Both analysis and expose, Peter Biskind’s lengthy and lurid look at that last great period of American moviemaking, circa 1967-75, is an almost astonishingly schizophrenic book. Editor, is like a serious director who, after a string of flops, is desperate for a hit. No more than a paragraph or two can be devoted to serious appreciation of films without some scandal being dragged in to bolster the book’s commerciality. Certainly it’s the tome of the moment as far as the industry is concerned, the one everyone’s talking about from Malibu to Cannes.
On the one hand, it chronicles the doings of the famed Movie Brat directors more thoroughly than any previous single tome, with the intention of celebrating their adventurous work; on the other, it is obsessed with their bad behavior, drug-taking, sexual escapades, backstabbing and all-around excesses. With all the extracurricular activity and stoned days and nights, it’s a wonder any work got done at all during those years.
Biskind, a respected author and magazine People want to know who comes off worst. William Friedkin, probably, followed closely by Dennis Hopper, Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and, frankly, just about their whole BBS Films’ crowd, who indulged in a kind of boys’ club business, political and sexual arrogance that wouldn’t be possible today.
With only a couple of exceptions, the number of mentions individuals rate in the index is in direct proportion to the amount of drugs they did, and yet, in Biskind’s scurrilous approach, you can’t win: Either you’re exposed as having been dangerously drugged out, like Hopper, Schneider, Rafelson, Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader, Altman, Ashby, Towne, Evans and Nicholson at various periods , or you were too square for words, like Bogdanovich, Lucas and Spielberg.
No matter what, megalomania was the order of the day once success hit, and just about everyone considered himself above conventional morality.
Appropriately, the book resembles a tantalizing drug itself, so chock-full of borderline-libelous tidbits that it’s hard to put down. But it also reveals its mercenary and yellow-journalist instincts in its blatant avoidance of major figures who made contributions to film of equal importance to those mentioned here, but who were evidently not sensational enough in their private lives to warrant attention.
Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack and Clint Eastwood scarcely exist, and Michael Ritchie, whose “Downhill Racer,” “The Candidate” and “Smile” rate among the top achievements of the New Hollywood under discussion, isn’t even named. Book also skips over that central and climactic work of independent-minded American cinema of the mid-’70s, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a product of the counterculture if ever there was one, but apparently not scandalous enough in its production to attract Biskind’s interest.
Biskind has a good handle on the business side of things, rightly charting the turning points represented by the increasingly wide openings of “The Godfather,” “Jaws” and “Star Wars” in the destruction of the personal, auteur cinema that flourished for a short while. There are also good glimpses of some of the key young executives of the period who were inclined to work with the young turks who held such promise.
Of all the figures who feature prominently in Biskind’s X-rated melodrama, only Warren Beatty comes off virtually unscathed, a tribute to his refusal of drugs, his avoidance of marriage during that period (which prevented him from betraying a wife, as virtually every other man in the book does), and his unsurpassed skills of persuasion and manipulation. The majority of the personalities here, along with the ideals and mores of the ’60s, crashed and burned; it’s interesting to see who survived, and ponder why.