“What we need are good old American—and that’s not to be confused with European—Art Films.” So declared the then twenty-nine-year-old beatnik Method actor Dennis Hopper in an unpublished 1965 manifesto. “The whole damn country’s one big real place to utilize and film, and God’s a great gaffer!”
Less than three years later, Hopper was himself out in America, shooting a biker art film provisionally titled The Losers. American International Pictures, the home of fast, cheap, insouciantly exploitative horror, beach party, biker, and now crazy hippie flicks, had nixed the notion of a “modern” western in which a pair of motorcycle dudes make a major dope score, then ride cross-country to retire on a Florida orange farm, only to be shot down—bang, like in the war—by a couple of redneck poachers. But then Hopper and his partner, twenty-eight-year-old AIP youth star Peter Fonda, secured the backing of Hollywood’s hippest producers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider.
Rafelson and Schneider were both thirty-five, well connected, and already riding the youth wave, albeit in television. The pair had invented the hugely popular, Emmy Award–winning made-for-TV band the Monkees, and their outfit, Raybert, was set to perpetrate the ultimate goof, a Monkees vehicle that would eventually be called Head.
Schneider would produce, and Rafelson would direct, from a script he wrote with another Hollywood hipster, B-movie actor Jack Nicholson, thirty. Their screenplay would be even more free-associative than the hit LSD adventure Nicholson had recently written for AIP, The Trip (1967)—directed by Roger Corman and featuring Fonda in the lead, with Hopper playing a demonic Sunset Boulevard acid guru. Nicholson was reunited with Fonda and Hopper when Schneider assigned him to keep an eye on Easy Rider (as The Losers was renamed by scriptwriter Terry Southern).
Hopper was not the only aspiring filmmaker who saw himself as a nascent auteur or as part of an American New Wave. Hollywood may have been a sclerotic dinosaur, but inspired in equal measure by European cineastes and America’s dharma bums, other eager-beaver bohemians were gnawing away at the system—hanging out at pop art gallery shows and beatnik poetry readings, digging Dylan and the Doors, studying the Method, smoking pot, and finding work at AIP. Writer-producer-actor Nicholson was one of the most versatile of these, and something of a house genius at Raybert, which, with the addition of Schneider’s childhood friend Steven Blauner, would soon become BBS—providing a home for other AIP veterans, including directors Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom, actors Karen Black and Bruce Dern, screenwriter Carole Eastman, and cameraman László Kovács.
Over the next half dozen years, this group would create six more features that, in their engagement with the present moment, determination to break free of the movie-industry establishment, commitment to new forms of naturalism, and reckless, movie-intoxicated ambition, embodied the spirit of a New Hollywood. Something was happening, and they thought they knew what it was . . . pop music, pop alienation, a yearning for roots, the last frontier, casual sex, sudden death, crazy kids, Vietnam.
BBS movies, although not always hits, were never less than events, engaging both audiences and a new generation of passionate critics. The discourse—as articulated by serious cinephiles like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, as well as their younger colleagues around the country—was essentially about freedom. What were movies now, what could they be? Where was America going, where should it go? Some BBS protagonists felt liberated from the old constraints; others struggled to achieve that state. It was beautiful, as Peter Fonda’s Captain America recognized in Easy Rider, and yet impossible.
Each BBS production celebrated the triumph of its own coming into existence—a triumph, in part, because the movies were themselves so excitingly downbeat, not least in their opposition to Hollywood at that time. Indeed, in film after film, BBS protagonists would go down to defeat. Casualties of the not altogether understood “cultural revolution” happening around them, these characters typically carried the seeds of their own destruction—as did BBS itself, along with the counterculture with which its filmmakers identified.
In early ’68, however, anything seemed possible. Schneider and Rafelson were itching to join the party when Head and Easy Rider both went into production, in mid-February. And whether or not God was a-gaffing, America had never been crazier.
As embodied by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty (and rendered by Robert Rauschenberg), the Righteous Outlaws Bonnie and Clyde made the cover of Time magazine just as 1967 ended and American casualties in the now three-year-long war in Vietnam surpassed those suffered in Korea. The Vietcong launched their Tet Offensive, and America’s most trusted TV newsman, Walter Cronkite, returned from Nam to declare the war a “stalemate.” B-52s pounded the hills around the marine base at Khe Sanh, seeking to bury the VC under more explosives than had ever been dropped in the history of mankind.
Outsiders were in: antiwar senator Eugene McCarthy nearly won the New Hampshire primary, and President Lyndon Johnson declared that he would not run for reelection. Martyrs proliferated: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, and two months later, so was peace candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Sam Peckinpah had gone to Mexico to shoot The Wild Bunch; AIP’s current release, Wild in the Streets, had a fascist rock star taking over the country. The hippie musical Hair opened on Broadway—as did John Wayne’s ode to the war The Green Berets. SDS militants occupied Columbia University and French students battled the cops in Paris, while sympathetic filmmakers shut down the Cannes Film Festival.
