The Newest Wave

I’m punching this typewriter from a little hill in Hollywood, here because a friend who literally became a millionaire overnight writing movies last year sent me a two-sentence letter quoting Herman Mankiewicz’s famous telegram to Ben Hecht from Lotusland in 1926:

“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

It’s a little boomtown out here again, a gold rush. Just when Hollywood has been pronounced dead and buried by the critics, the old girl lurches up and out of the grave – like the hard bitch-queen she is – and unreels the jazziest string of films in years: The Exorcist, The Sting, The Conversation, The Last Detail, American Graffiti, Blazing Saddles, Sleeper, Chinatown – all big money-makers and all fun-but-overdone in the same odd style of self-conscious excessiveness.

These are films that push it, and know they are pushing it: The Sting and Chinatown with lush overstyl-ization, pasty colors, an overabundance of quirky characters and plot spins; Sleeper and Blazing Saddles with runaway lunacy. These movies seem to be subconsciously saying in every frame: “See how pretty! See how zany! We ain’t dead yet!”

And the fact of the matter is, this whole town seems to be running faster and louder and funnier than it has in years. It’s hard to tell whether this is the last gasp of Hollywood, or the long-awaited rebirth of The Movies.

My money’s on rebirth, not only because the new blood out here is strong, but because Hollywood is weak. Last December, Columbia Pictures, millions in the red with only one hit movie, The Way We Were, was given one last chance by its banks. You can have two more years of money, said the bankers, but only under the stipulation that most everyone in power get out. And in case no one got the message, it became crystal clear when one of the few remaining Columbia execs joked: “We’re not making any more deals with the regulars in town. We only make deals now with 12-year-old whiz kids.”

He didn’t laugh at his own joke. He was a man with a loaded revolver pressed against his head saying, “The jig is up and the only way out is to open the doors.”

And today, Columbia has 25 movies scheduled for production, most of them the works of “12-year-old whiz kids”. MGM, which was shut down dead in the summer of 1973, has quietly come back to life in the summer of 1974, with a myriad of projects rolling under two boy wonders, Tony Bill, who produced The Sting, and Danny Selznick, son of the legendary David O. Selznick. United Artists has just handed its helm to 31-year-old Mike Medavoy, a tough, shrewd, fast ex-agent who “discovered” most of the young hot-shots in town.

That’s three of the six major studios, half the power in Hollywood already in the hands of the Whiz Kids. Now all they have to do is do it. And “doing it” involves more than just playing the game. Says Tony Bill: “Playing the game out here is simple. You just find a movie that everybody wants to make and you make it.” (Tony’s breezy formula is soaked in irony. He spent nine bitter years scratching gravel before he got hold of a half-hour cassette tape of a storyline talked out by a UCLA film student – plus three more years of sweating blood turning that cassette into an Oscar-winning goldmine called The Sting – before he mastered “the game.”)

No, “doing it” will take not only playing the game, but winning it. Take the case of George Lucas. Lucas’ American Graffiti was finished, then locked up tight at Universal for almost a year while George and the studio fought endlessly over a “deal”. Finally, the deal was cut and it was a sweetheart: Lucas got Graffiti out, made money and won awards; Universal got Lucas signed to a contract to direct three more movies for them for chicken feed. Lucas played the game alright, but that old doll Hollywood was still slick and full of tricks, and she beat him.

George Schrader, who at 27 wrote and sold a Japanese Mafia flick to Warner Bros, for $350,000 and then turned around and sold five more scripts bringing his year’s earnings to about $1 million, has this to say: “Only one thing we all share. We want power, the real thing, the power to make movies. We don’t really want limousines or a room with a phone at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. All we want is the power to make good movies. And there are enough of us that we can gang up and get it.” Schrader’s Japanese Mafia film, The Yakuza, will be out at Christmas, and for him and many of the other Whiz Kids it is only the beginning.

He and four others will soon begin a controversial production which may begin to establish the “power” Schrader talks about. Schrader has written a tough script, Taxi Driver, an in-depth, no-holds-barred look at a loner, Arthur Bremmer-type assassin. Michael and Julia Phillips, who co-produced The Sting with Bill, will produce; Marty Scorcese, whose Mean Streets was at Cannes in 1974 and who’s directing Brando’s new film, will direct. Bobby DeNiro, star of Mean Streets, Bang The Drum Slowly, and who played Brando as a young man in the Godfather II, will star.

The studios didn’t really want to touch Taxi Driver. They thought it was too hot to handle. Columbia, drooling at this undeniable cluster of hot young talent, finally said: “Kids, we like you. We’ll give you the money to make your movie, but you’ll have to produce it on such a low budget none of you can get paid. Of course, you could forget this movie and we’ll give you a nice big budget to make a ’more commercial’ movie. What say, kids?”

The Whiz Kids talked it over. They actually used words like “moral commitment” and meant them. And now they’re making Taxi Driver at Columbia – for no money. That’s winning the game. And that’s why I think The Movies are coming back.

D-Rated Movies

THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ – A real sleeper and an absolute gem of a movie. If Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the title role, has before now been serving his own apprenticeship as an actor – he was the nice-kid-writer-to-be in American Graffiti – now he unveils himself as a full-fledged master of his craft. He may be the brightest young star since Dustin Hoffman. Duddy Kravitz is a scratching (as in itching – he does it all movie long), cackling, frenetic Jewish kid clawing his way toward fast money and being “somebody” Set in Montreal’s Jewish St. Ur-bain Street district in the late 40’s, the film is pure energy as it ricochets between bitingly funny dialogue and a saddening sort of desperation. Walking out at film’s end with a curious liking for the thoroughly despicable Duddy lends a ring of truth to the for-once accurate billboard blurb: “There’s a little Duddy Kravitz in all of us.”

GROOVE TUBE – A zany collection of satirical and wonderfully vulgar spoofs of that ever-deserving target, television. Appropriately tasteless and unrestrained, the film falls flat from time to time, but covers up with some real knockouts, climaxing with an incongruous one-man musical romp through Manhattan, featuring the film’s writer/director Ken Shapiro, and a VD commercial that has to be seen to be appreciated. It beats staying home watching television.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT -MGM’s newsreel-style tribute tothe movie musical over the past50 years. Like most testimonials,way too long, but kind of fun,especially for vintage movie buffs.Be prepared to see more than youever wanted to of Judy Garland’sundulating lips, Fred Astaire’stwinkling toes, and Busby Berkeley’s garish production numbers.The clips from the best andbrightest of the musicals are hyphenated by inane monologuesfrom Sinatra, Rooney, Astaire, etal. Highlight of the show: Someincredible, surrealistic EstherWilliams production numbers,with our heroine diving throughhoops, off of swings, and in general, putting the stars of Day ofthe Dolphin to shame. Worth atrip, if you can stand that muchnostalgia and syrup.


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