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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."

Some of Baxter's generalizations are so dubious as to be comical. He writes, "Speaking in public terrified almost all New Hollywood directors. . . ." What? There are dozens of New Hollywood directors, and one would be hard pressed to imagine why they would be any more frightened of public speaking than any other group of people--accountants, ambulance drivers or astronomers. Other from-Mars statements include Baxter's assertion that in 1969, the year of Woodstock, "America was moving toward a more sensual, self-gratifying society, where sex and drugs were more important than rock and roll." Like the rock 'n' roll culture frowned on sex, drugs and self-gratification? Or, "The physical act of writing literally pained many in New Hollywood." Everybody knows writing can be painful, and may have been so to Lucas, but many New Hollywood directors, like Coppola, Milius and Schrader, were prolific writers, and the remarkable thing is that they wrote at all--writing was the easiest way to break in--when in the past few directors did so.

Baxter's loosey-goosey scholarship raises more questions than it answers. We learn that many people are "banned from the ranch" for one infraction or another, so much so that one effects company adopted the phrase as its name. But God forbid Baxter would lend some credence to this story by telling us who, when or why or foot-noting it. By refusing to observe the writers' convention that dictates that quotes derived from author's interviews be identified by the present tense in the text ("he says," "she says") to distinguish them from quotes derived from secondary sources ("he said," "she said"), Baxter gives the impression that he has interviewed many of the principals, including Lucas himself, Coppola, Scorsese, Dykstra and assorted intimates, when it seems clear from the notes that he did not. In one instance, a Dykstra quote is introduced by "he says" to suggest it was from an author interview, but the notes attribute it (and others like it) to "various Web sites, with additional information from Bill Warren," who was interviewed. Does this mean Dykstra was quoted on Web sites? Paraphrased? Channeled? And if so, by whom? A reliable source? In this kind of citational slush, the first casualty is the author's credibility. Sometimes Baxter doesn't even bother to cite his sources, blithely passing off quotes from Lucas' friends, obtained by other researchers (myself, for example) as his own.

Such particulars aside, the problem that faces any biographer of Lucas is that there is a radical disconnect between the cause and the effect, the person and the works, the insular, opaque filmmaker who would prefer to eat hamburgers, stay home in the evening and turn in early and the seismic changes that have somehow issued from his obsessions. Baxter never even begins to address this issue, so that at the end of "Mythmaker" we are left where we began, with an enigma: Who, after all, is George Lucas?

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Exasperating as Baxter's book is, Michael Schumacher's is a real disappointment. A dead giveaway is the author's effusive expression of gratitude to the director in the very first sentence of the acknowledgments ("I wish to thank Francis Ford Coppola for his assistance in the preparation of this book") followed by the alarming admission that the author submitted his manuscript to the subject for review while still maintaining that "this is not an authorized biography in the traditional sense." Whatever it is, Coppola must have liked what he saw because he granted Schumacher numerous interviews, while opening doors to members of his family like his brother August, who has rarely been interviewed. Since Schumacher then incorporated this new material, in effect rewriting his book or parts of it, his disclaimer can only seem disingenuous.

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