The Year of Filming Dangerously

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Reviewed by Charles Matthews
Sunday, February 24, 2008


Five Movies and The Birth of the New Hollywood

By Mark Harris

Penguin Press. 490 pp. $27.95

Oscar plays it safe. You can trust the Academy to pick a "Forrest Gump" over a "Pulp Fiction," an "Ordinary People" over a "Raging Bull," a "Kramer vs. Kramer" over an "Apocalypse Now."

Or a well made, socially conscious melodrama like "In the Heat of the Night" over groundbreaking movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate." That's part of the story that Mark Harris tells in his richly fascinating book, Pictures at a Revolution, which focuses on the five nominees for best picture in 1968 -- the other two were "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Doctor Dolittle."

The conventional way of writing about five movies would be to devote a section of the book to each. But Harris does something more difficult and far more illuminating: He weaves together the stories of how each movie was conceived, crafted, released, critiqued and received. He writes about the five or six years in which the filmmakers, some of them old pros and some of them rank novices, struggled with a studio system in collapse, an audience whose tastes and enthusiasms seemed wildly unpredictable, and a culture being transformed by volatile social and political forces.

A few figures dominate Harris's narrative -- writers Robert Benton, David Newman and Robert Towne; actor-producer Warren Beatty; producers Lawrence Turman, Stanley Kramer and Arthur P. Jacobs; studio heads Jack Warner and Richard Zanuck; directors Mike Nichols, Norman Jewison and Arthur Penn; actors Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Dustin Hoffman, Rod Steiger, Rex Harrison and Sidney Poitier. The book has what Hollywood publicists used to brag about: a cast of thousands.

Poitier figures in the stories of three of the movies -- "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in which he acted, and "Doctor Dolittle," in which he was cast in a featured role until its chaotic filming led to his being written out of the script. He had become an unexpected star: In 1967, Harris tells us, " Box Office magazine . . . rated Poitier as the fifth biggest star in Hollywood, ahead of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. His drawing power was a shock to an industry that had, until recently, treated his employment in movies as something akin to an act of charity." But at the same time, a "rift . . . had grown between Poitier and a younger, more militant black cultural intelligentsia" that mocked him as an Uncle Tom. The author of one of these denunciations, Clifford Mason, now admits that he "jumped all over Sidney because I wanted him to be Humphrey Bogart when he was really Cary Grant," but he persists in his criticism of the "role that Sidney always played -- the black person with dignity who worries about the white people's problems -- you don't play that part over and over unless you're comfortable with that kind of suffering."

Racial tensions and the protest against the war in Vietnam played a large role in shaping these movies. Harris, a writer and former editor for Entertainment Weekly, not only demonstrates how the filmmakers responded to social and political change, but he also has a working knowledge of the film industry that allows him to elaborate on how a colossal flop like "Doctor Dolittle" came about (and how it could be nominated for a best picture Oscar over "In Cold Blood," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Two for the Road"). Its producers were inspired by the smash success of "My Fair Lady," "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music."

"Historically," Harris comments, "the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic."

Imitation was the first impetus behind "Doctor Dolittle" -- Alan Jay Lerner, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were the talents the producers sought for the film, but they wound up with only one of them. The panic came later -- a good deal, but not all, of it caused by the irascible and demanding Harrison, whom Harris presents as a man filled with "anger and paranoia." Among other things, Harrison was an anti-Semite, which led to confrontations with his co-star Anthony Newley, whom he disparaged "sometimes to his face, as a 'Jewish comic' or a 'cockney Jew.' "

Harris has created what seems likely to be one of the classics of popular film history, useful to dedicated students of film and cultural historians, and also to trivia buffs. (Did you know that Beatty's original choices to play Bonnie and Clyde were his sister, Shirley MacLaine, and Bob Dylan?) Harris writes with a wit that's sly, not show-offy. He can encapsulate the woes of shooting "Doctor Dolittle" in four words: "The rhinoceros got pneumonia." And he can slip in a bit of insider humor with a reference to Newley's then-wife, Joan Collins, who "reentered the Hollywood social scene she loved with the vigor of an Olympic athlete" -- the syntax leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the prepositional phrase modifies "reentered" or "loved." Indeed, almost the only complaint about Pictures at a Revolution is that, except for an "Epilogue" that briefly sums up the later careers of the major figures, it ends at the Oscar ceremony. You want Harris to go on, to talk about how the success of "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" also caused the studios to resort to their old habits of "imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic."

And there were other consequences: "Kramer vs. Kramer" now seems like little more than a well made domestic drama, while the film that it defeated for the best picture in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola's audacious mess of a movie, "Apocalypse Now," is regarded as a classic. "Kramer vs. Kramer" also won Oscars for its writer and director, Robert Benton, one of the writers of "Bonnie and Clyde," and for Dustin Hoffman, who had become a movie star in "The Graduate." In 11 years, Benton and Hoffman had gone from being icons of a film revolution to pillars of the establishment. That's the way things work in Hollywood. If you can't beat 'em, assimilate 'em. *

Charles Matthews, a former books editor for the San Jose Mercury News, blogs about books at http://charlesmatthews. and about movies at

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