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'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' Author Peter Biskind Looks Back at the New Hollywood

Photo of Susan Wloszczyna By Susan Wloszczyna | Thompson on Hollywood July 18, 2014 at 1:34PM

Excess – fueled by fame, fortune and self-serving, often-destructive behavior -- often goes hand in hand with success, especially in the movie biz. Few film history books proved that as well as “Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."
Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg
Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind

Right after Francis Ford Coppola turned a Mafia family’s travails into grand opera with 1972’s “The Godfather,” which went on to win 1972’s best-picture Oscar, he topped himself in 1974 with “The Godfather, Part II,” which became the first sequel to ever win the award. Later on, while preparing to film 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” he tossed those Oscars out the window, shattering all but one. He was enraged that he couldn’t convince major stars such as Steve McQueen and Al Pacino to be his headliner. Eventually Marlon Brando did sign on. “The success … went to my head like a rush of perfume," Coppola recalled. "I thought I couldn’t do anything wrong.”

Excess – fueled by fame, fortune and self-serving, often-destructive behavior  -- often goes hand in hand with success, especially in the movie biz. Few film history books proved that as well as “Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. It is still considered the bible of the golden age of ‘70s that nurtured such directing talents as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty --even 15 years after its paperback edition was published.

Written by Peter Biskind (an executive editor at now-defunct “Premiere” magazine and contributing editor at “Vanity Fair”), the juicy warts-and-all account pulled back the curtain on a wild-and-woolly decade whose repercussions are still felt today. It became a must-read for the industry--if only to check the index for a mention.

Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola

Biskind had written two previous volumes, including a collection of “Godfather“ trivia, but, “they didn’t make much of a splash,“ he told me. By comparison, the reaction to "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" was more a Tinseltown tidal wave. “I remember being in Times Square when it came out, and there was a huge billboard lit up promoting the book. I did a huge amount of press on the morning TV shows. I thought every book would be like that."

Not quite. “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” – which covers the making of such seminal films as "Taxi Driver," "The Last Picture Show," "The French Connection," "Shampoo," "Heaven Can Wait," "Chinatown," "Jaws" and "Star Wars" --  has never been out of print, and the author still gets residuals from its sales.

That hasn’t kept Biskind from writing. His eighth tome, “The Eve of Destruction:  The Rise of Culture in an Era of Political Polarization,” is due next year. He recently got on the phone to discuss the lasting impact of the era known as New Hollywood  as well as the ongoing repercussions from “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”

Martin Scorsese
Jamie Stuart Martin Scorsese

Many of the filmmakers – you did more than 400 interviews – weren’t happy with the way you portrayed them in the book. Altman was especially harsh, calling it, “hate mail” and describing you as “the worst kind of human being I know.” Spielberg told Roger Ebert that “every single word in that book about me is either erroneous or a lie.” Coppola was also critical and claimed you sought out people who had a negative view about him. How did that make you feel?

It was very upsetting for me. In the” San Francisco Chronicle,” Altman said he wished I were dead.  I didn’t blame them for being angry. But I also felt, in the case of Coppola, that he made three great movies, the two “Godfathers” and “The Conversation.”  His place in film history is secure. If I had made those films, I wouldn’t give a damn what anyone wrote about me. I always liked what Billy Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “The Exorcist”) told Oliver Stone, who ran into him, if I remember correctly, at a urinal in a men’s bathroom at some restaurant in L.A. They started talking about the book. Stone said something like, “I hear you were a real motherfucker in the ‘70s.” Friedkin said, “Eh, it’s only a book.”

Robert Altman
Robert Altman

People reacted to it differently, but a lot of these guys had very thin skins. I did patch things up with Coppola again. We were both invited on a cruise in 2000 by Bob Shaye  (founder of New Line Cinema) and we had a bit of a go-round. It ended on friendly terms. No one likes to have their personal life paraded in public. 

Still, one reason the book was so unique and became a must-read is that you tried to show what these talented men were truly like, the good, the bad and the in-between. You must have known you were taking a risk.

People in the film business are used to being treated like kings and princes, while I was trying to portray them as real people. Sure, it may have been unfair in some places, but you can’t be too respectful. I was tell readers what it was like to live through that era, not writing obituaries.  I’ve said this a million times, but I might as well say it once more: I wrote about their personal lives because this was an era of personal filmmaking within the studio system. That was what was so remarkable about it. And it was impossible to understand their films, and why a lot of these guys crashed and burned in the early ‘80s without understanding their personal lives.

William Friedkin
William Friedkin

Some of your subjects, like Altman, Hal Ashby and Dennis Hopper, have passed away. Others like Lucas, Bogdanovich and Coppola work occasionally, if at all. But Spielberg and Scorsese are as prolific and successful than ever. What sets them apart? And how are they different now than they were then?

Spielberg always had a different agenda. In my view, he set out to turn the clock back on sophisticated, anti-genre films being made by Altman, (Arthur) Penn, even Coppola and Hopper. He and Lucas were very clear about returning to the serials of the ‘30s. Spielberg has thrived because those are the kinds of films that have found favor today. They travel well, and the foreign market is very important now. Scorsese, on the other hand, has always been the most dedicated of the whole group.  Filmmaking is his life, and even when he experienced a series of reversals, he never gave up. And he’s a great talent.

