EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

<i> David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts."</i>

Peter Biskind’s calm, encyclopedic and compulsively readable dish on Hollywood heroes should be served with cold Cristal--nothing else so isolates the decaying bouquet of Schadenfreude. I am thinking of the legend, repeated here, how when Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” premiered on March 1, 1975, the town went into raptures of pent-up loathing. As the first words of debacle spread, so Billy Wilder (nearly 70 already but clinging to malice as if it were testosterone) reported the sound of Champagne corks popping all over L.A. We should congratulate Wilder on having lived to down this full cup of rue--it may give him another 20 years (time enough for Bogdanovich to polish his impersonation of Wilder’s “pained” scorn). Meanwhile, all those who talked to Biskind can be assured that they will see their friends and rivals speared in the side (and other tender places). But read on, dear confiders, for no one is spared here. If you have talked, you have been talked about too--if only by an ex-wife or a bruised personal assistant. It’s all Chinatown.

“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” works off the familiar assumption that, in the late ‘60s, Hollywood’s confidence and its way of working cracked. Television had taken its audience and its plot lines, and a whole generation of directors was dead or retiring. Through that crack came a horde of easy riders and raging bulls, most of them desperate for their share of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and all of them driven by that Grail-like notion that it would be awesomely hip to make a movie. Some came out of film school, and most were naked opportunists lit up with that religion called the auteur theory (French for “me! me! me!”) as articulated by Cahiers du Cinema, Andrew Sarris and (forgive them, God) every professor in film studies. These guys thought of themselves as artists, though maybe all they did was match the manners of Sammy Glick and Louis B. Mayer while supposing they were Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard.

Still, there was a change in Hollywood, and it was one that many of us welcomed. One does not have to like all the films in this paragraph--or like them in the same way--but the twin blasts of new attitude in 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” led to the movies produced by the alliance of Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner (“Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The King of Marvin Gardens”). That notion of giving new kids a shot built from “Duel” to “The Sugarland Express” to “Jaws,” from “Boxcar Bertha” to “Mean Streets” to “Taxi Driver,” from “THX 1138” to “American Graffiti” to “Star Wars” and from “The Rain People” through both parts of “The Godfather” to “Apocalypse Now.” In that heady process, young men became hugely rich, emperors in their recent fantasies and wrecks of their novice selves. But, in the meantime, in “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” the business grasped a new identity that it liked and understood. Without quite intending it, the young auteurs had restored the primitive imperative of money.


George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (the kids least swayed by sex or drugs, according to Biskind) are still powers waiting to be put onstamps (or coins). Some--like Robert Altman and Warren Beatty--have insisted, in defiance of much evidence, that they are not just hanging in midair but doing an elegant soft-shoe on the fine wire. Martin Scorsese, without Oscars or hits, tries to believe he is content with prestige. Then there are those who have fallen. Hal Ashby is dead. Bogdanovich went from romantic disaster to bankruptcy to making films for cable. Biskind has him introducing himself as the man who used to be Bogdanovich. Francis Ford Coppola seems persuaded that something dire and irreversible befell him in the Philippine jungle. Dennis Hopper may be healthier now and saner, but dementia was all that made him interesting. William Friedkin, Bob Rafelson, Michael Cimino and Paul Schrader are all on the margins of employability.

The raw material of Peter Biskind’s book is less the films than the style and rhetoric of these guys--the ambition, the hubris, the manipulativeness, the brief glory and the comeuppance. You know the outline of some of those tales in advance: the way Coppola became his own Michael Corleone and yielded to manic-depression in the Philippines but here is much of the detail on his drugs and his women. Friedkin emerges as a brat scarcely more housebroken than Megan in his “The Exorcist.” Rafelson is boorish, devious, a womanizer and the solemn victim of his own pretensions. Schrader is made out as someone who might have alarmed Travis Bickle. Robert Towne, a very good screenwriter but a genius at self-defense, comes in for remorseless undermining. These talented, arrogant and often impossible people are seen lurching from one drug or woman to another in quest of fame, money and power--that vulgar triad so mocked by those earlier hoodlums who had ruled the movies. In short, these shining kids don’t seem to deserve the chance they carved out for themselves.

Biskind makes a lot of play on the enigmatic line--”We blew it”--uttered by Peter Fonda’s Captain America near the close of “Easy Rider.” This may be more of a load than that witless, incoherent but, alas, seminal film can stand. But it is a fair point that this generation failed to bring stamina to their promise. There are a couple of very telling comments on how the geniuses wavered in their own storm. One is from Eleanor Coppola (in her memoir “Notes”) on what she saw happening to Francis (in general, Biskind has made adroit use of wives tossed aside in the frenzy of success): “There is a kind of franticness. . . . If I say anything to the contrary, it is taken for negativity, disloyalty or jealousy. I think that Francis is truly a visionary, but part of me is filled with anxiety. I feel as though a certain discrimination is missing, that fine discrimination that draws the line between what is visionary and what is madness. I am terrified.”

