Radical Celluloid Chic: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls now on the Kindle
The death on Monday of Bert Schneider, the man who, along with his business partner Bob Rafelson, brought you both the Monkees and Easy Rider, brings to a close one chapter in the life and death of New Hollywood. As Mark Steyn wrote on Wednesday:
Bert Schneider was an obscure figure by the time of his death, but back in "New Hollywood" - that interlude between the end of the studio system and the dawn of the Jaws/Star Wars era - he was briefly a significant figure. He started in TV in the mid-Sixties, helped create "The Monkees" and then took them to the big screen in the feature film Head. That flopped, but the next film he produced, Easy Rider, cost less than 400 grand and within three years had made $60 million. There followed Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show.
But, as much as I like the latter, I prefer to remember the late Mr Schneider for his contribution to the gaiety of 1970s Oscar nights. Truly, that was the golden age of Academy Awards ceremonies. On April 8th 1975, Bert Schneider's film Hearts And Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Instead of an acceptance speech, he read out a telegram conveying fraternal greetings to the American people from Dinh Ba Thi of the Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government. Offstage, Bob Hope was mad, and scribbled some lines for his co-host Frank Sinatra. So Frank came out and said that the Academy wished to disassociate itself from the preceding. Then a furious Shirley MacLaine yelled at Frank that she was a member of the Academy and no one had asked her if she wanted to disassociate herself from the Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government. Then John Wayne said aw, the Schneider guy was a pain in the ass.
The rise of New Hollywood is a story that’s been told countless times, but one of the very best tellings is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, originally published in 1998, but finally released in a Kindle version this week -- entirely coincidentally, the day after Bert Schneider died. Biskind managed to interview many of the original players, and wrote a compelling narrative of the collapse of postwar Hollywood and the retirement of the last of the great moguls who built the industry, and the rise of the young turks who would be, for a time, their successors. And then their own usurpation, both through drug and alcohol-induced dissipation, and because Hollywood executives, with a little help from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, rediscovered how to connect with mass audiences.
By the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was in ruins. There were multiple reasons -- Michael Medved has blamed the demise of Hollywood's self-enforced production code and its replacement with the G/PG/R/X rating system as alienating a big chunk of traditional moviegoers in the late 1960s. Concurrently, the urban “youth” market of the 1960s felt alienated by an industry still churning out formula clones of the last big film by “Old Hollywood,” The Sound of Music. The failure of so many of those films that came in its wake, including Dr. Doolittle, Hello Dolly, Star and other expensive, out of control musicals and family-oriented movies, nearly drove 20th Century Fox to financial ruin, and ultimately caused the once-mighty MGM to effectively close up shop as a functioning studio.
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During the late 1960s, age had caught up with the industry as well. In an era whose slogan amongst the left was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” most Hollywood crews were manned by people double that age, who had broken in around the time of World War II or immediately afterwards, and weren’t planning to leave anytime soon. As Steven Spielberg told Biskind:
"It was not like the older generation volunteered the baton,” says Spielberg. “The younger generation had to wrest it away from them. There was a great deal of prejudice if you were a kid and ambitious. When I made my first professional TV show, Night Gallery, I had everybody on the set against me. The average age of the crew was sixty years old. When they saw me walk on the stage, looking younger than I really was, like a baby, everybody turned their backs on me, just walked away. I got the sense that I represented this threat to everyone’s job.”
Ultimately he was -- including many of the young turks in Biskind's book, ironically enough. But prior to Spielberg's rise as an industry unto himself, as Biskind tells it in Easy Riders, there were two milestones in the birth of New Hollywood in the late 1960s. The first was Bonnie & Clyde, the second was Easy Rider. As leftwing author Rick Perstein told Reason magazine in 2008 while promoting his then-recent book Nixonland:
My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys—you cannot underestimate how strange and fresh that was.
But along with Bonnie & Clyde's subversive script (written by Robert Benton and David Newman, who got their start at Esquire magazine, then at the peak of its journalistic style and influence), at least the film had a known-star in Warren Beatty, a ravishing looking Faye Dunaway, whose career was still in its ascendency, and a veteran director in Arthur Penn.