I love movies, so as a result it should come as no surprise that I would love a book about the Bacchanalian excess of the 70’s in Hollywood. In fact, the book is so convincing and compelling that it actually yielded that same kind of easy, lucid narrative style that good movies usually succeed in accomplishing. Beginning with a look at the fall of the all-powerful studio system in the late 60’s, and the groundbreaking and critical success of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider,” Biskind primarily examines the producers and directors who managed to redefine Hollywood during the 70’s.
When Warren Beatty managed to convince a studio to allow him to make “Bonnie and Clyde” it took a critic to rescue the film from obscurity. Pauline Kael, who would arguably become one of the most influential film critics there will ever be, was also, in some ways, the savior of Hollywood. Her endorsement was often the straw that kept a movie in theaters and her love of non-traditional subjects and themes allowed creative luminaries to make films that didn’t necessarily need to reach a massive audience. And so, we are told, the film industry was reinvented.
Written with a casual sense of excitement and urgency, Biskind is able to present an incredibly detailed level of dirt on the lifestyles, sexual mores, and internal politicking of the New Hollywood without sounding like the People magazine. This is a book for those interested in landmark movies and their creators with whom life often tended to imitate their art. The hippie inspired 60’s drug craze, inevitably lead to a blizzard of cocaine throughout the 70’s but not before creating the stage for some of the finest movies that we are likely to ever see.
But what makes this book as successful as it is the examination of such an interesting group of key players: studio execs like Frank Yablons, Charlie Bludhorn and Robert Evans at Paramount, directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucus, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, and Hall Ashby, writers like Robert Towne and Paul Schrader, and actors like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and a host of others.
In the end it was the same old story “much too much, much too young.” Youthful success lead to youthful excess. While of the most important players crashed and burned, never to return to the limelight again, there were only a handful who really survived in the business. Scorsesee, Altman, bounced back in the 90s. Lucus seems less important as he was the first times around. Coppola hasn’t made a great film in many years, but is still active. Bob Rafelson, Billy Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovitch are merely blips on a screen.
The studio system and the domineering personalities are still around but the balance of power has shifted a bit. Drugs are much less vogue, clean living and healthy career building have endured. Biskind makes it abundantly clear that all the rule breaking and youthful success both made and destroyed most of the people within a short period of time. This is an incredibly fascinating piece of comfort reading, and a necessary bible for film fans.