Scenes from a Revolution

BY ANDREW MOODY

Film critic Mark Harris opens his epic Scenes from a Revolution: the Birth of the New Hollywood in 1967, two years before Peter Biskind’s iconic Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind placed New Hollywood’s arrival in 1969, with Dennis Hopper’s smash hit Easy Rider, the Manson Family killings, the chaos of Altamont, and the Apollo Lunar landings. Now over twenty years old, Biskind’s book has long been seen as the best and the most accurate history of those few years when Hollywood executives dropped their guard and allowed the sex, drugs and rock and roll generation into the studios with an enormous amount of freedom to make a new kind of American cinema.

Harris investigates this fascinating time in American cinema with an ingenious and original structure, far different to Biskind, who leaned toward the apocalyptic when describing the failures of the New Hollywood when they allowed Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) to become the template for studio pictures. Scenes from a Revolution offers its thesis in a clearer way, with a wider context befitting the length of time since the events it details has passed. It begins with the announcement of the 1967 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture:

“The five films vying for Best Picture that year were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. Some Academy Awards  competitions offer an almost irresistible temptation to imagine that the Best Picture nominees represent a collective  statement- a five snapshot collage of the American psyche as reflected in popular culture. But that morning, all that was illuminated by the list of contenders was the movie industry’s anxiety and bewilderment at a paroxysmal point in it’s own history.”

The book follows the making of these five watershed movies; through pre-production, with the screenplay, hiring of the director and crew, and the difficulties in casting; through the often troubled productions and spiralling  budgets; post production, with the movies coming to life (or not) in the editing suite, the initial releases (the era predates DVD and home cinema, if a film failed at the cinema chances are it would simply disappear) the critical reaction, the Box Office receipts, and then finally, the Oscar ceremony itself, that annual pat on the back that Hollywood gives itself to show the world its moral character.

Clocking in at a whopping 657 pages, Harris has researched his book exquisitely. Detailing the origins of the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde by Robert Benton and David Newman, two journalists obsessed with the French Nouevelle Vague typified by Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard (who were both interested in directing it) who had never written a script before, but somehow, with the tight direction of Arthur Penn (who turned down the screenplay three times) and the hands on production of its star/producer Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde became a smash hit with the tune in drop out anti establishment youth market, despite being almost buried by Warner Brothers head of production Jack Warner, by then in his seventies.

Mike Nichols, not only a star director on Broadway but the director of the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? managed to turn The Graduate, an upbeat comic novel about a WASPy teenager having an affair with an older woman into a subtextual story of the eternal outsider, Dustin Hoffman, the Jew in the land of the wealthy California liberal. Another smash hit, these two movies were the first New Hollywood movies that proved to the shaken executives that change was on the horizon.

Dr Dolittle was a car crash of a movie, only made by its producers because of the smash hits of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. It only managed to make its money back because of strategic block hiring of theatres, and its star Rex Harrison was hated on the various million dollar sets for his alcoholism and vicious temper.

Sidney Poitier starred in the remaining two nominated films: Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, which reunited Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who died shortly after filming) as a white couple stunned when their daughter brings a black man to dinner to say they’re getting married.

In the Heat of the Night was a well-made story of race relations in the deep south, with Poitier as a cynical detective who teams up with a racist Southern policeman (Rod Steiger) to solve a murder. In the late sixties Poitier was the only leading black actor in Hollywood, because of this he both gained electric celebrity and enormous derision for his on-screen desexualisation from the black revolutionary movements of the time. He said:

“I have always tried to make a positive contribution to the image of Negro people in America. I guess I was born out of joint with the times. I have not made my peace with the times, they are still out of kilter. But I have made peace with myself.”

Many readers of this fascinating book won’t know the result of the 1967 Oscars. I’ll leave it up to them to find out in Scenes from A Revolution, to add the extra spice of suspense, and for the reader to ask themselves if an Academy Award is anywhere near as important as the Academy claims them to be.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction