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eter Biskind's distinctive mustache, midway between Mark Twain's and Friedrich Nietzsche's, gives him the aspect of a 19th-century revolutionary intellectual improbably loosed upon Hollywood, which he covers for Vanity Fair. Even though he's actually a 1960s sort, he really is a revolutionary presence and diehard scholar (Swarthmore '62, Yale '64, Columbia '76).
In a perilous era when highbrow magazines kept sinking or morphing into dumb ones, Biskind hopped from gig to gig with wit and gravitas intact, as bold as Richard Barthelmess leaping across ice floes to rescue Lillian Gish in Way Down East. He wrote Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the great book on cinema's great decade, the 1970s; the Miramax/Sundance indie-film history Down and Dirty Pictures; the addictive essay collection Gods and Monsters; the penetrating political cultural study Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, The Godfather Companion (the best film-trivia book I ever read); and the beginnings of his forthcoming bio of Warren Beatty.
Biskind's work combines cinematic gossip nobody else gets (Martin Scorsese running down Mulholland Drive screaming naked at a woman who's dumped him) with a shrewd critic's eye and a historian's discernment. In an industry obsessed with the weekend, Biskind writes for the ages.
Tim Appelo: How on earth did you get from Swarthmore - not the most Tinseltown-oriented place - to where you are? What did you start out to be?
Peter Biskind: Pre-med. Swarthmore had a film series in Tarble where they had Collection every Friday night, and I went religiously. That was really the beginning of my film education.
Appelo: I'm told that room was built with a sloping floor, so that there could never be a dance there.
Biskind: Is that right? I remember seeing a film there when I was supposedly preparing for my lab test in comparative vertebrate anatomy, and instead I went to this movie. I also used to go to movies in Philadelphia at a theater called The Aardvark, mainly because that put it at the beginning of the alphabet. I remember seeing the early Antonioni movies, like L'Avventura five times.
All the guys I hung out with were mesmerized by Marlon Brando, and when One-Eyed Jacks came out we all went into Philly to see that. There were no film courses, no film departments, no nothing. But there was a professor of astronomy named Peter van de Kamp, quite well known, and he had a huge collection of Charlie Chaplin films that he showed on a regular basis. For me, they were just an oasis of laughter amid all the pressure of classes. I remember those vividly. So despite itself, Swarthmore fed my interest in film.
Appelo: To take a wild metaphorical leap - now you diagnose Hollywood in print, so you're fulfilling your education.
Biskind: Well, I guess you could say that.
Appelo: Your work is psychological. Seeing is Believing puts the '50s on the couch.
Biskind: I actually was thinking of being a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. And those were the days of New Criticism, so I certainly learned to think about movies as texts. Which is probably something I shouldn't admit. The hands go up: "Oh! It's a visual medium!" I did learn to think very hard about patterns, and there's a lot of textual analysis in Seeing is Believing, even though it's mainly political.
Appelo: Did Swarthmore form you politically?
Biskind: I'm sort of a red-diaper baby, so I was like that anyway. Outside the early sit-ins in Chester, Pa., the explicit political science courses I took were very middle of the road.
Appelo: So how come no med school for you?
Biskind: I liked English, and I got a lot of encouragement, so I went to grad school in English at Yale. I didn't like Yale much, and ended up doing yet more of what I did at Swarthmore: going to a lot of movies instead of going to my classes. I got into Russ Meyer films and drove into New York to see Juliet of the Spirits, the latest Fellini film, the latest Godard.
Appelo: Russ Meyer is a better antidote to grad school.
Biskind: True. Then I went off to teach at UC-Santa Barbara when the '60s hit. I got very into the anti-war movement. I gave 300 As to students one year.
Appelo: To keep people out of Vietnam?
Biskind: Yeah, and also as a dramatic demonstration that we thought grades were useless and meaningless and so forth. Also, I was starting to make films - I used to bring a 16mm camera to English Department meetings, which freaked everybody out. I essentially got fired.
Then I went to Columbia for a year in film studies and got a Ph.D. I was going to be a documentary filmmaker, but I couldn't raise money. And I discovered it was a lot easier and cheaper to sit down at a typewriter. You don't need $50,000 to write an article. So I wrote about film for Film Quarterly, Film Heritage, Take One, Cineaste, Jump Cut. Investigative journalism was a growth industry thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, so I wrote a big article for Rolling Stone about de Antonio's Weatherman film Underground, and for New Times, and took a job with Seven Days, a kind of radical Time or Newsweek, and worked with Barbara Ehrenreich and Dave Dellinger. When that folded, I got a job at Woman's World, a supermarket magazine published in New Jersey, just to have a job.
Appelo: So where did film come in?
Biskind: By a stroke of luck, I got selected to be editor of American Film in Washington. Having been immersed in the anti-war movement, suddenly I found myself in an office in the Watergate and going to embassy parties. Ronald Reagan was in office - it was surreal. But I got to use writers like Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, Marcel Ophuls. I even got Salman Rushdie. Of course, no one knew who Salman Rusdhie was, so it was sort of casting pearls before swine. To throw humility to the wind.
Appelo: Then American Film folded.
Biskind: So I jumped to Premiere.
Appelo: That was its 1980s golden age. You made life miserable for us at Entertainment Weekly. The stars would say, "We want to be in the classy book."
Biskind: We published 5, 6, 7,000-word articles, sometimes two on the same movie. A very lavish operation. I was doing a lot of interviews with filmmakers like Beatty, Scorsese, [Francis Ford] Coppola, and [Paul] Schrader, and they were always waxing nostalgic about how great it was in the '70s. The articles were always pegged to an upcoming movie, so I would always end up cutting out all that material. So I finally decided it made sense to use all that material and see if I could portray a whole era.
Appelo: And you certainly did in Easy Riders. The book's splash freed you from nine-to-five office work and got you an enviable gig at Vanity Fair.
Biskind: Try to do a long piece on the 25th anniversary of Reds or the 30th anniversary of Midnight Cowboy - you can't publish those things anywhere else.
Appelo: You also edited The Nation's Hollywood issue.
Biskind: I was having lunch with [then-Nation editor] Victor Navasky '54 sort of joking about how all these magazines have their Hollywood issues - Vanity Fair, GQ - and said The Nation should do a Hollywood issue. And I was appalled to see his eyes light up. So I did two or three. It was fun, especially focusing on the politics of Hollywood.
Appelo: What's your next book?
Biskind: A biography of Warren Beatty. He's really smart and kind of a bridge between the political world and the Hollywood world. He knew absolutely everybody, every politician of every stripe, and he has a great memory. There are not that many interesting people in Hollywood to write about.
Appelo: What about people who write about Hollywood and are worth reading? Can you give us an Honors Exam required reading list?
Biskind: David McClintick's Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, Stephen Bach's Heaven's Gate: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven's Gate, Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, Leo Braudy's The World in a Frame, Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System. And you have to have Lillian Roth's classic book on John Huston, The Picture.