Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book: Pictures At A Revolution, by Mark Harris (2008)

Harris’s book is an essential read for any serious film fan. Which surprises me, because I had doubts about its premise. Subtitled Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, it follows the quintet of titles nominated for Best Picture of 1967, from development to awards glory. As if the Oscars are any indication of quality.

But Harris, an Entertainment Weekly contributor, knows his show biz and merely uses the awards as a framework for a larger story. 1967 was a transformative year in the movie industry. The old guard was still in power, but a new cinematic culture driven by European filmmakers was beginning to take hold. The five movies that ended up in the Oscar derby reflect that tension, and Harris meticulously researches their histories. The nominees are:

Bonnie & Clyde. Easily the contender that has held up the best. My favorite tidbit: 16 year old Texan Patsy McClenny served as Bonnie’s double because Faye Dunaway couldn’t drive a stick. A few years later, Patsy went to Hollywood and became Morgan Fairchild.

Doctor Doolittle. The only one of the five I haven’t seen. A critical and commercial flop, it’s widely seen as having bought its nomination. Harris recounts the campaign in detail.

The Graduate. I saw this week I graduated from college and didn’t get it. Perhaps it captured a moment so perfectly it was lost on those of us who weren’t there. Or maybe it was me. Director Mike Nichols tells a great, sad tale about meeting Ava Gardner – at Ms. Gardner’s insistence – for the role of Mrs. Robinson.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Harris won me over with his treatment of this Stanley Kramer movie. Yes, it was square at the time, a middlebrow take on race relations that stacked the deck completely. But, Harris asks, why shouldn’t films that speak to middlebrow audiences get a little love? Sadly, Kramer felt he was being overshadowed by the young turks. The section in which he embarks on an ill-fated college tour to talk to “the young people” is one of the best in the book.

In the Heat of the Night. Spoiler alert: it takes home the prize. Truman Capote, fuming that the adaptation of his book In Cold Blood wasn’t in the running although many expected it to be, called Heat “a good bad picture.” It’s also the one I’ve seen the most. It was a fairly important movie for me growing up, because it was the first time I became aware that the crime genre could be used to address other issues. I still like it. I plan on watching it again. Harris has me ready to watch them all – except for Doolittle. Nothing’s getting me anywhere near that train wreck.

I can think of five other 1967 movies I would rather see nominated for Best Picture. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Two by Stanley Donen, the comedy Bedazzled and the romantic drama Two For The Road. And a pair with Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen and my personal choice, Point Blank. Your picks?

And now I present, in its entirety, my favorite story from Harris’s book. Mike Nichols is in pre-production on The Graduate.

With nobody yet cast, Nichols returned to Broadway and spent the fall of 1966 at the Shubert Theatre, directing Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, and Larry Blyden in THE APPLE TREE. Nichols brought in Herbert Ross to help stage the numbers and could at least take comfort in the fact that somebody else’s movie was in bigger trouble than his own: After six months, Ross was still working on DOCTOR DOOLITTLE for Arthur Jacobs and was increasingly grim about the ordeal. “He was dividing his time,” says Nichols. “He’d come to New York and he’d work, say, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and half of Monday, and then he’d go back to Los Angeles and the movie. One week he flew off, and we were rehearsing the next day, and suddenly he comes strolling back across the stage. I said, ‘Herbert, what happened?’ And he said, ‘We’re postponed for three days. The giraffe stepped on his cock.’”

G’night, everybody!