The director was king 30 years ago

That was then, this is now

TIP SHEET
What: 59th annual DGA Awards
When: Saturday
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles
Host: Carl Reiner
Presenters: Steve Carell, Leonardo DiCaprio, Steve Martin, Steven Spielberg, Antonio Villaraigosa, more

* * *

If one could magically turn the clock back 30 years, the movie landscape might appear quite alien to today’s young showbiz Turk: foreign-language fare was thriving; the major studios had become the playpen of visionary filmmakers; so-called independent movies were associated more with grindhouse than arthouse; Clint Eastwood was still playing Dirty Harry Callahan; and Variety was reviewing porn.

It was also the year that Elia Kazan’s swan-song release, the ill-conceived “Last Tycoon,” might have finally closed the door on one era as the New Hollywood was blossoming full flower.

And yet in 1976, the Directors Guild of America’s nominations signaled that the new guard and the old guard, the populist pic and the arthouse pic, and the fact-based political drama and the pointed social satire could all sit side by side at the head table.

This diversity was no more evident than in the contrast between two DGA-nominated Gotham filmmakers: the then-35-year-old Martin Scorsese, at the forefront of the emerging film-school generation, and 53-year-old Sidney Lumet, from whose gritty depictions of New York Scorsese had surely torn a page.

That year, Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” about a disillusioned Vietnam vet and would-be political assassin, created a template — operatic visuals, stylized violence and a method actor’s intensity — that a whole host of Sundance kids would later try to emulate.

Lumet, for his part, was peaking with “Network,” about blurring the lines between sensationalism and news by ratings-mad TV executives. The film’s brilliantly scabrous screenplay was written by Paddy Chayevsky, who, like Lumet, hailed from the golden age of television and the kind of highly literate drama that was going out of vogue.

One film seemed to be all attitude, the other all ideas.

This year, a similar contrast is at play, only Scorsese — with DGA and Academy nominations for “The Departed — is the eminence gris who’s sharing the table with relative neophytes: Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), among others.

Little did Scorsese know that when he was being heralded for “Taxi Driver,” he, like Lumet had prior, would be frequently invited back to the party in ensuing years, but would always leave empty-handed.

The difference between then and now is that the cult of the director in 1976 was at its zenith, and the notion of an “independent film” wouldn’t take hold until the end of the decade. Most of the DGA-nominated films represented in the directors slot were primarily financed by major studios: “Network” was MGM/UA, “Rocky” was UA, “All the President’s Men” was Warner Bros., and “Taxi Driver” was Columbia Pictures.

Irwin Winkler, who produced “Rocky” with partner Robert Chartoff, says all these films, with the exception of “All the President’s Men” (“because it had two big stars”) would be considered independent films today, if not in terms of financing, then in tone and content. “They were much more cutting edge,” says Winkler, compared with today’s studio environment where the focus is on “making big tentpole movies or big star movies.”

Adds film scholar and author David Thomson: “If a kid came now with ‘Taxi Driver,’ I wonder whether he would get it made. It would obviously have to be an independent film, and it might be that he’d now have to make it much more violent and cut out the politics.

“People always say of the films of that era that they couldn’t get made today,” Thomson adds. “I’m not sure it’s true, because so often what gets made depends on the determination of the people who want to get it made. And this was a very determined generation.”

Part of that determination now requires that filmmakers frequently strike out on their own, without studio affiliations or distribution deals in place, as was the case with “Little Miss Sunshine,” acquired at last year’s Sundance for a record $10.5 million by Fox Searchlight. Two of the film’s producers, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, took a chance on a couple of first-time filmmakers, Dayton and Faris, based on their track record as commercial and musicvideo directors.

“I thought they’d be perfect,” Berger recalls. “They’re adults, for one thing. They’ve got kids and understand family; and have such a humanism and loveliness about them that (they) seemed to match up very well with the tone of that script.”

The film was financed through Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf’s Big Beach Films., which co-produced with Berger and Yerxa’s Bona Fide Prods.

But in the ’70s, independently financed studio acquisitions were rare, Winkler notes, and the notion of “specialty divisions” was unheard of. “Rocky,” he says, was completely bankrolled by United Artists, at a cost of $1 million. And in the era of the auteur, he and Chartoff hired journeyman director John Avildsen for completely practical reasons. “He wasn’t a big star director,” Winkler recalls, “and he was willing to work on a very fast-paced, 21-day shooting schedule — not with a big salary because it was a very risky little film.”

As it turned out, Avildsen would defy the critics by taking the DGA’s top honor and winning the Oscar in the bargain — delivering a late-round knockout to surely one of the more rich assemblages of talent in the annals of Hollywood.

But much has changed since 1976, when the director was king, and, as “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” author Peter Biskind put it, “the lunatics were running the asylum.”

The irony of Scorsese having his best shot at a DGA award and/or an Oscar for a picture on which he was essentially a director for hire, versus the highly personal vision of a “Taxi Driver,” is not lost on many.

“In lots of interesting ways, the system, however you want to explain it, has come back into power,” Thomson says. “We get an awful lot of pictures that I would say are really made by ‘the business’; they’re business propositions, or they’re made by the technology.

“A lot of the ‘name’ directors like Oliver Stone have been sort of discredited by time and their record and their personal antics,” he adds. “After all, people of (the ’70s) like (Peter) Bogdanovich and (Bob) Rafelson and (‘Taxi Driver’ screenwriter Paul) Schrader have a hard time getting a film made and haven’t had a hit for a very long time. … And I think the whole story is about how resilient the business has been and how they’ve been able to subvert a lot of these auteurs, or drive them out of business.”

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