Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #6: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris
I don’t know about you, but I love all the behind-the-scenes details of the film-making industry. I don’t necessarily mean the bloopers and deleted scenes you get on the DVD, but rather the nitty-gritty of how the movie went from an idea to the images on the screen. The changes, the deals, the failures and successes … it’s all so interesting. I also like thinking about movies in a greater context; where they stand in the history of film and in the broader narrative of society. Well, if you get into that stuff too, then do I have a book for you!
Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution follows five movies from their inceptions to their “highlight,” the 1968 Academy Awards. The five films in question are Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. The main argument being put forward is that these five films exemplify Hollywood at a crossroads between road-show movies, old-style cinematography, censorship, and social neutrality; and the worldly influences of European film, new creative ideas, and a greater social awareness. In truth, each film is characterized by elements of both Old and New Hollywood (ok, except maybe Doctor Doolittle), but Harris makes a valid point in showcasing the ways in which their differences define them, and went on to define movie-making in the decades to come.
This is a fascinating book. I have to admit that as of this writing, I have actually only seen one of the five (that being Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), but in the course of a movie-viewing project I’m working on I’ll pick up a few, and I plan on watching at least four of them in the near future. A friend forced me to promise I’d never watch Doctor Doolittle. Anyway. Harris has compiled the “true Hollywood story” of each of these movies, and they’re all completely engaging. It’s so interesting to learn about how some of the iconic names and titles of today’s landscape got there. Mike Nichols was a stand-up comedian turned stage director whose first film credit was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Warren Beatty was a “difficult” actor, more known for his real-life exploits with women than for his desire to produce and eventually direct movies. Dustin Hoffman couldn’t catch a break to save his life, and went through the entire production of The Graduate believing that he was completely the wrong guy for the role. There’s also the stories of how the ideas changed hands, struggled to find directors or stars or distribution, went disastrously over-budget, and were either critical or public failures upon release. In particular, too, the story of Sidney Poitier’s struggles as a trailblazer for actors of color is a really fascinating read. I’m pretty sure you could get an entire book out of his experiences. Also of note is the brief focus on the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was the last film in which Spencer Tracy appeared; the film wrapped two weeks before he died.
The ways in which these movies were influenced by what had come before, by the social and political climate in which they were created, and (mostly) by the workings of the industry and the monetary hopes of their creators is at once more simple and more complicated than one might expect. In many ways, movies are perhaps even less culturally relevant by design than we think, and it is mostly the public lens through which we view them that makes them appear important. When you consider that a script may have been written several years before it finally makes it to the screen, the point is driven home. Particularly in the volatile atmosphere of the 1960s in America, for some movies, their relevance happened by sheer accident; events that could not have been predicted lent a color or deeper meaning to a film released at the same time for good or ill. By expanding his focus to include the outside factors that helped to shape these five movies, Harris gives one a real sense of the place of film in our culture. It’s a complex position, both influential and reflective by turns.
The only complaint I have about Pictures at a Revolution is that the chronology can be difficult to follow at times. Often the same people are involved, and the chapters are laid out so as to stitch the five movies together, so there were times when I had to check back a paragraph or two in order to understand that I was now reading about a different movie. All in all, though, a really great read. If you’re interested in movies at all, I would highly recommend it, although it’s another one that will expand your Netflix queue out of control. So many movies, so little time! When I grow up, maybe I’ll finally convince people to just let me watch (and read about) movies for a living. Someday…