Soft Focus

Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

I

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, locked together in life by an accident of propinquity and forever coupled in the constellation of celebrity like Gemini the twins, hold an endless fascination for our culture. In addition to being at the same place at the same time (they met on the Warner Brothers lot in 1967 when Coppola was directing "Finian's Rainbow" and Lucas, freshly graduated from USC, was marking time), each instantly recognized the other as a co-conspirator in the youth counterculture who shared a hatred for the Hollywood establishment and yearned to break free of it. The two were wonderfully complementary--Coppola flamboyant and reckless, Lucas reserved and cautious--and in the years to come, the ups and down of their relationship adumbrated the successes and failures of the so-called New Hollywood, the cinema of auteurs that dominated the '70s. The movies they left behind are landmarks of world cinema, and their aspirations and failures have forever influenced Hollywood filmmaking.

New biographies suggest that publishers too cannot get enough of the '70s auteurs, even as they plummet to the bottom, first Coppola with a string of mediocre movies, then Lucas with the fatuous "Phantom Menace," and most recently Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader.

Still, Lucas and Coppola occupy a secure place in cinema's firmament, and despite the cascade of books about each, there's still a lot new to be said. Aided by the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil culture of Hollywood, they have successfully controlled their press, Lucas by remaining aloof and inaccessible and Coppola by overwhelming writers with his charm and volubility. No one has yet penetrated the rich archives of either director, nor have many of the dozens upon dozens of people who worked on their films, TV productions, radio stations, operas, magazines, mini-studios, special effects companies, not to mention family members, friends and hangers-on, been interviewed.

Still, veteran movie biographer John Baxter (who memorialized Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, among others) has found several deprogrammed ex-Lucas film droids whom he exploits to the hilt in "Mythmaker." First among them is the rarely interviewed Gary Kurtz, who, until they had a falling out during the production of "The Empire Strikes Back," was Lucas' producer and chief factotum. Kurtz is Baxter's best source and dominates the book. (One might suspect that he had an agenda, but it is never acknowledged.) Another source is Charles Lippincott, who was in charge of marketing and merchandising for "Star Wars" and is generally level-headed and on target. And then there is director John Milius, always ready with sword and stone.

Baxter digs up several childhood acquaintances of the director (one hesitates to call them friends) who fill in the gaps in what we know about Lucas' youth in Modesto and gets a lot of mileage out of some of Lucas' less successful USC buddies, although they tell us more than we want to know about his years there. The "Star Wars" chapters, those that deal with Lucas' struggles to conceptualize the film, his relationship with Twentieth Century Fox and the bloody battle to get it in the can, are detailed and vivid. Baxter furnishes a clear account of the breakthroughs engineered by Lucas' special effects shop, Industrial Light and Magic, and sheds some light on the director's feud with effects wizard John Dykstra. If Lucas was flummoxed by Dykstra, the suits at Twentieth Century Fox were out of their depth, and Baxter dramatizes the collision of cultures with many an amusing anecdote. One day when the suits ventured into the Industrial Light and Magic building--to them equivalent to the Death Star--they were appalled to see Dykstra dropping a refrigerator to the floor from a forklift because "everyone kinda wondered how it would sound dropped onto concrete."

Baxter has never been one of those biographers who can be accused of toadying. His previous books have shown a refreshing irreverence and, indeed, he has a grand old time poking fun at the remote, elusive director, whose Howard Hughes-like behavior has made the Lucas balloon ripe for popping. Baxter wields the sharp end of the pin to good effect. We learn that in the 1982 installment of the annual Fourth of July barbecue Lucas holds at his Graceland--Skywalker ranch--he portentously buried a time capsule that contained the name of every member of the Star Wars fan club. Baxter quotes Harrison Ford saying that every time he looked at Lucas during the filming of "American Graffiti," he was either reading a newspaper or asleep. We find out that during the period Lucas was writing "Star Wars," he and his wife Marcia rarely had dinner together: "She made him a tuna-salad sandwich the way his mother used to, on white bread with the crusts removed, and he went to bed." He actually quotes Richard Walter, an old friend, suggesting that one of the reasons Lucas' marriage fell apart is because "sexuality was not a gigantic part of George's life." He quotes Milius comparing Lucas to People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones.