Rafelson edited his footage for Head and Hopper struggled with his for Easy Rider as Russian tanks rumbled into Prague and the Democratic convention erupted into police-state madness in Chicago. A survey published that fall in Fortune magazine found a million kids identifying themselves with the New Left, but Twentieth Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing: Fox was making a Che Guevara biopic with a budget that dwarfed the cost of the actual Cuban Revolution. Electoral chaos loomed. Thanks to Alabama governor George Wallace’s third-party challenge, the presidential election seemed headed for the House of Representatives . . .
Hopper was still pondering his footage when Richard Nixon was elected president. One day later, after plastering New York with enigmatic posters, Rafelson and Schneider opened Head.
As A Hard Day’s Night (1964) had done for the infinitely more talented Beatles, Head provided an opportunity for the Monkees—Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork—to cavort, caper, cutely sulk, and occasionally perform, with more than a bit of ironic self-awareness, for screaming mobs of fourteen-year-old fans. Head was more fragmentary and surreal than its ostensive model, however, and was blatantly deflationary. The Monkees were scarcely more than a textual effect in a nonstop barrage of wacky sight gags and pop culture references.
Rather than promote the “Prefab Four,” Head evoked that particular landscape that had only recently come to be called the Media, the better to debunk the blatant media construct of the Monkees themselves. The Monkees wander from one movie genre to another while, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon, backdrops are exposed as backdrops and sets are revealed to be sets. Head quoted or travestied the well-televised movies of the forties (Golden Boy, Sahara, Gilda) while providing cameos for a déclassé, near freakish assortment of celebrities, including Mouseketeer turned beach bunny Annette Funicello, defeated world heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, topless dancer Carol Doda, and female impersonator T. C. Jones. Some stars, mainly California governor Ronald Reagan and gossip columnist Rona Barrett, are shown only as TV images. Others are treated as icons. An outsize Coca-Cola vending machine materializes in the desert like one of Stanley Kubrick’s monoliths, while an even more colossal Victor Mature appears as a laughing giant, first cousin to the Rex Ingram jinni who towered over Sabu in one of Rafelson’s favorite movies, The Thief of Bagdad—the Monkees reduced to flecks of dandruff on his scalp.
Adding to the assault, everything was tricked out with a panoply of gimmicky effects and interspersed with used-car spots, cartoon clips, and, most outrageously, newsreel footage of the Vietnam War. The repeated use of the notorious image of a VC captive being executed by Saigon’s chief of police struck some viewers as particularly egregious. “The movie might have worked for bored kids at kiddie matinees, but the filmmakers got ambitious,” wrote Pauline Kael, elevated by her five-thousand-word defense of Bonnie and Clyde to the job of New Yorker critic and leading advocate for a New Hollywood—if not yet ready for Head. “The by now standard stuff of girls squealing as pop idols perform is not even convincing when they’re squealing for the Monkees, and when this is intercut with documentary footage of the suffering and horror of war, as if to comment on the shallowness of what the filmmakers are manufacturing and packaging and desperately trying to sell, the doubling up of greed and pretentions to depth is enough to make even a pinhead walk out.” (Which the critic evidently did.)
At least the Monkees were honestly ersatz—and with the exception of the far more meretriciously fake and no less pop-idol-driven Green Berets, no Hollywood movie produced during the Vietnam War referenced that war more than Head.
America was also, as suggested by Head, One Fake Place. The first BBS production was a flop. But Easy Rider, produced for under $400,000 and returning its cost one hundred times over in its first release, was one of the greatest financial coups in Hollywood history.
Both within Hollywood and without, Easy Rider presented itself as a generational statement. While Head parodied the straight media, Easy Rider reveled in countercultural values—not just the sacraments of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, but also the I Ching, hippie communes, guerrilla theater, doing your own thing, the brown rice millenarianism that predicted the impending collapse of urban civilization, when long-haired freaks would be fighting for their lives against the killer redneck straights.
Successors to the Wild One and the Rebel Without a Cause, Bonnie and Clyde were Righteous Outlaws; Fonda’s narcissistic, cool-bordering-on-catatonic Captain America and Hopper’s hyperzonked, free-form, babbling Billy were something else. These guys were freaks and heads, semiotic warriors and electric cowboys, True Americans and Losers, Beautiful Losers.
