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Interview: Peter Biskind Revisits "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"

Peter Biskind’s first two books didn’t leave much of a mark on the literary world. In fact, he basically disowns his second effort, "The Godfather Companion," a compendium of Corleone-related trivia published in 1990.

“I’d like to bury it,” says the film historian, who was the executive editor of the gone-but-not-forgotten Premiere magazine for a decade starting in 1986. “It’s like when actors have porn films in their closet. It embarrasses me.”

But No. 3 was the charm—and then some. "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drug-and Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood," a rollicking gossip-propelled magic-carpet ride through the heady days of the ‘70s has exhibited incredible staying power as well as lasting impact—and not just because several of its subjects are still active in the business. 

Backed by over 400 hours of interviews, the hefty volume shines a warts-and-all spotlight on a golden decade of renewal in the filmdom. It was a time when directors, who too often were treated as hired hands by the studios, were reborn as the gods of Mount Cinema. They bestowed upon us mere mortals such monumental works of art as "The Godfather," "Nashville," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Picture Show," "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver," "Jaws," "Star Wars" and "The Exorcist," many of which reflected the counter-culture mindset and the societal upheavals of the times. 

Their personal and grown-up approach to movies stood in stark contrast to the staid and stale offerings of old Hollywood, represented at its peak by "The Sound of Music" in 1965, which were failing to attract crowds as the ‘60s waned. These mavericks called the shots, found fame, fed their egos, earned millions, broke the rules, challenged audiences, won Oscars and, with alarming predictability, often fell victim to the type of self-destructive behavior that is neatly summed up in the subtitle of Biskind’s tome.

Little wonder that 15 years after its paperback edition was published, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"—which manages to pull off the neat trick of being serious about the rebirth of the industry while basking in highly readable first-hand accounts of outrageous behavior—has never gone out of print. “I still get residuals,” Biskind says of the book that also became the basis of an acclaimed BBC-produced documentary in 2003.

While many of the filmmakers who helped define the era known as the New Hollywood have either passed away (Dennis Hopper, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and more) or are only marginally involved in the biz, such as sometime-producer Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas after selling his "Star Wars" franchise to Disney, some remain as prolific as ever. 

Here are four influential auteurs from the ‘70s who are still in the directing game today and Biskind’s assessment of them, then and now.

Steven Spielberg

Career-maker: "Jaws" (1975).

Other ‘70s highlights: "The Sugarland Express" (1974), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

Book excerpt about the troubled shoot for "Jaws": “Spielberg was under an enormous amount of pressure. He brought his own pillow with him from home, and put celery in it , a smell he found comforting. He had no time for anything but work. A female friend of a friend was brought out from L.A. for recreational sex. She slept with him, and left.”

Biskind on Spielberg then: “My thesis is that Altman, Arthur Penn and Kubrick sort of absorbed a lot from European and other foreign directors, and dragged American moviegoers into adulthood. Away from Westerns, big musicals and other crap. Those people made a lot of anti-genre films like 'The Conversation,' 'Buffalo Bill and the Indians,' 'Little Big Man' and 'Night Moves.' Spielberg and Lucas reversed all that. They set out to makes films that appealed to kids and revived the morality of the ‘30s serials. They infantilized audiences – and that is still going on now.

Notable titles beyond the ‘70s: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), "The Color Purple" (1985), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "Schindler’s List" (1993), "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), "Catch Me if You Can" (2002), "Lincoln" (2012)

Biskind on Spielberg now: “One would have predicted that Spielberg—and Lucas—would have continued to work. They were the most conservative aesthetically. He has his name one way or another on both films (including as the executive producer of the "Transformers" franchise) and TV shows such as "Terra Nova" and "Falling Skies." His own movies are all over the place. He is really an interesting filmmaker, though a bit schizophrenic. Parts of "Schindler’s List" and "Saving Private Ryan" are brilliant. And then there are the silly happy endings. It’s like two different people made them. He has very smart instincts, but then somehow feels he has to serve the Walt Disney inside of him.”

