The view here is that Peter Biskind’s 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll Generation Changed Hollywood, is easily the most influential history of the film industry of modern times, and realistically any time. Most any book about film and the people behind it is a page turner, but Biskind’s account of late ‘60s, early 1970s Hollywood would belong on any list of “unputdownable” books about entertainment.
Biskind’s stories about Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Hal Ashby, Roman Polanski, Robert Towne, Bob Rafelson, and Bert Schneider (and so many more) was a window into a particularly creative time in Hollywood during which some wildly interesting people made some remarkable films. Actor Scott Caan, whose father James was prominently featured in the Biskind book thanks to The Godfather, memorably said he hoped his crowd of entertainment heirs would recreate the wild and fecund atmosphere of the ‘70s. It seems they didn’t, because if they did they would be canceled today. Yes, women were love objects in the Hollywood of the “Me Decade,” and the men, most notably Bert Schneider, viewed themselves as love objects too.
So who was Bert Schneider? The answer arguably explains why Biskind’s book was so difficult to put down. Most readers had likely never heard of the more-than-compelling movie producer before, but from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s he was very much a somebody in an industry full of somebodies. Biskind’s passages about this long-since-forgotten producer were easily the most entertaining and interesting passages in a book that was never boring. And Schneider didn’t lack self-regard. As he explained it to girlfriend Candace Bergen, who desired monogamy that he could not provide, he was most definitely the “love object” any time he walked into any room.
The main thing is that Biskind’s book inspired all manner of subsequent histories of late 1960s, early 1970s Hollywood. There’s been an oral history (my review here) of Mike Nichols followed by a biography (my review here) of the polymath, Nashville had a book written about it, so did Chinatown, Biskind went back to the well he created with a book about Beatty, Quentin Tarantino made a movie about the libertine era, and on and on and on. Biskind’s fascinating look back was plainly influential as evidenced by how much writing, filmmaking, and documentary-producing has since been done about a colorful time in a booming industry.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls naturally came to mind while reading The Atlantic senior editor and CNN contributor’s Ronald Brownstein’s new book, Rock Me On the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics. While Brownstein doesn’t directly say Biskind’s history inspired his own, he does mention Biskind in the acknowledgements. The speculation here is that without Biskind’s 1998 history, there’s perhaps not Browstein’s look back at 1974. At the very least, the bet here is that there’s no chapter (easily the best chapter in Brownstein’s uneven, occasionally tedious book) almost wholly dedicated to Bert Schneider, a womanizing, drugging, brilliant movie-producing personage from the past that historians of the industry just can’t seem to look away from.
Brownstein’s thesis is that in 1974 Los Angeles “exerted more influence over popular culture than any other city in America.” An immense amount of film, television, musical, and political talent was clustered “just blocks from one another.” Or in the words of session guitarist Danny Kortchmar, in the Los Angeles of 1974 “You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a genius.” At which point Brownstein had a big challenge. He had to somehow show that in 1974 all this L.A.-based talent flowered, thus making the City of Angels the proverbial center of the universe. The view here is that Brownstein took on an impossible task (he acknowledges toward book’s end that time is rarely neat, that a creative light didn’t suddenly shine brightly on January 1, 1974 only to dim 365 days later), but that doesn’t subtract from what is often a good read. Put another way, if you can’t get enough of entertainment industry stories from the ‘70s, this book is for you. It’s got some good stories within.
At the same time, it’s once again tedious. Maddeningly so. Brownstein repeats the same, very obvious things over and over and over again. More on this in a bit, but after a lengthy chapter about Tom Hayden and actress Jane Fonda, and frequent mentions of the Lefty couple throughout the book, he actually references “Jane Fonda” as “Hayden’s wife” toward the end of the book. This was constant with nearly every personage introduced by Brownstein. He introduced them over and over again. It was as though Brownstein wrote the book in fits and starts, only to forget that he reported the same thing to readers pages, and sometimes a page before.
Still, Hollywood in the auteur period was beyond interesting. Brownstein makes it interesting too. Readers won’t regret buying and reading this book, and as evidenced by many positive reviews of what will be referred to as Rock Me going forward, some will be thrilled to have purchased it. I read it quickly because I enjoyed it despite its demerits.
