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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Department of Book Reports 54: Pictures at a Revolution

Those of you who might remember my discussion of The Annotated Godfather probably realize that I enjoy books about the film industry, and cinema production histories. Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Press $27.95) does not disappoint.

Before 1967 the national fare for films had traditionally been along the lines of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, huge money-makers that dominated box-office receipts. But in 1967, all that began to crumble. Each of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards represented something in the way pictures had been made or soon would be made.

The nominees that year included, first, Doctor Doolittle, a musical originally to be written by Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist for My Fair Lady, a big hit three years past. It ended up written by Leslie Bricusse, who had written popular musicals with Anthony Newly. The production was long and tedious, with everyone trying to placate the many moods of its star, Rex Harrison. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was yet another ‘conscience’ movie produced and directed by erstwhile good guy, Stanley Kramer, who directed Spencer Tracy in this, his last movie, Katherine Hepburn, and the number box office star of ’67, Sidney Poitier. In the Heat of the Night, the eventual pick for Best Picture, was an otherwise traditional murder mystery, but infused with the climate of the American South, only recently beginning to integrate. Mike Nichols directed the young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, with a screenplay that spoke to the alienation that many young people were feeling. And, finally, Bonnie and Clyde, a film very much influenced by the French New Wave cinema. In fact, the producers had tried in vain to get either Truffaut or Godard to direct, ending up with Arthur Penn.

All of this was amidst the attempt by Jack Valenti to set up a film rating system, the picture Blow-Up that featured nudity, and the social changes occurring in America. In fact, the awards ceremony in early 1968 had to be postponed due to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mark Harris, who lives with his husband, the playwright, Tony Kushner, has come up with a fascinating piece of history, with a well-written narrative, thoroughly researched and compelling. Clearly he had the participation of Warren Beatty, who provided many insights into the way Hollywood was being transformed. The working and personal relationships of many of these film-making figures makes for a fascinating cultural history.

democommie™™™™®© was originally cast as Benjamin Braddock, but never showed up for rehearsals.

Pictures at a Revolution will be available at Jackson Street Books and fine Independent Bookstores everywhere on February 14th.

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