Another is Leonard Schrader, the brother of Paul:

“In the early ‘70s, when I heard Scorsese talk for hours with my brother, with [Brian] De Palma, with Spielberg, about how to play the power game, the assumption, never questioned, was that power was a means, not an end. We wanted to make great films, we wanted to be artists, we were going to discover the limits of our talent. Now what was left was power for its own sake, not as a means, but as an end. This generation started out as believers. They behaved as if filmmaking were a religion. But they lost their faith.”

Biskind is calm and thorough; he also backs up everything with source notes drawn from many interviews. So are we to believe it all?

In his acknowledgments, he admits that “Hollywood is a town of fabulators. The people who dwell there create fictions for a living, fictions that . . . spill over into the daily lives of the men and women who regard themselves as stars in the movies of their own lives.” That’s well said and a necessary warning. He tells us, and himself, that little of what matters in Hollywood is “committed to paper.” That’s why he talked to everyone who would give him the time and the trust. And the talk is colorful to the point of being camera-ready, as well as fraternal beyond betrayal. Yes, people talk into the small hours, dancing on and off the record, like Astaire going round the room in “Royal Wedding.” It is superb talk, high talk, talk with lawyering in its blood, the talk of self-exculpation, too good to be true talk.


The written record may be too easily dismissed: There are files; there are deals and memos and contracts thicker and often more imaginative than scripts. I have had one leading player in this book read me letters that he keeps in a personal drawer and that are the most lucid expose of the business I ever heard.

That said, I believe just about everything in this book as part of the infernal, self-serving melodrama that comes with being active in Hollywood. Some facts may be askew, but the emotion is dead on. And the only test of Schadenfreude is: Does it play? This book plays like a bestseller, a perfect, gruesome sitcom in which Hollywood figures sit and ponder their reputations. If anything, I dare say that nervous libel lawyers have made Biskind take a moderate line. One of the most entertaining things about the book is the passing refrain of poker-faced, parenthetical disclaimers: “(Towne denies this),” “(Hopper says he doesn’t recall the incident),” “(Bogdanovich says he has no recollection of any such conversation),” “([Victoria] Principal says they were just friends),” “([Amy] Irving denies sleeping with Hoffman),” “([Faye] Dunaway, when asked about her urinary habits, said she had ‘no recollection’ of such behavior.’)”

While we’re talking about reliability, something else needs to be said. I read this book at a gallop; I believe most of it; I recommend its inside touch. At the same time, Biskind has been for years a senior editor and writer at Premiere, where--as I recollect--he has sometimes delivered rather more amiable, if not ingratiating, articles on some of the people he dismantles in this book. Subscribers to Premiere (if they exist) may wonder about seeking a refund.

But leaving that aside, there is a risk here that so much personal scandal will lead to fine films being trashed along with their makers. There was something special in what happened in 1967 and in a few years thereafter, and you can see it still on screen in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The King of Marvin Gardens,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Badlands,” “Shampoo,” “Chinatown,” “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Annie Hall” and even “The Deer Hunter.” Again, you don’t have to approve of all those films, but don’t you wish you had that range, that beauty, that darkness, that anger, that passion and danger now? So the guys who contributed to those films are liars, rascals, poseurs, druggies, frauds, nerds (yes, that too, for many of them had been semi-invalids and bespectacled outsiders in school)--still they had something, if only for a moment. And we need it back.

So they behaved badly? Yes, horribly. But anyone who looks into the art and business of movie making (and the tortured confusion of the two) knows what it takes to survive, let alone prosper. There is a sound case to be argued as to whether such human wrecks could ever deliver great and lasting work--call it art. But we were suckered far too fast into buying movies as an art. The same personal darkness and the question mark as to achievement hang over Capra, Hitchcock, Hawks, Welles and maybe anyone else you care to mention. Of course, that makes it hard to acclaim these guys as heroes, and that is valuable. Any kid thinking of going into movies and any kid’s parents should read and discuss this book at length. My son, the movie maker, may turn out a monster. On the other hand, if I had to choose between being trapped in an elevator with Lucas (that model of success) and Towne, I would pick Towne, who would be talking, wonderfully, warmly and tragically, about himself, all night long, whereas Lucas is terse.

I doubt that a reviewer really needs to urge Angelenos to read this book; it is essential dish, and Biskind has done his job well. It is a book that will be retold and exulted in at every party for a season. It will be said that reputations have been permanently damaged. Not really. For we love our monsters, and the business has always been a haven for adolescent gangsters who seek no more in life than splendor, sex, money and respect. Plus the hideous trashing of their fellows. Apart from wives and children, who really suffered?


Like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” I am shocked, shocked! And I only wish the book were longer.