Introduction: Knockin' on Heaven's Door
"Some friends of mine were saying the '70s was the last Golden Age. I said, 'How can you say that?' They replied, 'Well, you had all these great directors making picture after picture. You had Altman, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas....'"
February 9, 1971, 6:01 in the morning. A scattering of cars, headlights glowing fuzzily in the predawn gloom, had just begun to navigate the freeways as the first commuters sleepily sipped coffee out of Styrofoam cups and listened to the early morning news. A high of 71 degrees was expected. The Manson trial, now in the penalty phase, was still titillating the city of Los Angeles. Suddenly, the ground started to shake violently, not like the rolling, almost soothing motion of previous earthquakes. This was an abrupt heaving and falling that was terrifying in its intensity and duration, threatening to go on forever. For many, the 6.5 quake felt like the Big One. Manson's girls would claim later that Charlie himself had brought it down on the sinners tormenting him.
Over in Burbank, Martin Scorsese was jolted out of bed. He had just gotten a big break, an editing job at Warner Bros., and had arrived from New York a few weeks earlier. Marty was staying at the Toluca Motel, across the street from the lot. Dreaming of rare books when he heard a rumble, he imagined he was in the subway. "I jumped out of bed, looked out the window," he recalls. "Everything was shaking. Lightning was slashing across the sky it was the electric wires from the telephone poles, falling down. It was terrifying. I thought, I gotta get outta here. By the time I pulled on my cowboy boots, got my money and the key to the motel room, and made it to the door, it was over. I went to the Copper Penny, and while I was having coffee, there was a big aftershock. I got up to run, and a guy looked at me and said, 'Where are you going to go?' I said, 'You're right. I'm stuck.'"
For Scorsese, there was nowhere to run. He had followed his dream to Hollywood, and if it was going to be a bumpier ride than he had imagined, he either had to stick it out or go back to New York, make industrials, live in the old neighborhood and eat cannoli, always knowing that he hadn't had the stomach for what it took to make it in the movies.
Before the dust settled, sixty-five souls had perished in the quake. None of the people who populate this book was among them. Their injuries would be self-inflicted.
For our purposes, the earthquake of 1971 was supererogatory, unnecessary, gilding the lily, as Hollywood has always been wont to do. The real earthquake, the cultural convulsion that upended the film industry, began a decade earlier, when the tectonic plates beneath the back lots began to shift, shattering the verities of the Cold War the universal fear of the Soviet Union, the paranoia of the Red Scare, the menace of the bomb freeing a new generation of filmmakers frozen in the ice of '50s conformity. Then came, pell-mell, a series of premonitory shocks the civil rights movement, the Beatles, the pill, Vietnam, and drugs that combined to shake the studios badly, and send the demographic wave that was the baby boom crashing down about them.
Because movies are expensive and time-consuming to make, Hollywood is always the last to know, the slowest to respond, and in those years it was at least half a decade behind the other popular arts. So it was some time before the acrid odor of cannabis and tear gas wafted over the pools of Beverly Hills and the sounds of shouting reached the studio gates. But when flower power finally hit in the late '60s, it hit hard. As America burned, Hells Angels gunned their bikes down Sunset Boulevard, while girls danced topless in the street to the music of the Doors booming from the clubs that lined the Strip. "It was like the ground was in flames and tulips were coming up at the same time," recalls Peter Guber, then a trainee at Columbia and later head of Sony Pictures Entertainment. It was one long party. Everything old was bad, everything new was good. Nothing was sacred; everything was up for grabs. It was, in fact, a cultural revolution, American style.
By the late '60s and early '70s, if you were young, ambitious, and talented, there was no better place on earth to be than Hollywood. The buzz around movies attracted the best and the brightest of the boomers to the film schools. Everybody wanted to get in on the act. Norman Mailer wanted to make movies more than he wanted to write novels; Andy Warhol wanted to make movies more than he wanted to reproduce Campbell's soup cans. Rock stars like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and the Beatles couldn't wait to get in front of and, in Dylan's case, behind the camera. As Steven Spielberg puts it, "The '70s was the first time that a kind of age restriction was lifted, and young people were allowed to come rushing in with all of their naïveté and their wisdom and all of the privileges of youth. It was just an avalanche of brave new ideas, which is why the '70s was such a watershed."
In 1967, two movies, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, sent tremors through the industry. Others followed in quick succession: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary's Baby in 1968, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider in 1969, M*A*S*H and Five Easy Pieces in 1970, The French Connection, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971, and The Godfather in 1972. Before anyone realized it, there was a movement instantly dubbed the New Hollywood in the press led by a new generation of directors. This was to be a directors' decade if ever there was one. Directors as a group enjoyed more power, prestige, and wealth than they ever had before. The great directors of the studio era, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, regarded themselves as nothing more than hired help (over-) paid to manufacture entertainment, storytellers who shunned self-conscious style lest it interfere with the business at hand. New Hollywood directors, on the other hand, were unembarrassed in many cases rightly so to assume the mantle of the artist, nor did they shrink from developing personal styles that distinguished their work from that of other directors.
The first wave, comprised of white men born in the mid-to late '30s (occasionally earlier), included Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty, Stanley Kubrick, Dennis Hopper, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, Robert Benton, Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes, Alan Pakula, Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Richard Lester. The second wave was made up of the early boomers, born during and (mostly) after World War II, the film school generation, the so-called movie brats. This group included Scorsese, Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma, and Terrence Malick.
