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Roll ‘em

Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including the forthcoming "Film on Paper."

Reading from left to right on the hipness meter, the five Academy Award nominees for best picture of 1967 were “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and (God help us) “Doctor Dolittle.” It was extremely intelligent of Mark Harris, a longtime writer for Entertainment Weekly, to notice that these movies provide a sharply focused portrait of Hollywood, if not quite on the brink of his title’s “revolution,” then at the beginnings of a transition that would radically alter the way it had been doing business -- with ever less profitable results -- since the dawn of sound some 40 years earlier.

Maybe “portrait” is not quite the word we want to describe his deeply researched, well-written book. Maybe it’s more of a seascape, portraying the tidal wave of change breaking dramatically against the sea wall of Hollywood tradition. Let’s briefly consider the context in which Harris’ picture was drawn. Weekly attendance at the movies had been steadily, alarmingly sliding since its modern high of 90 million achieved in 1948, the last year before network television was established. In 1966, it was less than half that (38 million). In 1967, that figure, without warning, had been cut in half again: Only 17 million Americans were going to the movies each week. Moreover, the country was in what many at the time judged to be a pre-revolutionary condition. The streets were in frequent turmoil over civil rights; almost every night network news programs showed sickening images of American soldiers dying in Vietnam. And everywhere angry youths were challenging the bland status quo prevailing since the Eisenhower ‘50s and uneasily maintained into the ‘60s. Hollywood had not fully recognized that the kids were becoming its only reliable audience, but it was also dimly sensing that it needed to speak more directly to them.

Which is where “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” come in. The former in its early incarnations had an aesthetic, rather than a political, revolution in mind. Its first-time screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, essentially wanted to jazz up a traditional crime story by telling it in the manner of the French New Wave, and their script attracted the interest of both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, before passing into limbo. “The Graduate” was based on a novel by Charles Webb that had no great generational resonance when rising producer Lawrence Turman was taken with it. To him, it was an interesting, sexy triangle -- mother-daughter-daughter’s boyfriend. For a multitude of reasons that clarified over the course of production, “Bonnie and Clyde” became an indictment of American violence, and “The Graduate,” once Buck Henry was its screenwriter, became more an indictment of morally inert middle-class materialism (Los Angeles style) than it started out to be.

The next film in Harris’ quintet, “In the Heat of the Night,” was a socially conscious and well-made story about racism, with a good dramatic device at its core. A police officer, a well-dressed, well-spoken member of the emerging black middle class (Sidney Poitier), finds himself trapped in a deeply prejudiced small Southern town and asked to help solve a murder. It was the kind of “serious” well-meant movie that Hollywood had been making since the 1930s -- solid, but not stolid, with an I-Can-Read moral.

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“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was meant to be a romantic-comic exploration of similar territory, an upbeat answer to the age-old query, “Yes, but would you want your daughter to marry one?” Since the black man in question was the same poised and polished Poitier, the foregone conclusion, even in 1967, was “Naturally.” Vapidly written by William Rose, ineptly directed by the hapless Stanley Kramer, it benefited greatly because it was the last film the beloved Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn team made, with the former almost visibly dying on screen (he passed away before the picture was released). Finally, there was “Doctor Dolittle,” whose only excuse for existence was that musicals (“My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music”) had been surefire at the box office up to that time.

It is Harris’ pleasure to recount the dramas attendant upon these films. He goes into great and fascinating detail about all of them: Warren Beatty’s tenacious fight to get his film made as he and director Arthur Penn intended it (Jack Warner hated it) and, more important, Beatty’s successful fight to rescue the film from Warner Bros.’ el dumpo release; insecure Dustin Hoffman’s struggle to play a man some 10 years his junior in his movie debut; the fight to keep Tracy alive until the end of production; Rex Harrison being drunk, disorderly and disruptive (not to mention openly anti-Semitic) on the set of “Dolittle.” Of the five films, only “In the Heat of the Night” proceeded in a more or less normal manner, though it encountered ugly racism on location while Poitier caught unfair flak for his seeming lack of racial militancy. (Why, one wonders, do so few of his critics mention his truly great performance as an anguished black man trying to get ahead in a white man’s world in “A Raisin in the Sun”?)

Some of this material we vaguely know -- but not in the detail that Harris reports it. I don’t know of another book that is so rich a compendium of Hollywood moviemaking lore, so amusing, so appalling, so palpably true. We, of course, know how the story ended. True to form, the academy largely rejected the more radical titles on Oscar night. It also largely rejected the more routine studio efforts (though Hepburn won an undeserved best actress prize and Rose won for his god-awful screenplay). Typically, the academy chose the safe, sane, middle-of-the-road genre film, “In the Heat of the Night,” as best picture. History, of course, has chosen “Bonnie and Clyde” as its epochal picture, a richly deserved honor in that unlike other such defining movies (“The Jazz Singer,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Easy Rider”), it is, all sociological blather aside, a genuinely great film.

Here, however, a question arises. It has to do with that word “revolution” in Harris’ title. It is true that in subsequent years, American movies loosened up considerably in terms of language, sexuality and even themes -- I suppose “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” had something to do with that. But stylistically, on the whole, our films have remained as stodgy as ever. Today, at a theater near you, you are more likely to see something in the vein of “In the Heat of the Night” than “Bonnie and Clyde.” The true Hollywood revolution began something like a decade later -- with a new releasing pattern (several thousand prints on opening weekend and the 48-hour race for the box office winner that entirely determines a film’s commercial fate) and with intense competition to erect tentpole franchises, often based on comic books and aiming at the foreign market as well as the domestic one with as many sequels as the traffic can bear.

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If Beatty tried to sell “Bonnie and Clyde” in today’s movie world, he would have the same problems he had 40 years ago -- and with less chance of reversing the marketeers’ judgment. The profound revolutions in Hollywood have always been less driven by aesthetics than by new technologies -- sound, color, wide screen, DVDs; new bottles for the same old wine. That Harris does not take up this matter doesn’t vitiate his work. Something was going on in the movies in the late ‘60s -- an eventually frustrated yearning that matched the broader yearnings of our society -- and he captures that mood gracefully while delivering a rarity in the realm of movie literature: a first-rate, broad-gauged (and deliciously readable) cultural history. *


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