[Explores] the epic human drama behind the making of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Doctor Doolittle, and Bonnie and Clyde-and through them, the larger story of the cultural revolution that transformed Hollywood, and America, forever.--From publisher description.
Harris’s decision to track the projects year by year, alternating among them, allows us to so fully engage the filmmakers’ dogged will in the face of setbacks that we find ourselves rooting hard for even “Doctor Dolittle” to work out. “Bonnie and Clyde” may furnish the zippiest narrative: from its conception as a gangster film about, in Robert Benton’s words, “all the things they didn’t show you in a gangster film,” including the way rollicking good fun could turn instantly lethal; to its composition, with Benton and his screenwriting partner, David Newman, working while Flatt and Scruggs played “at full volume on the phonograph”; to its memorable and successful ad campaign. (“They’re Young. They’re in Love. And They Kill People.”)
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood mixes quite a few of my favourite things. It deals with the 1960s, a decade that I find fascinating, and its focus is on the five movies nominated for Best Picture at the 1968 Academy Awards. I love movies, especially classic movies, and my favourite movie of all time, The Graduate, was one of the five movies up for Best Picture. Basically, if a non-fiction book could have been written with me as the target audience, it would be this book.
Harris' basic thesis is that the five Best Picture nominees - The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle - represent a moment of change in Hollywood, a transition from the old Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s, and the new Hollywood of the 1970s. Old Hollywood, represented by Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Doctor Dolittle, and actors like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, meant black and white films that were director-focused. New Hollywood, epitomized by Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and the teams responsible for the two movies, was influenced by French New Wave films, embraced colour, and wanted to bring serious change to American cinema.
Pictures at a Revolution traces the five movies from their birth until the night of the Academy Awards, detailing scriptwriting, financial backing, casting, filming, and post-production. Harris is very thorough in his research and writing, yet the pace never lags. I was consistently interested in what I was reading, and found it easy to keep the hundreds of people straight in my mind. Harris doesn't judge, or really ever insert himself into the narrative, though he is of course making an argument. He stays away, for the most part, from Hollywood gossip, and gives near-equal consideration to all five films.
Harris' book added to my knowledge of The Graduate, and introduced me to four other movies about which I knew very little. His commentary on the 1960s, and the massive cultural changes of the decade, added to his focus on film; Harris frequently remarkes that this change in film parallels the changes also occurring in music and fashion. Old Hollywood and new Hollywood represent the tension between generations in the world at large, a topic explored in The Graduate.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood was my kind of non-fiction: written in a captivating manner, it explored one aspect of popular culture as a metaphor for the changing society of the 1960s. Harris' extensive notes have given me numerous books to read in the future, and four movies that are on my must-watch list. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in film, or in 1960s culture.
But: Mark Harris certainly puts forward a good argument, and leavens the dough with a good deal of Hollywood gossip, most of it amusing if not strictly relevant. As to the main thesis, that these few films were symptomatic of a cultural shift in Hollywood's socio-cultural position, I'm partially convinced. Certainly his exposition of Poitier's films convinces me that the mainstream industry had (belatedly) joined the side of the angels on integration and racial equality. I'm not persuaded, however, that this year marked a radical turn in artistic matters. Yes, many auteur-style films appeared in the following years, but a glance at the box-office figures for the decade suggests that escapism and political conservatism would continue to pull in the punters.
A great read, and a thought-provoking thesis, but not wholly convincing. I do recommend it to anyone interested in American culture.
The author’s approach is to focus in on 5 very different films, the Best Picture nominees of 1967 (In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), each of which represent a strand of filmmaking at that time, and hold them up the changes which are going on in society around them. The films themselves may seem tame today, but between them they reflected the impact of the Production Code, the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of counterculture. The argument the author makes that these are radical films which changed (or at least were a catalyst for change) is compelling.
This is a meticulously researched and referenced work, and for any scholarly film historian would be critical reading, however it is also extremely accessible to anyone with a general interest in the history of film (or the Sixties in general). The stories of the five films, one weaving in and out of the other as their gestation occurs over a period of years keeps the reader interested. The principal characters are sharply depicted, almost wickedly so in some cases. Struggling actors and studio moguls alike could almost be stereotypes, but the author provides enough detail and background to create individuals.
It’s the detail that impresses, based on interviews and original documents it makes the work fresh – Ranulph Fiennes attempting to sabotage Dr Dolittle, the trading of scripts and production rights, and perhaps most poignantly these days how filming of In the Heat of the Night was cut short in Tennessee by racism (only one hotel in the town would accept black people).
