Book World: Pictures at a Revolutionn
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; 3:00 AM
Mark Harris, columnist for Entertainment Weekly and author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood," which was reviewed in Book World, was online Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his book and the worlds of film, entertainment and pop culture.
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A transcript follows.
Mark Harris: Hi. I'm Mark Harris, a columnist for Entertainment Weekly and the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, very happy to be here and to try to answer any questions you may have about the state of the movie business and/or pop culture in the 1960s, the 2000s, and all points in between.
Bethesda: Can you help me understand why you conisder Bonnie and Clyde to be a groundbreaking" film? I've seen it a couple times and cannot find much to credit it--not the acting, screenplay, or direction--and consider it vastly overrated. Also, there have been many films prior to B and C in which the criminal is portrayed as having iconic or even heroic qualities. I just don't see why you think this one is so special.
Mark Harris: I'm happy to start with this question since it gets right to the heart of something important, which is that this is all a matter of taste. One moviegoer's "vastly overrated" is another's "criminally underappreciated". But since you're asking why I consider it groundbreaking, that's really a question about what impact it had in 1967--what it brought to the screen that hadn't been seen before. You're right that "Bonnie and Clyde" wasn't the first film to portray criminals as antiheroes or to romanticize them--but it was the first to make the audience complicit in enjoying their misdeeds and then disorient and even alienate them by forcing them to witness their spiral into bloodier, uglier, less Robin Hood-like violence. And it was also the first big American hit to incorporate some of the visual style of French New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut. For me, it holds up beautifully after 41 years, but I'm admittedly biased, having lived with it for the last four.
Freising, Germany: In the review of your book, I saw that Joan Collins was briefly mentioned. In your opinion, which British actors or actresses exerted great influence and change in Hollywood? I'm thinking of swashbuckling Errol Flynn, but then again, he might have been Australian.
Mark Harris: During the period of 1963-68, which are the years covered in my book, British (and Scots, and Irish, and Welsh) leading men seemed to be minted anew every month. That was the period when, aside from the huge success Sean Connery was enjoying in the James Bond films, we saw the arrival of Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, and Richard Harris, not to mention the ascent to superstardom of Richard Burton--and, in terms of actresses, Julie Andrews, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, and Julie Christie. For a few years during the mid-60s, most actors to receive Oscar nominations weren't American.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Does your book tie in the cultural changes to the political changes of the times? I also saw the period of 1967-68 as an era where America was forced to choose between the safety of the status quo of supporting President Johnson on the war and electing Nixon President versus responding to the rising demands of the youth movement, civil rights movement Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, etc. Weren't the movies and their cultural messages mirroring these simlar clashes within our political psyches?
Mark Harris: Very good question...one that pretty much took me a book to answer! The tricky element in what you're saying is that movies can never exactly "mirror" what's going on in the culture, because they take so long to create from conception to release. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, which are probably the two most "of their moment" movies I write about, were in development for four years. Robert Benton and David Newman, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, were surprised to hear some critics and moviegoers argue that their movie was really about Vietnam or really a metaphor for race relations in America, since they couldn't possibly have anticipated what 1967 would look like in 1963. On the other hand, in their very first script treatment, they wrote that the film was intended to be about "what's going on now"...so it can't be called accidental either.
Baltimore, Md.: The Graduate: This movie is certainly being reexamined, not only in your book, but in a lengthy Vanity Fair piece in their Hollywood issue. I just want to know if it is true, or urban legend, that Robert Redford very much wanted the part of Benjamin but was told by someone (I think Buck Henry?) that he wasn't right for it because no one would believe Redford as a loser. Redford protested that he could play a loser and then Henry, if it was he, said, "Tell me Bob, have you ever struck out with a girl?" And Redford supposedly answered, "What does that mean?" Suffice it say, he didn't get the gig.
