The New York Times
Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex)by Peter Bart
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In 1967, Peter Bart, then a young family man and rising reporter for the New York Times, decided to upend his life and enter into the dizzying world of motion pictures. Infamous Players is the story of Bart's whirlwind journey at Paramount, his role in its triumph and failures, and how a new kind of filmmaking emerged during that time.
When Bart was lured to Paramount by his friend and fellow newcomer, the legendary Robert Evans, the studio languished, its slate riddled with movies that were out of touch with the dynamic sixties. By the time Bart had left Paramount in 1975, the studio had completed a remarkable run with such films as The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Love Story, Chinatown, Paper Moon, and True Grit. But this new golden era at Paramount was also fraught with chaos and company turmoil. Drugs, sex, runaway budgets, management infighting, and even the Mafia started finding their way onto the Paramount backlot, making it surely one of the worst-run studios in the history of the movie industry.
As Peter reflects on the New Hollywood era at Paramount with behind-the-scenes details and insightful analysis, here too are his fascinating recollections of the icons from that era: Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Frank Sinatra among others.
For over five decades, first on the inside as a studio executive, and later as the longtime editor-in-chief of Variety, Peter Bart has viewed Hollywood from an incomparable vantage point. The stories he tells and the lessons we learn from Infamous Players are essential for anyone who loves movies.
The New York Times
Hollywood, the psychedelic years.
Bart recalls his tumultuous tenure as Vice President of Paramount, a once-proud studio struggling to adjust to changing audience tastes in the late sixties and seventies. Bart came to the picture business via an untraditional route—he had previously worked as a reporter for the New York Times—and his rise would be inextricably linked with that of Robert Evans, the famously brash and sybbaritic former apparel executive who had charmed his way into the Hollywood elite after an undistinguished acting career. Together, Bart and Evans, under the supervision of their voluable and impetuous corporate master, Charles Bluhdorn, would make Paramount an exemplar of the "new" Hollywood, championing innovative, era-defining projects including The Godfather, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, and Love Story. It was a bumpy ride, and Bart drolly dishes on bad behavior both behind and in front of the camera, marveling at the ability of great cinema to survive the egos, private agendas, bad behavior, and appalling stupidity that run rampant in the highest echelons of the industry. Bart's behind-the-scenes reminiscences of the productions of such legendary productions is insightful and endlessly diverting for any fan of the period's films, and he limns the personalities and career arcs of such luminaries as Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Francis Ford Coppola with a wealth juicy details and good humor. Infamous Players stands as a sort of cheeky, breezy companion to Peter Biskinds epic Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which documents the same period...but Bart's account is faster, more personal, and more fun.
An irresistibleinsider's account of one of Hollywood's most vital and storied eras.
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Infamous PlayersA Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex)
By Peter Bart
Weinstein BooksCopyright © 2011 Peter Bart
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTaking the Leap
In 1967 at age thirty-five, being of sound mind and body, I accepted a job as an executive of a film studio. At that moment I believed my new position at Paramount Pictures would be a great adventure. If indeed it turned out to be a nightmare rather than an adventure, my tenure at the very least would provide the basis for a first-person account of my trip to the dark side. At the time, I was a staff reporter for the New York Times, so the alternative seemed perfectly practical. A career misstep could at least result in a compelling book. It never occurred to me that the book would finally emerge four decades later.
In fact, the Paramount experience was to last for eight years and prove to be both adventure and nightmare. During my studio odyssey some of the seminal films of the era would emerge from the studio slate—movies that would help define the nation's pop culture.
Yet I learned to accept the perverse fact that, while the films embodied boldness and vision, the studio culture that fostered them represented a mix of greed and corporate nihilism. The filmmakers who shaped The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, Harold and Maude, and Goodbye, Columbus learned to feed off the studio as a black hole of conflict and corruption. The darkness helped bring forth the light.
The movies of the sixties and seventies have been scrupulously and skillfully analyzed by critics, but my aim in this book is to provide some insight into the players and processes of this robust moment of film history. My purpose is neither to sentimentalize this period nor to expose its confusion and venality, but rather to provide a glimpse of the realities that existed behind the tattered corporate curtain.
