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pictures at a revolution

7 august 2019

Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution appeared a little over 10 years ago, and at the time was about classic films 40 years in the past. Those films are now 50 years old, and Harris' book has in turn become a classic of film history. With my usual procrastination, I am just getting to read it now.

The subject matter is the making, and immediate reception, of the five Best Picture Academy Award nominees released in 1967: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. I am old enough to remember the 1968 Academy Awards show, but I saw none of those films on their first release. I was eight years old and hardly in the demographic for Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate; even In the Heat of the Night would have been a little intense for me, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner would have put me directly to sleep.

Obviously I was in the target audience for Doctor Dolittle, but there was a problem. In the winter of 1967-68, I lived in Champaign, Illinois. The single screen at the single movie theater in Champaign, if I remember correctly, was monopolized for the entirety of 1968 by a single film: The Graduate. If you were a kid longing to see Rex Harrison talk to the animals, in Champaign, Illinois, in 1968, you were fresh out of luck.

The Graduate was epochal; Bonnie and Clyde was epochal. In the Heat of the Night was a solid, and in some ways innovative, film. It would win the Best Picture Oscar; but nobody now sees it as a watershed in the American cinema. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner … it's interesting that I didn't remember Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, till I read Harris' book, as a comedy. It seemed to me, when I eventually got to see it, like a desperately earnest melodrama. That's Harris' take on the picture, as well. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner has the structure, and sometimes the funny business, of a domestic comedy. But it is An Important Film, the project of Hollywood's resident enshriner of Importance, Stanley Kramer.

And then there's Doctor Dolittle, the ultimate "one of these things is not like the others." For Harris, Doctor Dolittle represents Old Hollywood, the mindless, bloated attempt to capitalize on a trend. (In this case, the stunning success of mid-1960s musical films like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins.) Balked of a desire to see the movie on its first release (assuming I had such a desire; I mean, I might have, I liked Hugh Lofting's books), I now have no strong memory of ever seeing Doctor Dolittle. When I was a backstage adolescent, my musical-theater-aficionado friends loved the soundtrack album of Doctor Dolittle, which one must admit has a nice song or two: the novelty number "Talk to the Animals," the appealing "Beautiful Things." But I never got into the rather ghastly visual design of the film, which seems (just from a glance at stills and clips) like one of the worst attempts at live-action fantasy ever committed to celluloid.

The contrasts among the five films define, for Harris, a changing of the Hollywood guard. Yet it's probably more accurate to say that 1967 clearly opened a brief window in mainstream American film, a decade or so characterized by formal experiment, defiance of convention, a notably bitter, cynical tone in a formerly sanguine medium, and a remarkable flourishing of diverse ideas. Already by the late 1970s, that window was closing. After 1977 (the year of Star Wars), summer blockbusters took over the role of the old Biblical and musical blockbusters. The rating system that had been in productive upheaval for a decade or so fossilized into newer forms of self-censorship that were just as formally restrictive as the old ones, if more lenient toward certain well-controlled depictions of sex, and certainly toward almost any depiction of violence. The "new Hollywood" of Harris' subtitle didn't last; and in some ways, for some creators and consumers, it barely registered. Even Harris notes that the disaster film dominated the decade after 1967, as the new bloated all-star Hollywood warhorse. An industry based on the broadest (and often the lowest) common denominator could not easily shift into the mode of high aesthetics.

Harris' main mode is anecdote. He spins yarns non-stop, threading them brilliantly across his 400+ pages. Pictures at a Revolution is a great sourcebook of witty quotes and weird factoids. For instance, everybody knows that Sidney Poitier starred in two of the films Harris discusses: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But I never knew that Poitier almost co-starred in Doctor Dolittle. Some form of African king appeared intermittently in Leslie Bricusse's scripts, and in 1967, any major Hollywood role for a black actor immediately entailed talking to Sidney Poitier. 20th-Century Fox actually signed Poitier to appear in Dolittle, but after many a dispute and rewrite, Geoffrey Holder ended up playing a much smaller, similar part.

