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Aging Bulls

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock `n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind, New York: Simon & Schuster, 506 pages, $25.00

At a 1970 Hollywood party, a stoned Dennis Hopper turned to George Cukor–a gentleman of the old, studio school of moviemaking and the director of such classics as Adam's Rib and My Fair Lady–and muttered, "We're going to bury you. We're gonna take over. You're finished."

It was the then-new Hollywood confronting the old. And while many of Hopper's young peers were mortified by his behavior, most of them shared his sentiments. They thought that they–and the edgy, personal films they made–were the wave of the future. But their future has now come and gone. Today, Dennis Hopper appears frequently on TV talk shows, plugging such edgeless extravaganzas as Waterworld. Hopper the talk-show guest wears expensive suits and is apt to speak of the joys of golf and of voting Republican.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is Peter Biskind's examination of the group of young and youngish filmmakers who challenged the studio system in the 1970s, briefly held the world in their hands, and were eventually felled by their own excesses and by the fickle tastes of movie audiences. His tale ends with the re-emergence, more or less, of the studio system these movie mavericks thought they would destroy.

A former editor at Premiere and American Film magazines, Biskind has a keen eye for detail and a gift for storytelling. But while his book spins many interesting tales about the people of the film community, it fails to address the cultural and economic forces that have shaped their industry over the last 35 years. In a previous book, Seeing Is Believing, Biskind laid out an intricate, though decidedly leftist, explanation of the cultural forces that shaped '50s films. This book isn't quite so ambitious. His best explanation for why the quirky films preferred by the 1960s film crowd gave way to big action spectacles is this quote from director William Friedkin, who made such '70s touchstones as The French Connection and The Exorcist: "Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald's got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared."

Biskind starts his tale in the mid-1960s, when the big studios were in the grip of a gerontocracy. Jack Warner, in his 70s, was running Warner Bros. Darryl F. Zanuck, well into his 60s, was head of 20th Century-Fox. At Paramount, founder Adolph Zukor, in his 90s, and long-time aide Barney Balaban, nearing 80, remained powerful forces on the board of directors.

Their sense of the public's taste was waning. Theater attendance was declining, and the studios were losing big money on films like Hawaii, The Bible, and Doctor Doolittle. For every big hit like The Sound of Music, there were many, many failures.

But in 1967, something unexpected happened. Warner Bros. released a small film starring a B-level leading man named Warren Beatty: Bonnie and Clyde. The studio thought little of the movie and gave it little support. Reviews were mixed. But young people sought the film out, attracted both by its then-novel level of violence and its adult treatment of the star-crossed lovers.

It was one of the year's biggest hits. Two years later, an even smaller film, Easy Rider, tapped into the counterculture and became a major hit. "To the Hollywood old guard, the good news was that after nearly a decade of floundering, the movies had finally connected, found a new audience," writes Biskind.

Studios tried to tap into this youth market by hiring young directors and producers and giving them previously unheard-of autonomy in the hope that the new crowd would grind out more Easy Riders. Some studios continued to make old-style family films, but few customers bought tickets. Contrary to the claims of such conservative critics as Michael Medved, Hollywood didn't abandon older filmgoers or families. That audience abandoned Hollywood.

For a time, the new talent delivered. M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces, and The Exorcist, among others, attracted big audiences. But within a few years, most of the golden boys turned to tin. Some, like Hal Ashby, were sidetracked by drugs or other personal problems. Others, including William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich, seemed to lose touch with the audience.

Biskind asserts that this development led the studios to take back the power they had given to filmmakers. The end had come by 1975, according to Biskind. That summer, Paramount released Jaws in hundreds of theaters across the nation, an unheard-of practice. It also unleashed a massive–and expensive–national TV ad campaign, also unprecedented. Jaws went on to earn a then-staggering $129 million. The summer thrill-ride blockbuster was born.

"Jaws changed the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks–the number of theaters would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade–and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the cost of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality," writes Biskind. "As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws."

True, Jaws did revolutionize the way films are released and marketed. But Biskind misses another important point. By 1975, the oldest members of the baby boom were entering their 30s. A new crop of teens was making its presence felt at the box office. And they weren't that interested in films that were downbeat or overtly political. Maybe that's because the world around them seemed downbeat, and politics didn't appear to offer them many solutions.

Biskind follows his characters into the '80s, but his tale essentially ends there. And he misses some important developments. First, while the big studios survived, they did so only by ceding power to outside entities. Yes, the studios still largely decide which films get funded and distributed to theaters. But they have increasingly relied on agents and independent production firms to make movies.

In the so-called Golden Age of the studios in the '30s and '40s, a studio contracted writers, directors, and actors, and assigned them to projects under the tight control of the studio head. Today, someone else is likely to put together a package of talent and bring it to the studio to try to get it funded. Depending on the size of the film and track record of the producer, the studio may have very little creative control over a film.

For a time, the system did seem geared to the big action blockbuster. But in the late 1980s, Miramax came along and showed that smaller films targeted at niche markets could earn a tidy profit. Studios responded by buying or starting their own art-house divisions. Now, there's room at the multiplex for The Full Monty as well as Titanic, for Boogie Nights on the screen next door to Men in Black.

Finally, by focusing on theatrical films, Biskind misses entirely the rise of cable and home video. If one counts made-for-TV movies and films that go straight to video, Hollywood makes more full-length features now than ever before. Granted, few of these films are classics. Sturgeon's Law, which holds that 90 percent of everything is crap, is especially true in Hollywood.

But along with Sturgeon's Law are rules of conduct recognized by Adam Smith. If the big studios have survived, it is because the people running them have been smart enough, over time, to adapt to a rapidly changing market, and to recognize that they can no longer gear their films to a few large audiences. Instead, they must now make a broad array of films for increasingly different and ever-changing tastes. Dennis Hopper did bury George Cukor, just as he promised he would at that long-ago party. Hopper was buried in his turn. Hollywood parties on.

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver (c-oliver@usa.net) writes for Investor's Business Daily.