Dancing through a decade or so of tumultuous Hollywood history -- from the studio system that produced elephantine spectaculars like Hello, Dolly to the bottom line-oriented film industry that turns out loud, noisy, and witless "franchises" like Charlie's Angels -- requires some nimble footwork to get all of its highlights packed into two hours. For the most part, writer/director Kenneth Bowser is up to the task, stumbling only a few times and generally offering a solid overview of an era when the studios allowed more freedom to talented filmmakers than at any other time in its history. Bowser avoids getting bogged down in the kind of celebrity gossip that made Peter Biskind's book a guilty pleasure for some and a catalogue of excesses for others. There is one exception: a she said/she said account by Polly Platt and Cybill Shepherd of the goings-on during the shooting of The Last Picture Show. (For the record, Platt was married to writer/director Peter Bogdanovich, who proceeded to have an affair with Shepherd, his ingénue star.) Although the filmmakers were not able to obtain original interviews with the A-list set of figures discussed here (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Robert Altman), they did come up with some interesting archival footage, including Coppola and Lucas on the set of The Rain People (shot at the same time as Easy Rider, the two film crews were each crossing America in different directions). And those who did agree to participate are pretty impressive, going beyond just the actors and directors to such essential behind-the-scenes personnel as writers and cinematographers. Their insights, allowed to mellow and settle with the passage of time, are generally helpful.
There are occasional lapses in chronology, as when M*A*S*H, an early 1970 release, is included with 1969 releases, and, more egregiously, when the mid-'70s is described as a time when urban riots and anti-Vietnam protests were still engulfing America. What's most sobering, however, is the observation by writer Joan Tewskbury that the beginning of the end of this short-lived movement came when TV shows such as Entertainment Tonight (and newspapers like USA Today) began reporting weekend box-office figures. When Paramount opened The Godfather on 400 screens in 1972, they went against the grain of the usual pattern of playing a film in a few major cities, allowing critical reviews and word of mouth to work its magic before slowly releasing the film to the rest of the country. So when Coppola's film went on to make box-office history, it opened the floodgates for highly promotable (and less artistically ambitious) films such as Jaws and Star Wars. Backed by endless months of hype and cross-promotion, these movies became first-weekend events, designed to return a significant portion of their budgets before critics could see them and any bad word of mouth could have a chance to affect ticket sales. (And, as the film points out, '70s critics such as Pauline Kael played a more important role then in shaping public taste. Now critical opinion is limited to "thumbs up" assessments or blurbs supplied by publicity-hungry reviewers.) "It didn't matter whether the film was good or not," says one observer of the late-'70s rash of special-effects spectaculars, "as long it made a good trailer." Nearly three decades after Jaws created the very model of a modern major blockbuster, studio filmmaking became all about either the box office or the Oscars. For the most part, Hollywood studios has stopped taking risks on quirky projects, and what quality films the studios do choose to make are the well-crafted, though hardly idiosyncratic, movies held for release in the last three months of the year, so they'll be fresh in the minds of Academy voters come Oscar time.