Pictures at a Revolution

by Mark Harris Finkelstein

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Pictures at a Revolution

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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.


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Nichols was committed toThe 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 Graduate. The film’s budget slowly swelled into one of the biggest in history as Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox watched in horror. Leslie Bricusse, the screenwriter, composer, and lyricist, struggled to appease everyone in the production while a never-to-be-pleased Harrison threw tantrums.

The big story of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was less its plot than the casting of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the supposedly liberal parents whose daughter, played by Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton, plans to marry an African American doctor, played by Poitier. The film was the ninth and final pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, whose casting was the main reason that Poitier agreed to an underwritten role. Kramer’s challenge as director was to keep the film going despite the obviously serious illness of Tracy, who died shortly afterward.

The other problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the timid approach to the theme of interracial marriage taken by Kramer and screenwriter William Rose, an American expatriate long in England who knew nothing about American cultural changes since World War II. Harris shows how Kramer and Rose created a sanitized vision of racial relations that reviewers ridiculed, yet the film was Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit ever, partly because of its star power and the growing black audience and perhaps even because of its inoffensiveness during the era of race riots in cities such as Detroit and Newark.

Harris’s account of the making of In the Heat of the Night is less dramatic than those about the other four films. He recounts the changes screenwriter Stirling Silliphant made in John Ball’s 1965 novel, the casting of Rod Steiger as the sheriff of a small Mississippi town, the efforts of Poitier, as a visiting Philadelphia policeman, to meet the challenge posed by Steiger’s powerhouse performance, and the many contributions of film editor Hal Ashby, who took on extra duties, including casting and finding locations for director Norman Jewison. Though the film was shot in Sparta, Illinois, a few scenes involving a cotton plantation had to be shot in Tennessee, creating considerable uneasiness for Poitier, given the racial mood of the time.

While America was caught up in a period of vast social change and conflict, involving the restlessness of African Americans and women, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the protests against the war, Hollywood itself was also in a period of flux. Since the 1930’s, American films had been restrained by the Motion Picture Production Code, which placed great restrictions on sexual activity, profanity, violence, and the depiction of criminal and antisocial behavior. Several films in the mid-1960’s, particularly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blow-Up (1966), offered strong challenges to the code, weakening it so severely that it became obvious that the antiquated system was on its way out. Harris examines how the ongoing changes helped Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate be more mature than they could have been just a couple of years earlier. These changes resulted in the film rating system, which began in the fall of 1968.

In 1967 and afterward, Doctor Doolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were seen as relics of a Hollywood resistant to change, while Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were at the other extreme. Except for having a black hero solve a crime in the South and showing some discreet nudity, In the Heat of the Night was somewhere in the middle, essentially a conventional murder mystery.

Jack Warner and other Warner Bros. executives hated Bonnie and Clyde, seeing it merely as an excessively violent B-film. When it opened in August, 1967, many of the film reviewers agreed, notably Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, who attacked it relentlessly, leading to his removal as the newspaper’s primary film reviewer at the end of the year. Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek gave the film a harsh review, had second thoughts, saw it again, and reviewed it again, this time enthusiastically. Bonnie and Clyde gradually became a cause célèbre, with Time offering a cover story to explain its wide appeal, and Pauline Kael publishing a lengthy rave in The New Yorker, after the essay was rejected by The New Republic. Despite critical support and good box office, Warner Bros. was reluctant to give the public a chance to see the film, opening it only in locales scattered about the country and closing it in places such as New York City where it was doing booming business. Not until the Academy Award nominations were announced in February, 1968, did Bonnie and Clyde finally receive wide distribution.

Nichols arranged screenings of The Graduate for friends who did not know what to make of it and who were puzzled by the casting of the ordinary-looking Hoffman. Few of its first viewers understood The Graduate, and many of its reviewers saw it as an attack upon “their standards, their notion of what a well-made picture should be, their ability to control a cultural conversation that they suddenly felt was slipping out of their grasp.” The mainstream press that bemoaned hippies and antiwar demonstrators saw Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate as further evidence of the decline of American values. One can imagine their horror when The Graduate became the third-highest-grossing film of all time, trailing only The Sound of Music and Gone with the Wind (1939).

When young audiences rushed to theaters and returned for multiple viewings of both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, what the press termed “the film generation” was launched, and the studios began making more films, such as Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), about the outsiders or antiestablishment types with whom the young could identify. Pictures at a Revolution has an outstanding companion piece in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bull: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998), which chronicles what Harris calls “a second golden age of studio filmmaking.”

The Academy Award voters, up to a point, recognized the quality of the two outsider films, bestowing ten nominations on Bonnie and Clyde and seven on The Graduate. Even its makers were surprised when, despite unenthusiastic reviews and weak box office, Doctor Doolittle received nine nominations. This was still an era, soon to end, when studios were able to control large blocs of votes, and Twentieth Century-Fox employees showed their support despite the film’s poor quality. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally voted with their hearts, however, giving In the Heat of the Night five Oscars, including Best Picture, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner two. Bonnie and Clyde won two Oscars, for Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Estelle Parsons’s supporting performance as Beatty’s sister-in-law, and The Graduate won one, for Nichols’s direction. The most unjust loss was seen to be the choice of Rose’s clichéd script over the originality of Benton and Newman’s.

Pictures at a Revolution is not just film history but a perceptive character study. Harris excels at describing Beatty’s difficult personality, especially his constant battles with Penn; Hoffman’s insecurities; Nichols’s perfectionism; and the burden placed on Poitier as the main representative of his race for much of the world. Kramer was a mediocre director because he thought “like a producer, concentrating on the overall package rather than the shaping of individual scenes, performances, and moments.” Harris does not just report the facts but interprets them, placing them within their historical context and making certain his readers understand what might seem inexplicable more than forty years after the events.


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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.

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