How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.
This must be THE book about American movies from the 60s to the 80s.
We are not technically dealing with a “Making Of” book here, but this marvellous piece of work tells more about the making of many important films than some “Making Of” books do. So I take my responsibility by including it in this section, but I do so confidently: If you want to know how most of the key American films of the 70s were made, you visit Peter Biskind’s book. No question.
The intro to EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS. How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood is first class. The social setting is key in this story, so Biskind sets it up quickly.
The context of an era
(…) Then came, pell-mell, a series of premonitory shocks — the civil rights movement, the Beatles, the pill, Vietnam, and drugs — that combined to shake the studios badly, and send the demographic wave that was the baby boom crashing down about them.
Because movies are expensive and time-consuming to make, Hollywood is always the last to know, the slowest to respond, and in those years it was at least half a decade behind the other popular arts. So it was some time before the acrid odor of cannabis and tear gas wafted over the pools of Beverly Hills and the sounds of shouting reached the studio gates.
But when flower power finally hit in the late ’60s, it hit hard. As America burned, Hells Angels gunned their bikes down Sunset Boulevard, while girls danced topless in the street to the music of the Doors booming from the clubs that lined the Strip. “It was like the ground was in flames and tulips were coming up at the same time,” recalls Peter Guber, then a trainee at Columbia and later head of Sony Pictures Entertainment. It was one long party. Everything old was bad, everything new was good. Nothing was sacred; everything was up for grabs. It was, in fact, a cultural revolution, American style.
No Better place than Hollywood
By the late ’60s and early ’70s, if you were young, ambitious, and talented, there was no better place on earth to be than Hollywood. The buzz around movies attracted the best and the brightest of the boomers to the film schools. Everybody wanted to get in on the act. Norman Mailer wanted to make movies more than he wanted to write novels; Andy Warhol wanted to make movies more than he wanted to reproduce Campbell’s soup cans.
Rock stars like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and the Beatles couldn’t wait to get in front of and, in Dylan’s case, behind the camera. As Steven Spielberg puts it, “The ’70s was the first time that a kind of age restriction was lifted, and young people were allowed to come rushing in with all of their naïveté and their wisdom and all of the privileges of youth. It was just an avalanche of brave new ideas, which is why the ’70s was such a watershed.”
The films that shook the industry
In 1967, two movies, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, sent tremors through the industry. Others followed in quick succession: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider in 1969, M*A*S*H and Five Easy Pieces in 1970, The French Connection, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971, and The Godfather in 1972.
Before anyone realized it, there was a movement — instantly dubbed the New Hollywood in the press — led by a new generation of directors. This was to be a directors’ decade if ever there was one. Directors as a group enjoyed more power, prestige, and wealth than they ever had before. The great directors of the studio era, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, regarded themselves as nothing more than hired help (over-) paid to manufacture entertainment, storytellers who shunned self-conscious style lest it interfere with the business at hand. New Hollywood directors, on the other hand, were unembarrassed — in many cases rightly so — to assume the mantle of the artist, nor did they shrink from developing personal styles that distinguished their work from that of other directors.
Two waves of new directors
The first wave,
comprised of white men born in the mid-to-late ’30s (occasionally earlier), included Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty, Stanley Kubrick, Dennis Hopper, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, Robert Benton, Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes, Alan Pakula, Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Richard Lester.
The movie brats
The second wave was made up of the early boomers, born during and (mostly) after World War II, the film school generation, the so-called movie brats. This group included Scorsese, Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma, and Terrence Malick.
The new power of directors was legitimized by its own ideology, “auteurism.” The auteur theory was an invention of French critics who maintained that directors are to movies what poets are to poems. The leading American proponent of the auteur theory, was Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice, and used this pulpit to promote the then novel idea that the director is the sole author of his work, regardless of whatever contribution the writers, producers, or actors may make. He ranked directors in hierarchies, which had an instant appeal for the passionate young cineastes who now knew that John Ford was better than William Wyler, and why. Recalls (Robert) Benton, “Reading Sarris was like listening to Radio Free Europe.”
(…) It was the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work — as opposed to the errant masterpiece — work that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily. These were often films without heroes, without romance, without — in the lexicon of sports, which has colonized Hollywood — anyone to “root for.”
In a culture inured even to the shock of the new, in which today’s news is tomorrow’s history to be forgotten entirely or recycled in some unimaginably debased form, ’70s movies retain their power to unsettle; time has not dulled their edge, and they are as provocative now as they were the day they were released.
Just think of Regan stabbing her crotch with a crucifix in The Exorcist or Travis Bickle blowing his way through the ending of Taxi Driver, fingertips flying in all directions. The thirteen years between Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and Heaven’s Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood, the last time people could be consistently proud of the pictures they made, the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that could sustain it.
In a nutshell
A few favourites
It’s a thick book (more than 400 pages), intense and fascinating. I can not summarise it here, but let me drop a few favourites of mine. The collapse of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer right after the very successful The Exorcist; Lucas’ continuous suffering all through Star Wars (Did u know Lucas was meant to direct Apocalypse Now too?), Scorsese feeling unloved by audiences (He envied the commercial success of Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola). How could an Oscar-nominated guy so obviously blessed with talent be so unhappy professionally?.
Super film people
The more I read about the human side of mega film people, the more they surprise me. Unrelated to this book: The great Bob Fosse -the guy who made Cabaret and All That Jazz, the superstar of musical theatre-, according to a fantastic biography of his simply called Fosse, was a very tormented man by the success of other directors. Did he really need to?
Unrelated to his book: Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, the two gods of Italian cinema, were always trashing each other (there’s an excellent documentary about it, Visconti, Fellini, duel à l’italienne ). Did they need to spend time and effort in that, when both couldn’t be more respected and admired worldwide?
EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS is as much about failure as it is about success, as much about insecurities and jealousies as egos, as much about weaknesses as arrogance, it’s about work and talent as much as it is about coincidence and sheer good or bad luck; it’s a lot about suffering and drugs and sex and the dark side of success.
EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, the documentary.
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