscar voters extolled it. They nominated it for 13 Academy Awards, including best picture. While all four actors were in the running for the honors, it was the two female stars – Taylor and Dennis – who came away with trophies.

“Virginia Woolf” wasn’t the only taboo-breaker that proved popular in 1966. Three British imports also broke down barriers when it came to language, explicit subject matter and nudity. And in each case, a misogynist male gets his comeuppance at the hands of the women he thinks he’s been manipulating.

These days, graphic indie films by foreign filmmakers rarely attract the crowds that the notorious “Blow-Up,” the 10th most popular film of the year, did in 1966 after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Director Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera caught the anything-goes spirit and attitude of the London scene, as well as the dangers of experiencing life a step removed from it, through the peering lens of spoiled-brat fashion photog Thomas (David Hemmings). For him, women are mannequins to serve his needs. He poses them provocatively, straddles their semi-clad bodies, and then tosses them aside when the modeling session is over.

That is, until he runs into the come-hither-ish Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who is desperate to obtain a roll of film that might have captured a murder. Critics praised the film’s modernized Hitchcock-like approach to voyeurism, while audiences eagerly anticipated the scene that featured a pantyless groupie. MGM refused to make cuts, and the film was released without a seal of approval. Nevertheless, it received Oscar nods for its script and for best director.

Morality also took a back seat to wanton behavior in two racy British must-sees that also were set on the streets of London. “Georgy Girl” relied on the considerable charms of breakout star Lynn Redgrave (who would earn an Oscar nomination) as an ungainly 20-something who marries James Mason’s wealthy lecher just so she can adopt party-girl roommate Charlotte Rampling’s unwanted baby. The child was fathered by a footloose Alan Bates, who supplies the film’s nude scenes as he seduces Georgy. This comedy, which owed a debt to The Beatles’ 1964 madcap “A Hard Day’s Night,” also was among the first films to carry an M rating, thanks in part to discussions of Rampling’s multiple abortions.

Meanwhile, Michael Caine scored his own Oscar-nominated star-making role in “Alfie” as a Cockney playboy who tosses away lovers like used tissues. That is, until he gets a dose of reality when a married conquest seeks an abortion – the first time the term was used in a movie – and an older paramour in the form of Shelley Winters rejects him for a younger man. Both titles received a boost from their theme songs, which both scored big on the pop charts.

More traditional romance was also in the air in 1966, as represented by the French import “A Man and a Woman,” about a widow and widower who fall in love while haunted by the past. Anouk Aimee, previously seen in such Federico Fellini efforts as “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2,” was nominated for a best actress Oscar, and the movie itself was named best foreign language film. Thanks in part to its hypnotic theme song, the movie ranked at No. 20 on the U.S. box-office chart.

Prurience aside, these groundbreaking pieces opened the floodgates to Hollywood efforts to break down even more barriers with adult-oriented material the following year, including the ultra-violent “Bonnie and Clyde,” the sleazy “Valley of the Dolls” and Nichols’ cynical second feature, “The Graduate.”

But perhaps no image better summed up what the future held for cinema than the now-iconic poster for the prehistoric thriller “One Million Years B.C.,” a remake of a 1940 release and the final film to open in 1966. The poster showed soon-to-be superstar sex symbol Raquel Welch in a deer-pelt bikini against a backdrop of Ray Harryhausen’s special-effect dinosaurs. Barely anyone noticed that her character had only three lines of dialogue.

Interestingly enough, the same image would also grace a comic-book version of the movie.