At the end of the day, Baxter's Lucas-baiting makes for an entertaining read, but it's a trap, because Lucas is arguably not only the most important figure of his generation--altogether more significant than his artistic betters Scorsese, Coppola or even Spielberg, whom he most resembles--but the most influential filmmaker since D.W. Griffith. This is an extravagant claim, of course, but think for a moment about what "Star Wars" wrought. It was the first comic book blockbuster, and its dumb and dumber spawn, which are legion, colonized the industry. It pioneered a revolution in merchandising, and in so doing invented a new revenue stream that would prove to be more lucrative than box office itself. And finally, it legitimized and technologized special effects, taking the herky-jerky models of Harry Harryhausen that were the soul of so many beloved B-films and transforming them into the backbone of today's Hollywood. Ironically, Lucas had to be dragged screaming and kicking into the digital age--a story neither Baxter nor anyone else has told--but once Industrial Light and Magic made the leap, it became the engine of changes that threaten to end film as we know it, radically changing the way movies are made, delivered and even performed.

By treating Lucas as an object of fun, Baxtre never does justice to the Lucas who changed the movies. Besides, he gets a lot of things wrong. He means to praise him for making "Graffiti," which he calls a New Hollywood film, when other young directors of the time--Coppola, Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin--were doing studio films. True, "Graffiti" is a small, personal film with an ensemble cast, all New Hollywood traits, but even Lucas regarded it as an exercise in nostalgia-mongering and audience manipulation, a rehearsal for "Star Wars" and a step backward from demanding, experimental films like "THX 1138," which was truly a New Hollywood film. Lucas realized that audiences were tired of complex, depressing fare and wanted date pictures that made them feel good. Later Baxter says that "Star Wars" made Lucas a force to reckon with in the New Hollywood. But the significance of "Star Wars" is that it marked the finish of the New Hollywood.

Baxter's narrative, although lively, is marred by strange lapses. For one thing, he has an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate. In the very first chapter, for example, he mentions that Skywalker Ranch has been under construction for 25 years. If construction started in 1980, this would bring us up to 2005. We learn that the famous crash in which the teenage Lucas totaled his Fiat on a walnut tree was so violent that "the tree, roots and all, shifted two feet." Talking about Lucas' economic heft in Marin County, Baxter writes, "Skywalker has become a focus for the hopes, ambitions, and needs of millions." Millions? The population of Marin County is no more than 250,000.

Moreover, Baxter is often petty and mean-spirited. Now "mean-spirited" is an epithet flung at journalists by Hollywood players who want film history to read like a Life Achievement Awards tribute book, but Baxter's conspiratorial tone serves no purpose other than to put his judgment at risk. He accuses the "Lucas machine" of rewriting the account of the director's adolescent car accident to shift the blame to the other driver and takes Lucas' high school to task for "conveniently" forgetting his incompletes when it sent him a diploma in the hospital. He even belittles Lucas' youthful spasm of generosity, suggesting that the director distributed "Star Wars" points because he wanted to play the Medici.

Some of Baxter's generalizations are so dubious as to be comical. He writes, "Speaking in public terrified almost all New Hollywood directors. . . ." What? There are dozens of New Hollywood directors, and one would be hard pressed to imagine why they would be any more frightened of public speaking than any other group of people--accountants, ambulance drivers or astronomers. Other from-Mars statements include Baxter's assertion that in 1969, the year of Woodstock, "America was moving toward a more sensual, self-gratifying society, where sex and drugs were more important than rock and roll." Like the rock 'n' roll culture frowned on sex, drugs and self-gratification? Or, "The physical act of writing literally pained many in New Hollywood." Everybody knows writing can be painful, and may have been so to Lucas, but many New Hollywood directors, like Coppola, Milius and Schrader, were prolific writers, and the remarkable thing is that they wrote at all--writing was the easiest way to break in--when in the past few directors did so.

