Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution

(Author: Mark Harris)


Screening room lights go up. Jack Warner is not happy. Director Arthur Penn and producer-star Warren Beatty have just screened their sexy, violent, irreverent period piece Bonnie and Clyde to the 75-year-old Warner Brothers studio chief. Beatty tries to smooth the old man’s ruffled nerves and, grasping for straws, explains that their film is an homage to Warner’s old gangster films.

The old-timer blinks. Then replies: ”What the fuck’s an homage?”

The story is part of Hollywood folklore by now. Surviving participants of the screening insist it is true. And Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Books, 2008) is full of such juicy anecdotes. But beyond such trivia, the book is a compelling account of Tinseltown in the 1960s. At the center of the tale are five films that would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards. Bonnie and Clyde was one of them.

Long before Harvey Weinstein went head-to-head with Steven Spielberg, the Oscar race was a blood sport. Frivolous and shallow though the awards may seem, they can make a difference at the box office for a struggling indie drama or launch the career of a promising young talent. Getting there isn’t easy today and it was even less so half a century ago, when this meat market was far more homogenic and impenetrable. The Oscars were doled out between a select group of major studios whose employees mostly made up the Academy membership. Although the sixties marked the beginning of a more liberal era in this respect, independent films and foreign productions still seldom entered the race.

One such competition is ably and exhaustively studied in Harris’s now seminal work. Although the subject is nominally the 1967 Best Picture race, the book opens a window to a wider landscape. The five films in question (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Dr. Dolittle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night) were all the result of processes that began years before the ceremony itself, which took place in April, 1968.

Two cinephiles and New York-based journalists, Robert Benton and David Newman, wrote a screenplay about two 1930s highway robbers, intending it as a tribute to the French New Wave cinema. 20th Century Fox, hoping to cash in on the mid-60s musical craze, announced a new family film based on Hugh Lofting’s popular Dr. Dolittle books. The adaptation of a detective story in which a black policeman investigates a murder in a small Southern town was planned as a starring vehicle for Sidney Poitier, who would then go on to star opposite screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Stanley Kramer’s new film about race relations. And polymath Mike Nichols, fresh off his success on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was hoping to make a comedy about a university graduate who embarks on an affair with a married older woman. The book follows each film’s journey through development, pre-production, casting, principal photography, post-production, marketing, release and reception, all the way to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony was held. Along the way, Harris introduces us to a varied cast of characters: writers, actors, artists, craftsmen and businessmen, all attracted by the magnetic North Pole of cinema that is Hollywood, CA.

The racial and generational themes present in four of the five films were by no means an accident. The movie industry was tapping into the sixties zeitgeist in its own, sometimes embarrassingly clumsy, way. Filmmakers struggled with the problems inherent in showing sex, violence and racism on screen in a way that was acceptable to the old production code. The pervasiveness of these exciting new themes was causing changes in the dusty, musty old studio system that was on its last legs anyway. One of the clearest signs of the coming change was the fact that the biggest movie star in the world looked, in Harris’s words, ”like no movie star had ever looked.”

Finding himself frequently typecast as the noble Negro, Sidney Poitier was frustrated with the narrow range of roles he was offered. But African-Americans, sometimes euphemistically referred to as ”the urban audience,” flocked to see his films and contributed to making several of them, such as To Sir, With Love and A Patch of Blue, sizable hits. Poitier had grown a steady fanbase and he was by the mid-sixties in a position where he had more say over his career choices than many white actors. But Poitier’s politically correct image was fast approaching its sell-by date. Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X had given America a glimpse of another kind of black man, capable of far more than just passive-aggressive stoicism in the face of hatred. It is no coincidence that the most memorable parts in Heat, a project tailor-made for him, involve galvanising moments of defiance on Poitier’s part.

One of the great insights of Harris’s book is the realization of how little awards-hungry precision engineering matters during the everyday nitty-gritty process of filmmaking. Stanley Kramer had his hands full trying to make it through the shoot of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with terminally ill Spencer Tracy and cantankerous Katharine Hepburn, sparing minimal thought for whether his actors would receive Oscar nominations for their work (both did). Facing even greater challenges were producer Arthur P. ”ApJack” Jacobs and director Richard Fleischer who had to wrangle the massive production of Dolittle, a costly family musical that would become the sole flop of the Academy lineup.

Although Dr. Dolittle was the only old-fashioned studio epic among the five nominees, its progress from page to screen was by no means devoid of difficulty, starting with securing the hotly contested film rights, aggressively pursued by Disney for years and finally secured by Arthur Jacobs, who then sold the project to the musical-hungry Fox. Rex Harrison, allegedly insecure, arrogant, alcoholic, anti-Semitic and, having just won the Best Actor Academy Award for My Fair Lady, highly in demand, was cast in the title role and proceeded to make life hell for everyone involved in the project. Composer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse underwent a trial-by-fire working on the massive production, his first major studio job. Producer Jacobs had a heart attack while shooting the film on location in England.

