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Self-destruction as artform: the way we were?

MEMO TO: Peter Biskind

FROM: Peter Bart

NO BOOK IN RECENT TIMES has attracted more attention in Hollywood than “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter, and you should be immensely pleased by that response. Talking to those who’ve plowed through the book, however, I find readers to be polarized along generational lines. Readers under 35 ask, “Is that really the way it was?” Those over 35 tend to reflect, “That’s not really the way it was.”

The key reason why your book is being read with such fascination, Peter, relates to the central question you posed: Why did the brilliant young filmmakers who burst on the scene in the late ’60s and ’70s self-destruct seemingly at the height of their power? As the jacket of your book baldly states it, “The sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.” True. But having saved it, why couldn’t they save themselves?

The filmmakers in question are such as Peter Bogdanovich, Billy Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper, Roman Polanski and Francis Coppola. All soared to amazing heights in terms of both achievement and ego — we’re talking here about “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver,” “Coming Home,” “Nashville” and, of course, “Easy Rider” and “Raging Bull.”

By and large, however, by the time the filmmakers of that generation reached their 40s, their best work was behind them. Some died young, a few went into exile, and others kept on working, not as trendsetters, but as run-of-the-mill commercial directors.

There were exceptions to the rule, to be sure — the two most remarkable being Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Neither was caught up in the drugs and rock ‘n’ roll subculture of the ’70s. While their confreres were anguishing over radical approaches to the cinema, Spielberg and Lucas stumbled onto a radical idea of their own. In “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” they laid the groundwork for the “blockbuster” mentality of the ’80s and ’90s.

But as your book vividly reminds us, Peter, most of the trailblazers of that era seemed to stumble as soon as they learned to walk. You discuss their problems in exhaustive detail: the betrayals, the debaucheries. Indeed, you lay it on thick.

OK, so Bert Schneider, producer of “Easy Rider,” carried “radical chic” so far that when a friend died and her body was cremated, he held a wake for her at which bereaved guests snorted the ashes like they were snorting coke.

OK, so just before the ’70 Oscars, Dennis Hopper was so full of himself that when he ran into old-school director George Cukor at a dinner party, he poked a finger into the old man’s chest and roared, “We’re going to bury you. We’re gonna take over. You’re finished.”

OK, SO LUCAS AND COPPOLA were so cheap, they quarreled bitterly over the distribution of profits on “American Graffiti.” “Francis was questioning my honesty,” Lucas complained.

One thing you never seem to run out of is ugly incidents, Peter. Every time a filmmaker of that era turned his movie over to a studio, the response was instant hostility. Colleagues even disparaged one another’s work. All of Lucas’ alleged friends told him his cut of “Star Wars” was appalling. And when Coppola showed “The Conversation” to his partners in the Directors Co. (a company set up to support one another’s work), Friedkin said, “It was like watching paint dry.”

And here’s where I think you missed the boat, Peter. Of course, there was a lot of meanness and back-biting in that era, just as there is today. But the one element of that period you almost completely miss is the pervasive sense of excitement — yes, of joy. It was almost impossible to go to the movies, or to put on some music, without being all but overwhelmed by new ideas and new sounds. The entertainment business of old had died; what replaced it was downright thrilling. And for the people caught up in creating it, life was a nonstop, ecstatic party.

Sure, Vietnam cast a pall over our political life. As a result of the Pill, recreational sex was playing havoc with Eisenhower-era family values. Drug use was flagrant and often self-destructive.

BUT EVEN THE DRUG CULTURE, as it existed in the ’60s, is widely misunderstood today, Peter, and your book doesn’t help. Curiously, drugs contributed to the optimism of the period. Writers, painters, filmmakers and musicians believed that, by smoking dope or dropping acid, they could actually surpass the boundaries of their talent.

Sometimes the results were both ludicrous and punitive, but arguably the outpouring of revolutionary music and art stemmed at least in part from the optimism and even self-delusion generated by drugs.

Of course, in the end, the whole epoch collapsed upon itself in a haze of greed and egomania, and this you vividly portray, Peter. In film, as you remind us, the iconoclastic antiheroes of the ’70s were reborn as Sly and Arnold, the steroidal superheroes of Reagan America. “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Harold and Maude” were succeeded by tentpole movies with their asteroids and volcanoes. Hollywood went corporate.

That’s when the fun stopped, Peter. Your book forgets to say that.

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