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

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller that follows the making of five films at a pivotal time in Hollywood history

In the mid-1960s, westerns, war movies, and blockbuster musicals like Mary Poppins swept the box office. The Hollywood studio system was astonishingly lucrative for the few who dominated the business. That is, until the tastes of American moviegoers radically- and unexpectedly-changed. By the Oscar ceremonies of 1968, a cultural revolution had hit Hollywood with the force ...

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

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller that follows the making of five films at a pivotal time in Hollywood history

In the mid-1960s, westerns, war movies, and blockbuster musicals like Mary Poppins swept the box office. The Hollywood studio system was astonishingly lucrative for the few who dominated the business. That is, until the tastes of American moviegoers radically- and unexpectedly-changed. By the Oscar ceremonies of 1968, a cultural revolution had hit Hollywood with the force of a tsunami, and films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and box-office bomb Doctor Doolittle signaled a change in Hollywood-and America. And as an entire industry changed and struggled, careers were suddenly made and ruined, studios grew and crumbled, and the landscape of filmmaking was altered beyond all recognition.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles Matthews
Harris has created what seems likely to be one of the classics of popular film history, useful to dedicated students of film and cultural historians, and also to trivia buffs.…Harris writes with a wit that's sly, not show-offy. He can encapsulate the woes of shooting "Doctor Dolittle" in four words: "The rhinoceros got pneumonia." And he can slip in a bit of insider humor with a reference to Newley's then-wife, Joan Collins, who "reentered the Hollywood social scene she loved with the vigor of an Olympic athlete"—the syntax leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the prepositional phrase modifies "reentered" or "loved." Indeed, almost the only complaint about Pictures at a Revolution is that, except for an "Epilogue" that briefly sums up the later careers of the major figures, it ends at the Oscar ceremony. You want Harris to go on…
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
Pictures at a Revolution can take its place alongside top-shelf film industry books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Final Cut, The Studio and The Devil's Candy for qualities all of them share: the big-picture overview, the nuts-and-bolts understanding of exactly how films evolve from the drawing board to the screen, and gratifying antennae for all forms of Hollywood-related horror stories…With a restrained, level-headed wisdom not often found in stories of the movie world, Mr. Harris brings welcome sanity to heated subjects like the intellectual brawling among film critics that greeted "Bonnie and Clyde." He has a fine way of cutting through the conventional wisdom about such events so that real wisdom can emerge.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

With meticulous research and a masterful blending of information, Harris delivers a detailed and intriguing exploration into the significance of the five films nominated in 1968 as Best Picture for the Oscars (Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night). Harris illustrates how the nominated films represented a paradigm shift in Hollywood and the country. From the origins and finessing of the scripts to the selection (or rejection) of the principal actors along with all the typical Hollywood folklore, Harris weaves the narratives of each film into one cohesive story, clearly detailing how these films were interconnected and how each reflected the changing mood of the country. In a light, calm and reassuring voice, Lloyd James reads almost flawlessly. Despite the presence of numerous popular actors in the account, James resists the urge to do impersonations and instead lets the person's words speak for themselves. This outstanding audio is intriguing, lively, entertaining and educational. Simultaneous release with the Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 29). (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

American films have always been both a reflection of our times and an indicator of what we as a society could become. Harris, who writes Entertainment Weekly's "Final Cut" column, examines this dual nature through the nominees for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards, thus encapsulating the sea change of Hollywood and America in that turbulent decade. The five nominees contained such disparate films as Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and Dr. Doolittle. Harris follows these movies from their conception to Oscar night, showing not only how these films were made through exceptional access to their creators and stars but also what the films represented as statements of race, identity, and a new kind of violence (Bonnie and Clyde's would change film forever). Harris's experience covering film and television shows on every page, as this is the most engaging and, dare this reviewer say, entertaining book on the movies to be written in years. Highly recommended for all academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/07.]
—Peter Thornell

