The Go-Go Years: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind and “High Concept” by Charles Fleming

By Ray Sawhill

Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.

A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …

Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.

Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).

biskind
Peter Biskind

Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”

In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.

The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.

Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).

Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.

Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.

The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)

fleming
Charles Fleming

His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”

Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.

Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.

It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.

A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”

Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.

This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.

The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”

But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”

As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.

Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.

The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.

Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.

For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”

You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.

Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.

Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.

© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

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Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff, and very glad to have left those worlds behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

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