“True Hollywood Story: The Producer and the Black Panther” by Kate Coleman, Salon.com

http://www.salon.com/2012/06/09/true_hollywood_story_the_producer_and_the_black_panther/

Bert Schneider was one of the most important film producers/executives in Hollywood history.   Schneider, along with his partners Bob Rafelson and Stephen Blauner, headed a production company called BBS Productions, which produced (among other films) the following classics: “Easy Rider” (1969), “Five Easy Pieces (1970), “The Last Picture Show” (1971), and “Hearts and Minds” (1974).   The BBS philosophy was, as long as filmmakers kept their budgets relatively low, the company would give them tremendous artistic freedom, a  freedom that resulted in some radical, legendary movies that defined what was called “The New Hollywood” … movies that also happened to be very successful at the box office.

However, there was a dark side to Schneider.  Per the accounts in Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders Raging Bulls” and other places, Schneider could be cruel … not only cuckholding friends and berating anyone he felt was his inferior (specifically screenwriters), but also indulging in extreme substance abuse.   Also, Schneider’s earnestness in supporting progressive causes sometimes led him down some dark paths.

This terrific article about Schneider, written for Salon.com by Kate Coleman, chronicles Schneider’s relationship with Black Panther Huey Newton.   There’s a lot of debate about Newton and his legacy.  I don’t know enough about Newton to say what’s true and what isn’t.  But despite whatever good he may have done, Newton was a troubled man and I don’t believe all of his troubles were the result of government conspiracies.  A really fascinating and dark tale about friendship and an era when “radical chic” sometimes blinded well-intentioned people.

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“Pictures at a Revolution” by Mark Harris

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Easily one of the Top 5 best books I’ve read about American film history is Mark Harris’s terrific 2008 tome “Pictures at a Revolution.”  “Pictures” focuses on the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967 and through chronicling the genesis, production, and release of these films, Harris makes a strong argument that this was the tipping point between the Hollywood of old and the “new Hollywood” that emerged in the 1970s.  If you enjoyed Peter Biskind’s seminal 1970s Hollywood chronicle “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” “Pictures” is a worthy prequel and, arguably, just as complex and readable as Biskind’s famous book.

However, please note that while Harris focuses extensively on the five Best Picture nominees of 1967 (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dr. Doolittle,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night”), this isn’t the limit of the tale that “Pictures” tells.   Harris paints vivid portraits of the creative forces behind these films (Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Norman Jewison, Rex Harrison, Faye Dunaway, Francois Trauffaut, Buck Henry, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Anne Bancroft, and Joseph E. Levine among several others) as well as other films from the era that were also making a huge impact (“Jules and Jim,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Blow Up,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “A Patch of Blue” among several others).   While “Pictures” may not be as gossipy as Biskind’s classic, it serves as a wonderfully entertaining social history of how 1960s Hollywood reflected (and in many cases, resisted) the cultural changes that swept the nation during that tumultuous decade.  If you have any interest at all in film or social/cultural history, Harris’s book is a must-read.

Favorite anecdote:  Warren Beatty is showing “Bonnie and Clyde” to Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner.  Warner advised that if he has to get up to go to the bathroom, the picture will not work.  Warner excused himself three times to use the restroom.  At the end of the screening, Warner advised that the film was terrible because it was “a three-piss picture.” Beatty tried to flatter Warner by saying that “Bonnie and Clyde” was an homage to the gangster movies that made Warner Brothers a huge success in the 1930s.  Warner’s reply: “What the f–k’s an ‘homage’?”

“Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.

Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.

From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”

Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.

Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.

It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.

Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.

The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.

“Bugsy” (1991) dir. Barry Levinson, scr. James Toback

From 1991’s superior gangster melodrama “Bugsy,” Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel goes Joe Pesci on an associate who has stolen from him.  A really intense, wild, scary, and weirdly amusing scene.  I wish I could find this in better quality, but this was the best I could find on YouTube.  Due to rough language and disturbing behavior, not safe for work or little ones.

