George Lucas' 50th Birthday
On a historic night, the brightest directing lights of the new Hollywood gathered to salute their friend.
At first, back in the 1960s, Hollywood’s beleaguered old guard dismissed them as nothing but film school brats — bearded kids out of UCLA, USC and NYU who, with their scruffy manners and handheld cameras, threatened to upset the fading status quo.
But almost overnight, by just the mid-’70s, they had been dubbed the New Hollywood, and they were rewriting all the rules with movies like the magisterial The Godfather, the rude and rumbling Mean Streets and then, as the box office went crazy, blockbusters including Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Today, they are on the verge of becoming the grand old men of the movie business. As George Lucas himself described them when he took the stage at the Governors Awards in November to honor Francis Ford Coppola, they are the “generation who changed the course of motion picture history.”
Rewind the clock 16 years, though, to May 14, 1994: The occasion was Lucas’ 50th birthday. To celebrate, he invited his pals to Skywalker Ranch — his sprawling spread in Marin County, built around a majestic neo-Victorian mansion — to mark his half-century milestone.
It was a daylong affair at which the famed circle of filmmakers who’d long been part of Lucas’ career, along with their respective wives and girlfriends, mingled with his childhood friends from Modesto, Calif. At one point, someone — no one now can quite remember who — called for a group shot. And with a click, a moment in time was frozen with seven of the era’s most prominent directors caught, for a second, in midcareer.
Looking at that photo today, Lucas says of the bonds that connected them all: “Most of us started out together. We all loved movies — watching them and making them. We loved to tell stories that were important to us. We became a support system for one another. It wasn’t planned. That’s just how it happened, and it worked out. We didn’t always agree, but we all wanted essentially to help each other.”
Lucas, for example, first met Coppola in 1967 when, as an intern at Warner Bros., he wandered onto the set of Finian’s Rainbow, the older director’s first studio assignment.
Discovering their mutual love of movies, the two young men had an immediate rapport — as well as a distinct distrust of the studio suits who looked at them suspiciously. But after two weeks, Lucas decided he’d seen enough. As author Peter Biskind re-created the scene in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Coppola was annoyed: ‘What do you mean, you’re leaving? Aren’t I entertaining enough? Have you learned everything you’re going to learn watching me direct?’ [Coppola] offered [Lucas] a slot on the production. Lucas, too, fell under Coppola’s spell.”
Coppola would go on to persuade Warners to produce Lucas’ first feature, the minimalist sci-fi tale THX 1138. When it was released in 1971, though, the studio so hated the movie that it cost Coppola his deal with the company.
Similar threads connected others in the group: Lucas helped Ron Howard graduate into features by casting him as one of the high school kids about to head off to college in 1973’s American Graffiti. And when he was putting together Star Wars, he shared casting sessions with Brian De Palma, who was looking for actors for Carrie.
By the time of Lucas’ 50th, they all had made their mark.
Coppola had collected five Oscars for Patton and his first two Godfather movies and survived the madness of Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorsese had achieved Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas — though an Oscar still eluded him.
Steven Spielberg had earned the Thalberg Award in 1987 and picked up his first two competitive Oscars for 1993’s Schindler’s List. A year earlier, Lucas had also been presented with the Thalberg — with the crew of the orbiting Space Shuttle Atlantis beaming their congratulations down to Earth during the Oscarcast.
And together, Lucas and Spielberg also had kept the popcorn crowd happy by producing three Indiana Jones movies that Spielberg directed at a whiz-bang pace.
But that night in 1994, other dramatic turns in their collective careers were still to unfold. Despite his growing résumé as a director, Howard would not blast off with Apollo 13 for another year, and his Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind still seven years off. For Robert Zemeckis, a turning point was right around the corner: The premiere of Forrest Gump was just five weeks away. And he had also just begun to experiment with some of the digital effects that eventually would lead him to join Lucas in exploring the very edges of virtual filmmaking.
For his part, Lucas had not quite yet committed to returning to the world of Star Wars. It would be five more years before Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace would launch a whole new trilogy while also capturing another generation of Star Wars fans.
None of that was yet on the table as his pals toasted Lucas at the Skywalker Ranch, though.
“It was a good day,” Lucas recalls with characteristic understatement. “One of those rare occasions when we could all spend time together.”