It has now been just over two years since the Harvey Weinstein allegations were reported in the Times as well as in this magazine, in the early days of October, 2017. In the months that followed, accruing #MeToo revelations led to the downfall of producers, performers, and executives for long-employed tactics of harassment, intimidation, and assault. As these events began to unfold, it was gratifying to think that women in Hollywood might now be able to pursue their professional goals more fully, unharmed and untrammelled. But it also made me realize how much I have been gripped, over the years, by the lore of Hollywood in the seventies, which was replete with male behavior that, when not outright criminal, was at the very least gross and sexist. For much of my adult life, one of my favorite books has been Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” which recounts the shoddy, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll antics of the industry’s principal players, who were almost always men. Women were overlooked professionally when they were not being instrumentally assessed, and often used or abused, for their sexual appeal. As Julia Phillips wrote in her memoir “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” when she started out, in the late sixties, as one of the only female movie producers in the industry, there were “no women in the business but stars, secretaries, and bimbos.”

The picture that writers like Biskind and Phillips draw isn’t pretty, and their approach toward the prevailing attitudes of the era is often laissez-faire. But I remain enthralled by their histories of Hollywood. Partly, there is some relief in reading these books today and reflecting on the relative progress we’ve made. But there is also something enjoyable, for someone like me, who is removed—temperamentally, temporally, geographically—in reading about the kind of dark goings on that are not typically discussed in polite society. In “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” Thomas de Quincey described the pleasure of learning about the “moral ulcers or scars” behind “that ‘decent drapery’ which time or indulgence to human frailty might have drawn over them.” It is a similar feeling to ripping through a true-crime novel, or a “blind items revealed” gossip column: there is a fascination in reading about people’s stupid, brutal, and scandalous behavior. In this case, the sheer over-the-topness of the period offers a glimpse into a Hollywood culture that is only now beginning to be dismantled.

I thought about all of this again when I learned that the movie producer Robert Evans had died, this past Saturday, at age eighty-nine, in his home in Beverly Hills. Evans, one of the most memorable characters in Biskind’s book, was the head of Paramount Pictures between 1966 and 1974. During his tenure, he presided over Francis Ford Coppola’s first and second “Godfather” installments, and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” among many other films. By producing work that pushed beyond the staid, conventional moviemaking of the traditional studio system, he helped to usher in the New Hollywood era, a time of big-budget movies that were intended, self-consciously, as art, and not as mere commercial entertainment. Evans eventually left the post to produce under his own name, and his life gradually descended into professional and personal chaos. His cocaine use, already prodigious, achieved legendary proportions, and he was tied to, though never charged in connection with, the murder of the producer Roy Radin by Miami drug dealers. He emerged from these shambles only in the nineties, with the publication, in 1994, of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” his sardonically zingy memoir, which was also adapted into a documentary, in 2002.

Evans was born in 1930 to a Jewish family in New York, and spent his youth acting in radio plays and working with his older brother as a salesman of women’s slacks. (In his memoir, on selecting models to show off the company’s wares: “a flat chest was ok; a flat ass wasn’t.”) But on a visit to Los Angeles, while lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, his self-assured presence and Semitic-matinée-idol looks—aquiline nose, slim figure, and a great head of hair—attracted the attention of Norma Shearer, the widow of the producer Irving Thalberg, who nabbed him to play the part of her late husband in 1957’s “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Evans’s beginnings in the business were not unlike those of a starlet, and, as Biskind writes, had he not been discovered by Hollywood, “he might have spent his youth as a gigolo.” He understood instinctively that one must be charming as well as a fine hunk of meat to succeed in the business, and his special power, it seems, was to flatter and seduce those more powerful than himself. His transition from acting to producing—a role in which his experience was nil—was, Biskind reports, a result of his closeness with the wife of Charles Bluhdorn, the owner of Paramount. “He’s gorgeous,” she allegedly told her husband when trying to persuade him to hire Evans as the head of the studio. “We’ve got to get a good-looking guy, really sexy, to run the company.”

Well-connected wives could be powerful assets, but men were what mattered to Evans, and he loved to befriend the thrivingly unscrupulous: moguls like Bluhdorn, politicians like Henry Kissinger, and the influential labor lawyer Sidney Korshak, who was known as a mob fixer. As for women, he seemed to view most as prey. Evans was married seven times, but the marriages were the least of it. According to Biskind, Evans’s tastes ran to “models, actresses, and hookers,” though they were apparently so interchangeable to him that he could never remember their names in the morning, and his housekeeper would have to slip him a note with the information along with his breakfast. Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter of “Basic Instinct,” wrote in his memoir that when Evans saw the movie he exclaimed, delicately, “Dammit, this cocksucker knows more about pussy than I do,” a statement to which Eszterhas rejoins, “I don’t. No one will ever know as much as Evans.” In “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” too, women are often referred to as “pussy,” but as I was rereading sections of the book this appellation struck me as comical: an example of Evans’s performance of a highly specific kind of masculinity, half Borscht Belt and half Raymond Chandler gumshoe. Throughout his memoir, Evans is more persona than person. It’s the kind of book where Korshak is a “consigliere” and Disney’s Michael Eisner is a “top ‘capo’ ”; where a woman, when she’s not “pussy,” is a “dame”; and where a man is a “cocksman” when he’s up with the ladies, and a “schmuck” when he’s down.

Evans never regained the heights he reached when he was the head of Paramount, and, in his later years, he calcified into an almost parodic version of Hollywood virility: a burnt-sienna tan, a tightly lifted visage, a husky voice, a wise-man-of-Hollywood affect, and a string of fresh-faced wives and girlfriends who remained, mysteriously, approximately the same age as he only grew older. But one thing that Evans was good at was accepting the rules of the game not only when he was winning it but also when he was losing. As he writes in the final pages of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “I’ve been shot down, bloodied, trampled, accused, disgraced, threatened, betrayed, scandalized, maligned. Tough? Sure, but I ain’t complaining! Nothin’ comes easy.” Even at his peak, much earlier, he already knew this to be true. One of my favorite passages in “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” concerns the producer’s reaction to discovering that one of his wives, the actress Ali MacGraw, had cheated on him with the actor Steve McQueen. Looking back, he realizes that, at the moment of his greatest personal and professional triumph, as he was leading MacGraw on the dance floor during the première party of “The Godfather,” he was in fact being cuckolded. “My wife was fucking another guy, and I had no idea,” he told Biskind. “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.” Such perfectly neat deadpanning, but with a trace of humility, too: sometimes even a cocksman realizes that he is also just a schmuck.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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