Easy Rider decried Amerikkka but celebrated American freedom. Hopper served up Jack Kerouac’s Beat generation wanderlust and Robert Frank’s on-the-road landscape with a self-consciously artistic, European-inflected camera. He and cinematographer László Kovács developed a widely imitated style, based on giant close-ups, sudden zooms, leisurely rack focusing, and ecstatic sunbursts. Hopper’s sense of filmmaking also drew on American underground filmmakers (Kenneth Anger’s wall-to-wall real rock music in Scorpio Rising, Bruce Conner’s fragmentary editing).
The use of strobe flash-forwards to signify scene transitions failed to catch on, but Easy Rider’s rock-scored lyrical interludes—meant to evoke the experience of bombing down the highway with the car radio blasting, and typically used in stoned celebration of the nation’s empty plenitude—became the hallmark of Hollywood hipness.
As in the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, everyone showed up in costume. Hopper dressed as Wild Bill Hickok, Fonda wore leather pants and the American flag; the women they encounter seemed modeled on Pocahontas or Belle Starr’s fancy gals. Phil Spector pretends to be a coke dealer, a stray hitchhiker is AWOL from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And yet Easy Rider was also marked by a concern with authenticity—as Head had been, at least in acknowledging its own phoniness. This desire to let it all hang out and tell it like it is was, Teresa Grimes would note some years later in a piece for Movie magazine, the defining BBS characteristic (as prophesied by Hopper): “A crucial feature of the BBS ethos was to take filmmaking out of the studio into the ‘real America,’ so that the film could become a response to an actual reality ‘out there.’”
Certainly, that’s how a sizable chunk of the audience saw (or wanted to see) Easy Rider. Defending the movie in the New York Times, Village Voice rock critic Richard Goldstein called it “a travel poster for the new America.” (And yet, paraphrasing a current Simon and Garfunkel ballad, the Easy Rider ad announced, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”) Although devoid of political analysis beyond the assumption that, by waving their freak flags high in the American South, its martyred protagonists were not just Easy but Freedom Riders, the movie articulated a generalized sense of failure.
“You know, this used to be a hell of a good country,” Nicholson muses at one point. “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” It was nothing less than the BBS motto.
Easy Rider provided both the means and a road map for subsequent Schneider-Rafelson productions. They had trumped Hollywood and could exult in their freedom. Using their profits from the Monkees, Schneider and Rafelson had put up the roughly $350,000 to finance Easy Rider, with Columbia Pictures releasing, as it had with Head. Shortly before Easy Rider opened in July 1969, Blauner joined the firm to handle distribution, and Raybert became BBS. In the wake of Easy Rider’s considerable success, BBS negotiated a six-picture deal with Columbia; BBS bought the right of final cut with the stipulation that the partners would cover all costs over a million dollars per picture, and BBS would split the net with Columbia fifty-fifty.
Before the year of Easy Rider was out, BBS had bought its own four-story office building, off of the Columbia lot. According to New Hollywood chronicler Peter Biskind, 933 North La Brea would soon be the epicenter of Hollywood hip, and “BBS quickly became a hangout for a ragtag band of filmmakers and radicals of various stripes.” It even inspired a rival outfit within the system: Ned Tannen now headed a youth film unit at Universal, set to produce new films directed by Hopper and Fonda, as well as Nicholson’s old pal Monte Hellman. “We didn’t have any burning ambition or slogan to change Hollywood,” Rafelson would tell the Los Angeles Press around the time that Five Easy Pieces, the first Columbia-financed BBS release, opened. “We just knew there was a way to do something that was groovier than the way it had been done.”
Made for under $900,000, in forty-one days, during the winter of 1970, Five Easy Pieces was as freewheeling, in its way, as Easy Rider—anecdotal, shot in sequence, and so open-ended that director Rafelson didn’t decide on which of the three possible last scenes he would use until the day the picture wrapped. Nicholson was the star, but the landscape was paramount—in this case, cinematographer Kovács lavished his attention on the bowling alleys, trailer parks, gas stations, diners, and cheap motels that, however familiar from Robert Frank’s midfifties photographs, had rarely been seen in American movies.
The script was by Nicholson’s protégée Carole Eastman, who had written 1967’s The Shooting (one of the two low-budget Hellman-directed westerns that Nicholson had produced in the midsixties) and Jerry Schatzberg’s 1970 Puzzle of a Downfall Child (all under the name Adrien Joyce). Eastman drew on a story by Rafelson—and perhaps on Rafelson’s sense of himself. (Not named Bobby for nothing, the protagonist is the sort of inveterate upper-middle-class rebel that the director told interviewers he had himself been.) In some respects, the movie suggested an American version of François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960): existentially traumatized oil rigger Bobby Dupea is a trained classical pianist in flight from his past.