From the Publisher
"Pictures at a Revolution is a superb achievement, and one can only hope that some aspiring, wild-eyed auteur reads it and storms the studio gates." —-The Boston Globe
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 fiancé, 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. "[Nichols would] 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 [film] 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. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143115038
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/27/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 213,443
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lloyd James has been narrating since 1996, has recorded over six hundred books in almost every genre, has earned six AudioFile Earphones Awards, and is a two-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award.
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Read an Excerpt

One afternoon in the spring of 1963, Robert Benton went to the New Yorker Theater to see François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. It was not his first time; it may have been his tenth or twelfth. Benton, then thirty years old and the art director of Esquire magazine, was using the movie both to nurse a romantic injury—the painful end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Gloria Steinem—and to indulge a passion for European films, particularly those of the French New Wave, which was becoming something like a common language among young, smart, city-dwelling moviegoers.

Jules and Jim, with its delicate love triangle, its studied disregard for the moral and narrative strictures of Hollywood filmmaking (Truffaut himself called it “deliberately boring”), and its equal doses of hopelessness and romanticism, was a perfect choice for Benton—and it’s unlikely that he was the only one to travel that May afternoon up from midtown Manhattan to Dan Talbot’s theater on Broadway and 88th Street so he could luxuriate in one more encounter with it. The movie, Truffaut’s third, had opened in New York more than a year earlier to initial business that was only modest, but its cult was devoted, and the film was still holding on, playing one week on the Upper West Side, then a few days in the East Village on Avenue B, then a week on Bleecker Street. The deep chord of longing the picture sounded in many moviegoers was understandable—emotional ambiguity and grown-up sexuality were virtually black market items in American movies of the time. And Jules and Jim’s calculatedly casual visual aesthetic, its diffused light and gentle nods to flickering silent film imagery, held particular interest for Benton as a magazine designer who always had his eye on the next new thing, particularly when it was an unexpected synthesis of old things.

But even if Benton hadn’t happened to be so personally taken with Truffaut’s style, he would have had plenty of other places to go that day. The last couple of years had brought an almost unimaginable wealth of world cinema to the United States, starting, always, in New York City and then moving west. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—an immense exploding flashbulb of a movie—and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura—stone-faced, elliptical, unsolvable—had arrived within weeks of each other; Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Eclisse followed quickly, and that spring, Fellini’s 8 1/2 was just weeks from opening. The success of The Magnificent Seven, the American remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, had spurred the release of five more of the director’s movies—Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro—in the previous eighteen months, and despite mostly condescending dismissals from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, some of them were finding audiences. People were still talking about Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless—and going to see it repeatedly—two years after its U.S. debut. The options were so rich and varied: The mysteries of Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, the almost punitive austerity of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, the begrimed, rough- hewn carnality thrown onto the screen from England in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. If Benton hadn’t had to get back to Esquire’s offices that afternoon, where his colleague and comrade David Newman, a staff writer and editor, was waiting for him, he could have stayed at the New Yorker for the second feature, Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana, a portrait of a novice in the Catholic Church that was a long way from Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story.

Whatever destination Benton had selected when he chose to sneak away from work that day (a decision that wasn’t hard, since Esquire was a place where talent could excuse many varieties of midafternoon misbehavior), it’s almost a certainty that he would not have ended up watching a Hollywood movie. In the early 1960s, the American studio film had bottomed out: Even many of its own manufacturers and purveyors felt they had dragged the medium to a creative low point in the sound era. “It wasn’t just that we were sick of the system,” recalls the director Arthur Penn. “At that point, the system was sick of itself.” And with good reason: Though a handful of movies, as ever, either transcended convention or executed it with exhilarating skill, what Hollywood was primarily invested in turning out in 1963 were dozens of war movies and westerns (generally with aging stars and increasingly threadbare and recycled plots), biblical spectaculars of great scale and diminishing returns, musicals with an ever more strident sense of nostalgia, tinny, sexually repressive romantic comedies, and huge, unseaworthy battleships like Cleopatra, The Longest Day, and the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Many of these films would draw audiences, and every year, at least a couple of them would get Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, in stoic recognition of their bloat and expenditure. But nobody, not even their makers, was particularly inclined to defend them as creative enterprises.

