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NewCityNet Uneasy Riders

Flashback to a golden Hollywood era.

By Sam Weller

MAY 26, 1998:  Some time after LBJ upped the ante in Vietnam, Hollywood was suddenly turned on its traditional head. The Capraesque conventions of cinematic storytelling that had so long symbolized the movie-making mecca gave way to a shroud of noirish paranoia, the pearly whites of Jimmy Stewart to Jack Nicholson's snarls. The decade spanning the late sixties to the late seventies brought a laundry list of once-in-a-lifetime films: "Bonnie and Clyde." "The Graduate." "2001: A Space Odyssey." "Midnight Cowboy." "The French Connection." "The Godfather." "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." "M*A*S*H." "The Last Picture Show." "Chinatown." "Raging Bull." "Apocalypse Now." The decade of achievement culminated with the release of "Star Wars," ushering in the new, and less brave, blockbuster era.

But the ascendance of the craft of moviemaking parallels Tinseltown's slide into social problems still extant today. Long considered a place of glitz and glamour, Hollywood began to tarnish with dollar T-shirt shops, porno arcades and greasy fast-food joints during the late sixties. By the time I moved to Hollywood in 1990, the town that movies built looked less like a land of celluloid aspirations and more like war-torn Bosnia. Abandoned vehicles. Pushers and pimps knocking on your apartment door at all hours. Storefronts with barred windows. Reverberations of gun shots, the urban crickets of a Hollywood night.

Three new books take a look at this contradictory era of cinematic invention: Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Gavin Geoffrey Dillard's "In the Flesh," and Peter Coyote's "Sleeping Where I Fall." All the authors explore a time when filmmakers eschewed traditional Hollywood narratives and directors aspired to the French ideal of auteurism: that is, that directors are to films as poets are to poems. The directors, actors and producers also created an atmosphere of decadence behind-the-scenes that - although these authors don't explicitly draw out the connection - clearly greased the social slide of Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr. needs his pusher; Divine Brown needs her Hugh Grant.

In his memoir, "Sleeping Where I Fall," Coyote - an actor who appeared in "E.T." as well as in "Jagged Edge" - deals with the arrival of the San Francisco Bay Area counterculture. The book takes an unsentimental look at the author's experience during the age of flower power and his personal quest for complete and total freedom. While often times waxing superficially esoteric (the guy is a regular on "Cybil," after all), Coyote's book is interesting in what it doesn't contend with - that is, that the sixties, with all of its stoned-out psychedelia and distrust of government, created the film movement that would produce some of Hollywood's greatest efforts. The pot-smoking hippie movement of the sixties lit a fire under the Hollywood of the seventies.

Peter Biskind's book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood," picks up where Coyote leaves off, zooming in on Studio City during the era nicknamed "the Director's Decade." The former executive editor of Premiere as well as a contributor to the New York Times and Vanity Fair has penned a compelling argument that the out-of-control Hollywood generation that came on the scene in the late sixties produced, over the next decade, the century's most brilliant movies.

In the process, Biskind often pits mogul against mogul. Director Robert Altman says of the late producer Don Simpson: "Simpson was a bad guy, a bum. It's a big plus to our industry that he [died]. I'm only sorry he didn't live longer and suffer more."

But more interesting than documenting celebrity name-calling, Biskind shamelessly examines the inner demons: all the drugs, the sex and the booze that fueled the artistic endeavors of many of the filmmakers of the time. He sharply comments on how the major talents of the era - Francis Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman - burned out amid the very excess that fueled their success. The genius of Coppola's seventies masterpieces "The Godfather," "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" washed out into bland confections such as "The Cotton Club" or "Godfather III." Hollywood doped up, unleashed a cavalcade of masterworks, and then went to bed to sleep off the hangover.

"In the Flesh" foregoes analysis of Hollywood's seventies successes in favor of its excesses. Dillard, a former porn star and gay community figurehead, has authored a titillating kiss-and-tell that takes no prisoners. While scorching the likes of David Geffen and Dolly Parton, his story of wild Hollywood regularly transcends mere gossip, dealing with the author's battle with HIV and his spiritual journey. With a narrative stretching into the early eighties, Dillard focuses on the disco, Studio 57-era, when the darker side of Hollywood's hallucinogenic heyday has come more clearly into focus.

"The new Hollywood lasted barely a decade," Biskind writes, "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." And perhaps it can also teach a lesson about why the mundane images of Hollywood's streets are unrelievedly awful, as well.

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