Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Movies and too Much Politics
Atlantic magazine editor and political writer Ronald Brownstein has written an ode to the creativity surrounding Los Angeles in 1974. Of a sudden Los Angeles was awash in musical, television and motion picture talent with something to say. He highlights Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty for their roles in “Chinatown” and “Shampoo”, respectively. Both movies were written by Robert Towne. With respect to “Chinatown,” Brownstein, in essence, summarizes Sam Wasson’s “The Long Goodbye.” ( See: Shulmaven: My Amazon Review of Sam Wasson's "The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood") Just like Wasson Brownstein views the end of Los Angles’ creative moment with the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” the following year. He forgets that most people go to the movies to be entertained.
With respect to the music, he highlights the careers of singer songwriters Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and the music impresario David Geffen. The way he writes about Ronstadt it seems that he had quite the teenage crush on her. Brownstein was sixteen at the time and likely was not alone.
Among the musicians and the actors Brownstein writes of excessive drug use and bed swapping among his leading characters. At times you needed a scorecard to see who was sleeping with who and as the year progressed cocaine use grew to the extent that it eroded their creativity in the years to come.
On television Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin made social commentary and had big hit with “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a caricature of Nixon’s silent majority. But what Brownstein does not understand a good part of the audience was laughing with Archie, not at him. As an aside, I sat next to O’Connor at a wedding and he was far funnier than he was on television. It was also the time of “Maude,” “Mash” and “Mary Tyler Moore.” Brownstein revels in idea that previously untouchable subjects were brought up on television.
Where Brownstein goes astray is when he writes about politics of the era. He spends way too much time on Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. I knew both of them. By 1974 the antiwar movement was a spent force. The real activism on the Left was taking place in the nascent environmental movement which was planting the seeds for today’s housing crisis in California, feminism, and gay rights.
On the Right activism was on the rise in opposition to feminism, school busing and rising property taxes. Those movements would flower later in the decade and bring on the Reagan revolution. In 1974 Jerry Brown was not the future, Ronald Reagan was, and I say this as someone who knew Brown then and served on his Housing Task Force. Jerry Brown was a far better governor 40 years later in his second go around.
Most troubling and not mentioned by Brownstein was that while all of the actors and musicians were partying on, Los Angeles was beset by gas lines, a recession, and the collapse of its manufacturing base. For most people 1974 was a very bad year and what they longed for was escape. It took a while, but Hollywood finally figured it out, just as it did during the Great Depression.
I was on the periphery of the events discussed in the book. To me the book stated out very strong then faded. Brownstein preaches too much and he forgets that entertainment is a business, and that business will not succeed if it beats people over the head by telling them how bad all of the social problems of the country are. As Brownstein notes George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame wanted people to feel better after they left the theater than when they first arrived. I go to the movies and listen to music to be entertained. If I want to look at the flaws in American life, I watch the news and read The Atlantic, of which I am a subscriber.
For the full Amazon URL see: Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll and too Much Politics (amazon.com)