Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pictures at a Revolution

Behind its less than imposing cover photo of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION turns out to be arguably the best mainstream film history book in recent memory. In searching for that unique moment when "Old Hollywood" became "New Hollywood," author Mark Harris has focused on the six 1967 films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year.
Of course, I don’t have to remind MY readers that those title pictures were IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE GRADUATE, BONNIE AND CLYDE, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER and DOCTOR DOLITTLE. In the course of the book the reader is taken back to the early sixties when so much was already changing in politics, music, mores and social consciousness. Although late to the party, the stage was already set for a change in American film as World Cinema had long been pursuing more independent, less structured paths. From their individual conceptions, the making of each of the five seminal films is intercut with the background of a changing world. Ultimately, the author addresses their outcome and their impact on the critics, the public but—and most tellingly—the industry that made them.
Although certainly not a novel, Harris manages to introduce a number of quite memorable characters along the way among whom are:
Arthur P. Jacobs—An old-style producer who had been Marilyn Monroe’s agent and would later strike gold with the PLANET OF THE APES franchise.
Warren Beatty—The egotistical pretty-boy star who thought he could make better movies himself.
Jack Warner—Last of the old-time moguls, himself here being squeezed out by corporate takeover.
Mike Nichols—the one-time LP comedy star who was trying to prove he was more than a one-hit wonder as a director.
Sidney Poitier—Hollywood’s non-threatening idea of the perfect black man—a role with which he was not always content.
Rex Harrison—the bigger than life, stately, anti-semetic, alcoholic stage legend loved and hated by all (including his apparently mentally ill wife who would eventually commit suicide blaming Rex years after their divorce!).
Stanley Kramer—The heavy-handed producer with a conscience who was quickly being left behind and just didn’t get it.
Dustin Hoffman—Absolutely nobody’s idea of a leading man until he became the hottest find of the year!
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn—The Old Hollywood screen team whose great behind-the-scenes romance is here de-mystified so that you see the great independent woman becoming completely submissive to her dying, abusive lover as the two struggle to deal with a new world both on and off-screen.
In mixing together all of these people and their struggles to complete what survives of these times—the films themselves--Harris has written a wonderfully evocative and most readable volume. PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION manages not to play favorites and although IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT eventually wins the Oscar, that is made out quite clearly NOT to be the point. By the time the award was presented, Jack Valenti had come out with the ratings system and the floodgates had opened for the permissiveness that would follow, none of which—good or bad—would have been possible without pioneering filmmakers such as the ones Harris has just told us all about in this fun, informative history.
In case anyone cares for my personal take on the movies discussed:
THE GRADUATE—I’m on record as enjoying Mike Nichols’ comedy but rarely his directing. THE GRADUATE is no exception. Some nice visuals and of course I love the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack but I find Buck Henry’s screenplay to be rambling and only randomly funny. The whole anti-establishment thing of it is lost on me and as charismatic as he is, Hoffman’s performance is drowned by the obscurity of the editing.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT—An actor’s delight with Poitier’s strong Mister Tibbs character and Rod Steiger’s scene-stealing southern sheriff. The strong anti-racism stance of the tale is laced with welcome humor, memorable dialogue and bravura moments. The fact that its two follow-ups (not sequels) don’t work nearly as well show that it was the combination of elements that worked here.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER—I’ve never really known what to make of this. It really isn’t a good picture, looking cheap and setbound as it does and with its cliché characters and dialogue. It’s too preachy and not all that funny. Still, the performances of the leads are affecting, particularly that of the legendary Tracy who had died by the time the film was released and who genuinely, no sentiment needed, acts rings around most anybody else in the room. Impossible to ignore in any other context, Hepburn seems subjugated here and her real-life niece, Katherine Houghton is bland. Even as a child I couldn’t figure what Poitier’s oh-so-perfect doctor would see in her. On the other hand, Poitier’s character really does come across as a well-intentioned white man’s idea of a perfect black man. Hell, I’D marry the Sidney from GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER!
BONNIE AND CLYDE—I appreciate BONNIE AND CLYDE as a film a lot more than I actually like it. It’s stylish and stylized and one can clearly spot the international influence on its direction, cutting and cinematography. I even GET the anti-establishment angle of this one! For some reason the whole thing doesn’t quite mesh for me though. Not being a big fan of either of the leads might affect my thinking also, but Michael J. Pollard is always fun and I enjoy seeing Gene Wilder and Gene Hackman before they really became Gene Wilder and Gene Hackman!
DOCTOR DOLITTLE—This was the only one of these five movies that I saw on the big screen in their initial runs. Hey, what do you want? I was eight years old that year! I saw it at the Liberty Theater in Covington, Kentucky and I took my Pushmi-Pullyu toy I got in a box of CAPTAIN CRUNCH. I had DOCTOR DOLITTLE stickers all over stuff at home, too! I remember enjoying Anthony Newley’s character (something apparently Rex Harrison did NOT) and some of the individual scenes but even then being disappointed and wondering if the long, rambling plot was ever going to go somewhere. That said, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, one of the last of the big-budget, over-hyped musical flops of the era, is the only one of these films that I actually did buy years later. Nostalgia is a strange disease.
You know, in retrospect, I guess the cover of PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION works after all. It was most definitely a wild ride.

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