Mark Harris: That story's source is Mike Nichols, who spent a very long time trying to find an actor he'd believe as Benjamin Braddock. The Graduate is based on a novel by Charles Webb, but the book doesn't contain a physical description of Benjamin--and initially, Nichols, Buck Henry (the screenwriter) and producer Lawrence Turman envisioned the Braddocks as California blondes and Benjamin as what Buck Henry called an "ocean boy". They even thought of casting Ronald Reagan and Doris Day as Benjamin's parents. That concept didn't change until they screen-tested Dustin Hoffman and decided to cast him, which didn't happen until early 1967.
ArtMovieLover, Va.: I've got your book on hold at the library and am looking forward to reading it. However, I need a little convincing.
I studied film and know about the studio system and how it evolved. I know about how the late 60s were crucial to that evolution.
I'm wondering what the book will tell film students that we didn't learn in class, or from reading other books about the history of Hollywood during that period.
I look forward to your response.
Mark Harris: A hard question to answer, since I don't know what you learned in class! However, one thing I can tell you is that this isn't really a book about the late sixties but about the mid-1960s, which was tremendously different. It's about the five years that led up to the revolution, and why a revolution was needed in the first place. Beyond that, I hope that the book makes clear two things that will add to readers' understanding of how movies are made: One is that by focusing on five films in depth, it should shed some light on the hundreds of decisions--in everything from screenwriting to casting to editing to cinematography--not to mention personal animosity, luck and coincidence--that shape a movie; I don't believe they just hatch fully formed from a director's vision. And the other new element I hope it brings to the table is an understanding of how interconnected the making of one movie is with the whole movie business and the culture at large. For instance, you can't talk just about "In the Heat of the Night" as an example of America's take on race relations circa 1967; it's more interesting if you know what was put in, what was left out, who made those decisions and why.
Lyme, Conn.: When did the "star system" where studios owned the contracts of its star actors end? How did allowing actors greater choice of roles at different studios affect the type of movies that were made?
Mark Harris: The star system, or really the "contract system" that bound actors to one studio or producer for a long time, started to disintegrate in the 1950s--in 1960, Paul Newman, for instance, went "independent" with Exodus and stayed that way for the rest of his career. But for newcomers and non-stars, the system was still hanging on in the mid-1960s. One near-victim of that who you can read about in the book is Faye Dunaway, who, before she shot Bonnie and Clyde, was bound to a six-picture deal working for then then well past his prime Otto Preminger. Dunaway got out of that contract, but in her own autobiography, she wrote that it cost her serious money to do so.
Washington, D.C.: I've seen all five of those films, but only one when it came out (Dr. Dolittle). The other four films are important works (and I make a point of watching whenever they are on TCM), but the Rex Harrison turkey sticks out like a sore thumb.
Mark Harris: You're absolutely right--and that's why I wanted to include it in this book. I didn't choose the five Best Picture nominees from 1967 because they were all great, but rather because to me they represented the severity of the rift that was growing between "old Hollywood" and its way of making movies and a group of new filmmakers who were chafing under those restrictions. Dr. Dolittle offered me a great opportunity to look at what Hollywood thought was the way to make a blockbuster. And the more research I did, the more I realized that very little has changed. The making of Dr. Dolittle is a story about the danger of picking a release date before you have a script, of vastly overspending and throwing good money after bad, of thinking that a great marketing campaign can save a bad movie. Unfortunately, that has a lot of resonance in the Hollywood of 2008, not just of '67.
Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the Oscars doing so badly in the ratings? Don't people care about the Academy Awards? Will the press continue to cover them if ratings continue to slide? Did this year's movies/actors/etc., have anything to do with the lackluster numbers?
Mark Harris: I've seen a lot of people advance the theory in the last couple of days that the Oscar telecast's ratings were way down because the Best Picture nominees were by and large grim and depressing movies that didn't appeal to the American public. I don't believe that, and I'm suspicious about who's saying it--it's being largely advanced by Hollywood trade papers and old-guard studio hands who don't like all these indie films getting in their way. In fact, these five movies will gross, collectively, more than the five Best Picture nominees did a year ago, or the year before that. No Country For Old Men is dark and scary--and by far the biggest hit of the Coen brothers' careers. There Will Be Blood will be the biggest hit of Paul Thomas Anderson's. And Juno is a blockbuster. I think maybe all that talk about whether the Oscars would be cancelled or not, and the very limited time ABC had to promote the show, both hurt the ratings more than the movies did. And even those bad ratings will make it one of the most viewed network telecasts of the year.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I was disappointed to read how bigoted and difficult Rex Harrison was. How bad was it for others to work with Rex Harrison?
