Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Mark Harris. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Cloth, $27.95, 496pp.
Observers of the Academy Awards know that little science, and ample caprice, go into the selection of contestants. In 1967, this axiom reached its screaming limit, with a ragtag collection of best picture nominees at artistic, commercial, sociological, and corporate cross-purposes. Bonnie and Clyde began as a modest Nouvelle Vague imitator hated by its reluctant studio backers. The Graduate evolved into an increasingly oddball comedy, but it tapped into the alienated youth market so completely that it became a box-office geyser. In the Heat of the Night concerned a white sheriff and a black detective, and found wide appeal among liberal filmgoers. The presumptively bold Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner took on interracial marriage, as a white woman introduces her black fiancé to her conflicted parents. The fifth slot — In Cold Blood perhaps? Cool Hand Luke? La Guerre est Finie? No, that went to the excretory musical Doctor Dolittle, a miscarriage the Academy has yet to live down.
Mark Harris’ absorbing new book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, offers a “making of” format for all five, culminating in the Oscar ceremony of April 10, 1968, postponed due to Martin Luther King’s assassination. So it is with this book, a history of Hollywood in which the outside world keeps banging at the door. Hungry conglomerates were circling as obsolescent old-schoolers such as Jack Warner threw millions at the likes of Camelot. Poor downsized Fox suffered whiplash, going from Cleopatra to The Sound of Music to Dolittle. While Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were wheeled out for Dinner, unknowns Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway were quivering on the brink of major careers. And Night star Sidney Poitier, appearing in three hit movies that year and fast becoming the most popular star in America, feared for his safety while filming below the Mason-Dixon line.
Gossipy anecdotes give Pictures at a Revolution its narrative zing. Harris confirms that Robert Redford was a contender for The Graduate‘s antihero, while both Doris Day and Patricia Neal were discussed for Mrs. Robinson. What a different kettle of fish that would have been! How that movie found its perfect satiric tone and just the right combination of personnel is a study in luck and timing. As for Hoffman, moving overnight from welfare recipient to the hottest thing since the Beatles makes for a lesson in Be Careful What You Wish For. Pretty boy Warren Beatty was on thin ice with a string of insipid caper movies and art-house gristle when he finagled his way to producing and starring in Bonnie and Clyde, first courting François Truffaut to direct, then Arthur Penn, while the two made creative sport of daily squabbling during production.
Harris notes that Hepburn’s fastidiously cultivated image as a progressive Yankee is not supported by facts. Her asides to Poitier on the Dinner set were only slightly more genteel than anything Don Imus might say, while her subservience to an abusive Tracy approached masochism. But nothing compares to the calamity of Dolittle. The filmmakers were unperturbed by the practicalities of inter-species management until so much ordure excited the gag reflex. And there are reasons Rex Harrison exudes a vaguely malevolent presence here and elsewhere. The man was anti-Semitic, passive-aggressive, alcoholic, avaricious, and egomaniacal. His wife, the severe and perpetually stewed actress Rachel Roberts, was a toxic presence on the set. Apparently in keeping with the movie’s subject, she embarrassed herself with dog yowling imitations, and even got bestial with a basset hound.
The book is filled with quotes scoured from archives, clippings, production files, and magazines. Harris’ endnotes indicate interviews with Beatty, Hoffman, Night director Norman Jewison, and dozens of others, though they are inexplicably undated. Key issues of the day, Vietnam most obviously, get little attention. But Pictures at a Revolution is, on the whole, a fabulous read, with the five narratives skillfully woven one into another so as to form a rough chronology. When Oscar night finally arrives, the suspense is high, even with a known outcome. And time has settled the score. More than 40 years hence,Dolittle continues to emit foul smells, while Heat has drifted into the haze of dated respectability. Dinner remains sermonizing claptrap, turning Poitier into a cartoon of virtue while apotheosizing a pair of Hollywood warhorses. Only The Graduate (above) and especially Bonnie and Clyde maintain claims to greatness. Both escorted a new sensibility into American movies, but the revolution of Harris’ title didn’t last long. That vaulted neo-golden age, when executives played musical chairs while maverick directors made boldly reflective movies, was gasping by 1975. The blood of Jaws begat a more profitable revolution, and Hollywood has yet to recover.