Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

This 1998 book by Peter Biskind, executive editor of Premiere magazine for several years, has justifiably gained a reputation as one of the best books about movies of the past few decades. I saw it for $1 at the resale store, then spent the next week obsessively devouring it.

It’s about the auteur directors of the 70s, and is chock full of interviews [and tons upon tons of gossip] about Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonavich, Steven Spielberg, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Hal Ashby, Dennis Hopper, Brian De Palma and William Friedkin. The book charts the development and reaction to their many films during this period, while also showing why they were important, and how they changed Hollywood. Essentially, it shows how Hollywood movies were big, pleasant but bland affairs, until the above directors, collectively dubbed “New Hollywood,” brought in personal, gritty, often violent films that quickly became a sensation. It all went along for a while, until Jaws demonstrated that previously unheard-of amounts of money could be made from movies, and then Star Warsdemonstrated that un-fucking-believable amounts of money could be made from films, preferably if they were essentially big bright comic books. And then producers came in and drove the unreliable, unprofitable auteurs out, and movies became more effects-driven and made or broken over opening weekend.

But the real thrill of the book is all the intimate, extremely candid behind-the-scenes stories of some of your favorite movies—The Godfather, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Star Wars, Jaws, The Exorcist, etc.—and the dirty, dirty gossip spilled out about everybody. Coppola was a brash dreamer who would defend the work of others while starting huge projects he had no idea how to handle. George Lucas was his assistant and the biggest asocial nerd you ever encountered, until after Star Wars he lost interest in Coppola and wouldn’t help him. Dennis Hopper was flat-out insane and his wife had to flee him for her life. Peter Bogdonavich was insanely egotistical and alienated everyone around him. Scorsese almost lost in mind in a haze of sex and drugs. Spielberg was another nerd geek who couldn’t relate to people. And yet… somehow I’m not making this sound as exciting as it is. In the book you get lots of details about the sex [lots of it] the drugs [even more] and the hatreds, the betrayals, the jealousy, the astonishing egos, the hubris, the screwing over of friends, the wives and children unceremoniously dumped, the huge, misguided projects hemorrhaging millions and employing thousands for the incomplete vision of a director who was in his trailer doing coke. You also find out who was an unexpected slut [Margot Kidder], who was a surprising stud [Brian De Palma], who you’d never guess is a total fucking asshole shitbag [Robert Altman] and who is “the most manipulative woman who ever lived” [Amy Irving].

Incredibly, most of this is oral history straight from the mouths of the people involved, and how Biskind got them all to be so candid, one can only marvel. If you like these movies, and the directors of this period, and you want to get a shockingly intimate look into their lives during this decade, you pretty much must get this book.

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2 thoughts on “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

  1. I read it when it first came out. It is fascination, gripping, compulsive reading but I now think it should be taken with a grain of salt. Many of the directors profiled have disputed the way they are portrayed and the methodology of the research. Robert Altman may have disputed his portrayal the most. I was working at a book store when it came out and the guy who wrote the screenplay for the Lolita remake was there to promote it. I asked him what he thought of the book and he found it compulsively readable as well but said it felt like most of the sources were angry ex-wives. The shear amount of bad behavior or as one reviewer put it “a seemingly endless series of ugly incidents” is kind of depressing after a while.

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  2. Pingback: The Last Picture Show – CdM II: Bathtime for Cthulhu

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