My reviews always have a focus on economic concepts unearthed by anecdote, and so will this one. The first has to do with talent, and where it clusters. It should be obvious that talent is easily the biggest driver of economic progress and prosperity, and nothing else comes close. This truth will be a little bit difficult for the supply-siders in our midst to swallow (I consider myself a supply-sider, or at least strongly believe that production is most abundant where barriers to production are least evident), but talent trumps tax rates. And in the 1970s a great deal of amazing human capital was in Los Angeles. They came from all over, and no, they weren’t tax exiles. A city like Los Angeles with its weather and beauty and economy is going to be a magnet for life’s doers, and it certainly was.
To the above, some will say that if tax rates in California had been too onerous that the enterprising would never have taken their talents there in the first place. Plus they’d reasonably ask about the unseen; as in what would booming California (then and now) look like absent all the tax barriers to progress. Fair points all. Still, for the longest time Florida, Tennessee and Texas have had zero rates of taxation while California did not. This truth didn’t deter some of the world’s most brilliant people from populating the southern and northern parts of the state on the way to amazing advance. If California were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest economy. To this day more than half of the world’s venture capital flows to California. Without excusing the state’s tax and spend policies for even a second, California is the “yes, but” answer to most any slow-growth economic policy. The bet here is that the Kortchmar quote explains it then and now: brilliance is abundant in the Golden State.
Brownstein very interestingly notes what Rob Lowe had in his autobiography (my review here). In Lowe’s case, he moved with his brother and divorced mother from Ohio to southern California in the early ‘70s, and they lived in Malibu. At the time it was blue collar in many ways. Think inexpensive. Brownstein adds about the ‘70s that the “beach was a distant wasteland, Santa Monica crowded with retirees, and Venice a dark and dangerous den of artists, junkies, and schizophrenics shouting in the street.” Now these are rich areas with incredibly expensive real estate. All too many tie the change to laws against development as the source of California’s nosebleed home prices. The thinking is simplistic. More realistically, there’s a lot of wealth around the world chasing a California coastline that cannot be expanded.
In a short stretch screenwriter Robert Towne saw films he wrote (Chinatown) or co-wrote (Shampoo) made into movies. In 1974. This is useful because in Towne’s words when looking back on his good fortune, at the time he didn’t think “there was a snowball’s chance in hell these movies would be made.” Hollywood, per movie producer extraordinaire Brian Grazer (my review of his book here), is the land of “No.” Even for Grazer. Even for Grazer to this day despite the fact that he’s teamed with Ron Howard. Credit is always tight in Hollywood. That it is discredits all the focus of economists on “easy money” from the Fed (what a laugh), but it also calls into question one of the major, and annoying narratives promoted by Brownstein in the book: in his retelling, women and minorities faced constant discrimination from Hollywood’s white males in the 1970s.
Among others, he cites Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury writing a “dark comedy about the dissolution of her marriage.” She wrote the script after all of Nashville’s acclaim, but couldn’t get it made. To Brownfield this was surely discrimination. What else could it be? He had a narrative, and he was sticking to it. Except that as anyone in the movie industry could tell him now, and certainly could have told him then, the vast majority of scripts never get made. “Development hell,” “turnaround,” and all manner of other Hollywood-isms exist precisely because it’s so hard for a script to get the “greenlight.” But since everything’s political, man vs. woman, and white vs. black in the Left’s view of the world, Brownstein had to find discrimination wherever he could. It seemingly never occurred to him that a “dark comedy” about a divorce would be a tough sell even for Steven Spielberg.
Along similar lines, Brownstein writes of how Sherry Lansing (eventual CEO of Paramount) “accepted without argument” a boss’s unwillingness to make her pay equal to a male colleague’s during her early years in the industry. Discrimination! Except that most of us to this day, having gotten our foot in the door, are going to be reluctant to push too hard. Not everything is race or gender based despite what Brownstein believes, or what his flock wants to believe.
Brownstein quotes music manager Irving Azoff as saying “If you’re really good, you only have to be right once.” He was talking about making it in music and entertainment. No doubt true, but it also speaks to what Brownstein acknowledges in Rock Me: more than a few of the legends profiled in the book saw their stars dim after the 1970s. Individuals decline with great regularity in a free market as do businesses. This is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. The good are always being replaced by the better. We consumers win.