While Hollywood has always been buffeted by conflicting forces, the studios of this decade were peopled by a bizarre mix of creators and exploiters, some intent on redefining the aesthetic of cinema, others intent solely on personal enrichment.
The machinery of filmmaking had broken down, the dream factories were impoverished, and shrewd operators realized that where there was desperation there was also great opportunity.
Enterprising young filmmakers had also discovered that, where they were once confronted by closed doors, they were now being courted by studio executives. Similarly, financial players, some with criminal ties, found Hollywood to be suddenly open to funding schemes, no matter how esoteric. Indeed, not since the era of the Great Depression had the underworld so successfully infiltrated mainstream Hollywood or exercised such influence on the films being made and the people making them. Ironically, at the very time that The Godfather was portraying how the mob was embracing capitalism, the Mafia was also embracing Hollywood.
And as all this became apparent to me, I found myself wondering, how in hell did I find myself in this battle zone? What had impelled me to wander in?
The answer: a lethal mixture of ambition and curiosity, with a good measure of cultural wanderlust thrown in. Plus, my voyage would not be a lonely one. My friend, Bob Evans, was journeying with me, and we shared the foreboding that the odds might be stacked against us.
At the time I embarked on my Paramount journey I was content with the progress of my reporting career. I had worked my way through reporting stints on the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Sun-Times before scoring my job on the Times, which in my mind represented the zenith of the newspaper business. My metabolism seemed perfectly attuned to the rhythms of newspaper work and to the noise of the newsroom (reporters still yelled "Copy!" in those days as the typewriters hummed).
From the first moment I walked into the Times newsroom, I felt a surge of exhilaration. This was, indeed, my playing field. And I knew instinctively that I could make it work for me.
The Times I joined was a rather genteel, WASPy environment led by men whom I looked on as journalist-statesmen—Turner Catledge, Clifton Daniel, Frank Adams, and Claude Sitton. Daniel, the managing editor, was suave and silver-haired and wore immaculately tailored dark blue suits made for him in London. He addressed me always as "Mr. Bart" and our dialogues were more akin to those of student and headmaster.
For four years my beat on the Times consisted of writing six columns a week that bore the title "Advertising." The assignment appealed to me because I had the freedom to select my own stories, on topics that extended well beyond the normal intrigues of ad agencies.
The media business is exhaustively covered in today's Times, but that was not case in the midsixties, which meant that my column was free to explore the foibles of magazines (the Saturday Evening Post was declining into oblivion), network television (CBS under Jim Aubrey and Mike Dann was dominating the ratings with the help of Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball), and other strands of the pop culture. The ad agencies themselves were undergoing a mini-revolution, with the old school agencies like Ted Bates and BBD & O under assault from imaginative new players like Doyle Dane Bernbach and a rejuvenated Young & Rubicam. This was the moment of the brilliant Volkswagen campaign that shouted "Lemon!" and exhorted buyers to "Think small."
Though a corner of my brain told me that my journalistic aims should focus on Washington or a foreign assignment, I loved both the pace and autonomy of my media beat. I was married, had a young daughter, and had lucked into a small but bright one-bedroom apartment tucked into an elegant town house on East 82nd Street just off Madison Avenue. I was also churning out a steady stream of freelance articles for Harper's, Esquire, and the old Saturday Review—so many pieces, in fact, that Clifton Daniel admonished me that the New York Times Magazine had first call on my services.
Shortly after the reprimand, Daniel summoned me for a further meeting. While the Times liked my work on the column, the editors had decided I was ready for a new beat, he said. The reporters stationed both in Los Angeles and San Francisco were close to retirement age, Daniel said, and the Times felt that there were compelling stories in California that might be probed by a younger journalist.
As we talked, I became aware of the intriguing subtext to his remarks. The traditional attitude of the Times was that New York was the center of the universe both in terms of economic power and pop culture, but now a new "scene" was emerging on the West Coast. The components of that scene, however, remained opaque to the Times.
In short, the Times was worried that it was losing touch with the crosscurrents of midsixties America, both culturally and politically. Our tastes and proclivities were increasingly difficult to read. Vietnam and the civil rights movement had preempted the political agenda. In entertainment, even as Julie Andrews was winning an Oscar for Mary Poppins, the Jefferson Airplane was making its debut at the Matrix in San Francisco and the Beatles were opening at Shea Stadium. Hollywood was still banking on Elvis Presley movies and chestnuts like Anne of a Thousand Days, but audiences were favoring Bonnie and Clyde and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The bottom line: Would I move to Los Angeles, to become one of the Times' missionaries to the brave new world?
I replied that I needed to think it over. Though I had covered stories throughout the South for the Wall Street Journal, and had reported on murder and mayhem for the Sun-Times in Chicago, I had never been to California, nor had ever contemplated it. I was a New Yorker; I had grown up a city kid, albeit a rather privileged city kid with a second home on Martha's Vineyard. My parents had seen to it that I attended private school. My schoolboy friends were expected to go on to top colleges, but also feasted on the energy of the city.
My school days were spent in a 225-year-old structure called Friends Seminary. Amid all the Sturm und Drang of the city, this creaky, brick edifice on Rutherford Place on the Lower East Side seemed to possess its own serenity. Choosing a college to me was a no-brainer: I chose Swarthmore, eager to continue within the Quaker enclave.
Hence, New York represented many environments to me. I relished the energy and yet also knew where to find the pockets of peace. Would I trade in all this for California?
My initial instinct was to deliver a polite "no" to my courtly managing editor, mindful that Times editors do not like to hear that word. I described my dilemma one day to another young reporter on the paper, David Halberstam. We were both standing at the urinal in the men's room when I queried: "What happens when you give Clifton Daniel a 'no'?" Halberstam, then a droll, if somber-looking, young man, replied, "You probably end up holding a very small piece of what you're presently holding."
He was being funny, but he was also right. I realized I would be an idiot not to take the Times up on its offer. I would be writing about the world of surfers and rockers, about Governor Earl Warren and the Beach Boys and a young senator named Richard Nixon. And maybe I'd even sneak in an occasional piece about the radical changes taking place in Hollywood, though my national news editor, Claude Sitton, made it clear that Hollywood would not be a prime target. While the Times had had a full-time Hollywood correspondent for many years, the decision had been made to discontinue that beat. There were more important things to focus on in the fast-changing cauldron of California.
From the moment we unpacked, my wife and I both found ourselves enjoying that cauldron. New Yorkers were expected to complain that they missed the theater and hated the driving. But we liked our new cars (provided by the Times) as well as our rented house nestled near the rolling UCLA campus. We knew we were supposed to resent the smog; instead we basked in the sunshine.
Within days of settling in, however, our illusions about sunny Southern California were shattered with one phone call.
The voice from the national news desk sounded at once confused and a bit panicked: "There's an early report on the wires that race riots have broken out. They're setting fires. Do you see anything?"
"I live near the UCLA campus," I said. "All I see are palm trees. Are you sure this is about LA?"
"Some place called Watts."
I was stunned; I'd been staring at the map during my initial days in Los Angeles, but there was no sign of Watts.
Within hours I was to learn all about Watts and its riots, which had swept through downtown Los Angeles and were soon headed west. Within the next few days my car was to sustain three bullet holes and I was to be pinned down by gunfire on streets that in no way represented my image of Southern California.
In my initial weeks in Los Angeles I was realizing every young reporter's dream—big stories on page one. And once the Watts riots showed signs of subsiding, I was on a plane to San Francisco to report on that city's racial upheaval.
Ultimately a semblance of calm descended once again on California's major cities, and I found time to explore other sectors of my new beat. I wrote pieces about the impact of the real estate boom, the developing surfer culture, the gay baths in San Francisco, and the fast-rising California university system. I described the increasing problems of coexistence between California's robotic right-wing constituencies in Orange County and the radical activists of San Francisco. I even managed to sneak in some stories about Hollywood. To me, the big story in the movie business was not about glamour and glitz but rather its economic collapse. Television had simply eviscerated the movie audience—some 30 million filmgoers a week were now buying movie tickets versus 90 million a decade earlier. The studios had run out of money; they had also run out of ideas.
