Peter Bart’s memoir of Hollywood studio life in the heady late Sixties and early Seventies is equal parts film history and tabloid grit. Nearly a half-century after his surprising entry into the industry, readers will still be appalled and fascinated by anecdotes exposing the foibles of powerful studio players; personality quirks of now legendary stars; the romances that nearly blew apart Paramount’s blockbusters; and the effects of popular culture on movies that both drove and revealed a generation’s tastes.
During the author’s pivotal tenure at Paramount Studios, an unprecedented string of classics were released: The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Paper Moon and True Grit. Plus the careers of such icons as Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Ali McGraw and Warren Beatty were launched or reignited.
Bart would be the first to say he was undeniably in the right place at the right time. That isn’t to say he didn’t display a definite talent for selecting the stories, producers, directors and actors that resulted in some of the most beloved movies of all times. When writing about Love Story, Bart recalls,
“This little movie that no one wanted to make would, in its own way, become one of the truly transformative hits of the moment—the movie that would save Paramount. Love Story was effectively the first film that I had gone out on a limb for.”
A reporter with the Wall Street Journal and then the New York Times, Bart became friends with Robert Evans after moving to Los Angeles as a columnist. Evans was already a chameleon, having worked for his brother in the fashion industry (Evan Picone was founded by Charles Evans), acted (albeit not very successfully), and then decided to storm the studio system. In fact, it was Bart’s short feature on Evans that garnered the interest of Charles Bluhdorn, a businessman who had just acquired Paramount. When Evans was tapped to become the head of production in London, he revealed that he wanted to pull Bart along with him, saying: “I told them I wasn’t equipped for my new job, so I wanted someone at my side who was also not prepared.” Bart remembers thinking, “That was such an absurd argument that I believed he’d actually made it.”
Evans and Bart proceeded to shake the staid studio system until it upended Hollywood—pushing Paramount from ninth place to the top of the studio charts by raining hits like The Godfather. No easy task that, considering that on their arrival, many of the movies in the Paramount pipeline “I’d pay to avoid seeing them,” Bart joked. The rise in stature in five years was truly astonishing. As the author summarizes, few if any studios have ever “accomplished such a remarkable turnaround.”
The revealing aspects of Bart’s recollections include personal details that could make readers cringe, and professional accounts that most likely could not be discussed until decades later (well, not if Evans and Bart wanted to continue in any aspect of the industry). Bart aptly chronicles the crazy coke-filled times, revealing even unflattering details about himself (although he fared better than most, managing to navigate the never-ending party rather than becoming an inert victim). According to the author, Evans and many “star patients” relied on “Doctor Feel-good” for treatments, i.e. “vitamin shots” that certainly resembled doses of amphetamines. Bart describes feeling his entire body “sizzle” when he accepted injections to combat the flu.
Infamous Players is written primarily in a chronological timeframe, starting with pitches and searches for a suitable manuscript; moving to the planning phase filled with negotiations for producers, directors and actors (with constantly shuffling schedules due to competing projects); narrating on-set confrontations, editing tussles and competing marketing and theatre contracts; and finally the drama of premieres, reviews and audience reception. One failing of a narrative following an actual film time-frame is that when Bart is discussing blockbusters, ultimate punch lines are often revealed early—such as the back story of Ali MacGraw and Evans’ marriage imploding before they appear at a premiere party together. This circular style of storytelling does suit the story, however, reminding readers of both the lengthy filmmaking process and the constant juggling of properties and people that goes on in Tinseltown.
Certainly many movie buffs will already know part of Bart’s story and the individual movie dramas, but we are treated to delicious new details like Sinatra’s fury over Mia Farrow’s experience on the set of Rosemary’s Baby and the various results of her award-winning role. Or that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were discussed as possible Gatsbys before Robert Redford. And that Roman Polanski stayed in a studio dressing room when he first returned to the States after his wife Sharon Tate’s murder. It isn’t shocking to read about mob investments in studios or their interest in The Godfather, but readers may smile when realizing that actor availability was sometimes manipulated by issues related to the building of Vegas mega casinos.
Bart inserts several different sorts of chapters, such as one on rising stars of the time:
“By the end of the Sixties, an abundance of actors in Hollywood found themselves frustrated by the chaos of the system, but what set Beatty, Eastwood, and Redford apart was that each was about to seize their moment.”
Bart points to the wise choices that preceded the coming directorial successes of each man.
Unfortunately, Bart does seem to air a few grudges (not surprising for someone who dealt with studio politics and inflated egos). But, as someone who had continued success in film and journalism (while seeming to enjoy a stable family life), the author seems a credible source. Infamous Players certainly succeeds as a testament to the “reckless swagger” of the movie industry and its players during a pivotal time in history.