Martin Scorsese

Career-maker: "Taxi Driver" (1976)

Other ‘70s highlights: "Mean Streets" (1973), "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" (1974)

Book excerpt on Scorsese’s childhood: “He was short, frail and sickly, a momma’s boy. He was so allergic to animals he was taking his life in his hands if he petted a dog.  His older brother, Frank, was jealous of the attention he got and used to beat him up. ‘Marty is basically a coward,’ says friend Mardik Martin. ‘In 'Mean Streets,' the mook scene, you see Marty in the corner running—that’s him. He would always hide.’ ”

Biskind on Scorsese then. “'Raging Bull' (from 1980) is one of the best films of all time. I admire him because, despite the fact that he had his ups and downs and detours (including a drug problem), he was the most serious filmmaker of that whole New Hollywood generation. Throughout it all, he kept his eye on the ball. For him, filmmaking is his life and he is very, very serious about it.”

Notable titles beyond the ‘70s: "The Color of Money" (1986), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), "Goodfellas" (1990), "Cape Fear" (1991), "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004), "The Departed" (2006), "Hugo" (2011), "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

Biskind on Scorsese now: “I liked 'The Wolf of Wall Street' a lot. Even at this point, Scorsese can put stuff on screen that you’ve never seen before. My jaw was hanging open at some of the dialogue, these two guys talking sex in a way you never see or hear in a Hollywood movie. Many directors are either incapable of growing or are afraid to grow for one reason or another.  But he has really evolved. He was in danger of repeating himself with his gangster shtick, but he managed to adapt it to different kinds of stories, so he avoided the pitfalls that crippled so many of his peers.”

Roman Polanski

Career-maker: "Chinatown" (1974)

Other ‘70s highlights: "Macbeth" (1971), "The Tenant" (1976)

Book excerpt on Polanski’s testy relationship with "Chinatown" screenwriter Robert Towne: “In Towne’s original script, Evelyn Mulwray kills her venal father, Noah Cross. In other words, a happy ending in which innocence defiled is avenged and evil is punished. For Polanski, the world was a darker place. He felt Cross should live, get control of the child he incestuously fathered, while Evelyn should die. The detective, Jake Gittes, can do no more than look on, helplessly. ‘I thought it was a serious movie not an adventure story for the kids,’ says Polanski. Concludes Towne, 'Roman’s argument was, ‘That’s life.’ Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon (Tate, Polanski’s actress wife who was murdered by the Manson family in 1969) did.'” 

Biskind on Polanski then: “The early Polanski films were fantastic. 'Cul-de-sac,' 'Repulsion,' 'Knife in the Water.' In the ‘70s, he was an arrogant, smart, talented guy. After 'Rosemary’s Baby' and 'Chinatown,' the rape thing happened, blew a decade long hole in his career. He’s never been quite the same. “

Notable titles beyond the ‘70s: "The Pianist" (2002), "The Ghost Writer" (2010), "Carnage (2011), "Venus in Fur" (2013)

Biskind on Polanski now: “He’s managed to recover, a small miracle in itself.  Working in Europe is a whole different ball game from working here, a different sensibility, different economics. I didn’t like 'The Pianist' as much as other people did, but it’s not a bad movie. 'The Ghost Writer' is the best of his most recent films. Even when he’s not working at peak capacity, his films are still a pleasure to watch. ”

Terrence Malick

Career-maker: "Days of Heaven" (1978)

Other ‘70s highlights: "Badlands" (1973)

Book excerpt on Malick’s work habits during "Days of Heaven": “Malick was a director, like (Brian) De Palma, who was very much inside his own head. The actors and crew thought he was cold and distant, and he was having trouble getting decent performances. Two weeks into the picture, looking at dailies, it was clear it wasn’t working, it looked like bad Playhouse 90. Malick decided to toss the script, go Tolstoy instead of Dostoyevsky, wide instead of deep, shoot miles of film with the hope of solving the problems in the editing room.”

Biskind on Malick then: “‘I don’t get the cult of Malick. I’ve always thought 'Badlands' was pretentious, a portrait of an artist stooping to conquer a genre. My feelings about 'Days of Heaven' is that it was saved in the editing. The rest of his films I could do without. How he turned less into more is one of the great Hollywood stories.”

Notable titles beyond the ‘70s: "The Thin Red Line" (1998), "The New World" (2005), "The Tree of Life" (2011), "To the Wonder" (2012)

Biskind on Malick now: “I like parts of 'The Tree of Life.' A bit grandiose but I was impressed that he gets away with the stuff he does there, like his imagistic musings about the universe. Unprecedented in a Hollywood movie. I can’t imagine his films are making any money, but as long as A-list actors like Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt buy into the cult and sign up to work with him, I guess he can continue.”

Who is also still working? Biskind, as he currently finishes a book due next year titled "The Eve of Destruction: The Rise of Extreme Culture in an Era of Political Polarization."

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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