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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

That '70s era: a decade of excess and film success

June 03, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Not long before filming began on "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," the movie's screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, took Bob Dylan to Durango, Mexico, to meet Sam Peckinpah, full of trepidation that the hell-raising director would do something to spook Dylan, who'd not only agreed to co-star in the movie but record a soundtrack album too.

"It was late at night," Wurlitzer recalls in "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," one of two fascinating new documentaries devoted to the glory days of '70s movies. "As we walked up to the house, there was a scream and this maid ran out, terrified, and we heard a gunshot and I thought, 'Oh, man, this is going to blow the whole thing with Bob.' Sam was standing in front of this mirror, completely naked. The mirror was totally blown and he had a bottle in one hand and a gun in the other. And I said, 'Sam, this is Bob Dylan.' "

It seems completely apt that the rival documentary about this period, produced and directed by respected filmmakers Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, is titled "A Decade Under the Influence" -- '70s Hollywood was an oasis of unparalleled excess. As producer Polly Platt puts it: "These guys were doing whatever they wanted. They were drinking, smoking dope and they lost their minds."

But along the way, those guys -- Hollywood in the late '60s and the '70s being very much a man's world -- made a staggering number of terrific movies, including "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather," "Midnight Cowboy," "MASH," "Shampoo," "The French Connection," "The Wild Bunch," "A Clockwork Orange," "Mean Streets," "Badlands" and "The Last Picture Show," to name but a few. The outpouring of celluloid artistry has earned the period between the 1967 release of "Bonnie and Clyde" and the arrival of "Star Wars" 10 years later a reputation as Hollywood's last golden era. Together the documentaries tell about that remarkable period of filmmaking and offer an ironic commentary on the dismal state of Hollywood today.

Of the two documentaries, "Easy Riders," which played at the Cannes Film Festival and will air again on the Trio cable network in August before making its DVD debut later this year, offers more entertainment value. Writer-director Kenneth Bowser has great, rarely seen footage of the young Francis Ford Coppola at work, accompanied by a painfully shy "personal associate" -- the scrawny young George Lucas. He's also got a knack for loosey-goosey interviews. Trying to explain why Dennis Hopper botched the Mardi Gras footage in "Easy Rider," Karen Black, who plays one of the hippie chicks in the movie, gives a classic '60s answer: "Everyone was stoned out of their mind."

Now playing at the Nuart Theater in West L.A. and airing in an extended version in August on the Independent Film Channel, "Decade" is more illuminating, with the respectful tone you'd expect from a graduate school seminar. It gives filmmakers a welcome opportunity to discuss their craft and technique. Billy Friedkin, for example, drew on his experience as a documentary filmmaker shooting "The French Connection," especially when shooting its bravura under-the-elevated-train chase sequence. "Decade" gained access to more key figures, using filmmakers to interview their peers (Alexander Payne did a great interview with Coppola; likewise, Neil LaBute with Paul Mazursky and Michael De Luca with John Calley).

LaGravenese and Demme, who died shortly after the film went into production, also sent out a letter distancing the film from Peter Biskind's acerbic "Easy Riders" bestseller, which provides source material and the title for Bowser's film. Nevertheless, some of the most formidable figures, namely Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, wouldn't talk. LaGravenese spent an afternoon at Beatty's home, listening to him tell Hal Ashby stories, but he could never pin him down for an on-camera interview. Not everyone was a breeze.

"I was so nervous that I didn't sleep the night before I interviewed Robert Altman," LaGravenese recalls. "Before we were on camera, I asked him one question and he immediately said, 'Well, I don't agree with that.' After that, I just threw away all my prepared questions."

Of risk and adversity

As both documentaries point out, by the late 1960s the monolithic studio system was in dire straits, run by aged moguls who had no idea that the country was in the grip of a youth-culture revolution. It's a chapter of film history that's useful to remember. When business is booming, as in today's Franchise Film-dominated Hollywood, studios are loath to take any chances -- why mess with success? It's when things are going bad that people are open to taking risks, figuring as the moguls of the early '70s did, what have we got to lose?

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