Considering the book’s title, Jackson Browne wrote “Rock Me On the Water.” What’s important here is that he was thrilled when Linda Ronstadt recorded the song, as was he ultimately pleased when the Eagles recorded another song he’d written: “Take It Easy.” Nowadays there’s so much hand wringing about “China” lifting our IP and other forms of theft. It’s not that simple. Ronstadt was sui generis. So were the Eagles. Some elevate material, but even then we only hear about the successes. Most songs, like most products, like most businesses fail. Another feature of capitalism is that the future is hard to comprehend. When we focus on politicians protecting our “intellectual property,” we’re presuming to know in advance what the markets want, and by extension what’s valuable now and in the future. It’s not easy. It’s much less than easy. Not convinced? Who asked MCA head Sidney Sheinberg “Why are you making me do this B movie?” It was no less than Steven Spielberg. During the making of Jaws…..
The television reporting in Rock Me was particularly interesting in that Brownstein reports of how in 1973-74, CBS could claim nine of the ten most watched shows in America. How different media was then. So different. The author doesn’t report it, but no doubt some wanted to break CBS up for being too powerful. Antitrust, you know! It’s absurd. The only constant in free commerce is change. Quick, other than the NFL and 60 Minutes, name a CBS show today. High profits and dominance attract the investment for the eventual replacement of the profitable and dominant.
Norman Lear was the creator (think All In the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, etc.) of many of these dominant 1970s TV shows, but as Brownstein reports, not too long before he had been “reduced to selling furniture and baby photos door-to-door.” By the 1970s, he was arguably the richest man in television. Of course, after the 1970s Lear’s star slowly fell. Now he’s mostly known for People For the American Way, his political organization. Inequality is a sign that we’re getting what we want from the productive (think Lear’s shows once again), but it’s rarely a forever thing. Did Lear’s success hurt us? Did his later lack of success lift us up?
There’s no book about the 1970s without the late Robert Evans, the legendary former actor, head of Paramount and producer. Some reading this review would say his 1994 memoir (The Kid Stays In the Picture) was what truly kicked off interest in ‘70s Hollywood), but the main thing is that he’s always a joy to read about. I’ve read Evans’s memoir, I’ve also read The Long Goodbye (about the making of Chinatown - my review here), but don’t remember this line from Evans about meeting with Towne so that the screenwriter could explain his movie idea: “After an hour of him telling me the story, I understood it less.” Classic!
Funny about Towne’s script is that Chinatown director Roman Polanski had strong views about how to write the film himself. Keep in mind that this was pre-computers, copy and paste, etc. Brownstein writes that Towne and Polanski “reduced each scene to a single sentence” as they worked on the sequencing of the script, only for Towne to cut each sentence out “on strips of paper” that “he hung on a board in the downstairs bedroom where they worked.” It’s stories like these that should remind everyone about how worthless are economic models about “productivity” in modern times. Economists claim productivity has been stagnant for years. What a laugh.
Mentioned earlier was that if Scott Caan and his crowd had really managed to re-create ‘70s Hollywood in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they’d be canceled today. Once again, women were objects back then. This was true to studio moguls and actors, but also to media members. Toward book’s end, Brownstein cites a mid-‘70s Rolling Stone story about Linda Ronstadt, and how the reporter asked all the men in her orbit if they’d slept with her. The world was so different then. Notable here is that Brownstein himself seemed intent on pointing out the various men songstress Joni Mitchell had assignations with. Could she possibly be happy with this? Either way, did Brownstein himself cross the modern line?
Oh well, the main thing is that Brownstein unearths some page-turning information. But his analysis of it left much to be desired. Indeed, the analysis was in many ways exhausting. About the classic Peter Bogdanovich film The Last Picture Show, he writes that it “marked a pivotal moment in Hollywood’s turn away from the Altman generation’s critical perspective on America.” Everything Brownstein wrote about in Rock Me was presumed to have some bigger meaning. Except that The Last Picture Show came out before Chinatown, Shampoo, Altman’s Nashville, along with the two Godfathers that Brownstein asserted were also a comment on “the rot” in America. The author claims that Spielberg, George Lucas, and other post-WWII directors made the “popcorn” films (think American Graffiti, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T.,etc.) that were by his accounting a response to the critical-of-America films helmed by directors born in the 1930s, only for Brownstein to feature Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, which Brownstein described as “as dark a vision of modern America as anything produced by the older generation.” Except that Schrader was born in 1946.
