The late, great director Billy Wilder liked to say that movies often undergo a “soufflé effect” when shooting and editing are finished: For no apparent reason, they either rise or sink. The film industry itself was plenty whipped up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the demise of the old studio system and the rise of the directing auteur created wholesale changes in cinema. Former Variety editor Peter Bart was a vice president at Paramount Pictures during those heady days, when the flagging old studio reinvented itself with such films as Rosemary’s Baby and The Godfather. In Infamous Players: A Tale Of Movies, The Mob (And Sex), Bart offers his evenhanded version of the Hollywood backlot depicted by his old colleague Robert Evans in The Kid Stays In The Picture.
Bart, a onetime New York Times reporter, brought a uniquely balanced perspective to the movie business. Unlike “hard-core movie brats” such as Peter Bogdanovich, he writes, “I did not know where Cecil B. DeMille’s old office was located, nor on which soundstage Elvis Presley had just finished shooting.” Bart wasn’t typically starstruck, which helped him make sober suggestions about casting and directorial hires. Yet most people read books about the movie business looking for famous names, and Bart throws out plenty of them. His recollections of the team-building that resulted in classics such as Harold And Maude and his capsule assessments of the ambitions of Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood add up to a solid companion to the definitive books about the era, like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Mark Harris’ Pictures At A Revolution.
Bart plays fast and loose with his chronology. Recalling his doubts about the hiring of Paddy Chayefsky as a script doctor on the unlikely 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon (which starred a singing Clint Eastwood), he remembers arguing that Chayefsky was better suited to satires like Network—which came out in 1976.
As if to vault over the celebrity muck of the times, or maybe to distance himself from Variety’s relentlessly chirpy industry slang, Bart’s writing sometimes veers toward the absurdly overblown. In pointing out that Evans was a world-class womanizer, for instance, he observes that “there was an understanding within Evans’s pulchritudinous inventory that these were to be one-night stands and that all emotions expressed therein were perforce evanescent.”
But success in the movies is also perforce evanescent, and Bart conveys this nicely, acknowledging that drug abuse and “rampant egomania” played a part in the downfall of many of Hollywood players. “But the hit movies of the sixties and seventies were themselves narcotics,” Bart writes. The industry might still have the hangover.