You know that old joke about how the majority of New Yorker cartoons could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? I thought about that a lot while I was reading Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’N’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. This book chronicles the work of many major directors of the 1970s, including Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Robert Altman (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), and Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), starting in the late 1960s with films such as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde (making it a nice follow-up to Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution) and going through the early 1980s.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls aims to present both the artistry and the business side of how many classic films of the 1970s were made. The films covered include both successes and flops, including some films (such as Harold and Maude and Raging Bull) that weren’t well received at the time but are highly regarded today. It’s an interesting glimpse into a pivotal time in the film industry, transitioning away from the studio system that shaped the first half of the twentieth century, moving into the more auteur-driven ideal of the 1970s (and that we saw arise again in the indie movement of the 1990s), and into the blockbuster ideal of hits like Star Wars and Jaws.
The book provides lots of interesting tidbits (George Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now!) and information about the business side of the film industry (such as the way changes to how films are released into theaters impacted what kinds of films were successful throughout the 1970s). However, for me the reading experience was affected by how essentially everyone involved with the making of these films (at least the powerful people like directors, producers, and star actors) seems like a terrible person – arrogant, selfish, petty, vindictive, and unwilling to share credit with anyone. And that’s before they all start abusing cocaine! Overall I think this book works better as a story of the pitfalls of the auteur model of filmmaking, and as a deep dive into the business of film at a pivotal time, than as a celebration of the artistry or impact of these classic films.