tongue-tied lightning

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
February 22, 2009, 4:31 PM
Filed under: film, lit


Today, with the Academy Awards tonight, seems like a good time to review this book.  It covers the shift from the Studio System to the New Hollywood as embodied in the Best Picture nominees for the 1967 Academy Awards.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Doctor Dolittle, In The Heat of the Night, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Two decidedly Old, two New and one that seems to have a foot on both sides of the line.  The Academy naturally played it safe.

But that’s not the focus of the book.  The book follows the production, from conception to reception, of all five pictures and illustrates the difference between how Hollywood did things from their beginning until the late 60s, and how they would do things for the next decade (arguably the most artistically creative decade in Hollywood history) until they adopted the Blockbuster/Prestige Picture philosophy that is still in play today.

A traditional book would give the five films their respective chapters, or parts, and have a culminating chapter/epilogue covering the Oscar ceremony.  There are potential problems with this approach.  While different readers could ostensibly be interested in reading about most of the films, I imagine very few people would be excited at the prospect of reading straight through the production of Doctor Dolittle without any interruptions or asides.  Author Mark Harris avoids this problem by interweaving the stories chronologically.  This greatly benefits the reader. If you don’t care to read about a certain film, well, you can be certain that as soon as you begin to lose interest the book will jump back to a film you care about.  It gives the story the feel of a novel and had me turning the pages much faster than I usually do in my dutiful readings of non-fiction.

The book opens as Robert Benton first has the idea for Bonnie and Clyde walking home from a screening of Jules and Jim in 1962.  I found this to be the most interesting story in the book.  Benton and his writing partner David Newman are both extremely engaging.  Their ideas on making the film and some of the changes the script went through were interesting.  And throughout the production Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Warren Beatty, Jack Warner (the famous story about Warren getting down on his knees in front of Jack is more or less debunked), Robert Towne, Faye Dunaway and Arthur Penn are all involved.  Penn puts forward the idea that it’s impossible to pinpoint an auteur behind this film.  After reading about it I’m inclined to agree.

The making of The Graduate was my second favorite segment (odd that these go in order of how I regard the films).  It covers not only Mike Nichols transition from a stand-up comedian to director, but touches on the production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well, and Dustin Hoffman’s transition from someone who struggled to get supporting roles in theater to a moviestar is interesting.  As Harris notes, the studios wouldn’t consider people that didn’t look a certain way for anything but character parts, and in those parts they didn’t have the patience for the Method acting of not only Hoffman, but also Duvall, Hackman and several others.

In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner both star Sidney Poitier, but were very different productions.  In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he starred with Katherine Hepburn and a dying Spencer Tracy (there is perhaps a unique metaphor at work in that Old Hollywood more or less died with one of it’s great screen legends).  In fact, in order to work with them, he agreed to again play a desexualized “Exceptional Negro.”  It was his dissatisfaction with these parts that made him excited for In the Heat of the Night.

Poitier as a person and his revelations prove to be more entertaining than either film.  Harris uses this to make comments on how Hollywood dealt with racism, how Poitier’s Oscar was more the Academy congratulating itself for it’s subpar treatment of race than awarding Poitier for his performance, etc. He even uses Stanley Kramer’s career to comment on the ineffectiveness of the liberal self-congratulatory prestige pictures that unfortunately weren’t swept away with New Hollywood.

The making of Doctor Dolittle is, if nothing else, entertaining as a comedy of errors.  Almost no step along the way was the right step.  Rex Harrison’s alcoholism and ego are out of control and when they aren’t inciting rage they’re making you laugh.  It’s a portrait of how Hollywood can do everything wrong, make a critical and financial failure and then still wring an Academy Award nomination out of it (perhaps The Reader isn’t a fair comparison but writing that it’s what came to mind).  It’s also the epitome of everything that was wrong with the studio system at that time.

Harris deftly weaves all these stories together.  The transitions are flawless, he will use Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway belonging to the same theater company in New York to jump from The Graduate back to Bonnie and Clyde. He includes many asides of important events along the way, from the Academy Awards ceremony to the dismantling of the Production Code after it had been undermined by films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blow-Up.  It both offers the reader periods of relief and informs the narrative, the fall of the Hayes code gave artists the freedom they needed to make films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on Hollywood.  I often have trouble working my way through histories as they tend to either rely too much on gossip or they come off as too factual and uninspired.  Harris has neither problem, he’s a great writer which seperates him from most historians and he doesn’t fall victim to the allure of gossip (though he does include an interesting bit or two).  In fact, the only complaint I have regarding this book is that it ended, it culminates in the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony, I would’ve loved to keep reading Harris discuss Hollywood, through the 60’s, into the 70’s and beyond.


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