Warren Beatty and Annette Bening
Warren Beatty and Annette Bening

You had a special relationship with Warren Beatty. He spoke to you at least 15 times for “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” discussing the making of his films including “Bonnie and Clyde” along with his own directorial work. Yet, even after he agreed to participate in your authorized biography of him that came out in 2010, “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” he kept avoiding doing any interviews with you. What gives?

It wasn’t an authorized biography. He had no control over it. Never saw it. I always admired his movies.  He is extremely bright and talented. So far as not doing the interviews that he said he would do, that’s his M.O. I was stupid to think it would be any different with me.

Beatty is directing as well as starring in his first movie since “Bulworth” in 1998, a Howard Hughes biography. He hasn’t acted in a film since 2001’s “Town & Country.” Why has he been keeping such a low profile?

He started a family really late in life, having four kids with Annette Bening.  A family takes a lot out of you if you take it seriously. He had made his best movies in the ‘60s and ‘70S, And then “Bugsy” and “Bulworth,” both terrific films. He’s really competitive and arrogant, and deservedly so.  I’m sure he’s not happy to see his peers like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood still making movies while he isn’t.  He was as good if not better than both of them, not to take anything away from Eastwood. They don’t make stars like Beatty anymore.  Almost anyone can appear in these comic-book movies. I can’t tell them apart. I hope this new film does well.

George Lucas stands in front of the unfinished Death Star from "Empire Strikes Back."  Budget worries had prompted discussion of a matte painting for the effect, but Lucas insisted it be done in 3D.
George Lucas stands in front of the unfinished Death Star from "Empire Strikes Back." Budget worries had prompted discussion of a matte painting for the effect, but Lucas insisted it be done in 3D.

One of the smartest things you did with “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” was to talk to the spurned wives of many of these filmmakers, who were often directly involved in their success and not given all the credit they were due. Women like Polly Platt, Bodanovich’s ex, who co-wrote “Targets” with him, and handled the production design for “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc” and “Paper Moon.” And Marcia Lucas, George’s former spouse, an editor who worked on “American Graffiti” and Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Taxi Driver.” Many of the men in the book don’t seem to have a high regard for women, whether in their personal or professional lives. Matters haven’t improved that much today. During the ‘70s, Julia Phillips became the first female producer to win an Oscar for “The Sting.” Only six have done so since. Are the same attitudes in place for women or has there been progress?

There’s been some progress. There are a lot of women in executive jobs within the studio system, and there are certainly more women directing than there were in the ‘70s -- when there were virtually none. Of course, there’s still a distance to go. These big tentpoles the studios are obsessed with don’t help matters. I think there is a feeling that women can’t do these, which is dumb but it’s there.

Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich
Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich

You make the point in the book that before the ‘70s, directors were more hired hands than the gods they became in that decade. They suddenly were calling the shots, not the studio executives or producers. Is that still the case today?

Directors who do blockbusters can probably name their own price, like the auteurs did back then. But only a handful. And they aren’t making  good movies the way the New Hollywood directors were. The plan used to be that directors would make one for them and one for themselves. But no one really does that.  Many of these directors started out as independents, then they do a blockbuster and never go back.  I really admired Jon Favreau for turning his back on the “Iron Man” franchise for a second to make “Chef,” his passion project.  It is a wonderful movie, exactly the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.

The same thing happens with actors. I was struck by how Peter Dinklage is wasted in the new” X-Men” movie. He’s terrific in “Game of Thrones” with a good script, but he had nothing to work with. I hate to blame what’s happened to movies completely on Lucas and Spielberg, although they started it. The economics of the business has more to do with where we are now than they do. If Favreau hadn’t been Favreau, he never would have gotten to make “Chef.” David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,“ “The Fighter”) is one of the few who keep the independent spirit alive even though he’s doing moderate-sized movies. David Fincher (“The Social Network,” the upcoming “Gone Girl”) makes smart adult movies although he never was independent. He’s able to work the system to get what he wants.

Some film writers have disagreed with your premise that the ‘70s was a magic time in Hollywood. What is their argument against it?

Whatever you say, there’s bound to be a backlash against it eventually. Some people argue that those films are no better than the films coming out today.  I think there is a tendency for reviewers to overpraise certain films.  They want to seem relevant. I don’t think my argument is based on nostalgia. The ‘70s really were a golden age. It is even more apparent now. Last year was a great year for movies. This year, so far, it’s the pits. It’s not as if good films aren’t being made. Brad Pitt (“12 Years a Slave,” the upcoming “Selma”) and George Clooney (“Argo,”  “August: Osage County”), for example, are trying to do quality work on a studio scale. The problem is the dominance of the overseas market.  Producer Lynda Obst wrote a very good book explaining how it works.

Did you ever imagine when you were writing “Easy Riders, Raging Bull” that there would be a third trilogy of Star Wars films, Spielberg would still be making Oscar-worthy movies and that Scorsese would remain as prolific and relevant as he is today?

Lucas’s films aren’t really films. They’re widgets. Spielberg, on the other hand, has made some very good movies, and he’s helped a lot of younger filmmakers. Scorsese is in a class by himself, and Woody Allen, who always gets neglected in discussion like this. What an incredible body of work. We’re lucky to have him.

This article is related to: Woody Allen, Woody Allen, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Warren Beatty, Books, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.