The simple truth is that Brownstein kept trying to differentiate between pre-war and “boomer” this and that, only for his own writing to discredit his narrative. That, or he wrote what was plainly untrue in order to give heft to a narrative that he felt he had to give heft too: supposedly 1974 was particularly important from a cultural development perspective. Early in Rock Me Brownstein writes of how “Even into the late 1960s” the “record labels had not yet accepted the idea of the album as a coherent artistic and social statement.” Except that the Beatles “Rubber Soul” was released in 1965, only for the Beach Boys to follow with “Pet Sounds” as a direct response. This isn’t to say that Brownstein’s assertion was wholly incorrect, but time isn’t neat. It never is. Even he knows this. As previously mentioned he ultimately acknowledged it.
The trite lines were endless. “Logistical and financial demands swarmed around Beatty like summer flies.” The Beach Boys produced hits “as steadily as waves lapping onto a sun-kissed beach.” Musician parties in the Hollywood Hills attended by bright lights like Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Jackson Browne et al led to major names creating beautiful music “drifting like smoke toward the lights of LA below.” Glenn Frey’s “lead vocals and guitar solos soared from the stage as sharp and cutting as a hot wind through the desert.” It was as though Dan Rather co-wrote the book without taking credit.
But the main annoyance was once again repetition. About it, to some degree it’s useful. Repetition is a way to make a point, or better yet, how to help readers understand a point. If you read my books, they’re very repetitive. By design. They’re written with repetition in mind. Economic concepts rarely sink in the first time. Despite that, it seemed excessive with Rock Me. At least three times Brownstein introduces David Geffen as the up-and-comer with “boundless ambition.” Basically, he re-introduces the “ambitious” Geffen every time he introduces a new musician whom Geffen signed to Asylum, his first record label. The story of how Geffen faked his graduation from UCLA to the agents at William Morris is told at least twice. At least three times Ahmet Ertegun is introduced to readers as “the elegant” Ahmet Ertegun. Probably not for the first time in the book Brownstein writes of Jonathan Taplin as for “the former road manager for Bob Dylan” on p. 110. Was that page ripped out of your copy? Fear not. You’ll learn the same about Taplin on pages 113 and 118. In the same chapter about Jaws, Brownstein introduces the film twice in case you missed the first introduction. On page 230 Brownstein reports that Candice Bergen used to look across the canyon at Bert Schneider’s house, only to see an endless procession of women. He begins this anecdote with “Living across the canyon.” Nine pages later he writes of Bergen “Living across the canyon” from Schneider once again, only to tell the same story once again in near identical fashion. This is but a few of countless other examples of needless, tedious repetition.
Yet despite the repetition, the biggest complaint about Rock Me would be Browstein’s attempt to essentially mechanize the cultural flowering of Los Angeles in 1974, only for it to die. And there’s a reason for its death as though human action can be so easily compartmentalized. In Brownstein’s words,
“Once the cultural balance tipped from optimism to resignation, around 1975, the LA renaissance flickered. When the last hopes that America might fundamentally transform after the 1960s faded, so, too, did LA’s moment as the center of popular culture.”
Sorry, but life, art, and America aren’t that simple. Thank goodness they aren’t. Life is trillions of decisions made by decentralized individuals every millisecond. That’s why it can’t be planned. That’s why central planning failed so miserably. Yet Brownstein is trying to break so much that happened before and after 1974 down to a thesis, along with numerous (admittedly interesting) anecdotes. In my case I wasn’t sold.
Again, the book was enjoyable as all books about entertainment generally are. But he tried to make it what it couldn’t be through vain efforts to neatly wrap so much into a year. That was a mistake. He could have written a better book had he merely wrote something titled “Once Upon a Time In America.” Look it up! But really, what choice did Brownstein have? In many ways Peter Biskind had already told the story (and so many since him) that Brownstein is trying to re-tell, at which point he had to come up with a new angle. 1974 was the angle. I’ll take Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.