Baxter's loosey-goosey scholarship raises more questions than it answers. We learn that many people are "banned from the ranch" for one infraction or another, so much so that one effects company adopted the phrase as its name. But God forbid Baxter would lend some credence to this story by telling us who, when or why or foot-noting it. By refusing to observe the writers' convention that dictates that quotes derived from author's interviews be identified by the present tense in the text ("he says," "she says") to distinguish them from quotes derived from secondary sources ("he said," "she said"), Baxter gives the impression that he has interviewed many of the principals, including Lucas himself, Coppola, Scorsese, Dykstra and assorted intimates, when it seems clear from the notes that he did not. In one instance, a Dykstra quote is introduced by "he says" to suggest it was from an author interview, but the notes attribute it (and others like it) to "various Web sites, with additional information from Bill Warren," who was interviewed. Does this mean Dykstra was quoted on Web sites? Paraphrased? Channeled? And if so, by whom? A reliable source? In this kind of citational slush, the first casualty is the author's credibility. Sometimes Baxter doesn't even bother to cite his sources, blithely passing off quotes from Lucas' friends, obtained by other researchers (myself, for example) as his own.

Such particulars aside, the problem that faces any biographer of Lucas is that there is a radical disconnect between the cause and the effect, the person and the works, the insular, opaque filmmaker who would prefer to eat hamburgers, stay home in the evening and turn in early and the seismic changes that have somehow issued from his obsessions. Baxter never even begins to address this issue, so that at the end of "Mythmaker" we are left where we began, with an enigma: Who, after all, is George Lucas?

II

*

Exasperating as Baxter's book is, Michael Schumacher's is a real disappointment. A dead giveaway is the author's effusive expression of gratitude to the director in the very first sentence of the acknowledgments ("I wish to thank Francis Ford Coppola for his assistance in the preparation of this book") followed by the alarming admission that the author submitted his manuscript to the subject for review while still maintaining that "this is not an authorized biography in the traditional sense." Whatever it is, Coppola must have liked what he saw because he granted Schumacher numerous interviews, while opening doors to members of his family like his brother August, who has rarely been interviewed. Since Schumacher then incorporated this new material, in effect rewriting his book or parts of it, his disclaimer can only seem disingenuous.

It's easy to guess why Coppola gave Schumacher good access. The author doesn't even pretend to understand the inner life of the man upon whom he lavishes 524 pages and who knows how many years of work. For the most part, he is content to skate across the placid surface of the already known. When he thanks his sources, we find a list of Coppola pals and familiars like Barry Malkin, Walter Murch, Tom Luddy, Dean Tavoularis, Gray Frederickson, Fred Roos, honorable men all, but not ones to bite or even nip their benefactor's hand. Not a single studio executive who had dealings with Coppola and who might have a perspective different from friends, employees and family members is interviewed, not John Calley, not Ned Tanen, not even Robert Evans, who knew Coppola well. Nor does Schumacher draw on the colorful cast of characters in the San Francisco-Berkeley arts community who did business with him, were hired or fired by him, partied with him, gossiped about him or knew him with an intimacy that comes with the big fish-small pond environment that Coppola created for himself in the Bay Area. Coppola must have appreciated the fact that Schumacher chastely avoids any mention of his personal life until it is forced upon him by the eruption of the director's affair with screenwriter Melissa Mathison with the publication of wife Eleanor's "Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now" in 1979.

Many of the notorious predicaments in which Coppola found himself were largely, if not entirely, of his own making, but Schumacher unaccountably lays the blame at the feet of others. He writes, to cite just one of many examples, "Despite Coppola's best efforts, 'Godfather III' was soon running behind schedule and over budget," as if the director had no responsibility for either. (Recall Tavoularis' famous line that, to paraphrase, went, "To Francis a script is like a newspaper; there's a new one every day.")

