Monday, March 29, 2010

Pictures at a Revolution

Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood tells the back stories of the 1967 Best Picture nominees. Deploying considerable reportorial and analytical talents, Harris combines interviews, contemporary sources, and film criticism to explain how 1967 set the stage for the director-based films of the 1970s, ten years of film history now recognized to be as significant as the 1940s.

The story begins in 1963, when French film buffs Robert Benton and David Newman conceived the idea of combining an American gangster story with the techniques of French New Wave movies. They wanted Francois Truffaut to direct a screenplay they had written about a pair of obscure Depression outlaws named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Truffaut reviewed the script, liked it, and nonetheless passed on the opportunity to direct. Bonnie and Clyde eventually came to the attention of actor Warren Beatty, whose career had bogged down and who had decided to produce his next movie so that he could retain a strong degree of artistic influence. Beatty acquired an option on the script and began looking for a studio to finance it. His search would be a long one, but the film he eventually made became legend despite an indifferent effort by Columbia to promote and distribute it.

Meanwhile, 1964 caught the movie world off guard. The three biggest Hollywood hits were musicals; one of them (The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews) was gargantuan, passing Gone With the Wind in 1966 as the biggest moneymaker ever. The other two were Disney's Mary Poppins and Warner Brothers' My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and, fatefully, Rex Harrison. Producer Arthur Jacobs, who had long wanted to make a film based on the Doctor Dolittle children stories, seized on the idea of musical version of the tales starring Harrison. A troubled production from the beginning, Doctor Dolittle became a notorious flop synonymous with the misconceived film that ran wildly over budget.

Director Stanley Kramer was well-known in his day for message films like Judgment At Nuremburg and The Defiant Ones. Never a critical favorite, Kramer made earnest, solidly crafted "serious" movies that lacked artistic significance: A typical Kramer movie delivered a comforting social message that usually fell just short of controversy. As race became the defining domestic issue of the 1960s, Kramer conceived of a social comedy about integrated marriage in which the daughter of an affluent, liberal-minded suburban couple introduces them to her doctor fiance, who happens to be black. In the 60s, only one African-American actor would be acceptable to white audiences in this role: him being Sidney Poitier. And for the film to have widespread appeal, it must feature the reunion of the screen's most famous couple, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner became, despite scathing reviews, the biggest grossing picture of 1967, as movie fans turned out in droves to see Tracy's last film. Guess sold as many tickets in the south as in other parts of the country.

By the early 60s, Mike Nichols had established himself as the hottest director on Broadway. Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, his initial foray into film-making, garnered critical and commercial success. Nichols became interested in directing a film version of a chilly 1963 Charles Webb novel called The Graduate, a dialogue-heavy book about a WASP-ish college hero suddenly uncertain of his prospects. Nichols had trouble finding a producer until the success of Whose Afraid caught the attention of schlockmeister Joseph E. Levine, who wanted a class property to offset his reputation for vulgarity. After searching far and wide for the right actor to cast as Benjamin Braddock, Nichols finally settled on an unknown named Dustin Hoffman, who became an on-screen stand-in for the director. Young people loved The Graduate and their parents didn't understand it. For the first time, Hollywood discerned the existence of a youth market that would line up to see movies that their elders ignored.

In the Heat of the Night, in some ways the most durable of the five films, won the 1967 Best Picture Academy Award; star Rod Steiger was named Best Actor. Operating on a low budget, director Norman Jewison stripped the original screenplay of broad social significance in favor of a confrontation between the urbane black detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and the bigoted but shrewd police chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger). Assisted greatly by editor Hal Ashby, Jewison fashioned a lean film characterized by a unique color palette and innovate uses of lenses. Critics were divided about the Heat -- Truman Capote called it a "good bad movie" -- but the film struck a chord.