As Five Easy Pieces elaborated on the Easy Rider trip, it naturalized Head’s structure. The movie is predicated on non sequitur (Bobby playing Chopin on a flatbed truck, or abruptly attacking his peckerwood buddy: “Keep on telling me about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke”) and shock cuts (a bowling ball crashing down, the camera swirling around Bobby and a female partner engaged in strenuous motel room sex). Bobby’s girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, played by Karen Black, is pregnant, but that is mentioned only once, almost in passing, while, incorporating a personal anecdote she told Rafelson, Sally Struthers (Bobby’s pickup, and soon to achieve TV stardom as Archie Bunker’s daughter) gets a long close-up solo recounting the explanation she was given as a child for how girls get dimples.
Creating, rather than following, fashion, Five Easy Pieces appeared well into Nixon time. By September 1970, America had lived through the invasion of Cambodia, the ensuing massacres at Kent State and Jackson State, the ongoing demonization of the counterculture, and, as embodied by the eponymous protagonist of the independent sensation Joe, the ascension of the hardhat. Suddenly, in a neat turn of the pop culture dialectic, here was Nicholson, Easy Rider’s hippie straight, as something new: a long-haired hardhat, a middle-class dropout, working on an oil rig and shacked up with a big-haired, dim-witted, warmhearted, country-lovin’ truck stop waitress, the living embodiment of the Tammy Wynette songs that, in an inspired audio analogue to the movie’s American landscape, Rafelson took for his soundtrack.
Despite, or perhaps because of, having it both ways—ridiculing Rayette while sentimentalizing her, mocking the snobbery of Bobby’s highbrow family even as it advanced the film’s own artistic ambitions—Five Easy Pieces appeared as a genuine American Art Film. Premiered at the 1970 New York Film Festival, it was a critical sensation. Writing in Esquire, Jacob Brackman marveled at the movie’s “series of astonishing fake-outs,” and Life critic Richard Schickel noted that the movie “totally reverses our cinematic expectations.” Variety went even further, maintaining that with its “straightforward, gimmickless footage,” “timeless theme,” “subtly conceived performances,” and “strictly novelistic approach,” Five Easy Pieces flouted “virtually all of the current filmmaking trends.” The New York Film Critics Circle voted it the year’s best picture, nearly two to one over Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (in some ways its European equivalent). Rafelson edged out Federico Fellini for best director; Black overwhelmingly won best supporting actress, garnering more than twice the votes of her nearest rival, French actress Françoise Fabian (star of My Night at Maud’s). The Academy acknowledged Five Easy Pieces with Oscar nominations for best picture, actor, supporting actress, and original screenplay.
Moreover, Nicholson and Black became contemporary icons. (Nicholson was the fourth-ranked Star of Tomorrow for 1970; Black was named second in 1971.) Five Easy Pieces established the essential Jack Nicholson persona—the wild man outbursts and wise guy attitude, the arched eyebrow, and the devastating put-down. Writing in Cue, William Wolf compared Nicholson to tormented forties street kid John Garfield, “the guy who can’t fit into life’s groove.” But where Garfield was a working-class hero, Nicholson was more a faux-working-class antihero, not to mention a sincere cynic and alienated bon vivant—less a nouveau Garfield than a degenerate Clark Gable.
Once upon a time, Pauline Kael would note in 1971, “the generally tawdry films we saw week after week contributed to our national identity—such as it was. Now only the counterculture uses movies (and only a few, key movies) this way—for new heroes, new styles, new attitudes.”
The year following Five Easy Pieces brought a number of such figures—the titular protagonists of El Topo, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Billy Jack—as well as the flowering of the hippie western (Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Hopper’s The Last Movie, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller). But the counterculture was hardly Hollywood’s only audience. That same year after Five Easy Pieces’s apotheosis, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry trumped Nicholson’s Hardhat Longhair as a Middle American culture hero.
Still, Bobby Dupea was the quintessential BBS protagonist—alienated, wounded, charismatic, in flight from or defeated by a corrupt, violent, morally bankrupt America. It was a part Nicholson would continue to play on the screen (and in life) for years to come. His subsequent films—Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)—would establish him as Hollywood’s most successful maverick, acting out and loving it. The March 27, 1971, issue of Life described “Happy Jack” auditioning actresses for the nude scene in his upcoming directorial debut, produced by BBS and adapted from Jeremy Larner’s novel Drive, He Said.
Written in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and published in late 1964, Larner’s tale of a disaffected college basketball player brought the twenty-seven-year-old author the ten-thousand-dollar Delta Prize for a first novel. The book was prescient enough to include an LSD trip, but much in student life had changed—or rather, intensified—in the subsequent half dozen years. Larner and Nicholson revised the novel’s scenario to include college radicals, guerrilla theater, draft physicals, and an extreme instance of hippie madness, in addition to the affair between the conflicted jock (twenty-three-year-old William Tepper, in his first and, for more than a decade, last movie role) and a sexually wanton faculty wife (Karen Black).
