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the new hollywood

4.25.98

"They're not subsidizing everything else. They are it. That's all. The person who has something to say in a movie has got to make a picture for $50. They're smothering everything."
- Martin Scorsese refuting George Lucas' claim that big-budget movies enable smaller films to be made

Anyone who cares about movies owes it to him/herself to pick up Peter Biskind's new book EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, an engrossing history of the Golden Age of the '70s -- the New Hollywood born in 1967 (with BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE) and killed off in 1980 (by HEAVEN'S GATE). You don't read this book, you wolf it down like a cheeseburger. Packed with vivid anecdotes and war stories about the making of the decade's great American movies, it's both an invaluable resource and a chilling thesis on what went wrong with movies.

Inevitably, the major characters in this disco-Dickensian tale of two cities (New York and L.A.) emerge as the four horsemen of the '70s apocalypse: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Of the four, only Scorsese today remains an artist of any consistent integrity (despite a rare lapse like CAPE FEAR -- a Spielberg project originally). Spielberg, Lucas, and especially Coppola have been erratic since their glory days, though Spielberg still has to make a few more bad movies before he uses up the good will attached to SCHINDLER'S LIST. Lucas has resigned himself to the lucrative prison of STAR WARS for the rest of his life, while Coppola, in movies like JACK and THE RAINMAKER, has become a studio whore -- sometimes a whore who can turn a good trick (THE RAINMAKER was entertaining), but a whore's a whore.

Some fascinating trivia I never knew: Scorsese was once asked to play Charles Manson in HELTER SKELTER, and Manson himself wanted Dennis Hopper to play him; it's common knowledge that Lucas based Luke Skywalker on himself, but he also based Han Solo on Coppola; Scorsese initially resented having to accept De Niro as the star of TAXI DRIVER because he considered Harvey Keitel his real leading man; and the script for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, credited to Spielberg, was the work of at least five uncredited writers including Paul Schrader (!).

Movie buffs who want to retain an unblemished image of filmmaking titans Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola should leave this book on the shelf. All others will enjoy the portraits of immensely talented but still flawed human beings. These guys all seem like wise elder tribesmen today, but back in the '70s, like everyone else, they were fucked up. Scorsese the neurotic cokehead with a volcanic temper; Spielberg the naïve nerd who wanted so badly to be a wunderkind that he shaved a year off his actual age; Coppola the insecure geek whose sudden fame and fortune eventually inflated his ego to monstrous, Kurtz-like proportions; Lucas the near-autistic wallflower who quickly gave up on art films to make as much money as he could -- they're all here, big as life and twice as ugly. Yet the book never denies their impact on American film.

Several interviewees in the book point to Lucas and STAR WARS as the Death Star that zapped serious American movies. It was actually one of many nails in the coffin, as the book demonstrates. THE GODFATHER was the first movie to open wide instead of going out gradually -- paving the way for today's mentality wherein opening-weekend numbers mean everything. Spielberg's JAWS, two years before STAR WARS, introduced the summer blockbuster as we know it today. And STAR WARS the movie wasn't nearly as destructive as STAR WARS the marketing phenomenon, which taught studios that the best movies are those that can sell toys and be synopsized on four plastic cups from McDonald's.

Yet I wouldn't blame Lucas and Spielberg for where we are now. I wouldn't even blame the studios, which merely react, bacteria-like, to the stimuli of the market. No, I would blame one person: the average American moviegoer. For a brief and shining moment in the '70s, people were willing to come out for different and challenging films. The '90s equivalents of those classics of the '70s would be films like THE ICE STORM, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, or L.A. CONFIDENTIAL -- movies largely ignored by American moviegoers despite critical acclaim. The studios are just giving the people what they want, and what they want is the same old crap, only with CGI, hot new stars, and hip soundtracks.


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