Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Author: Mark Harris
Release Date: January 2009
I’m embarrassed to admit something, but first some background info: My friends and family know I love movies. Beth and I watch a new release every weekend and have for about 5 years now, but we also own tons of dvds and watch them regularly as well. Our viewing isn’t confined to genre fare (although we happen to love horror, sci-fi, western, etc.) or American (Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, etc. are all well represented in our home), and most years we even try to see all the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. My favorite actor of all time is probably Paul Newman, and he was nominated for Best Actor in one of my favorite movies ever, “Cool Hand Luke” in the year 1967, and “The Dirty Dozen is another of my favorites released that year. So, my confession? I’ve never actually seen “The Graduate,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” or the original versions of “Dr. Dolittle” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in their entireties.
I mean sure, I’ve seen the ending of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Graduate” enough times to instantly recognize when they are being parodied by “Wayne’s World II” or whatever else is referencing them. Likewise, I know who Mr. Tibbs is, and I’ve seen the remake of “Dr. Dolittle” and probably watched most of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in various intervals while my mom’s had it on tv. However, none of the films had been a must see for me because they were always around, or replaying on tv somewhere. Why should I sit down and commit to a film where I already know the ending, one that’s been spoiled, or spoofed, or recreated in homage in twenty other films while I could be watching “Tremors” on USA again?
“Pictures At a Revolution” is a microhistory of film in 1967, with a recurring thesis statement that it was the year the New Hollywood ascended and Old Hollywood was left behind. New Hollywood types like Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Mike Nichols became rich and successful in the industry, while others like Jack Warner, Sydney Poitier and Spencer Tracy either peaked or made their final imprints on that same industry. The five movies chosen by Harris to focus on are the best picture nominees for that year, which opens up a whole other can of worms. Harris writes the book from an objective perspective, sharing critical reviews by critics from 1967 to show how films were received. The result is that “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and “Dr. Dolittle” are considered failures compared to the other three films, and less deserving of their nominations (Dolittle in particular received it’s nomination through some shady studio lobbying/bribery). Many of the best anecdotes in the book are from the troubled “Dr. Dolittle” production. The end result is the biggest negative I can say about this book is that by limiting it to the best picture nominated films, I was left wanting to hear more about the “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Camelot” and other productions that were referenced as taking place. A film like “The Whispers” is one I know nothing about, but critics seemed ok with somebody winning Best Actress and that’s all I can remember about that film now that I’m done with the book.
Those are quibbles about a really fantastic book though. One twice as long about the entire industry in that year would have been great in my opinion, but as it stands, this book reads like “Project Greenlight” in studio and independent American cinema, and that’s a great thing. Harris has always been one of my favorite Grantland writers (RIP, guess I’m reading Vulture now) for his ability to take subjective topics like accolades and provide context for how the nominating decisions are made and what they mean. Likewise, his knowledge of box office data is second none, and he shows off both areas of expertise frequently in this book. (Nick Hornby also frequently cited this book as one of his favorites in his “Ten Years In the Tub” collection of articles for the Guardian that I recently finished.) I understand his next book is a biography on Mike Nichols, which I’m slightly disappointed in as he really seems to work best when comparing big ideas. While Nichols was an interesting cog in this book, his story seemed less interesting than that of Poitier, Hepburn, Jewison or Beatty to this reader.
This is highly recommended for fans of film, or great non-fiction storytelling in general.