Books: Not nice, but they made you think

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind Bloomsbury pounds 20
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Peter Biskind's inquiry into the upheaval in American filmmaking during the 1970s sports the subtitle "How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood", though it might as well have been "Bad Behaviour in Cocaine Canyon". For while Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a serious group portrait of the major players of this period, "the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work", the most eye-catching passages of the book concern the vanity, the self-indulgence and the sheer megalomania that went, as they say, with the territory.

Biskind locates the origins of what was dubbed the "New Hollywood" in 1967, when two films, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, sent warning tremors through a moribund industry. The full-scale eruption was marked by Easy Rider (1969), a road movie that seemed to embody the counterculture. From reports of its uncertain financing, casting problems and on-set turbulence, Easy Rider also sets the trend for the whole book: it seems a small miracle that this film - and several others discussed here - got made at all. Director Dennis Hopper and producer Peter Fonda fought so bitterly during its production that each feared the other was about to kill him. (Fonda allegedly became so paranoid that he hired bodyguards.) Hopper's psychotic behaviour is also recounted by his ex-wife Brooke Hayward, who gives new edge to the term "long-suffering"; indeed, wives and partners are generally encouraged in these pages to present the other side - the troubled domestic one - of these counterculture heroes, few of whom emerge with any personal credit.

Yet Easy Rider led the way, and once the 1970s arrived a new wave of director-led movies broke upon Hollywood: M.A.S.H., Five Easy Pieces, Klute, The French Connection, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, Mean Streets. What this book does splendidly is recapture the excitement of seeing these films for the first time - in my case during the following decade around the rep cinemas of London. My fondest memory of the Scala in King's Cross will always be watching Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) and the moment (quoted in the book) when Jack Nicholson slams a gun on the top of a bar and yells, "I am the motherfucking Shore Patrol, you motherfucker!" The line was written by Robert Towne, screenwriter on Chinatown (1974), which brought together three of the New Hollywood's most volatile characters - Polanski, Nicholson and producer Robert Evans, "one of the great crash-and-burn stories of the '70s," as Biskind describes him. Among the juicier details to emerge from Chinatown are Polanski's violent confrontations with Faye Dunaway, and the latter's preference for peeing in wastepaper baskets rather than schlepping back to her trailer.

A parenthesis follows that story to the effect that Dunaway has "no recollection" of this; the book's other boilerplate disclaimer runs "X denies this event took place". This might just be Biskind protecting himself, but there seems more convenient forgetfulness going on here than in Reagan's last term. No wonder. The tales of foolishness, phoniness and treachery are enough to make anybody blush. Prize rosette for premier sleazeball surely goes to Robert Evans, whose opportunism and relentless philandering enliven much of the book. Some of the character sketches come as no surprise - Scorsese, obsessive and superstitious; Coppola, lordly and self-aggrandising; De Niro, "so shy he was next door to autistic". Yet occasionally a story catches you off-guard, such as that of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader. It's not so much his habit of keeping a loaded .38 and a brass crown of thorns on his writing table; after the horrors of his Dutch Calvinist upbringing that was perhaps understandable. What truly astounds is Schrader's hateful careerism and the ruthless way he forced his writing partner out of the credit. The partner in question was Leonard Schrader, his older brother.

The revolution couldn't last. However much talent was going round in the early 1970s, there always seemed to be a little more of everything else: drugs, debt, divorce. This was not a generation raised to value self-discipline, and many couldn't see what was going wrong for the blizzards of cocaine. What else derailed it? In a word, Jaws, which in 1975 swallowed the box-office whole and drastically raised the commercial stakes. In the same year, Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville, despite a fantastic review from Pauline Kael, sank without trace. When Altman was asked why it hadn't done better, he replied, "Because we didn't have King Kong or a shark.'

The future lay with Spielberg and George Lucas, who would help consolidate the blockbuster ethic with Star Wars. Where the radical directors of the 1970s like Altman, Scorsese and Peckinpah committed themselves to "personal" movies, Lucas and Spielberg gave audiences what they wanted, namely, the cinema of spectacle. They were, as Kael pointed out, "infantilising the audience ... obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection". In other words, they were dismantling all the tenets of the New Hollywood; by 1980 Michael Cimino's monumental folly Heaven's Gate had rung its death knell. The book concludes with a melancholy coda on the slow decline and death of Hal Ashby, one of several New Hollywood stars who had burned brightly, then out. "The papers said it was liver and colon cancer," writes Biskind, "but it could just as well have been a broken heart." That may sound sentimental, but after reading this account of a time when American filmmakers were regularly turning out great movies, when audiences were being provoked to thought rather than entertained to death, well, it's enough to break anybody's heart.