Oddly enough, this scene was inspired, not by something Siegel experienced, but by something screenwriter Toback did.  According to Peter Biskind’s stellar biography on Beatty, “Star,” Toback had a meeting with studio executive David Begelman in the early 1980s.  Begelman told Toback he would get back to him tomorrow with his confirmation on whether their deal would be good for Toback to write/direct a film.  Toback asked him why he couldn’t confirm right now.  Begelman said he might change his mind and asked Toback what he was going to do about it.  Toback grabbed Begelman’s ear and slammed Begelman’s head down on his desk.  Begelman agreed to make the movie, but then pulled a gun out and told Toback: “Don’t think you scared me by threatening me like that.  You think you’re afraid to die?  I’m much less afraid to die that you are. I load this pistol with a bullet and put it to my head every day, and sometimes I squeeze the trigger and sometimes I don’t.  You’ll never be as unafraid to die as I am.”   Toback then made Begelman crawl around the room and oink like a pig and bark like a dog, which he did willingly.   Again, this is Toback’s side of the story, according to Biskind, but considering that Begelman (at the height of his career with Columbia Pictures in the early 1970s) famously got canned for forging a $10,000 check to actor Cliff Robertson, this has the air of sad truth.   Beatty insisted Toback include this in his script for “Bugsy” and the above clip is the result.  Another case of truth being a hell of a lot weirder (and more interesting) than fiction.

Polly Platt, a belated appreciation

You may or may not know who Polly Platt is / was, but  Platt was a dynamic creative force in Hollywood from the late 1960s through the 1990s.  She was married to (and then famously divorced from) acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich and was production designer (and, as many people believe, contributed significantly more creatively) on all of his early 1970s masterpieces/hits (“Targets,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?,” “Paper Moon”).  She wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s controversial English language debut film “Pretty Baby.” She was the art director on “Terms of Endearment” and co-produced many of James L. Brooks’s films, including “Broadcast News” and “War of the Roses.”  She was the producer of Cameron Crowe’s classic “Say Anything.”  And, she was responsible for plucking Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson out of nowhere, producing their  stunningly hilarious debut “Bottle Rocket” in 1996.

Her marriage to and divorce from Bogdanovich was fictionalized in the conventional, but clever Hollywood satire from 1984 “Irreconcilable Differences” (with Shelley Long playing the Platt character and Drew Barrymore playing her daughter).

Platt sadly died in July 2011, but her contribution to American film over the last 50 years can not be underestimated.  For more on the Platt story, please read Peter Biskind’s classic book on 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and more significantly, Rachel Abramowitz’s exhaustive look at women in Hollywood from the 1960s through the new millenium, “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket?”

Below are trailers for her greatest films:
The Last Picture Show (1971)

Say Anything (1989)

Bottle Rocket (1996)

“Reds” (1981) dir. Warren Beatty

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Warren Beatty allegedly HATED this trailer (at least according to Peter Biskind’s terrific and lengthy bio on Beatty called “Star”). But I very distinctly remember seeing it when I was 11 years old … before some Burt Reynolds comedy about “surrogate motherhood” (yes … my thoughts exactly) … and being incredibly pumped to see “Reds” when it got released months later. Again, I was 11-years old in 1981, living in Virginia (arguably THE most conservative state in the USA), weened on “Star Wars” and “Smokey and the Bandit,” and this lengthy trailer got me excited about seeing a 3-hour plus film about an American Communist during the Russian Revolution. Maybe it was the rousing strains of “The Internationale” playing during the last two minutes that did it for me. Anyway, the movie didn’t disappoint and it’s still astonishing that a big-budget Hollywood film with this subject matter ever got green-lit, financed, and produced. Seriously, NOTHING like this on this kind of scale would ever be made today in Hollywood. The last hurrah of the 1970s “New Hollywood.”