Pictures at a Revolution is now well-known as a thorough refutation of the auteur theory so popular in some branches of 1960s film criticism. At times, a single controlling auteur seems to take over the story of the making of each of the five films. Notably Stanley Kramer on Dinner, but also Haskell Wexler, cinematographer on Heat of the Night, Warren Beatty, producer and star of Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of Doctor Dolittle, and Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate. At times, these men may be more the winners of the longevity or the narrative sweepstakes than the actual central visionaries on their films, but they were surely important.

Harris' contention, though, which he works out by showing, not arguing, is that nearly all major films are the result of large collaborative efforts. Kramer steered Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but the film was the idea of its screenwriter, William Rose, and it could not have been made without Katharine Hepburn. Charles Webb's novel remained at the core of The Graduate, as notably adapted by the final screenwriter to work on the picture, Buck Henry. Editor Dede Allen took the conception of writers David Newman and Robert Benton, as executed by director Arthur Penn, and put together the masterpiece we know as Bonnie and Clyde. (Of all the auteur-candidates in the book, Warren Beatty comes across as the most skeptical about single cinematic creators.) Another editor, Hal Ashby, virtually co-directed In the Heat of the Night along with Norman Jewison, at least as Harris presents it. And Doctor Dolittle: well, failure is an orphan. Jacobs (who had a major heart attack during the production) was hardly responsible for all the film's shortcomings. Harrison gets the most grief in Pictures at a Revolution, with his continual and usually inept interventions in the filmmaking process, but Leslie Bricusse seemed to have earned his single screenwriting credit, or debit, by putting in months of overtime as the film spiralled out of control. In the end, Harris concludes, the mess of Dolittle was the product of the Sound of Music Zeitgeist, when it seemed that big-ticket musicals could not fail.

I have no real standing to critique much of Harris' achievement here (or much desire, since I loved the book). I do think he is a little off in his treatment of John Ball's novel, the source for In the Heat of the Night. Harris sees the filmmakers as making the material edgier and less compromising, but I don't think the case is so clear-cut. Stirling Silliphant certainly wrote a much stronger part for Sidney Poitier than Ball's original Virgil Tibbs, who is something of a psychological blank. But in turn, Silliphant wrote a much softer (and indeed more nuanced and complex) part for Rod Steiger than Ball did in creating his Gillespie. The film ends with a black-white handclasp; the novel refuses to. For John Ball, America still had much further to go than Hollywood preferred to admit.

There also isn't as much attention to music in the five films as there might be. Music, I think, is at the heart of much of the experience of cinema – especially given how much we notice it when it stops playing. Most of the discussion of Doctor Dolittle concerns its physical production and visual style, or lack thereof. Charles Strouse's distinctive score for Bonnie and Clyde is barely mentioned; ditto Quincy Jones' work on In the Heat of the Night. Simon and Garfunkel loom larger in the final cut of The Graduate, perhaps naturally since Mike Nichols drew so much inspiration from them. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner might as well have had no music at all. I don't remember any, though Frank De Vol, unmentioned in Harris' index, got an Academy Award nomination for the film.

In fact Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, much maligned for its tepidity, may provide the most interesting insights in Pictures at a Revolution. Hip critics from both coasts derided Kramer's film for weighing in on controversies that seemed decades-old. Interracial marriage! Loving v. Virginia was decided while the film was in production; not only did interracial relationships seem old news, but the one in the movie seemed both asexual and painfully contrived, a courtship between a saint and a cipher. Yet in real life, America hardly pivoted 180 degrees once the Loving decision was handed down – and that it needed to be handed down at all suggests that marriage rights was a very live wire in 1967. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner ignited resentment among segregationists, intrigued black viewers and white liberals, charmed older movie fans who loved Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and became the most comprehensive hit of the five nominees.

The lesson would seem to be that there isn't even a single Zeitgeist. What seems yawningly familiar to one segment of the audience may be excitingly topical to another, and dangerously radical to yet another. Kramer's film may now seem dull, but in 1967-68 it struck nerves, sometimes the same nerves as its hipper contemporaries. No "moment" is ever a singular phenomenon.

Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five movies and the birth of the new Hollywood. New York: Penguin, 2008. PN 1993.5 .U6H37