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

It is the early 1960s, and two hip young Esquire staffers decide to write a screenplay about a pair of minor 1930s outlaws. A fast-talking, chain-smoking producer convinces a star of the stage to sign on to a big-budget movie musical. A wunderkind theater director hoping to make the leap into film reads a new novel about a disaffected young man seduced by an older woman. A middle-aged, socially conscious director embarks on a movie about interracial marriage and struggles to secure a legendary screen duo and the country’s only bankable black star for the principal roles. And a studio weighs whether a mystery featuring that same black actor can be made cheaply enough to turn a profit even if it never plays in the South.

Thus the stage is set for the films that, within a few years, will compete for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris argues that the 1967 Best Picture lineup — Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night — captures the industry on the cusp of a cultural revolution, with old Hollywood in decline and a new crowd gunning to change the game. “Half of the nominees seemed to be sneering at the other half,” writes Harris in the introduction to this intelligent, engrossing book.

Doctor Dolittle was on the receiving end of the most sneers. The bloated, lumbering studio musical, starring Rex Harrison and a zoo’s worth of animals, was panned by critics and seen as having bought its way into the Oscar race. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — which starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as parents struggling to accept their daughter’s black fianc?, played by Sidney Poitier — was made with the best of intentions by the liberal Hollywood veteran Stanley Kramer, but the parlor comedy looked hopelessly out-of-date by the time it was released into a world being transformed by the civil rights movement.

Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, on the other hand, were anything but out-of-date; Harris calls them “game changers.” The former was a rollicking, sexed-up gangster flick whose neophyte screenwriters looked to French directors like Truffaut and Godard for inspiration. The latter, rejected by every studio, was independently financed and became an unexpected blockbuster. The story of Dustin Hoffman’s alienated college graduate, who enters into an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, was the first hit movie to mine the so-called generation gap.

Somewhere in the middle was In the Heat of the Night, which starred Poitier and Rod Steiger. The taut whodunit conformed to genre conventions but had a progressive theme of racial reconciliation (Poitier’s detective famously slaps Steiger’s racist sheriff, which induced gasps in audiences throughout its theatrical release). Harris calls In the Heat of the Night‘s five Oscars — Best Picture among them — “a temporary compromise” between the other factions.

The author structures the book by alternating between the films, tracking each from conception to production to release (the endless false starts and dashed hopes make one marvel that movies ever manage to get made in the first place). He succeeding in gaining access to most of the living principals involved with the five films, and those interviews are key to his project. (Poitier is the notable exception, but Harris draws liberally from the actor’s two memoirs to create a poignant portrait of America’s first black leading man, forced to play the righteous and sexually neutered Negro again and again.) Four decades on, the memories shared by Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Graduate director Mike Nichols, Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison, and Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn, not to mention many lesser-known cast and crew members, are fresh, funny, and insightful.

Nichols had achieved fame on Broadway in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and had directed a number of hit shows before venturing into film (his successful adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was his first film; The Graduate was his second). He comes off as particularly candid here.

“You would think that as a director, slowly, as you got to be a geezer, you would become more and more irascible,” he tells Harris. “But with me, it was the other way around. I started out as a prick on the set…, and I got nicer as time went by.” He speaks movingly of his shame upon overhearing Robert Surtees, the veteran cinematographer who filmed The Graduate, reassuring the rest of the crew, “It’s okay. It’s not going to be much longer,” after one of the arrogant young director’s outbursts during the long and trying shoot.

The production was excruciating for Hoffman, who had been struggling to make it as an actor for years before the film made him famous beyond his wildest dreams. ” throw out a cookie occasionally, but I always felt like a disappointment,” he says. “He’d walk around the entire time saying, ‘Well, we’ll never work together again, that’s for sure.’ ” After the shoot, Hoffman returned to New York and survived on unemployment. He first saw The Graduate in a packed Manhattan movie theater. “The picture starts, and the first shot is a close-up of me. I literally shook through the entire movie,” he recalls.

While Harris’s scrupulous reporting yields countless gems, his deft hand in pulling all the information together is just as significant a factor in the book’s success. The author spent more than 15 years covering pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, where he is now a columnist, and in this, his debut book, he writes with authority, precision, and wit. He regularly dispenses shrewd, insider-savvy pronouncements (“Historically, the only thing more disruptive to the industry’s ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash”) and vivid descriptions, calling Rex Harrison “explosive, impatient, capricious, and vain, but also charming, apologetic, and compliant, sometimes within the same conversation or at different points during the same stiff drink.” He can be enjoyably gossipy, but he is evenhanded and never mean-spirited, quite an accomplishment given the demanding personalities who populate the book.

What Peter Biskind did for the cinema of the 1970s in his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Harris has done for that of the 1960s. Edifying for serious students of film and pleasurable for casual fans, Pictures at a Revolution is sure to become a landmark.