Delayed two days because of Martin Luther King's assassination, the 1967 Academy Awards were something of an anticlimax. (A churlish Bob Hope cracked snide jokes that indicated his reactionary displeasure with even that brief a delay.) The leaden evening that saw an absent, grieving Hepburn win her first Academy Award since 1933 (she won again the following year for Lion in Winter) was highlighted by Best Actor Steiger's acceptance speech. In the Heat of the Night upset the artistically superior Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate to win Best Picture. Norman Jewison ascribed it In the Heat of the Night to timing: "We happened to arrive at a moment when people felt strongly about race."

When haven't they?...

Plagued with problems from the onset, Doctor Dolittle flopped from the very beginning. Prickly and tyrannical, Rex Harrison held himself aloof from the rest of the cast. The scene of Doctor Dolittle riding a giraffe was cut from the final print of the film.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was Sidney Poitier's third and biggest hit of 1967, a year in which he became the most popular movie star in the United States. Repeatedly and unwillingly cast as the acceptable Negro, Poitier accurately predicted that the times had passed him by and that his career as actor was virtually over. The film paired Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy for the ninth and last time.

Dustin Hoffman thought that he was all wrong for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.  Uncertain that he would get another film role, Hoffman didn't bother to unlist his number in the New York City phone book, and collected an unemployment check the same week that the film was released.

The movie that its writers had conceived as an homage to the French New Wave, Bonnie and Clyde came to symbolize the youthful unrest and rebellion of the 60s. In the trailer, note the contrast between the psychedelic graphics and the Depression setting.

Director Norman Jewison filmed In the Heat of the Night on location in Illinois because Sidney Poitier refused to work south of the Mason-Dixon line. Initially leery of working Rod Steiger, Poitier bonded with the other man and the two developed a deep mutual respect.


ZenYenta said...

What a great and interesting post. I never looked at these movies as a whole, together like that. I do remember that after seeing Guess Who's Coming To Dinner I was pretty unimpressed. The subject matter was topical but with the exception of Portier, considering the cast, the acting (or maybe the direction) wasn't much to write home about. Katherine Hepburn seemed to just walk around soggy with tears the whole time.

K. said...

The book actually talks about her tears in Tracy's big speech at the end of the movie. Take after take, she summoned them on cue.

Tracy was only 66, but over 30 years of blackout drinking had taken its toll. He didn't feel up to doing the movie, but Hepburn and Stanley Kramer talked him into it. Some weeks, he could only work for a few hours, and Kramer often had to use a double for shots of Matt Layton's back. But when Tracy did show up, his game face was on. He died three weeks after

BTW, at one point in the climactic speech, he tells the couple that integrated marriage is illegal in 16 or 17 states. After shooting wrapped, the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, but Kramer decided to leave the line in anyway.

Films not considered for Best Picture that year include Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Blow-Up, The Dirty Dozen, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Fox politicked hard for Doctor Dolittle, and knew exactly who to wine and dine.

I know it's an unsubtle melodrama, but In the Heat of the Night is also taut and well-acted. I can watch it any time.

T. Clear said...

As always, well-written and the prose packs a punch. (I wouldn't expect anything less!) xo

wv: ratedtp (Hmmmm...I wasn't aware of tp ratings.)

K. said...

Totally Packed!

Renegade Eye said...

Bonnie and Clyde reflected the period. It was a time, to cheer for the bank robbers.

I liked Steiger in The Pawnbroker better.

The bigger point is correct. That period set the stage, for the auteur period of the 1970s.

K. said...

Screenwriters Benton and Newman were amused by college student questions about the anti-establishment message Bonnie and Clyde. What they dreamed up in 1963 was strictly an aesthetic statement.

Harris writes at some length about Steiger's Academy Award-nominated performance in The Pawnbroker, in which he was cast against type to great success.

According to Harris, The Pawnbroker was one of the first American films to show an exposed female breast; the producers had to fight the Production Code board to retain the shot. One of the themes of the book has to do the complete collapse of the board's authority in 1967.