I’ve read few works on behind-the-scenes Hollywood which attempt to give such a full context for the production, the process is as much the star as any of the actors.
As someone who knows little about film history, I was amazed by how quickly I was drawn into the behind the scenes intrigues and shenanigans. Mark Harris has put a lot of time into researching this book, and I loved the quotes from key players that have been incorporated throughout -- especially where the memories of the key players contradict one another.
I enjoyed reading about Warren Beatty's struggle to get Newton and Benton's Bonnie and Clyde made, and, once made, to get movie studio Warner to publicize and promote it. I loved reading that Beatty and Penn (as producer and director respectively) agreed, in an effort to make the best film they could, to fight at least once a day, every day.
As someone who has only ever known Dustin Hoffman as a movie star, I found it surprising to read of Dustin Hoffman's struggles to gain recognition as an actor of any note, and his nervousness about taking on his now classic role as Benjamin Braddock opposite Anne Bancroft's Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. I'm ashamed to admit I did not even know the name of director Mike Nichols, a multiple award winning director of Broadway shows, before reading this book, but he sounds like a man who knew exactly the film he wanted to make, and how to get the best performance out of his actors to make that vision come alive.
I was kind of saddened to read about Sidney Poitier's struggles with being typecast as almost too-perfect characters in an attempt to offset his skin colour. Given the rise to greatness of men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who brought race relations to the forefront of American politics, it seems very sad that the end of the sixties also marked a downturn in Poitier's movie fortunes.
In Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Poitier got the chance to play opposite Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but he ended up stuck back in his typecast role of 'too perfect to be true'. A movie that should have been relevant in the sixties, with it's plot of inter-racial marriage, rendered safe by Poitier's so-perfect-he-could-be-white character.
Poitier also played an African American detective, opposite Rod Steiger's slightly racist Southern police chief in another Best Film Oscar nominee in 1968: In the Heat of the Night. I haven't watched this film yet, but aftre reading everything this book has to say about it, I intend to change that state of affairs as quickly as possible. For the first time, it sounds as though Poitier was given a role in which he could allow at least some of his anger to shine through. And Steiger sounds like he did an amazing job.
The end of the sixties coincided with the end of hugely costly old studio musical roadshows, and this was emphasized by the spectacular failure of Doctor Doolittle. And the troubles on Doctor Doolittle extended beyond the financial. Possibly its biggest liability was the film's star, Rex Harrison...
All in all, a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining book that I'd recommend to anyone even vaguely interested in movies, and in what goes on behind the scenes.
It's a poor historical work, in that he fails to adequately bring in the social, political and economic factors that the changing face of hollywood in the mid sixties reflected.
The internationalisim of the age was the fore runner of todays globalism, and the opening of America during the sixties to world trends in the arts and politics (albit mainly european) would see America in the following decades return or resell those cultural influences back to the countries of origin modified and Americanised.
By not delving deeply enough into this aspect, Harris has missed out on a significant opportunity to ground the work. As such it floats in a never never land failing to register the importance of film in the social dialogue of the time.
Poitier didn't just slightly upset African Americans by failing to take a stand during the civil rights movement, his non action was seen as a deep betrayal at a time when children were dying in horrific racial attacks. Macarthyism, the cold war, cuba , the begining of the feminist movement etc all amazingly get scant report, when the lenght of the book dictates they could have been given much better coverage.
Its a good 'did you know' read and gives insight into how complicated and unpredictable the film business can be relying so much on who you know as opposed to what you know. But the title perhaps should have been 'A few very selected scenes from a revolution'.
First and foremost, I have to say that this is a fascinating book. I don't often read historical books of any sort, let alone on the subject of film, so this was way outside my normal literary comfort zone. As a result, this book held a bit of quirky intrigue that makes it worth a read for those who love movies, like myself, but are not necessarily well educated with the history of cinema.
From my perspective, this book provided a very interesting historical view of hollywood of the day. I was particularly fascinated by how much hollywood has changed over the years. Nowadays, the film industry seems almost without bounds. There are so many large and low budget companies producing everything from the great to the terrible. During the mid-60s in which this book is set, hollywood is presented in a much more finite view. This was particularly revealing and interesting to me.
Now, am I convinced, as the author has presented, that the year in question was really such a crucially pivotal moment in film history, shifting from one type of flick to another? Honestly, not really. But I really believe that with as much as the author had to present about the time, I really personally lack the scope of knowledge required to agree or disagree. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great bits about this slice of film history presented by Mr. Harris.
Lastly, this book did make me consider more specifically when I see a film today exactly how much the industry has changed over the years. I am sure that is a ridiculously obvious concept. But it's easy to overlook as you watch hour after hour of modern cinema.
