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Jerry Schatzberg: my time in the New Hollywood driving seat

Fifty years ago, the joint winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s top honour, the Palme d’Or, was the third feature by a leading figure among New Hollywood directors, but one whose name is often overlooked today. Sharing the prize with Alan Bridges’ British chauffeur drama The Hireling, Jerry Schatzberg’s free-wheeling road movie Scarecrow teamed two of the defining American actors of the period: Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, the latter a star Schatzberg had helped discover.

Now a 95-year-old survivor of that extraordinarily fertile period in American cinema, Schatzberg began his career as a much-sought-after fashion photographer, shooting figures including Edie Sedgwick, Fidel Castro, Catherine Deneuve and Faye Dunaway. It was Schatzberg who shot the famous blurred portrait of Bob Dylan on the cover of his 1966 LP Blonde on Blonde.

His rapport with Dunaway helped launch his career in film. He’d been wanting to make a film based on his interviews with fashion model Anne St Marie called Puzzle of a Downfall Child. It would be an experimental, French New Wave-inspired drama about a confused, has-been model who retreats to a cottage and recalls her past to a photographer. Schatzberg thought the part would be perfect for Dunaway, who had just come off that seismic New Hollywood release Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

“She came to New York, and her press agent said, ‘Why don’t you call Jerry and see if he’ll do some more photographs?’ We became great friends. She fell in love with the character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child and became part of the project right from the beginning,” Schatzberg remembers.

With Dunaway onboard, Schatzberg began approaching producers. He first discussed the project with Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory fame. “Merchant was busy working on films with James Ivory, and I wanted him to go after some money for it. And, he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it.’ I tried to get a commitment from him, but in the end I said, ‘I’m gonna have to go on.’”

The project eventually found its way to producers Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who had a deal at Universal. “If they would each do a film for Universal, they would be allowed to pick a film that they wanted to. And they read it, and they liked my script. So Paul and Joanne, their company and myself produced it.”

With a haunting performance from Dunaway at its centre, Schatzberg’s debut feature comprises elaborate flashback sequences, jumbling past and present to highlight its protagonist’s fragmented mental state. Released at the tail end of 1970, its jagged textures found more of an audience in Europe, where it would be championed by renowned Cannes scout Pierre Rissient, leading to Schatzberg’s second feature, The Panic in Needle Park, being selected for Cannes competition in 1971.

Schatzberg found the seeds of this second feature when he went to a performance of Israel Horovitz’s play The Indian Wants the Bronx and saw a young, unknown Al Pacino on stage. He knew instantly he wanted to work with him. “I was very impressed with his stage performance. And then we went backstage and I was even more impressed with the real Pacino. The difference between him on the stage and backstage was remarkable. And we got along very well.”

“I went up to [manager Marty Bregman’s], we had some business to do and Marty said, ‘There’s a script you ought to read. I think it’s very good.’ I said, ‘What’s it called?’ And he told me, ‘Panic in Needle Park’. He said, ‘Al’s interested.’ I said, ‘Oh, well you should have said that first.’”

One of the boldest features of the New Hollywood era, The Panic in Needle Park is a harrowing and unflinching depiction of a young couple’s descent into heroin addiction, shot cinéma-vérité style on the streets of New York. 

Schatzberg wanted a realistic look at addiction, not a glossed-over style. At the recommendation of friends, he hired cinematographer Adam Holender, who had recently shot Midnight Cowboy (1969). “I liked his work, but I liked talking to him and his way of working. He was very collaborative. He came out of the Polish school of cinema (along with Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski),” Schatzberg says.

Schatzberg and Pacino spent six weeks together preparing for the film. “Al was fantastic because he had nothing else to do. That was the only film he was working on. We spent a lot of time just walking around New York talking to drug addicts and figuring out where they hung out, what they did.”

In this first lead role, Pacino gives a raw, magnetic performance as frenzied petty thief Bobby, whose life spirals into chaos and destruction. Casting the role of Helen opposite Pacino, Schatzberg went with another then-unknown actor, Kitty Winn, who gives a heartbreaking, sensitive performance as Bobby’s naive girlfriend, who is corrupted into addiction by Bobby. He wanted Winn because she was the opposite of Pacino’s character: an innocent. “To me, Kitty was perfect. She was anything but a druggie. They were two different people.”

Although Winn was named best actress at Cannes, elsewhere the film was highly controversial. In the UK, it would be banned for four years. As word spread, legendary Old Hollywood director Otto Preminger, who had made the 1955 addiction film The Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra, asked to see the film. Schatzberg recalls the screening: “He called us and asked if he could see the film, and we were [thrilled] that he would call us. We thought the fact that he called [meant] he would be very open to us. He didn’t say hello. He didn’t say anything. Just came in, took a seat. He left. So, I dunno what he got outta it, or whether he cared for it.”

The Panic in Needle Park was Pacino’s breakthrough film, securing him the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). While Schatzberg’s film was still being made, Coppola asked Schatzberg to send him footage of the film to screen for Paramount executives, who were against Pacino’s casting. After seeing the rushes, he was cast. 

Schatzberg reteamed with Pacino for this third feature, Scarecrow. In this freewheeling, quintessentially 1970s road movie, Pacino and Gene Hackman play free-thinking sailor Lion and hot-tempered ex-con Max – two drifters from wildly different backgrounds who become friends and travel across America. “I get a call one day from my agent, ‘Al wants you to read the script.’ And Al said, ‘We’ve got this script, both Hackman and I like it. We want to do it, but neither one of us like the director.’”

Stepping in as a replacement, Schatzberg recalls the excitement of working with the two acting legends but that the stars clashed constantly on set. They’d both studied method acting but had opposing approaches. “Gene didn’t like [Pacino’s] way of working that much. He didn’t think much of method actors. He didn’t play the game. Gene can be very difficult. There was one time we were talking and he said that he thought he got along with everybody. I said ‘You don’t get along with anybody!’”

Schatzberg thinks the fiery tension between these two silverbacks of the New Hollywood era may have supercharged their performances. “[Gene] didn’t give into Al too much,” he says. “He just thought Al was bullshit.”

Despite winning the Palme d’Or and opening to admiring reviews, however, Scarecrow stumbled at the box office on release in the US, and it has remained far less widely seen than other landmark films of the period. Upon rerelease in the UK in 2013, it was as if critics had uncovered buried treasure: the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote: “In his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind said Scarecrow was part of a body of 1970s work which was of ‘secondary’ significance. That judgment looks way off. Scarecrow is simply a masterpiece of the American new wave.”

Schatzberg would make two more films in the 70s: the rarely seen 1976 comedy Sweet Revenge and the admired yet now undervalued 1979 Alan Alda-Meryl Streep political drama The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Nothing afterwards had the impact of his first three films, which Schatzberg ascribes to drastic changes in the film industry after the 70s and increasing studio interference. Even so, he continued to forge an eclectic filmmaking career, including the Willie Nelson vehicle Honeysuckle Rose (1980), reuniting with Hackman for the 1985 drama Misunderstood, and 1987 thriller Street Smart starring Morgan Freeman in his breakout, first Oscar-nominated role. Until recently, he was considering a Scarecrow sequel. 

Spritely and animated even at his advanced age, he’s still as active as ever, continuing to do photography, working on multiple retrospectives of his work and collating his archives. He’s grateful for the chances he’s had: “I just thought I’d [get to make one film],” he reflects. “I didn’t know that I was gonna do a whole series.”

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