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Hollywood's 'movie brats' -- a status report

By David Sterritt / April 21, 1983

New York

Not long ago, the ''movie brats'' were the great hope of Hollywood - the new breed of young, energetic, film-school types who were itching to lead the movies into a new age of high-tech, high art, and high profits.

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How goes the campaign? Results vary from one whiz kid to another.

Steven Spielberg is the king, with hits ranging from ''Jaws'' to ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.'' Martin Scorsese is doing well, winning praise for ''The King of Comedy'' and other pictures. George Lucas is riding high, with Chapter 3 in the ''Star Wars'' saga - ''Return of the Jedi'' - due next month.

Less happily, recent efforts by George Milius and John Landis have fallen short of expectations. And the ambitious Michael Cimino, once the prodigy of ''The Deer Hunter,'' has kept a low profile since the disaster of ''Heaven's Gate,'' although he is working on a new picture.

In the middle, hovering between success and failure, is the original movie brat: Francis Ford Coppola. The latest pictures to emerge from his Zoetrope Studios, ''The Outsiders'' and ''The Black Stallion Returns,'' are a far cry from the ''Godfather'' films and ''Apocalypse Now.'' They show Coppola working hard. But they indicate no clear direction for his future, either as an artist or as honcho of the financially troubled Zoetrope kingdom.

If any theme unites these Hollywood whiz kids, it's the difficulty of joining personal expression with big money and flashy show-biz traditions. Each of the ''movie brats'' now out of favor was harmed, directly or indirectly, by an attempt to join ''personal'' themes or styles with lavish production values - be it the ''The Wind and the Lion'' from Milius, ''The Blues Brothers'' from Landis , or ''Heaven's Gate'' from Cimino.

By contrast, the success of a Spielberg, a Lucas, or a Scorsese grows partly from a talent for meshing personal conviction with the lavish touches Hollywood loves. Whatever the worth of an ''E.T.'' or a ''Star Wars'' or a ''Raging Bull, '' it's clear their creators believed in them deeply - and kept their visions intact, even while using the movie industry's potentially overwhelming technical and financial resources.

Coppola had this skill. He knew how to make big pictures that reflected his own background and preoccupations, like the ''Godfather'' epics; and he knew when to keep a project intimate and concentrated, like ''The Conversation.'' He tested his talents to the utmost in ''Apocalypse Now,'' a Vietnam-war drama that called for mountains of money and arduous ''location'' shooting. It reached the screen late and was a little scruffy, but it impressed critics and audiences.

Apparently dazed by his own success, Coppola then began his downward slide with ''One From the Heart.'' Although it was designed as a romantic ''valentine, '' intimacy and charm were smothered by self-conscious cinematic devices. Coppola saw these touches as an intrinsic part of the picture. But moviegoers wanted a real love story, not an overstuffed visual study.

Aside from artistic considerations, the financial fallout from the failure of ''Heart'' was grim. It lost nearly all the money sunk into it, and spelled big trouble for the Zoetrope operation, which had never before produced a clinker. Clearly, it was time to retrench, and fast.