Harris’s clear-eyed view of the movie business eschews both sensationalism and sentimentality. He resists Biskind-style muckraking, but has no time for gilded memories either. In one revealing passage, he recounts how Tracy, on his last legs, filmed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s climactic monologue. Sidney Poitier in his autobiography offered a moving description of an old pro delivering a flawless reading; in reality, the aging star and his director needed several days and a lot of editorial assistance to make the scene work smoothly. Knowing the truth, the end result looks all the more impressive.

Likewise, Dustin Hoffman’s journey from New York stage to the red carpets of Hollywood bears little resemblance to a Cinderella story. The odd-looking Jewish kid felt miscast as an Ivy League graduate and was by no means alone in that assessment. Nichols capitalised on the actor’s deep insecurities to get comic mileage out of his restless screen presence. It worked for the film, but the shoot and the ensuing fame took their toll on Hoffman’s psyche. That the mercurial actor would go on to have a brilliant and enduring career as a leading man is something of a miracle. Paving the way to his success was the fact that Ivy League looks were no longer en vogue in Hollywood. For every Beatty and Redford, there was also a Hackman and a Duvall on the rise. Something new was in the air.

Benton and Newman’s screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde was explicitly influenced by the French New Wave films and by Jules and Jim in particular. (Indeed, François Truffaut was the writers' first choice for director and briefly committed and contributed to the project, before pulling out to make Fahrenheit 451 instead.) But by the time cameras rolled on Bonnie and Clyde in 1966, Nouvelle Vague was already in the rearview mirror. While the European influence could still be plainly seen in it, the resultant picture was very much its own thing: funny, sexy, propulsive and, finally, dark. It was a new kind of American film. And it was produced by its star, Warren Beatty, 29, then known as little more than an international playboy and struggling method actor coming off of a string of flops. Beatty saw the artistic and commercial potential in Benton and Newman's script, convinced his friend Arthur Penn to take the directorial reins, cast then up-and-coming actress Faye Dunaway alongside himself and took a gamble.

Together with the youth-oriented, cheerfully cynical The Graduate, the young robbers of Bonnie and Clyde ruled the box office for weeks. The two films would go on to earn seventeen Oscar nominations combined. Studio chiefs, including Jack Warner who hated Bonnie and Clyde with a passion even after it became a hit for his studio, scratched their heads. In a few years, most of them would be out of their jobs.

While it is hard to pinpoint the exact watershed moment when Hollywood made the transition from Old to New, the shift in many areas was undeniable and clear. The end of the production code was particularly quick and thorough. Quaint though the trend-bucking films like Bonnie and Clyde, Alfie and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may seem by today's standards, they gave way to far tougher fare faster than anyone may have expected. A mere six years after Spencer Tracy, whose entire career took place under the production code, got what amounted to a Hollywood state funeral, Linda Blair was stabbing her crotch with a crucifix in a film that would go on to earn ten Academy Award nominations. Times they were a-changin'. And instrumental in that change were, perhaps for the first time, film critics.

Although lacking an institution comparable to Cahiers du cinéma, America's film landscape was increasingly being influenced by what intelligent writers on the subject had to say about the art. Critics spoke directly to filmmakers, and they were listening keenly. Writers like Andrew Sarris, Joe Morgenstern and, most famously, Pauline Kael were shaking old conventions and needling the complacent dinosaurs who wrote for major publications. One such behemoth was The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, whose wrongheaded and persistent trashing of Bonnie and Clyde made him an easy target for the Young Turks. Crowther’s loathing for the violent, irreverent and, finally, extremely popular film turned against him and was one of the factors that finally led to his sacking from the nation’s most prestigious publication. Young critics, many of them proponents of the auteur theory, were not afraid to rub shoulders with exciting new filmmakers, who very much cherished their friendship and admiration.

This incestuous relationship arguably contributed to the artistic as well as commercial success American movies would come to enjoy in the seventies, when directors would have greater influence over the end product than ever before, relatively free of studio interference. That decade’s hedonistic excess was described perhaps most memorably in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Although Harris’s tome is not as comprehensive as the aforementioned work, his is ultimately more evenhanded and detailed.

Enjoyable and engaging throughout, the book climaxes with an almost minute-by-minute description of the 1968 Academy Awards telecast. No doubt intentionally the ceremony seems like an afterthought, following as it does the years-long journey of each competing film. The final winners list resembles a wedding gown in that it contains something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Sex and violence were here to stay, but the big winner of the evening, Jewison's stylish but unambitious story of murder and racial tension in the South, In the Heat of the Night, was in many ways a compromise choice. Although their success at the Oscars turned out to be less than stellar, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde would launch the careers of many of the fresh faces involved in their making. Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman went on to enjoy long and productive careers before the camera, while the cocky young producer Warren Beatty and the upstart New York intellectual Mike Nichols solidified their place behind it. Of the old guard, only Katharine Hepburn would truly benefit from her return to the Oscar race: she would go on to work for another two decades and earn more statuettes along the way. Stanley Kramer, Rex Harrison, Rod Steiger and, sadly, Sidney Poitier too, would more or less fade away in the coming years.

Regardless of the ultimate fate of their careers, Harris’s exhaustive, thoroughly researched book gives a fair shake to all those who worked on the five landmark films at the birth of the new era; his work pays homage to every one of them.

Even Jack Warner.