There seems to be a consensus that the late 1960s and the ’70s constituted the last great age of Hollywood. It was the era that produced such classics as “Chinatown” and the first two “Godfather” films, and such edgy and groundbreaking movies as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Medium Cool,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Conformist,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Serpico,” “Paper Moon,” “The Conversation,” “Nashville,” “Citizens Band” and “Saturday Night Fever.”
And then, the conventional wisdom goes, the blockbuster mentality took hold of Hollywood and the great frenzy of creative originality came to an end, resulting in the current age of formulaic copycats, sequels and films based on comic books, old TV shows and even theme-park rides. The movies of the ’70s, it is often said, were for adults; today’s are for 14-year-old boys.
All the movies mentioned above came from Paramount Pictures while Peter Bart was a production executive there, working under studio head Robert Evans. Bart had been a reporter for the New York Times in Los Angeles, and after leaving Paramount, he became editor of Variety. So who better to give us the inside story on this Golden Age? He, too, subscribes to the conventional wisdom about the ’70s: “It would be all but impossible to re-create a major film studio today that embodied the reckless swagger of Paramount in the seventies. . . . The business of Hollywood is that of building brands, not fostering imagination.”
But it’s clear from the book’s title (a play on the original name of Paramount, Famous Players) and its oddly punctuated subtitle that Bart is not out to give us a rosy view of the era. He describes the copulation-and-cocaine-fueled culture of the movie business without excessive sensationalism, and his chapter on the industry’s underworld connections makes it seem all the more remarkable that so revealing a portrait of mob life as the “Godfather” films should have come forth from Paramount.
The studio in that day was owned by the conglomerate Gulf+Western, whose chairman, Charles Bluhdorn, resembled moguls of the Hollywood studio era like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Columbia’s Harry Cohn in ruthlessness and vulgarity. In hiring Evans to head production at Paramount, Bluhdorn seemed to have sought out his opposite. Bart comments: “Evans, I decided, personified a sort of dream fantasy version of Bluhdorn. He was an attractive, smooth-talking ladies’ man; Bluhdorn was homely and abrasive and sexually repressed.” The best and most revealing parts of Bart’s book are concentrated on the dynamic between Bluhdorn and Evans.
But the problem is that Bart doesn’t play enough on his strengths in this book. Though he was present at the creation of some of the most memorable films of the age and had intimate access to the corridors of power at Paramount, much of the book is a rehash of material that has been covered in other, better books, such as Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”
Bart’s narrative is so disorderly that he often repeats stories that he’s already told in other contexts. We hear twice, for example, how Evans’s mob-connected “consigliere,” Sidney Korshak, persuaded MGM’s Kirk Kerkorian to release Al Pacino from another film commitment so he could play Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”
Nor does Bart always achieve credibility in his stories. It’s hard to believe that, when they were looking for a screenwriter to adapt the Lerner and Loewe musical “Paint Your Wagon,” Bart actually said to Evans, “Paddy Chayefsky writes movies like ‘Network’ or ‘Hospital.’ ” The film “Paint Your Wagon” appeared in 1969; “The Hospital” wasn’t made until 1971 and “Network” not until 1976.
“Infamous Players” is, in short, a book that needed a better editor, one who could not only provide a narrative structure and check facts, but also keep Bart from writing sentences like “Lurking beneath the atmosphere of prurience and play was a chasm of self-destruction.”
Bart’s profiles of such then-rising stars as Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford don’t add any new insights into Beatty’s ego, Eastwood’s careerism and Redford’s remoteness, a
nd he oddly mentions the ’70s’ most iconic star, Jack Nicholson, only in passing. But he does give us sharp-edged portraits of Bluhdorn and Evans, as well as such creative figures as Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Polanski. He sees the last two as embodiments of “both the most admirable and most self-destructive traits of their generation of filmmakers. . . . Their egos would spin out of control. Their appetites would far exceed their talents. Their hatred of authority would become pathological. They came to think of themselves not merely as rebels but as outlaws. They viewed the studios not as wellsprings of support, but as targets to be plundered.”
That, in itself, is the epitome of the genius of Hollywood filmmaking in the ’70s. After them came the marketers and the technicians.
Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex)
By Peter Bart
Weinstein. 274 pp. $25