When a filmmaker who was considered serious-minded would take on an adult subject (usually smuggled into Hollywood in the respectable packaging of a Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman play or a novel by John O’Hara), his work would be subjected to the censorious standards of the Production Code, which had barely changed in thirty years, and would end up stripped of meaning and sense. When the results arrived on screen—a Butterfield 8 that was not quite about a prostitute, a remake of The Children’s Hour that, twenty-five years after the first time Hollywood tried to adapt it, still couldn’t refer to lesbianism, an adaptation of Elmer Gantry that had to shield timid sensibilities from the full content of a book that people had been reading since 1927—smart critics groaned, audiences applauded the actors and forgot the movies quickly, and the directors themselves expressed impotent disgust. “If you go to France nowadays… you are constantly involved in passionate discussions about the creative side of moviemaking,” said the veteran Fred Zinnemann. “Here in Hollywood we are going in circles. We have moved into a trap, a self-imposed, self-induced trap with our dependence on best- sellers, hit plays, remakes, and rehashes.”

As it turned out, there was no need for Zinnemann or anyone else to go to France; the French, and the conversations he was envying, were coming to America in the form of the movies themselves. Godard and Truffaut had both written for Cahiers du Cinéma—Truffaut’s reviews in particular were both deep appreciations and youthful, swaggeringly belligerent manifestos—and the movies they made were themselves implicit acts of film criticism. And ironically, if Zinnemann had gone to France in 1963, the conversation he would have heard was that the French New Wave was now passé, and the cinematheques he would have visited in Paris were filled with old work by Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and underappreciated Americans like Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann, whose movies had been used to lay the cornerstones of the auteur theory that was becoming central to any movie discussion in the early 1960s. Those discussions filled the air at every cocktail party. Were Bergman’s solemn, unsensual new movies a hermetic retreat from innovation or signs pointing toward a new formal rigor? Was Marienbad solvable, or was the whole point not even to try? Had Antonioni left Fellini in the dust with his defiance of narrative convention, and was he the cold-blooded moralist he seemed, perversely, to claim he was? People who cared about culture armed themselves for an evening out with an arsenal of stances, opinions, and positions that thickened the air as fast as cigarette smoke. Ten years earlier, the topic would have been literature or theater; these days, movies filled the agenda. “When La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura opened at about the same time, there were fights!” says Newman’s widow, screenwriter Leslie Newman. “There were Dolce Vita people and L’Avventura people and you were one or the other. The average American movie at that time we didn’t even go see, except for revivals. We were totally snobs! American movies meant Doris Day and Rock Hudson.”

But a hope that the studios could eventually incorporate some elements of European cinema and the French New Wave was very much on the minds of a new generation of directors trained largely in New York television production and theater—Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet. And the possibility that American movies could, one day soon, break the shackles of old-Hollywood thinking excited Benton and David Newman as well. At Esquire, they made a slightly Mutt-and-Jeff-ish pair, Benton low-key, precise, bespectacled, and single and Newman impulsive, hyperkinetic, unruly, and already, at twenty- five, a husband and father. Newman had arrived in New York from the University of Michigan a couple of years earlier. Despite their differences in temperament, they made an exceptionally effective professional team. “He’d ask me to design a story he was writing, I’d bring him in to write the text for something I was working on,” says Benton. Their friendship became collegial and then personal. And it was fueled, as much as anything, by their compatible tastes.

