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Monday, January 7, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Pictures at a Revolution

With Oscar nominations to be announced later in the week, followed by a month or so of hardcore campaigning on the parts of the nominees for those little gold statues, there’s no better time than now to check out Mark Harris’ 2008 book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.” Taking the five films nominated for 1967’s Best Picture –Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle - as its subject matter and examining both the making of stories of each as well as the ways in which each was impacted by Hollywood’s changing of the guard, when the studio system collapsed and the auteur era began to take hold, it’s an endlessly entertaining and fascinating book.

Harris takes great pains in his examination of each stage of the five films, from conception through to Oscar night, establishing the context in which each was born (Bonnie and Clyde came from the minds of a couple of Esquire writers obsessed with the French New Wave, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, Doctor Doolittle was conceived as a way to cash in on the success of previous musical roadshow productions) and following them through various iterations before they became the films we know today. The “making of” process of each of the films brings to mind the observation by Francois Truffaut (who toyed with the idea of directing Bonnie and Clyde before ultimately passing) in Day for Night that “making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.” This is most true of the Herculean process of making Doctor Doolittle, which from the sounds of it was some kind of karmic retribution for those involved, who clearly did some very bad things in their past lives to deserve it. From the problems inherent in working with animals, the location shoots that were plagued by disastrous weather, to the drunken antics of Rex Harrison (and, to a slightly lesser extent, his wife, Rachel Roberts), it was the thing of nightmares and, to make matters worse, the final product ended up being critically reviled and a commercial failure.

How, then, the film came to be nominated for Best Picture – over such films as In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke - is one of the more fascinating and frustrating aspects of the narrative. At a time when a new kind of filmmaking was taking over in America – one which catered to the tastes of youth and would ultimately force the end of the Production Code and change the face of pop culture, not to mention create a framework in which “ethnic” looking actors like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino could become stars – the Hollywood establishment tried desperately to cling to what they’d always known, even if that meant hitching their wagon to a swiftly dying star. This battle between the new and the old – which also had a fair bit to do with the well-meaning but creatively stagnant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner making the cut – made for a singularly interesting Oscar year in which Best Picture would be awarded to In the Heat of the Night, a film that in this context might be considered the bridge between the two eras, seeing as it was “edgy” enough to appeal to the younger crowd without offending the tastes of the older crowd quite as much as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.

In addition to examining the films and their impact, Harris also explores the trajectories of several of the stars of the films in the years leading up to and immediately following 1967. Sidney Poitier, star of two of the Best Picture nominees, comes across the most sympathetically, caught as he was in a racially based catch-22. He was a bona fide star with several hits to his credit and had attained a level of success that few black actors at that point could have hoped for, but he was also trapped by the image that the mainstream was comfortable with, an image which would come to seem increasingly out of step with the times. He was hailed by white audiences for what they saw as the progressive roles he played and image he presented, but that image was a source of frustration to black audiences and actors, who saw it as another kind of stereotype. Although Harris doesn’t spend a ton of time on Poitier, or any other individual (he’s much more interested in exploring the particular cultural/political landscape which led to the somewhat odd Best Picture lineup of 1967), he does a fine job at establishing the various interests at play behind the scenes of each film.

“Pictures at a Revolution” is a singularly engaging and entertaining piece of work. Although it’s about Hollywood and it delves a little bit into the personal lives of its large cast of characters, it never comes across as “gossipy” (though it does come a bit close when retelling some of the Harrison/Roberts anecdotes) and instead reads like a serious piece of journalism. If you’re at all interested in understanding how the rigid studio system briefly gave way to the “inmates running the asylum” auteur era, I think that this book is an excellent place to start.

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