Appearing a year after the college films released in the wake of Kent State (Getting Straight, The Strawberry Statement, R.P.M., The Revolutionary), Drive, He Said was distinguished by its comic couplings, copious nudity, and kinetic basketball games (Nicholson was a fan). The movie had a haphazard quality that harked back to Brian De Palma’s anarchic indies of the late sixties, Greetings and Hi Mom!. Its most entertainingly inflammatory scenes involve the mad campus revolutionary played by Michael Margotta, twenty-five, an Actors Studio grad featured in 1968’s Wild in the Streets.
Drive, He Said premiered at Cannes and, according to the New York Times, “set off the [festival’s] most violently negative reaction . . . As the lights came up, the people hooted, screamed, and whistled. Some got to their feet and waved indignant fists toward where Nicholson and his two actors, William Tepper and Michael Margotta, were seated.” Although the Times correspondent, Cynthia Grenier, attributed this audience antipathy to “the thoroughly unglamorous handling of the sex scenes,” the anarchic politics—notably the climactic freak-out, in which the Margotta character liberates the specimens in the campus science lab—were a more likely factor. (The prizewinners that year included two popular-front myths, Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill and Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco & Vanzetti, and three more politically coherent American movies, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Miloš Forman’s Taking Off, and Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park.)
The domestic reaction was mixed when Drive, He Said opened a month later, with Columbia having bargained the movie’s initial X rating down to an R. In a generally unfavorable review, the film critic for the Augur, an underground newspaper published in Eugene, Oregon (where much of Drive, He Said was shot), complained that he had not been prepared for “such perversion” from “the counterculture’s hero, Jack Nicholson.” Make that Hollywood’s counterculture hero: Newsweek critic Paul D. Zimmerman praised Drive, He Said’s “brilliant editing,” and credited the director’s sensibility: “This is Nicholson’s film, informed everywhere by his irreverence, honesty, and energy.” Jacob Brackman (like Zimmerman, an aspiring screenwriter; he would collaborate with Rafelson on the screenplay for The King of Marvin Gardens) published a somewhat tortuous defense in Esquire: Drive, He Said was “intensely real, although in an entirely nondocumentary way, [and hence] likely to be mistaken for a bad movie.” The New York Times’s Vincent Canby considered the performances “touched with the kind of unexpected sensibility and decency that are rare in most movies of this genre,” associating this quality with Nicholson’s own performances in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.
Although Drive, He Said did poorly at the box office, its failure was eclipsed by the summer of flops suffered by Universal—Two-Lane Blacktop, The Hired Hand, and, most dramatically, The Last Movie—as well as the derisive incomprehension that greeted Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place when it was shown that fall at a scaled-down New York Film Festival. Variety reported that A Safe Place was the festival’s “most audience-dividing feature . . . It drew walkouts, boos, and fervently defensive partisan applause. Afterwards, during a long onstage panel discussion, most of the audience remained and again divided on the film and its author-director . . . Seldom has as much emotion been expended at a preview of a film so many people declared aloud they could not understand.”
That reaction was not surprising, given that A Safe Place was essentially nonnarrative—the most radical experiment that BBS would produce after Head. Jaglom, who had gone to summer camp with Bert Schneider, was a self-described hyphenate. He’d had some experience in New York theater prior to going west, where he helped edit Easy Rider and played a theater professor in Drive, He Said. Given his shot to make a movie, Jaglom adapted A Safe Place—described in press notes as “autobiographical to a rather unusual extent”—from his play The Uncommon Denominator, which he had directed and appeared in when it was performed as an improvised off-Broadway revue in 1963. Edited from fifty hours of footage, A Safe Place was an actor-driven, star-studded production, featuring not only Nicholson but also Tuesday Weld (in a role created onstage by Karen Black) and Orson Welles.
The Weld character, alternately known as Susan and Noah, spends time in Jaglom’s childhood apartment, a treasure trove of postimpressionist paintings on Central Park West. Rather than countercultural rock anthems, A Safe Place reiterates a series of pop standards (“I’m Old-Fashioned,” “As Time Goes By,” “La mer,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”). A witchy, possibly schizophrenic, hippie kook, Weld first appears to be channeling Jean Seberg in Lilith. “When I was a little girl, I flew,” she insists throughout. Her hapless suitor (Jaglom’s stage role, taken in the film by Philip Proctor, a longtime member of the Firesign Theatre) describes her as “pretty, sad, and weirder than hell.”
After a while, Weld doesn’t seem to be acting so much as being—A Safe Place is the Warhol Factory screen test she never had. Not so Welles, who appears as a stage magician with an intermittent stage Yiddish accent, performing tricks with a silver ball in Central Park—or is it in the Weld character’s mind? (Welles is the artiste; he would repay the compliment after a fashion by casting Jaglom as a young director in his unfinished Hollywood melodrama The Other Side of the Wind.)
