#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.

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