If I HAD to take any particular stance after reading this book, I would probably have to (if anything) choose to disagree with the author and believe that the great change in hollywood film making was a gradual one. Yes, there are years such as 1967 which made a big impact. But there are a number of those years and lots of overall change that occurred.
So, final thoughts - pick this one up if you, like me, love going down to the cinema for a film. This book is guaranteed to take you on a journey through a captivating slice of american film history which will cause you to appreciate and enjoy the films of the day even more. At least, that is, if you are anything like me.
For anyone who is very interested in film history this should be an interesting read. Recommended.
The context is that Hollywood in the mid 60’s was still mainly organised as factory-studios with the exception of United Artists that was a publisher-distributor (a producer put a creative package together and agree costs and profits and UA marketed and distributed.) But the whole system was in reality the walking dead. Before the mid 50’s back to the 30’s 5 of the 8 big studios also controlled the theatres. This link was broken by a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that required exhibition to be separate from distribution-production. This system had allowed the studios to do block booking which was usually a package of 5 films- one good and the rest a range of A and B stinkers. It was this practice that the judgement had ruled on. The solution was seen a divorcement which RKO as one of the weaker studio had jumped on for its own advantages so forcing a chain reaction of separation. Ironically, it was the first to be broken up by an outside conglomerate, stripped of its film assets and finally came out of the movie industry completely.
The studio’s economic model was churning out colour, bright light big screen westerns, war and sex-comedies (think John Wayne, Doris Day) and the occasional musical aimed at families. TV was seen as the big competitor and a destroyer of its mass market so they resisted allowing films being distributed to TV. Directors would even sue them because the commercial breaks were affecting the artistic balance of the film. The big earner in this economic model was to have a road movie. This was a film that would open in the big theatres with booked seats charging above average prices and would only be released to the next range of theatres when the income started to fall. In this way a film could be an income stream for 2 years. However in the 60’s the big road movie had been the Sound of Music so the studios were falling over to produce the next big expensive musical most of which were to be box office turkeys and become the final nail in the coffin for the studio-factory system.
Another factor in this light fare was the aftermath of McCarthyism with the Studios steering away from anything political despite the obvious major social revolutions taking place due to the Civil Rights movement, the growing anti war movement and the baby boom generational cultural revolutions. The production code also imposed self censorship and meant that films were increasingly at best out of touch or at worse reactionary. For example, afro-Americans appeared in films as servants and nowhere behind the scenes with the exception of Sidney Poiter as the “good Negro” had which itself reflected the racism of the time of which Sidney Poiter was fully aware.
Yet by the 70’s this whole economic model had changed. All the studios had become distributor-producers with close links to TV’ production and distribution. They were all on they way of being absorbed into conglomerates. The summer blockbuster had arrived, and franchises (think Bond, Jaws, Planet of the Apes, StarTrek) were integral to profits. The key market was no longer families but the 15-21’s, censorship was replaced with ratings. Integration behind and in front of the camera took off as Hollywood realised the economic power of its black audience. And they embraced European film making and styles.
Don’t think this is a dry history book as much of this context is woven into the real heart of the book which is to look at the twists and turns of the stages of the films production. The structure is like a novel in that you read so far in the events of a movie before switching to another often by following how the events in the one gave or frustrated opportunities in the other. This list gives you a flavour of the complexities of making a move and the serependity of the results.
• Screenplay- Bonnie and Clyde by writers who wanted the film to be the start of American New wave. Or ones that started as novels adaptations such as the Graduate. What is hot or not then depends on what is seen as the next big book office which what drives the Doolittle project
• The Producer-Doolittle and the Bonnie and Clyde film had a rocky ride before this became clear. What is hot is not depends on how well you did so Kramer could get a package for Guess who coming to dinner but Warren Beatty could not but his charm proved to be the winner
• The Director. Bonnie and Clyde had a very bumpy two years before Penn agreed to come on aboard. And the graduate Director had never shot a film and had only just become known as a Theatre Director after years of being part of a famous comedy team. What is hot is not depends what was hot in the book office so knowing a turkey was on the way a number of projects were driven to get things moving before the money moved away.