By 1963, Harold Hayes was turning Esquire into the repository of a free- swinging style of writing that eventually became known as New Journalism. It was a place where Norman Mailer could serialize his novel An American Dream, a home for Tom Wolfe, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune who had just started publishing stories in the magazine that year, and a venue in which Gay Talese was reinventing the magazine profile with long takes on director Joshua Logan and the boxer Floyd Patterson that, in their language, their shaping of scenes, and their sense of drama, felt cinematic in precisely the way American films of the time didn’t. But beyond its status as a home for influential prose, Esquire, under Hayes, was becoming the monthly exemplification of a way of thinking about what it liked to call “today’s man”: urban, sophisticated, unshy about sexual appetite and a love of “the good life,” but also cynical, suspicious of cant, and contemptuous of mediocrity, conformity, and 1950s-style groupthink (not, however, of hyperbole). The scent of tobacco, Scotch, and heady after-hours arguments wafted off every page. And on many of those pages, style was content, which meant that a collaboration between someone with as keen and witty a sense of presentation as Benton and a writer as sharp as Newman (together, they were largely responsible for the look and tone of the magazine’s famous Dubious Achievement awards) was bound to be fruitful. Benton and Newman had jobs to do at Esquire, but also time to spare and energy to burn. In 1963, the two of them spent many afternoons and evenings mapping out their own manifesto for the magazine: a massive, sweeping piece they planned to call “The New Sentimentality” that would define by brash dictum what was in and out, arriving and over, modern and hopelessly maudlin, in pop culture. “We were sort of bad kids,” says

Benton. “Anything we could do to get attention, we did.” On afternoons when their absence might go unnoticed or be justified with a relatively straight face as “research,” they would run over to the Museum of Modern Art, where their friend Peter Bogdanovich, who was helping to curate a six-month retrospective on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, would run the films for his friends at lunchtime. “We came away babbling, excited, thoroughly converted believers,” they wrote later. “There wasn’t a day spent . . . that didn’t include at least one discussion on what he would have done.”

Newman and Benton shared other tastes—an appetite for true-crime books, particularly John Toland’s just published history of Depression-era outlaws, The Dillinger Days, and a ceaseless fascination with Godard and Truffaut (whose second movie, Shoot the Piano Player, was based on an American crime novel and had toyed knowingly with Hollywood gangster-film tropes).

Toland’s book made reference to two of the era’s minor criminals, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Benton had grown up in the small East Texas town of Waxahachie, and their exploits—they were killed in 1934, when he was two—were more familiar to him than to Newman. “Everybody in Texas grew up with Bonnie and Clyde,” Benton says. “My father was at their funeral. You’d go to a Hallowe’en party as a kid and some boy would always be dressed as Clyde and some girl would be dressed as Bonnie. Nobody ever dressed up as Dillinger.”

Neither Benton nor Newman had ever read a screenplay, and they barely knew anyone in the movie business; a few weeks earlier, Benton had gone to a party at the comedy writer Herb Sargent’s apartment and met Warren Beatty, but neither man had then made much of an impression on the other. Nonetheless, high on everything they’d been watching andtalking about, they decided that summer that the adventures of Bonnie and Clyde would make a great movie. From the afternoon they started working on the script after a midday screening of Hitchcock’s Rope, they thought, this could be the movie that brings the French New Wave to Hollywood, “a gangster film,” says Benton, “that was about all the things they didn’t show you in a gangster film.” And if we do this right, they told each other, maybe we can get François Truffaut to direct it.

“We didn’t know how to write a screenplay,” says Benton, “so we wrote an extended treatment. We described a scene, including camera shots, and we’d write down what characters were talking about, but we didn’t put dialogue in.” Some of that writing took place in Esquire’s offices, behind closed doors, but much of it happened after hours, with Newman or Benton sketching out a scene at home, then giving it to the other in the morning. “The next day we would talk about the scene, and say, no, that’s all wrong, and if David had written it, I would take it home and rewrite it, and if I had written it, David would redo it,” Benton recalls. They would work together into the night, with Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys playing at full volume on the phonograph and becoming, in effect, the sound track to their experience of writing the movie. “We had an enormous sense of freedom—and we didn’t have skill, which was a good thing,” says Benton. “If you have enough skill, when you get to a trouble spot, you can use that skill to skirt it, which can be dangerous. We didn’t know how to do that.”