Mark Harris: I don't get the impression from anyone who ever worked with Rex Harrison that he was particularly easy on a set or in a stage production, at least, not until he was quite old. And Dr. Dolittle came at a particularly rough time in his personal life, a moment at which his wife Rachel Roberts was suffering deeply from what may have been a form of bipolar disorder and when he and she were both drinking heavily. But to give Harrison some credit, one reason he was so irascible was that he felt he was working with inferior material that was not particularly being helped by the efforts of anyone else involved. And in that, he was right.
North Carolina: I look forward to reading your book ... it's on my birthday list. What's the closest we've come to a second "revolution" since 1968? Among actors and directors today, who do you think could be at the vanguard of a "revolution" (large or small)?
Mark Harris: The critic Richard Schickel, who wrote a very generous review of my book, made a really astute observation, one I wish I'd made in the book itself, which is that more often than not, revolutions in the movies are driven by technology rather than art--the arrival of sound film, of Technicolor, of widescreen movies. To answer your question about directors, I'm very optimistic--I think we're lucky to be moviegoers at a moment when American directors like the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Sean Penn, Todd Haynes, and more others than I can name here are really hitting new heights. But if you believe the argument that technology will lead the next revolution, I think it may come from one of two areas: Digital video, which will make it easier and cheaper for anyone to make a movie (not necessarily as happy a prospect as it sounds like, since a bad cheap indie is every bit as dull as a bad expensive studio movie), or, probably more importantly, the privatization of the moviegoing experience. As our TVs and DVD players get bigger and better and the theatergoing experience becomes more expensive and less pleasant, movie-watching may become (probably already is) something we do primarily at home in our living rooms. What we don't know yet is how that will change the movies themselves.
Navy Yard: I enjoy your essays in the back of EW. I agree that 67 was a fascinating year for film, and you make a compelling argument for it marking the turning point in Hollywood. 68 and 69 were pretty strange, too. I'm wondering if you can think of other years (like 67) that were similarly diverse in such an anomalous/momentous way?
Mark Harris: Thanks, Navy Yard, I'm glad you like the essays! Another writer could probably do a great job of pinpointing a particular year, but it's not easy because the idea of a "year" itself is--I'll be the first to admit--a gimmick. One thing I hope the book does is explain to people that what appeared to happen overnight in 1967 was actually the result of hundreds of interlocking decisions, social forces, money issues and creative crises over the previous four years. I have to admit I'm a bit curious about 1986, the height of the Reagan years, and whether there's any explanation for Top Gun and Blue Velvet existing side by side...but I'll have to get back to you on that one.
Richmond, Va: I'm less interested in the Oscar show than I used to be because I see more movies on DVD nowadays and that delays me seeing them by air time.
Mark Harris: That's probably the best explanation I've heard so far as to why the ratings were down: If you're a movie fan who likes to wait for the DVD, this year the only Best Picture nominee you might have seen was Michael Clayton, and that just barely. it definitely helps the show when people have a rooting interest in who wins, and especially in the last few years, in the wake of what I think was an ill-advised decision by the Academy to move the ceremony from the end of March to the end of February, a lot of people who haven't seen the movies yet are cut out of the fun.
Washington, D.C.: Digital video changing the movies: No better example of that can be found than in the success of Once, shot on digital video in various locations around Dublin using ambient light and, according to those involved, no shooting permits. They made a feature for about $150,000 and went on to win an Oscar. That's a revolution.
Mark Harris: Completely true--and possibly the nicest moment of this year's Oscars. I'm just not sure I want to have to watch 200 other microbudgeted shot-on-DV movies in order to find a jewel like Once. And the tough thing is, yes, Once only cost $150,000--but it took millions of dollars in marketing money to keep it alive long enough for audiences to find it. But at least they did.
Mark Harris: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. It's been a pleasure!
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