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Soft Focus

The Precocious Careers of George Lucas and Francis Coppola

MYTHMAKER; The Life and Work of George Lucas; By John Baxter; Avon: 450 pp., $27.50

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA; A Filmmaker's Life; By Michael Schumacher; Crown: 524 pp., $30

November 21, 1999|PETER BISKIND | Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

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George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, locked together in life by an accident of propinquity and forever coupled in the constellation of celebrity like Gemini the twins, hold an endless fascination for our culture. In addition to being at the same place at the same time (they met on the Warner Brothers lot in 1967 when Coppola was directing "Finian's Rainbow" and Lucas, freshly graduated from USC, was marking time), each instantly recognized the other as a co-conspirator in the youth counterculture who shared a hatred for the Hollywood establishment and yearned to break free of it. The two were wonderfully complementary--Coppola flamboyant and reckless, Lucas reserved and cautious--and in the years to come, the ups and down of their relationship adumbrated the successes and failures of the so-called New Hollywood, the cinema of auteurs that dominated the '70s. The movies they left behind are landmarks of world cinema, and their aspirations and failures have forever influenced Hollywood filmmaking.

New biographies suggest that publishers too cannot get enough of the '70s auteurs, even as they plummet to the bottom, first Coppola with a string of mediocre movies, then Lucas with the fatuous "Phantom Menace," and most recently Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader.

Still, Lucas and Coppola occupy a secure place in cinema's firmament, and despite the cascade of books about each, there's still a lot new to be said. Aided by the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil culture of Hollywood, they have successfully controlled their press, Lucas by remaining aloof and inaccessible and Coppola by overwhelming writers with his charm and volubility. No one has yet penetrated the rich archives of either director, nor have many of the dozens upon dozens of people who worked on their films, TV productions, radio stations, operas, magazines, mini-studios, special effects companies, not to mention family members, friends and hangers-on, been interviewed.

Still, veteran movie biographer John Baxter (who memorialized Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, among others) has found several deprogrammed ex-Lucas film droids whom he exploits to the hilt in "Mythmaker." First among them is the rarely interviewed Gary Kurtz, who, until they had a falling out during the production of "The Empire Strikes Back," was Lucas' producer and chief factotum. Kurtz is Baxter's best source and dominates the book. (One might suspect that he had an agenda, but it is never acknowledged.) Another source is Charles Lippincott, who was in charge of marketing and merchandising for "Star Wars" and is generally level-headed and on target. And then there is director John Milius, always ready with sword and stone.

Baxter digs up several childhood acquaintances of the director (one hesitates to call them friends) who fill in the gaps in what we know about Lucas' youth in Modesto and gets a lot of mileage out of some of Lucas' less successful USC buddies, although they tell us more than we want to know about his years there. The "Star Wars" chapters, those that deal with Lucas' struggles to conceptualize the film, his relationship with Twentieth Century Fox and the bloody battle to get it in the can, are detailed and vivid. Baxter furnishes a clear account of the breakthroughs engineered by Lucas' special effects shop, Industrial Light and Magic, and sheds some light on the director's feud with effects wizard John Dykstra. If Lucas was flummoxed by Dykstra, the suits at Twentieth Century Fox were out of their depth, and Baxter dramatizes the collision of cultures with many an amusing anecdote. One day when the suits ventured into the Industrial Light and Magic building--to them equivalent to the Death Star--they were appalled to see Dykstra dropping a refrigerator to the floor from a forklift because "everyone kinda wondered how it would sound dropped onto concrete."

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