The repetition and fractured chronology go well beyond the flash-forwards that punctuate Easy Rider; the unmatched performances and raw sense of a prolonged acting exercise evoke John Cassavetes’ Shadows. “There are three scenes in A Safe Place that remain intact from the original script,” Weld told the New York Times. “All the rest is either improvisation or was thought up or written right there, at the moment, or that morning.” Lengthy, apparently improvised riffs—including a long dream monologue delivered by Gwen Welles—are intercut with Orson Welles’s magic tricks, ultimately giving way to the sudden introjection of a devilish Nicholson as another ghost from Weld’s past. Weld does manage to catch the magic ball but, maintaining the unbroken succession of cataclysmic BBS endings, apparently drowns herself in a bubble bath.
Jaglom would attempt to explain himself in “The Making of an Anti-Movie or Learning How to Fly,” a prose poem manifesto published in the underground biweekly Changes, while Richard Corliss, a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee, defended A Safe Place in the Village Voice as “exactly the kind of film—experimental, audacious, demanding, arrogant, and vulnerable—which the festival exists to encourage.”
Corliss suggested that audiences preferred overtly political experiments like Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, also shown in the festival that year, but it was clear that critics and audiences alike were much more taken by the other BBS offering at the event: The Last Picture Show.
Peter Bogdanovich was the American director whose career path most closely approximated those of the French New Wave filmmakers. A raging cinephile, he published auteurist film journalism in periodicals ranging from Film Culture and the Village Voice to Esquire, wrote film notes for the New Yorker Theatre, and in 1964, at age twenty-five, cocurated the Museum of Modern Art’s epochal Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.
Relocating to Hollywood, Bogdanovich apprenticed himself to Roger Corman at AIP, where he reedited a Soviet sci-fi film into Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (released in 1968) and spent six months working on Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), scouting locations and rewriting the script. (He would also take credit for casting Peter Fonda in the lead.) As a reward, Corman gave him a chance to direct a low-budget drive-in flick, Targets (1968), which, benefiting from a day’s work owed AIP by Boris Karloff and inspired by the case of the 1966 University of Texas sniper, was enriched with film references and topical sensationalism.
Rafelson saw Targets and offered to produce Bogdanovich’s next movie. Schneider was dubious (according to Biskind, Bogdanovich struck him as boringly straight), but ultimately they all agreed on an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age story set during the Korean War in a shabby, mean-spirited Texas town. The subject was far from Bogdanovich’s experience—and perhaps even his interests—but as his then wife, production designer Polly Platt, explained, their strategy was to treat the novel as “the French would have made it, where these weird American sexual mores could be investigated.” But unlike the French (and as straight as Schneider had suspected), Bogdanovich also planned to make the movie as a knowing pastiche of classic postwar Hollywood—a true Good Old American Art Film! The Last Picture Show was even shot in black and white; Bogdanovich picked veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees based on the sharpness and clarity of his work on Intruder in the Dust (shot on location in Oxford, Mississippi, twenty-two years before).
Filming began in October 1970, in Archer City, the Texas town where McMurtry had grown up. Bogdanovich’s journalistic acumen may be deduced from the production stories that appeared. Fellow auteurist Martin Rubin published a lengthy report in the Village Voice; former Warhol associate Donald Chase visited the set on behalf of the hip monthly Show. Most remarkably, Grover Lewis—a childhood pal of McMurtry’s with a small role in the movie—published a ten-thousand-word piece that alerted the readers of Rolling Stone to the movie’s existence months before it opened.
Rolling Stone’s interest was not unfounded. Predicated on an anecdotal series of sexual initiations, The Last Picture Show was, no less than Easy Rider and Drive, He Said, a youth film—albeit pre-Elvis and without an avatar of James Dean. Moreover, set in a bleak, stultifying backwater, The Last Picture Show projected that now trademark BBS sense of failure (“Nothing’s really been right since Sam the Lion died”), and even a measure of existential angst. Despite its all-American subject matter, the movie was closer to Antonioni than John Ford or Howard Hawks.
With its wide-open spaces, small dusty towns, and cast of lunch counter waitresses, drugstore cowboys, and hardhat oil riggers, The Last Picture Show shared an echt American iconography with Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider—but with a difference. Where Easy Rider deployed Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix and Five Easy Pieces drew on Tammy Wynette, The Last Picture Show provided wall-to-wall Hank Williams. Full of period artifacts (paperbacks, magazines, movie posters), Bogdanovich’s town is a museum of 1951-ness (with Korea standing in for Vietnam). Movies are, of course, the privileged artifact, as embodied by veteran western actor Ben Johnson’s central role and narrative function as the town’s heart, Sam the Lion.
