Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

In telling stories about the five 1967 Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture (announced in 1968), Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, describes a generational struggle that changed how American films were made and viewed. The nominees were:

  • Bonnie and Clyde 
  • The Graduate 
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 
  • In the Heat of the Night 
  • Doctor Doolittle 

Without looking online or in a reference book, can you identify the film that got the Oscar? I could not before reading Pictures at a Revolution. I know that I did not see any of the movies that year, growing up in a town that was much like that in The Last Picture Show. Even if the doors to our theater were still open, at 14, I was too old to want to see Doctor Doolittle and was considered by film reviewers of the Catholic Church to be too young to see the others.

So Pictures at a Revolution fits well into a category of books that I now find fascinating - history that I lived through without actually witnessing. I listened to the audiobook over the course of two weeks, which worked well for me. There were many names and subplots to follow, and I appreciated having time for thought between chapters. I knew many of the names, but I suspect readers from my daughter's generation do not and may find the book more challenging. I enjoyed the backstories of the actors and directors as much as the behind the scene stories of film production. Since each of the films took up to five years to develop after being conceived by a writer or producer, readers get a sustained account of an era of studio politics. The collapse of decades-old censorship rules is also an important subplot.

I especially enjoyed details that are almost hard to believe over forty years later, such as the following.

Extras on the set of In the Heat of the Night earned $1.50 a day. And it was often a long day.

A few weeks after shooting of The Graduate ended, Dustin Hoffman collected $55 a week unemployment. He was so disregarded by the studio, he was not invited to any of the early screenings. 

The producers of Doctor Doolittle had no inkling that their California-raised animals would be quarantined by British Customs when they traveled to England for location shots. It also rained almost every day that they planned to shoot.

While Harris does not give awards, there are winners and losers in his book. Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, and Sidney Poitier get his admiration, and Rex Harrison, Bob Hope, and numerous studio executives fair poorly. Other losers were Doctor Doolittle and other lavishly-funded musicals that wanted to repeat the successes of The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins. American filmgoers with a new era of films to view were very big winners.

Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Penguin Press, 2008. 490p. ISBN 9781594201523.

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