Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Of all the Academy Awards' groups of Best Picture nominees, 1967's may be the most telling of its time. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were harbingers of the New Hollywood that would artistically dominate the 1970s; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night were, respectively, comic and dramatic treatments of contemporary racial tension; and the children's musical Doctor Doolittle was a boondoggle that helped kill off what remained of the old studio system. You'd almost have to work harder to screw up telling their collective story than to do it right, and Mark Harris' new Pictures at a Revolution is as deeply researched and well told as any movie book you can think of. Think of it as the prequel--every bit as good--to Peter Biskind's classic New Hollywood history, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Harris' heart is clearly with the French New Wave-inspired Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, whose modernist deadpan struck an enormous chord with young audiences. But it's the worst movie of the five that provides the book's greatest entertainment value. Doctor Doolittle's flamboyant producer, Arthur Jacobs, suffered a heart attack midway through the shoot, which was plagued by poor planning ("Nobody at Fox had realized that the hundreds of animals that had been trained in California would have to be quarantined as soon as they were shipped to England. An entirely new troupe of birds and beasts had to be found and trained on the spot"), hostile location shoots (two residents of a small English town attempted to blow up a crew-made dam in order to prevent "mass entertainment from riding roughshod over the feelings of the people"), bad weather (Ray Aghayan, Doolittle's costume designer, notes, "It rained every day except the one day we needed it to rain--we had to shoot that day with phony rain"), and an abominable script and score--not to mention racist and anti-Semitic outbursts from pickled star Rex Harrison.
Still, the book's two tragic figures are also its most idealistic. Sidney Poitier may have been tired of being cast as Hollywood's "exceptional Negro" (his explicit role in Dinner), but he was still drawn to those roles, largely because they were the only ones he was offered. His Heat role as a tough big-city cop helping solve a case in a racist Southern backwater, rather than breaking him out of the type, wound up being one of his last major parts. And Dinner's producer/director, Stanley Kramer, was the ultimate well-meaning liberal square. Attempting to shore up Guess Who's Coming to Dinner's nonexistent counterculture credentials, he toured nine college campuses and had his old-fashioned movie roundly derided by student filmgoers. Later, Kramer would write, "Everything was happening fast in the '60s. Too fast for me."