• Casting-biggest breaker and maker of the process as the bankable star could prove a disaster in making or distributing the film as Rex Harrison for Doolittle. Or make as in the case of Hepburn and Tracey in Guess who’s coming to Diner. You also see the turkeys that might have been- Doris Day as Mrs Robinson and Robert Redford as the boy in the Graduate
• Production-pre, filming and post production. It becomes clear the importance of lighting, choosing locations, editing all had a powerful impact on the final films and how the decisions taken were shaped by the civil right struggle, the power of the studio, changes in the production code etc
• Distribution and the critics- Warner Brothers tried to bury Bonnie and Clyde- it had got as far as it did because Jack Warner in the last few weeks of being the last old time Studio Boss had been distracted by the making of Camelot. But a powerful critic going into print acknowledging that he had been mistaken in his first review gave Warren the chance to start the year long campaign to get an eventual successful national release
And before you now think that this is a nerd’s book, added to the film history, social and political context and analyses of how films actually get made (kills dead any auteur theory which holds that a director's films reflect that director's personal creative vision) a detailed biography of the key actors, producers, studio bosses directors, writers, technicians etc and their relationships to each other as the films finally get made and shown is woven into the story. For example:
• Hepburn and Tracey may have been gay or bisexual and in a protective relationship- being adulterous being the better option!;
• Rex Harrison and wife were very fun of the sauce- she when drunk would do flipovers wearing no knickers;
• Sidney Poiter was used as an Uncle Tom by the film industry but his films shown on the TV( sold by the studios as worthless negro films) widened his audience appeal and encouraged TV companies to Black Actors in positive roles as in Mission Impossible and Startrek);
• Dustin Hoffman went back onto welfare until the Graduate was released and capitulated him into and stardom and the Midnight Cowboy; and
• David Webb the author admits how priggish he was in the film’s changing the scene so the wedding is distributed after the vows and not before the vows as in the book
This was an extremely enjoyable book that enabled me to see these 1967 films and films in general in a new light. Its 500 pages flew by as I managed to read it over 4 days and was left begging for more. Highly Recommended.
-- Mark Harris, "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood"
The above quotation, found near the end of "Pictures at a Revolution," a fascinating 2008 book about the five movies nominated for best picture in 1968, seems like an odd thing for Mark Harris to say, given that his entire book focuses on the symbolism of those five movies and the 1968 Academy Awards. His thesis is that what he calls New Hollywood began to take over from Old Hollywood that year. All five movies nominated -- "In the Heat of the Night," "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Doctor Doolittle" -- were American-made, following a long period of British dominance at awards ceremonies. Younger, liberal, independent film makers, greatly influenced by European directors, began to replace older, conservative studio heads.
The ceremony in 1968, which was delayed by the death of Martin Luther King, reflected the struggle of the two camps, according to Harris. "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" very much represented New Hollywood, while "Doctor Doolittle," the only one of the five films to never break even, represented Old Hollywood. "In the Heat of the Night," which won the award for best picture that year, and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," were mostly Old Hollywood, but they both starred Sidney Poitier and both dealt with race relations, a timely topic even if the latter film was considered out of date by the time of its release.
Harris goes into exhaustive detail about the making of all five of those movies. Much of his information may be gathered from other sources, yet much of it is also based on his interviews with those involved in the productions. Among the tidbits he shares:
-- French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both considered directing "Bonnie and Clyde." Instead Arthur Penn made the movie and got a nomination for his efforts. It may be a good thing Godard didn't take the job because he wanted to make the movie, set in Texas and surrounding states, in New Jersey in January.
-- Among actresses considered for the part of Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" were Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, Patricia Neal and Ava Gardner. Anne Bancroft ultimately got the part. And the Simon and Garfunkel song "Here's to You Mrs. Robinson" was originally written to mention Mrs. Roosevelt.
-- Spencer Tracy's monologue at the end of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" took six days to shoot. Tracy was so ill at at the time he could work just a few hours each day. He died before the movie was released.
--Bosley Crowther, the longtime New York Times movie critic, lost his job because he panned "Bonnie and Clyde" again and again and again. He loved "Cleopatra." Meanwhile, Pauline Kael got her job as film critic at The New Yorker because of an article she wrote praising "Bonnie and Clyde."
"Oliver!," made in Great Britain, won the Academy Award for best picture the following year, but it was the last British film to win until 1982 ("Chariots of Fire"). New Hollywood had taken over.
The book follows the films all the way up through the 1968 Oscars, which were delayed that year because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The five movies were each nominated for Best Picture of 1967 - In the Heat of the Night won. I liked that in the epilogue, the author provided the rest of the story for each of the key players in the book - just a brief overview of the rest of their careers. As further research, the kids and I have been watching the movies - a few nights ago we watched In the Heat of the Night, which we all really liked (the book is very good, too), and last night we watched The Graduate - the girls had not seen it before, and they loved it. Looking forward to viewing the rest of the films together - although probably not Dr. Doolittle, as it turns out Rex Harrison was a complete ass.