Hollywood's press agents were exasperated with the Times for no longer posting a full-time correspondent to cover the film scene. It was as though the nation's most important newspaper was saying "movies don't matter anymore," which was partially true. I found time to do an occasional piece about a star. I took a ride with Paul Newman in his Volkswagen bug, which was equipped with a Porsche engine (he loved hurtling past Detroit's ponderous clunkers on the freeway). Steve Mc-Queen explained to me how he was trying to become "grownup" and shed his bad boy reputation.
One week I decided to do a piece about a fellow New Yorker who had begun to cut a swath in Hollywood. Robert Evans had been introduced to me by a friend, a screenwriter named Abby Mann, and I liked his self-deprecating charm. Evans and his brother, sons of a New York dentist, had built a successful clothing company called Evan Picone, but his life had abruptly changed one day when Norma Shearer saw him lounging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As she watched Evans, Shearer had an epiphany: In her eyes, he looked astonishingly like her late husband, Irving Thalberg, the fabled studio chief. A movie called Man of a Thousand Faces was about to shoot at Universal starring Jimmy Cagney, who was to play Lon Chaney, and the studio was looking for an actor to portray Thalberg.
Thalberg had been an attractive, slender, and rather fragile young man. Evans was handsome and more robust, but he fit Shearer's idealized memory of her husband, who had achieved mythic status as head of MGM.
To his amazement, Evans won the role, and in November 1956 the Times duly reported on the decision declaring that "the real and reel worlds of Hollywood had merged."
Within a year, however, Evans was destined to be "discovered" yet again. He was dancing with a girlfriend at a posh New York nightclub called El Morocco, when Darryl F. Zanuck, the feisty studio boss at Twentieth Century-Fox, summoned him to his table. Zanuck was looking for a young actor to play the bullfighter in his movie The Sun Also Rises, based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, and, watching Evans's dance floor moves, he was convinced that he would be right for the role.
Evans had by then resigned himself to a return to the schmatta trade, as he called it—it paid better than his gig in Hollywood—but Zanuck's enthusiasm startled him. Here was a chance to play opposite Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power. Zanuck even offered to sign him to a five-year talent contract. Evans stammered a "yes."
The notion of a clothing executive playing a Spanish bull- fighter triggered skepticism in the gossip columns. When pressured to fire his protégé, the studio boss responded with his famous rant, "The kid stays in the picture." Evans's performance, though hammered by some critics, was praised by others. And so, having been doubly discovered by age twenty-seven, Evans decided on a sharp change in course. Considering that he had played Thalberg and been adopted by Zanuck, he now decided that he wanted to become a mixture of the two.
He wanted to run a studio.
He knew he had none of the necessary credentials and that he wasn't a member of the club that still ran Hollywood. But as Evans and I (and often Abby Mann) hung out together, I began to understand certain qualities about him that ultimately would defy the doubters. He was bonding with those power players of his generation—Richard Zanuck, son of Darryl, who was now the new studio chief at Fox, was one of his friends. Eager to master the dealmaking lexicon, Evans also was analyzing every contract he could get his hands on. He saw every movie that was opening and, over dinners, he would tear apart the performances and story structures.
As I got to know him better, I realized my new friend was smart and funny. He also had an insatiable appetite for beautiful women. He wanted to date them, photograph them, flatter them, and sleep with them, and his attentions were eagerly reciprocated. The girls were amused by him: He had money, he didn't do drugs (at the time), and there was a disarmingly old Hollywood quality to his romantic pursuit. The women understood that he'd be a one-night stand, and they seemed all right with that.
Excerpted from Infamous Players by Peter Bart Copyright © 2011 by Peter Bart. Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Bart started his career as a newsman with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, then spent seventeen years as a film executive (vice president of Paramount, senior vice president of MGM, president of Lorimar Film Co.) only to return to journalism as editor-in-chief of Variety. Along the way, he was responsible for seven books, including Shoot-Out, written with Peter Guber (the basis for their current weekly television show), Dangerous Company (a short story collection), and three nonfiction books, The Gross, Fade Out, and Boffo.
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