Down And Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind
I’ve read and enjoyed Biskind’s earlier book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (subtitled: How The Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood) so I was really looking forward to this on the film business in the 90s (this one is subtitled: Miramax, Sundance, And The Rise of Independent Film). Whilst Easy Riders is bursting with interesting information and stories about the great personalities of its time, unfortunately in comparison, Down and Dirty falls flat.
As the subtitle suggests the book chronicles the rise in importance of Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival and The Weinstien brothers’ Miramax films. Although it also includes by way of comparison, the downfall of October films, it has a much narrower field of view compared to the previous work with its coverage of multiple giants of industry including Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Friedkin, Altman, Fonda, Hopper, etc, etc. Down And Dirty does mention many directors and producers but perhaps, because the events are more recent, they have not yet risen so high in prominence, bar the odd exception – like Tarentino or perhaps Kevin Smith. Or may be they just had bigger personalities back then.
There are a few amusing anecdotes – one involves October executives chasing Robert Duvall’s agent through a Sheraton Hotel in an attempt to stop him from making a deal with Miramax. And some interesting stories like Affleck’s early career frustrations trying to get Good Will Hunting made. However these are few and far between and Biskinds’ basic themes of ‘the Weinsteins are evil geniuses!’ and ‘Redford is a passive-aggressive control freak!’ get boring when they are continually repeated.
There’s some good stuff on just how much effort is put into swinging the Oscar vote in the direction of your movie and Biskin certainly provides some explanation regarding some odd choices the academy have have made over the years – who spends the most money in the right way and/or presses the right flesh wins, basically. Though Biskind’s decision to render Billy Bob Thornton (and only his) speech phonetically – ‘Ah made the movie fo’ me, not fo’ anyone else, ah’ve seen and ah’ve enjoyed it’ – to portray him as some sort of simpleton hick is inexcusable. Yes, Thornton has a dirt-poor southern background, but Biskind’s obvious spite at his success is not nice, or even easy, to read.
Whilst, like Easy Riders, Down And Dirty is a compulsive read at first, it becomes overlong and repetitive, with its concentration on the two camps of Miramax and Sundance, and especially the personalities of Redford and the Weinstiens, leading to far too many similar takes of bullying and back-stabbing featuring too many films and film-makers who are rightly already forgotten.
In the end Down And Dirty made me think much less of the people of the period whilst the previous book, whilst highlighting all their faults, made me think much much more of them.