Countless movies followed Bonnie and Clyde into ultraviolence; The Last Picture Show perfected something else that film had introduced, a retro tendency. (As noted a few years later by Mitchell S. Cohen, in his Take One analysis of BBS, The Last Picture Show and A Safe Place were “flip sides of the nostalgia coin. One is fearlessly obscure, the other structurally classical, both deal with the value of dwelling on the past.”) In the long run, The Last Picture Show would prove nearly as influential as Easy Rider; in the short run, it was nearly as profitable and even more favorably received (including getting eight Oscar nominations—for picture, director, cinematography, adapted screenplay, and two each for supporting actor and supporting actress; both Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won). The relief was palpable at BBS—not to mention Columbia, which was suffering greater losses than any other studio in Hollywood.
Vincent Canby hailed The Last Picture Show in the New York Times as “an adventure in rediscovery—of a very decent, straightforward kind of movie, as well as of—and I rather hesitate to use such a square phrase—human values.” Andrew Sarris, Bogdanovich’s senior partner in the Americanization of French auteurism, wondered, “Who would have thought a few years back that in 1971 Peter Bogdanovich would be traveling first-class on the express train of film history while Dennis Hopper was bumming a ride on a freight train headed for oblivion?” (Hopper’s boldly experimental, near identically titled fiasco The Last Movie provided a handy foil for the Bogdanovich triumph.)
Newsweek’s Paul D. Zimmerman took his praise to the limit, beginning his review with the declaration that The Last Picture Show was a masterpiece, and “not merely the best American movie of a rather dreary year [but] the most impressive work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.” It’s possible that The Last Picture Show received better notices than any American movie between Gone with the Wind and The Godfather. Even the finicky New Leader critic John Simon allowed that, although an example of “cinematheque direction” (by which he meant derivative pastiche), it was “not bad by current standards.”
Some saw The Last Picture Show as fulfilling their critical position. Jonas Mekas, who had published Bogdanovich in Film Culture, took a week off from promoting the avant-garde to hail The Last Picture Show as “a perfectly beautiful movie” and the epitome of intelligent “neoclassicism.” Mekas’s Village Voice colleague Sarris, who wrote on this “extraordinarily exhilarating spectacle” at considerable length in those pages, saw The Last Picture Show as a triumph for auteurism, crowing that Bogdanovich had “won over many of his erstwhile enemies by providing them with an emotional experience they did not anticipate from a registered [auteurist].”
Sarris was undoubtedly thinking of Pauline Kael, whose positive review of The Last Picture Show is fascinatingly ambivalent: “I want to praise a movie that is in some ways, and good ways, very old-fashioned,” she wrote, while immediately warning that her “praise for what will probably turn out to be a huge success with both critics and audiences [shouldn’t be] interpreted as a put-down of the talented people whose movies have been chaotic disasters . . . Fiascos like Drive, He Said weren’t dead, in the way that fiascos like The Last Run were. And now Bogdanovich has made a movie for everybody—not just the Airport audience but the youth audience and the educated older audience, too. The danger is that The Last Picture Show . . . the kind of straightforward, involving, narrative picture that doesn’t often get produced anymore—will turn into a bludgeon to beat other filmmakers with.”
And that, in essence, is what happened with BBS’s next project, The King of Marvin Gardens.
The King of Marvin Gardens was in production from Thanksgiving 1971 into the winter of Dirty Harry, with Columbia Pictures on the brink of disaster. (The studio finished the year $29 million in the red.) Appropriately, the movie was shot, by Kovács, in off-season (and pre-legalized-gambling) Atlantic City, a desolate beach-resort town suggesting nothing so much as a lunar Santa Monica.
In addition to its location, The King of Marvin Gardens would end up showcasing Nicholson’s range. He was cast against type as David Staebler, an uptight, near autistic radio monologuist, while Bruce Dern was given what would normally have been the Nicholson role, playing David’s brother, Jason, a comic, megalomaniacal hustler with a head full of outsize dreams and a dangerous connection to the mob. The supporting, Karen Black–ish female role was split between Ellen Burstyn and neophyte Julia Anne Robinson, as Jason’s two women.
Stylistically, The King of Marvin Gardens is the most restrained of any BBS production, with hardly any music to leaven the downbeat mood. (The sole musical interlude is an instance of incidental surrealism, when the brothers and their girls camp on the idea of Miss America—a sort of cargo-cult version of Head.) Although not always convincing in its specifics, the movie conveys a powerful sense of place—and an even stronger sense of placelessness. If Five Easy Pieces suggested a corn-fed, rowdy sort of Ingmar Bergman movie, The King of Marvin Gardens had the quality of star-spangled early Antonioni. (The maestro’s own American movie, Zabriskie Point, released two years earlier—which, not coincidentally, used BBS offices for its preproduction—was considerably more flamboyant.)
