Pictures at a Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Film scholars have long contended that 1967 represented a turning point for American films. Since the advent of television in the early 1950’s, the Hollywood studios had been struggling to retain their audience, trying gimmicks such as 3-D, widescreen processes such as CinemaScope, and large-scale biblical epics, adventure films, and musicals, anything to make Americans think they were missing something bigger and better by staying at home and staring at the tiny, usually black-and-white box. American films remained aimed at the mythical average viewer, meaning white, middle class, and middle aged. As a result, the studios continued in the 1960’s to turn out products that imitated each other, whether Doris Day sex comedies or James Bond spy thrillers. According to Mark Harris in Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, “emotional ambiguity and grown-up sexuality were virtually black market items in American films of the time.” When The Sound of Music (1965) became the all-time box-office champion, the studios rushed to make more big films based on Broadway musicals. Hollywood faced, writes Harris, “a creative low point in the sound era.”

What the Hollywood executives refused to recognize was that there was not one audience but a cluster of audiences: men, women, children, teenagers, college students, African Americans, and others defined by age, ethnicity, sexuality, education, and income. Then along came two films that no one initially wanted to produceBonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, both released in 1967to shake the foundations of the studio system. Harris examines these two films and contrasts them to the three other films nominated for Academy Awards as the best pictures of 1967: the interracial romance-family drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the family musical Doctor Doolittle, and the murder mystery with racial overtones In the Heat of the Night.

The heroes of Harris’s engrossing tale are the Bonnie and Clyde contingent of screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman, director Arthur Penn, and, especially, producer-star Warren Beatty; director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry, and star Dustin Hoffman of The Graduate; and Sidney Poitier, star of both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The villain is Rex Harrison, the egotistical star of Doctor Doolittle. Harris also offers sympathetic portraits of Arthur P. Jacobs, bumbling producer of Doctor Doolittle, and the somewhat-out-of-touch Stanley Kramer, director-producer of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In his evenhanded, nonjudgmental manner, Harris shows how complicated film production is, a process too often marred by compromise, infighting, jealousy, insecurity, incompetence, and the unexpected, as with the unpredictable weather and uncooperative animal performers plaguing the already-over-budget Doctor Doolittle.

Harris provides a detailed production history for each film, from inception to financing to completion to public display and beyond. Benton and Newman took the mythical American story of 1930’s bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and imbued it with such influences as the films of French Nouvelle Vague directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard to make it a completely different kind of crime film. The screenwriters wanted Bonnie and Clyde to be the first American film made in the New Wave style, with an elliptical narrative and strong sexual content, and they wanted to turn the protagonists into antiestablishment antiheroes. Truffaut and Godard were both initially interested in directing the film before abandoning the project for complicated reasons Harris painstakingly explains. Once Beatty joined the project as producer and star, he persuaded a reluctant Arthur Penn, with whom he had worked on Mickey One (1965), to take charge.

Comedian-turned-stage-director Nichols was committed to The Graduate, based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, before making his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The major problems facing Nichols, also influenced by European films, were coming up with a workable script (several screenwriters preceded Henry) and casting, especially the lead, a sensitive and confused recent college graduate. One of the highlights of Pictures at a Revolution is Harris’s long account of how unlikely unknown Hoffman got the part, painting the actor as almost afraid of success.

While Doctor Doolittle is clearly inferior to the other nominees, Harris makes the story of how this lumbering musical, based on Hugh Lofting’s children’s books, came to be as fascinating as his accounts of Bonnie and Clyde and The...

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Pictures at a Revolution Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2008): 32.

Cineaste 33, no. 4 (Fall, 2008): 72-74.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 22 (November 15, 2007): 1188.

Library Journal 132, no. 19 (November 15, 2007): 61.

The New York Times, February 11, 2008, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review, February 17, 2008, p. 13.

Newsweek 151, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 50.

People 69, no. 8 (March 3, 2008): 46.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 43 (October 29, 2007): 40.