Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Men Behaving Badly

By Noah Masterson

JUNE 1, 1998: 

Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

If Hollywood can in any way be seen as a microcosm of our society, the outlook is not good for decency, modesty or ethics. At least, that's the impression Peter Biskind gives in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his book documenting the Hollywood revolution that took place during the 1970s.

Exhaustively researched, the book covers gobs of Hollywood minutiae from the late '60s, when Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde were released, to around 1980, when big-name directors like Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman churned out crap like 1941 and Popeye, respectively. Hundreds of interviews are conducted and many of Hollywood's creepiest soap operas are put under the microscope--Dennis Hopper beating his wife, Peter Bogdanovich marrying the (much) younger sister of his murdered girlfriend, for example. But with a cast of such unlikable characters, Biskind's nearly complete historical account is oftentimes painful to read.

The details from the lives of Hollywood visionaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Peter Bogdanovich are not only lurid but repetitive. Without fail, the success stories of '70s Hollywood directors follow the same patterns of corruption and arrogance: A young man with a lot of insecurities and the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old pours his soul into the making of his first film--usually a documentary or an art film inspired by French cinema--in an effort to buck the straitlaced Old Hollywood studio system. Around this time, he meets his first wife or girlfriend who offers immeasurable assistance to his creative process, not only by offering emotional support, but also as an editor or assistant writer. As the young director embarks on his first feature, he abandons the wife or girlfriend who was integral to his success in the first place and takes up with another woman--or women. The feature does well; our young director indulges in copious amounts of drugs and sex with strangers, becomes wealthy and intolerably arrogant and eventually becomes exactly the type of industry mogul he was rebelling against in the first place.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is subtitled "How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood." But these guys didn't save Hollywood. At best, they offered a brief respite from the oppressiveness of an industry headed by stodgy old men who were still trying to feed the public fluffy Doris Day and Rock Hudson popcorn movies during the height of the Vietnam War. They gave us bold movies like The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver and The Exorcist. But then, due largely to their own arrogance and stupidity, they blew it.

Biskind may have set out with good intentions while researching this book. It's easy to think of the mavericks who gave us a new genre of grittier, more socially conscious flicks as heroes. But they weren't, and Biskind has the integrity to tell the truth. For instance, most people have some knowledge of the difficulties surrounding the production of Apocalypse Now, but past accounts have focused on bad blood between actors. Biskind goes into detail about director Francis Ford Coppola treating himself as a potentate, firing assistants left and right and importing for personal use the finest wine, crystal and other luxuries to the economically depressed Filipino village where he filmed.

Even the homely George Lucas is a terror on the set of Star Wars, constantly berating the engineers at Industrial Light and Magic, without whom his film would be nothing but a bad script. Every prominent director of the 1970s behaved in similar fashion, and it's well documented here.

Although Biskind's book often delves too deep into the mechanics of the film industry, its cast of extremely famous characters engaging in filthy acts of hedonism is enough to make it an interesting read. But for fans of '70s film, it does little more than topple heroes. And for everyone else who probably wouldn't pick it up in the first place, it tells a drawn-out tale with too many characters and few happy endings. If this were fiction, it would be entirely unbelievable. Because it is not, it is merely sad. (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $25)

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