Premiered at the 1972 New York Film Festival and opening shortly thereafter, The King of Marvin Gardens was poorly received, its ambition saluted by only a few critics. Jay Cocks wrote in Time that while the film was less successful than Five Easy Pieces, it was in many ways a “more interesting and certainly more daring” movie. In the dispirited aftermath of the Christmas bombings, with Washington preparing for Nixon’s second inauguration, the New York Times reported that The King of Marvin Gardens had received one favorable notice, as opposed to five mixed and fifteen unfavorable ones. Fickle critics had anointed Rafelson the new Dennis Hopper. Nevertheless, most likely thanks to Nicholson’s presence, The King of Marvin Gardens was actually a success—with $9 million in rentals, it finished as the thirteenth top-grossing movie of 1972.
In any case, The King of Marvin Gardens was an end-of-the-road movie. Rafelson’s fiercely drab Easy Rider analogue conjured up the American dream of a Big Score—here, Jason’s fantasy of a casino on a private island off Hawaii—and ended (in sudden violence) with the cry What went wrong? Perhaps critics at the time were responding to the movie’s pervasive sense of disillusionment, as though the Rafelson protagonist had gone to Alaska and found . . . this? Hollis Alpert’s not unsympathetic piece in the Saturday Review found the movie’s “late-autumn bleakness . . . redolent not only of a dream that has passed but also a world that is passing.”
Virtually all BBS movies featured a pair of temperamentally opposed male characters—one manic and volatile, the other passively depressed. In Easy Rider, Drive, He Said, and The Last Picture Show, the guys are buddies; in A Safe Place, they are rivals. Five Easy Pieces has the male protagonist divided against himself, while, as the most extreme case, The King of Marvin Gardens opposes a pair of ambivalently antagonistic brothers and characterizes them as accomplices.
Whether or not this recurring dramatic device in any way reflected the relationship between Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, neither of whom appears to have been anything less than brash, the partnership they created had begun to resemble the decaying world of Atlantic City—at least to some observers. “I was watching a company start to come apart,” King of Marvin Gardens screenwriter Jacob Brackman recalled, citing Schneider’s growing lack of interest. Schneider certainly had other concerns. From the summer of 1971 on, he was increasingly involved in radical politics, specifically the support of the Black Panther Party and the defense of former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. Rafelson would recall to Biskind: “People were getting shot in the [BBS] building because of the politics, the Black Panther stuff, busts and cops and God knows what. I didn’t know who the fuck was in that building. None of them could pay . . . I felt I was burned out.” He also wanted to strike out on his own. (These days, Rafelson regards the last stage of BBS as “a joyous closing of the door” and stresses that the partners remained friends: “We just decided to quit while we were ahead.”)
There was, however, one more project. During the summer of ’72, as Ellsberg’s trial approached in Los Angeles, Schneider decided to produce a feature-length documentary in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rafelson suggested as director Peter Davis, responsible for the controversial CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, televised in February 1971. Originally, Davis’s new documentary was to focus primarily on Ellsberg; ultimately, it expanded to encompass the war’s origins in America and its prosecution on the ground, as well as what film critic Michael Atkinson would call “the semiotics of middle-class militarism.”
The last project initiated by BBS, Hearts and Minds had already been in production for several months in South Vietnam when The King of Marvin Gardens opened. A year later, as the film was being edited, and not long after a regime change at Columbia, the studio attempted to cancel all contracts with and stop paying royalties to BBS, thus consigning the unfinished documentary to limbo. Ignoring the concerns of the new Columbia brass, who were fearful that the movie might burden the staggering studio with legal action, Schneider and Davis took Hearts and Minds to the International Critics Week in Cannes in 1974. Three years before, Drive, He Said’s anarchic analysis of U.S. militarism had been booed off the stage; this time, the reception was considerably more positive. Indeed, after the New York Daily News killed Rex Reed’s rave, Hearts and Minds became a cause célèbre. Finally, Columbia agreed to sell the movie for its million-dollar production cost; it was picked up by an outfit specially created by Jaglom and released through Warner Bros. for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles.
Only weeks after winning the Oscar for best documentary (Schneider driving Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra nuts with an acceptance speech that included a “greeting of friendship” from the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam), Hearts and Minds opened in New York, where Vincent Canby hailed it as “an extraordinary movie which may well be the true film for America’s bicentennial.” Hearts and Minds was still in release five weeks later when, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the Vietcong. Thus, the war’s end merged with its cinematic representation and the ultimate BBS film. In more ways than one, Hearts and Minds was the movie that cashed the check the Monkees wrote.
J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. A prequel, An Army of Phantoms: Hollywood and the Making of the Cold War, will be published by the New Press in early 2011.