Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris / John Williams
Book Reviews | March 6, 2008 | Comments ()
The cover of Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood shows Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty’s Clyde grips a steering wheel and sports a mischievous smile, convinced he’s headed toward fun, even destiny. Dunaway’s uber-stylish Bonnie secures her hat against the whipping breeze and beams at her man. The portrait floats against a black background, appropriately marking their cinematic journey as a trip from nowhere to nowhere, a joyride between voids.
In the mid-1960s, inspired by the French New Wave movement, the American counterculture, and probably toxic levels of boredom, a handful of filmmakers shook up Hollywood. Others made Doctor Dolittle. A bloated box-office bomb, Dolittle represented a wave of studio efforts to replicate the success of recent mega-hits like The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, long, production-heavy numbers that were billed as “road shows,” often requiring audiences to book advance tickets.
Dolittle was an unlikely Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1967, largely thanks to its studio’s money-driven campaign to secure the nod. The other four nominees that year included In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both starring Sidney Poitier, and Harris is at his best describing the star’s delicate place as the lone African-American star in the Hollywood firmament. Dinner was a superficially progressive but essentially conservative story in which Poitier played a role that had become all too familiar for him by that time — the Incredi-Black, so accomplished, deferential, and calm that white characters have no choice but to acknowledge his humanity. In the Heat of the Night was a small step forward, depicting Poitier as a complicated detective leery of, and sometimes combative towards, the bigotry that surrounds him. (A scene in which he exchanges hard slaps with a white character was scandalous or galvanizing, depending on who watched it.)
Rounding out the competitors for Best Picture were the two movies that give Harris’ book its purpose, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. These were the films that radically departed from previous Hollywood formulas; Bonnie and Clyde introduced a new level of on-screen violence (and seemed to glamorize it) while The Graduate tackled a generation’s ennui with an unheard-of leading man.
By focusing on these films, Harris has fleshed out a pivotal moment in cinematic (and American) history, but his fashionably portentous subtitle ignores the fact that the New Hollywood died very young. By the late ’70s, Jaws and Star Wars would set the template for everything that was to come — metastasizing sequels, screenplays inspired by action figures, a scorched-earth release schedule in which movies built to make or break in their first 48 hours simultaneously flooded thousands of screens across the country. (For that epic, salacious story, one needs to read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which catalogs the myriad disappointments in how the New Hollywood squandered its promise and the Old Hollywood got its groove back.) In his intro, Harris writes that the ‘67 Oscars were about “who was going to win ownership of the whole enterprise of contemporary moviemaking.” From the vantage point of 2008, when Hollywood is as crass and machinelike as ever, it’s hard to see the stakes as quite that high.
But a publisher needing a tenuous hook shouldn’t detract from the book’s strengths. Despite a sometimes limiting thesis and a surplus of detail about studio personnel and their credits (the book could stand to be 50 pages shorter), Harris delivers a considered, enlightening treatment. And though he seems intent on a sober take of a power-drunk industry (the cup of coffee for the morning after Biskind’s wild night), along the way he can’t help but include colorful details: Ava Gardner, “only forty-three but already seemed like a relic of a fading Hollywood universe” pleading with Mike Nichols for the role of Mrs. Robinson; the torturous casting process that led to the title role in The Gradute being filled by a struggling, nearly-30 stage actor from New York; the story of Katherine Hepburn working to protect Spencer Tracy, who spent his dying days wrapping up work on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and a hysterical scene from the set of Dolittle in which a “recalcitrant” squirrel is fed gin from a fountain pen in order to be sedated for a scene.
The book culminates with the Oscars night that was scheduled for April 8, 1968, just four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Academy avoided a large, embarrassing boycott of attendees when it moved the ceremony to the10th, one day after King’s funeral. (For their troubles, those who had threatened the boycott were greeted on the 10th with host Bob Hope’s insensitive jokes about the recent tragedy.) It was an electric night that makes all recent Oscar shows look like the prepackaged snooze-fests they are. And it was an electric time. We still have our Dolittles, for sure, but it’s nice to be reminded of how, with much effort, we can fight them with our Graduates.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.