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COVER STORY

Man, What a Trip That Was

In 1969, a brave new world began for Hollywood's young filmmakers. It didn't last long.

August 15, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

In 1969, the tie-dye year that gave us Woodstock, the inauguration of Richard Nixon, the Manson murders, the Miracle Mets, the walk on the moon, the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial, Chappaquiddick, Altamont and "Abbey Road," Hollywood finally discovered the youth culture. Taking their cue from rock 'n' roll, the movies were suddenly awash in sex, dope and cheap thrills.

In the period from April to December, a string of groundbreaking films opened in Los Angeles, including "Easy Rider," "Midnight Cowboy," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Wild Bunch," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Medium Cool," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "If . . . ," "Take the Money and Run" and "Goodbye Columbus."

A spirit of rebellion reigned as the crumbling studio system gave way to a maverick generation, full of lofty ideals and a mad passion to topple the old order--Hollywood's version of the street protests against the Vietnam War. The movie business was in dire need of a face lift. Film lots looked like decaying junkyards. Ticket sales had reached all-time lows. Each week in Variety, there were headlines like: "Showbiz Stocks Skid."

By summer's end though, it became evident that a seismic generational shift was sweeping through the business. "Kids were kings. After 'Easy Rider,' everything was exploding everywhere," recalls Sony Pictures Chairman John Calley, who was producing "Catch-22" in 1969. "We were all young, it was our time, and it was very exciting. The founders were no longer in charge: Jack Warner had sold Warner Bros., Disney was moribund, MGM was being bought and sold, Fox suffered from years of turbulence. What had been this rigid, immobile structure had completely come apart, and what was left was a lot of freedom."

A host of young unknowns became stars overnight: Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda; Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould; Robert Redford and Jon Voight and Ali MacGraw. But the film that really shook the system was "Easy Rider," which cost $360,000 and broke house records everywhere. Directed by Dennis Hopper, who'd been in so many scrapes at studios that he was virtually unemployable, the film went on to bring in $20 million, a king's ransom compared to the losses studios suffered on such big-budget fiascoes as "Dr. Dolittle" and "Krakatoa, East of Java."

Made by Raybert Productions, a maverick company headed by Bert Schneider--whose partner, Bob Rafelson, went on to direct "Five Easy Pieces" for the company--"Easy Rider" inspired the aged studio chiefs to rush out a host of low-budget counterculture imitations, most of which never made a dime. But its success also opened the doors for a scruffy new generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, George Lucas, John Milius, Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg, whose early films brought a burst of new energy and vitality to Hollywood.

The Young Turks did not venerate their elders. When Hopper was seated next to esteemed director George Cukor at a swank Beverly Hills dinner party, he poked a finger in Cukor's chest and snarled, "We're gonna bury you. You're finished."

"There was no middle ground, there was this huge consciousness gap between the studios and the young filmmakers," recalls director Henry Jaglom, who helped Hopper and Nicholson edit "Easy Rider" on the Columbia lot, where Schneider's father, Abe, ran the studio. "When we'd go eat at the executive dining room, it was like the 1950s. Until the movie came out, they thought we were all a bunch of strange weirdos. And then suddenly when it made all this money, the studio guys started wearing Nehru jackets and beads and became very friendly, asking all of us what kind of movies we wanted to make."

The studios quickly got the message. In August, the 39-year-old Calley was installed as president of production at Warner Bros. Richard Zanuck, then 35, was named president of 20th Century Fox. By year's end, Paramount had named 29-year-old Stanley Jaffe, who'd produced "Goodbye Columbus," as its new chief operating officer. Announcing the move, Gulf & Western chief Charles Bluhdorn said, in what has since become a Hollywood mantra: "To me, Mr. Jaffe epitomizes what the motion picture business is all about today, appealing to the youth market."

It all seems so long ago and far away now, a distant time before multiplexes and opening weekend box-office charts, when the cool car was a Corvette Stingray, hot young actors got $50,000 for a movie, and the hip club was called the Daisy, where starlets did the frug in go-go boots. It was 1969, a year of grand illusions and mesmerizing movies. Here, in their own words, are the memories of the people who helped change the face of the movie business and shape the attitudes of a generation.

*

I. 'I Put On Two Pairs of Jockey Shorts'

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