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FESTIVAL OF BOOKS | Hook, Line and Sinker

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. By Peter Biskind . Simon & Schuster: 508 pp., $25

April 19, 1998|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."

Peter Biskind's calm, encyclopedic and compulsively readable dish on Hollywood heroes should be served with cold Cristal--nothing else so isolates the decaying bouquet of Schadenfreude. I am thinking of the legend, repeated here, how when Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" premiered on March 1, 1975, the town went into raptures of pent-up loathing. As the first words of debacle spread, so Billy Wilder (nearly 70 already but clinging to malice as if it were testosterone) reported the sound of Champagne corks popping all over L.A. We should congratulate Wilder on having lived to down this full cup of rue--it may give him another 20 years (time enough for Bogdanovich to polish his impersonation of Wilder's "pained" scorn). Meanwhile, all those who talked to Biskind can be assured that they will see their friends and rivals speared in the side (and other tender places). But read on, dear confiders, for no one is spared here. If you have talked, you have been talked about too--if only by an ex-wife or a bruised personal assistant. It's all Chinatown.

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" works off the familiar assumption that, in the late '60s, Hollywood's confidence and its way of working cracked. Television had taken its audience and its plot lines, and a whole generation of directors was dead or retiring. Through that crack came a horde of easy riders and raging bulls, most of them desperate for their share of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, and all of them driven by that Grail-like notion that it would be awesomely hip to make a movie. Some came out of film school, and most were naked opportunists lit up with that religion called the auteur theory (French for "me! me! me!") as articulated by Cahiers du Cinema, Andrew Sarris and (forgive them, God) every professor in film studies. These guys thought of themselves as artists, though maybe all they did was match the manners of Sammy Glick and Louis B. Mayer while supposing they were Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard.

Still, there was a change in Hollywood, and it was one that many of us welcomed. One does not have to like all the films in this paragraph--or like them in the same way--but the twin blasts of new attitude in 1967, "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," led to the movies produced by the alliance of Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner ("Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Picture Show," "The King of Marvin Gardens"). That notion of giving new kids a shot built from "Duel" to "The Sugarland Express" to "Jaws," from "Boxcar Bertha" to "Mean Streets" to "Taxi Driver," from "THX 1138" to "American Graffiti" to "Star Wars" and from "The Rain People" through both parts of "The Godfather" to "Apocalypse Now." In that heady process, young men became hugely rich, emperors in their recent fantasies and wrecks of their novice selves. But, in the meantime, in "Jaws" and "Star Wars," the business grasped a new identity that it liked and understood. Without quite intending it, the young auteurs had restored the primitive imperative of money.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (the kids least swayed by sex or drugs, according to Biskind) are still powers waiting to be put onstamps (or coins). Some--like Robert Altman and Warren Beatty--have insisted, in defiance of much evidence, that they are not just hanging in midair but doing an elegant soft-shoe on the fine wire. Martin Scorsese, without Oscars or hits, tries to believe he is content with prestige. Then there are those who have fallen. Hal Ashby is dead. Bogdanovich went from romantic disaster to bankruptcy to making films for cable. Biskind has him introducing himself as the man who used to be Bogdanovich. Francis Ford Coppola seems persuaded that something dire and irreversible befell him in the Philippine jungle. Dennis Hopper may be healthier now and saner, but dementia was all that made him interesting. William Friedkin, Bob Rafelson, Michael Cimino and Paul Schrader are all on the margins of employability.

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