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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more The Changing Face of Hollywood
By the late 1950s, the Hollywood studio system—in which on- and offscreen talent was essentially indentured to the studios—was in serious trouble. Many top actors, writers, and directors were no longer bound by restrictive studio contracts and could work for whomever they wanted. By the 1960s, the major Hollywood studios were still doing what they’d been doing for decades: making westerns and lavish historical dramas and big-budget musicals. But the little guys, the young upstarts, the independents, were starting to turn out movies that were fresh, very different, that just happened to be very good. Here’s an overview of some essential books about the changing face of Hollywood, as the studio system breathed its last, and the era of independent filmmaking took hold.
Pictures at a Revolution (2008), by Mark Harris, looks at the five films released in 1967 that were nominated for the Academy Award for best picture: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle. Two throwbacks to the old studio system (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle) and three movies that reflected the changing tastes of the American moviegoer: films with violence and frank discussions of sex, films that tackled social issues head-on (compare the way In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner handle the theme of racism). Harris traces the development and production of each of the movies, presenting the studio throwbacks as lumbering, arthritic productions, while presenting the other three films (equally troubled productions, in their own ways) as younger, nimbler, and altogether more exciting.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), by Peter Biskind, picks up where Harris leaves off. It’s 1969, and a low-budget movie almost nobody paid any attention to, Easy Rider, makes pretty much everybody in Hollywood sit up and say, Huh? The book, which covers in detail the decade of the 1970s (and in somewhat less detail the 1980s), chronicles the emergence of young filmmakers like Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby, and William Friedkin. It was a time when Hollywood—and movie audiences, let’s not forget the audiences—were discovering an edgier, franker, more realistic style of movie, a time when people in the movies started looking and talking like the people who went to see them (could Al Pacino, for example, have been a movie star before the 1970s?). The movie studios still existed, but they were no longer generating all of the material they produced; the young guys, mavericks and trend-busters, were setting Hollywood’s tone now.
For another look at filmmaking in the 1970s, check out Final Cut (1985), Steven Bach’s highly detailed look at the making of Michael Cimino’s 1980 movie Heaven’s Gate, the movie that was supposed to be the jewel in United Artist’s crown and wound up destroying the studio (and, not incidentally, several careers). Cimino was a Big Deal at the time, having made the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, and United Artists was eager to the point of salivation to get his next movie, which started out as a small western and turned into, well, Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the most notorious disaster in modern Hollywood history. If you’re looking for a book that explains how a movie can run out of control, how a reckless director and a desperate studio are not a good mix, you won’t find a better one than Final Cut.
Rebels on the Backlot (2005), by Sharon Waxman, looks at six noted directors—Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, and Paul Thomas Anderson—who, while working as independent filmmakers in the 1990s, forged alliances with the Hollywood studios. Like Harris in Pictures at a Revolution, Waxman follows the development of the directors’ movies (Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights, Traffic, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Fight Club, etc.), but, in addition, he explores the delicate balance between artistry and business: the filmmaker wants to make a good movie, while the studio wants the movie to make money. The book is an excellent reminder that the studio system didn’t die; it simply changed. Where once an independent filmmaker was almost an enemy of the Hollywood state, now the independents and the studios work together, and the audiences reap the rewards.
Finally, a couple of Hollywood biographies that shed considerable light on this same transition from studio dominance to indie rule. When Hollywood Had a King (2003), by Connie Bruck, traces the career of Lew Wasserman, the agent turned studio chief who was, for a startlingly long time, one of the most powerful and influential people in Hollywood (some say he was the most powerful). Wasserman started out as an agent with MCA, the powerful talent agency; then ran the company; then bought Universal Studios. When the Hollywood studio system was falling apart—and this is why the book is essential reading here—Wasserman was signing major actors, writers, and directors to long-term representation contracts, turning himself from an agent into a packager, taking the talent to a studio and saying: here’s your movie, all you need to do is pay for it. You could easily make a case that it was Wasserman who dealt the death blows to the studio system, but then you’d also have to say that what he really did was kill one system only to build another, this one owned and operated by Wasserman himself.
The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994) is the lively, semiconfessional, sometimes questionably accurate autobiography of Robert Evans, the Paramount studio exec who, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was connected with such films as Rosemary’s Baby,Serpico,The Odd Couple, The Great Gatsby,Love Story, and The Godfather (a movie he claims he pretty much saved by forcing Coppola to recut it, but see comments in Biskind’s book for another side of that story). In the early 1970s, Evans left the studio and went out on his own, producing films like Chinatown, Marathon Man, and The Cotton Club. The book offers a fascinating and entertaining look at studio and independent moviemaking in the ’70s and ’80s, told by a guy who’s worked both sides of the street.
David Pitt is a regular contributor to Booklist.
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