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By the 1960s, Hollywood's ongoing decline in popularity appeared to be irreversible, as a number of actors, producers and other industry insiders recall in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a gossipy 2003 documentary airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. on HOT Prime. A generation after World War II, when weekly ticket sales peaked, Hollywood seemed to have forgotten how to appeal to young viewers and, even more ominously, was hemorrhaging older audiences to TV.
Though the film business never regained the cultural dominance it enjoyed in its first half-century, a crop of young and creative new actors and directors gave the industry a much needed shot of inspiration in the late Sixties, helping restore much of the interest and cultural influence Hollywood had been losing over the previous two decades.
That story - the emergence of what came to be known as the New Hollywood - is the subject of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which is based on Peter Biskind's popular book and features interviews with Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfuss and other luminaries of the period. But even as the documentary celebrates the contributions of these enthusiastic, often drug-addled innovators, it also notes the unintended impact of filmmakers who recreated Hollywood in their own image and changed the American moviemaking system in ways they couldn't always control.
Well into the 1960s, Hollywood had functioned like a "walled city," says New Hollywood screenwriter John Milius, who says that only "occasional breaches" had allowed for the arrival of new talent and ideas into the industry. But that mode of operation was on its last legs by the time Vietnam mobilized and radicalized American baby boomers, the largest target audience in the history of movies. Raised on television and encountering politics in a manner unlike any previous generation, baby boomers rejected traditional fare like Cleopatra (1963), which was billed as the "motion picture the world has been waiting for" but instead came to symbolize just how out of touch the movie studios had become. (Though the film proved one of the biggest flops in history, Hollywood itself loved the picture, nominating it for nine Academy Awards and ultimately awarding it four.)
Forced to try something new if they were to avoid bankruptcy, the studios turned to the two types of movies that were still generating profits - European art films and low budget B-movies. Though derided by mainstream Hollywood, B-movie auteur Roger Corman emerged as one of the key figures in the New Hollywood, dispensing money and support to young filmmakers unable to "breach the walls" of the traditional system. Among these filmmakers were actors and aspiring directors like Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, whose experiments with films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde reignited young people's interest in movies and permanently altered the distribution of power in Hollywood.
While measurably drier and less showy than the films it documents, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains an engaging primer on Hollywood history, revisiting the movies that weakened the traditional moviemaking hierarchy and liberated the movie industry - temporarily, at least - from its longstanding obsession with familiar formulas and the bottom line. But while fairly standard in its narrative and visual techniques, the documentary provides an intriguing, occasionally gossipy look at the colorful personalities who drove the American movie industry forward. "I had final cut, and I cut my own throat," Dennis Hopper says, recalling his druggy bullheadedness as the director of The Last Movie, one of the more notable failures of the New Hollywood filmmakers.
Elsewhere, intercut interviews with Cybil Shepherd and art designer Polly Platt revisit their love triangle with director Peter Bogdanovich, who left Platt for Shepherd during the filming of The Last Picture Show. The middle-aged Shepherd now acknowledges her own resemblance to the selfish, manipulative character she plays in the movie, but adds that even "if I had it to do all over again, I'd do the same."
But even as it happily documents the rampant sex and drug use that helped fuel the New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls also captures the essential creativity and love for filmmaking that made the period a turning point in movie history. Actress Margo Kidder and former Variety editor Peter Bart recall the informal beachside community not far from Los Angeles where many of the new creators would gather to drink, do drugs and, eventually, discuss their ideas and ambitions.
These days, moviemaking powerhouses like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola only gather in the same room if they're brokering major deals or are about to win an Oscar. Perhaps because their generation eventually became the face of the establishment itself, viewers of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls will be thoroughly won over by nostalgic recollections of their time as outsiders.