When all was said and done, these directors created a body of work that included, in addition to the titles mentioned above, The Last Detail; Nashville; Faces; Shampoo; A Clockwork Orange; Reds; Paper Moon; The Exorcist; The Godfather, Part II; Mean Streets; Badlands; The Conversation; Taxi Driver; Raging Bull; Apocalypse Now; Jaws; Cabaret; Klute; Carnal Knowledge; American Graffiti; Days of Heaven; Blue Collar; All That Jazz; Annie Hall; Manhattan; Carrie; All the President's Men; Coming Home; and Star Wars. So rich was the soil of this decade that it even produced a compelling body of secondary work, then regarded as aesthetically or commercially wanting, that nevertheless has considerable merit, including Scarecrow; Payday; Night Moves; The King of Marvin Gardens; Next Stop, Greenwich Village; Straight Time; Diary of a Mad Housewife; Silent Running; Bad Company; Tracks; Performance; The Wind and the Lion; and many of the films of Cassavetes. The revolution also facilitated ready access to Hollywood and/or studio distribution for Brits like John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), John Boorman (Deliverance), Ken Russell (Women in Love), and Nicholas Roeg (Don't Look Now). And Europeans like Milos Forman, who made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Roman Polanski, who made Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown; Bernardo Bertolucci, who made Last Tango in Paris and 1900; Louis Malle, who made Pretty Baby and Atlantic City; and Sergio Leone, who made The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. As well as veterans like Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and John Huston, who suddenly found the freedom to do some of their best work, pictures like Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Man Who Would Be King, and Fat City. It brought out the best in journeyman directors like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, who respectively made They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon; and allowed an actor such as Clint Eastwood to develop a body of work as a director.
The new power of directors was legitimized by its own ideology, "auteurism." The auteur theory was an invention of French critics who maintained that directors are to movies what poets are to poems. The leading American proponent of the auteur theory, was Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice, and used this pulpit to promote the then novel idea that the director is the sole author of his work, regardless of whatever contribution the writers, producers, or actors may make. He ranked directors in hierarchies, which had an instant appeal for the passionate young cineastes who now knew that John Ford was better than William Wyler, and why. Recalls Benton, "Reading Sarris was like listening to Radio Free Europe."
The young directors employed a new group of actors Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Harvey Keitel, and Elliott Gould who banished the vanilla features of the Tabs and the Troys, and instead brought to the screen a gritty new realism and ethnicity. And the women Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Dyan Cannon, Diane Keaton were a far cry from the pert, snub-nosed Doris Days of the '50s. Most of these new faces were schooled in the Method by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, or trained by the other celebrated New York teachers: Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, or Uta Hagen. In fact, a lot of the energy that animated the New Hollywood came from New York; the '70s was the decade when New York swallowed Hollywood, when Hollywood was Gothamized.
By this time it has become a cliché to insist that this was, by any measure, a remarkable era, the likes of which we will very probably never see again. Every age gone by is lit up by a retrospective glow of nostalgia, and the specialness of the '70s was by no means evident at the time. As Scorsese puts it, "We were just guys who wanted to make movies, and we knew we could be cut down any second by these people at the studios." Certainly this period had its share of schlock. But Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno to one side, the '70s was truly a golden age, "the last great time," in the words of Peter Bart, who was vice president of production at Paramount until mid-decade, "for pictures that expanded the idea of what could be done with movies." It was the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work as opposed to the errant masterpiece work that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily. These were often films without heroes, without romance, without in the lexicon of sports, which has colonized Hollywood anyone to "root for." In a culture inured even to the shock of the new, in which today's news is tomorrow's history to be forgotten entirely or recycled in some unimaginably debased form, '70s movies retain their power to unsettle; time has not dulled their edge, and they are as provocative now as they were the day they were released. Just think of Regan stabbing her crotch with a crucifix in The Exorcist or Travis Bickle blowing his way through the ending of Taxi Driver, fingertips flying in all directions. The thirteen years between Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and Heaven's Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood, the last time people could be consistently proud of the pictures they made, the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that could sustain it.
And it wasn't only the landmark movies that made the late '60s and '70s unique. This was a time when film culture permeated American life in a way that it never had before and never has since. In the words of Susan Sontag, "It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself." Film was no less than a secular religion.
Finally, the dream of the New Hollywood transcended individual movies. At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art. The filmmakers of the '70s hoped to overthrow the studio system, or at least render it irrelevant, by democratizing filmmaking, putting it into the hands of anyone with talent and determination. The avatars of the movement were "filmmakers," not "directors" or "editors" or "cinematographers"; they tried to break down the hierarchies that traditionally dominated the technical crafts. Indeed '70s people were the original "hyphenates," starting as writers, like Schrader, or editors, like Ashby, or actors, like Beatty, then moving into directing without necessarily giving up their original vocation.
The New Hollywood lasted barely a decade, but in addition to bequeathing a body of landmark films, it has a lot to teach us about the way Hollywood is run now, why today's pictures, with a few happy exceptions, are so unrelievedly awful, why Hollywood is in a perpetual state of crisis and self-loathing.
If this book had been written during the '70s, it would have focused exclusively on directors. It would have been a book about the art of the director, how director Y made X shot with Z lens because he was crafting a homage to Citizen Kane or The Searchers. Many excellent studies and innumerable biographies with exactly this approach already exist. If this book had been written in the '80s, when executives and producers became media darlings, it would have been about the film business. But written in the '90s, it tries to look at both sides of the equation, the business and the art, or more precisely, the businessman and the artist. This is a book about the people who made the movies of the '70s, and who more often than not destroyed themselves in the process. It tries to explain why the New Hollywood happened, and why it ended.
Copyright © 1998 by Peter Biskind