Schumacher allows Coppola to explain why he kicked cinematographer Haskell Wexler off "The Conversation," but Wexler, who is only a phone call away, is not permitted to present his version of the events. True, the author makes a gnomic comment indicating there may be another side to this story but doesn't say what it is. (For the record, Wexler once told me that Coppola later confessed that he'd fired him to delay the production because he needed time to work on the script, which was in bad shape.)

Yet again, Schumacher quotes Coppola blaming the "Hammett" fiasco on director Wim Wenders and his then-wife Ronee Blakley. In a devastating account, Coppola says Wenders insisted on casting Blakley against everyone's advice, and Blakley in turn insisted on script rewrites to expand her part until she nearly took over the movie--to such a degree that she undermined her husband's authority on the set. Although Schumacher cites the dissent of Frederic Forrest (who played the title role) from this account, Coppola is allowed to frame the discussion. Surely it would have been better journalism to let Wenders and Blakley rebut the charges themselves, especially given their seriousness. If they refused to comment or were unavailable, Schumacher should have said so. Otherwise we are left to conclude that he couldn't be bothered interviewing the targets of such a self-serving attack.

When Schumacher does on occasion take the director to task, it's for the wrong things. He scoffs at Coppola for accusing critics of blackmail and extortion. But Coppola may actually have had grounds for this particular outburst, always claiming that the late New Yorker reviewer Penelope Gilliatt implied she would give him a bad notice if he didn't read a script she was peddling.

Unhappily, Schumacher has virtually nothing to add to the published accounts of the most celebrated and bizarre episodes of Coppola's career. There is little new on the making of "The Godfather," little new on "Apocalypse Now," little new on "The Cotton Club," little new on the bankruptcy of Zoetrope in its Hollywood incarnation at the beginning of the '80s or the sad tale of the ridiculously overblown, misconceived and extravagantly spendthrift "One from the Heart." Referring to that film, Schumacher writes, "Once again, Coppola found the creative process being stifled by the realities of big business."

*

Really? Coppola brought the temple crashing down about his own head, carelessly squandering not only one of the few opportunities to create a base of production independent of Hollywood but dashing the hopes of the true believers who made great sacrifices in the service of his dream. To reduce the self-inflicted ruination of his mini-studio to the clash between art and commerce is once again to adopt Coppola's sentimentalization of his own career.

The good news here is that Schumacher has been extremely thorough in excavating secondary sources, and there is the occasional nugget, like Coppola's hilariously disastrous attempts to help out Jerry Brown in his 1980 bid for the presidency. He elicits some good new material from director Carroll Ballard, who has been under-interviewed on the subject of his patron and rival. But the reader will look in vain for social or cultural analysis or any attempt to put the films in context. Schumacher is so busy defending Coppola from all comers that he does the director a disservice, failing to explain why the pictures of the golden period--"The Godfathers," "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now"--are as brilliant as they are.

Nor does Schumacher make much of an effort to answer explain why the director's career took a nose dive in the '80s from which it has never recovered. He does finally get around to the $64,000 question--in the Epilogue: "What happened to Francis Ford Coppola's career? Did he expend all of his artistic energy during the seventies? Was he overrated as a filmmaker? . . . Did he simply lose interest in putting himself on the line in film after film? Did he grow complacent, once he had rebuilt his personal empire?" Good questions all, but we'll never learn the answers from Schumacher, who, by titling the preceding chapter "Full Recovery" (in apparent reference to "Dracula"), implies that nothing happened to Coppola's career that couldn't be fixed with an overblown remake.

With tongue, one hopes, at least partly in cheek, literary critic Stanley Fish recently called for an end to biographies because, in the absence of "master narratives," biographers have lost the ability to explain anything. He exempted celebrity biographies because contingency and accident are the very stuff of celebrity lives and therefore there is no need to explain anything. So perhaps what seems like Schumacher's inability to find the "meaning" of his subject's life is actually a hip refusal to go there. Maybe it's better to just go with the flow.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°