As they wrote, Benton and Newman tried to give themselves a crash course in both film technique and the gangster era. They’d return again and again to the Hitchcock retrospective, listening to what Bogdanovich, who at only twenty-four was about to publish a monograph on the director, had to say about the ways in which his movies were constructed. They would read and reread what Truffaut had written on the difference between creating shock and building suspense. Benton would leave the office to browse through used-magazine and old-book stalls on Sixth Avenue in the lower 40s, sometimes returning with treasures like the 1934 book Fugitives, written by Bonnie Parker’s mother, Emma Parker, and Clyde Barrow’s sister Nell Barrow Cowan, or vintage crime pulp magazines, including a 1945 issue of Master Detective that included photographs of Parker and Barrow and a story about how “adventure and bloodshed marked the Law’s long pursuit of the Barrows and their murderous molls.” And as a touchstone, they kept returning to a sentence about Bonnie and Clyde from The Dillinger Days: “Toland wrote, ‘They were not just outlaws, they were outcasts,’ ” says Benton. “That line was what hooked us.”

In some ways, Parker and Barrow were natural subjects for a movie. They were young—Barrow was twenty-five and Parker twenty-three when they were killed. They had a great hunger and flair for self-invention and self-promotion, taking photographs in which they posed as hardened outlaws as if they were playing dress-up and sending Bonnie’s doggerel about themselves to newspapers. And although Barrow’s record stretched back to his teens, their history together—a string of robberies that often led to murder, interspersed with periods in which they lay low—lasted only about a year and a half, ideal for the compressed narrative of a movie. Parts of their crime spree and relationship had already been appropriated for Fritz Lang’s 1937 pre-noir drama, You Only Live Once, with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, and 1958’s quickly forgotten The Bonnie Parker Story, which starred Dorothy Provine, had depicted a peculiar version of their lives that turned Clyde Barrow into “Guy Darrow.”

Benton and Newman were interested in all the historical information they could get their hands on, but not in documentary realism. Already, they knew they were going to leave out certain unromantic details: Parker’s early marriage to another man, Parker’s and Barrow’s separate stretches in jail, and the fact that Parker was severely and disfiguringly burned in a car crash almost a year before she and Barrow were killed. Their version of Bonnie and Clyde’s story would not be a history lesson, but a drama that entangled crime and passion, comedy and bloodshed. If Benton and Newman even knew of the Production Code’s rules that “crimes against the law . . . shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime,” that “theft, robbery . . . etc. should not be detailed in method,” and “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right,” hewing to those restrictions would have been the furthest thing from their minds. And the Code, which still maintained that “seduction . . . should never be more than suggested, and then only when essential” and that “suggestive . . . postures are not to be shown,” didn’t even have language, other than a general opprobrium on “sex aberration,” that could have adequately expressed the futility of their plan to include a sexual ménage à trois (the Jules and Jim influence at its most apparent) involving Bonnie, Clyde, and their strapping male getaway driver.

By November 1963, Benton and Newman were putting what they thought were the finishing touches on a seventy-five-page treatment of Bonnie and Clyde and, says Benton, “specifically writing it for Truffaut.” The constant presence of the director’s name in their bull sessions represented a combination of hubris, sky-high optimism, and a sliver of actual hope. Though neither writer was particularly well connected, Benton knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. While attending the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1950s, he had become friends with fellow undergrads Harvey Schmidt, an aspiring composer, and Tom Jones, a writer and lyricist. All three went on to serve in the army and then came to New York, where Schmidt and Benton roomed together and occasionally collaborated at Esquire and Schmidt and Jones worked on their first musical. That show, The Fantasticks, opened off Broadway in 1960 to mixed reviews but hung on with remarkable tenacity and was now starting the fourth year of its run. Jones’s wife, Elinor Wright Jones, had gotten to know and admire Benton; she had even produced a short film he had created called A Texas Romance 1909, a chapter of his family history told through the paintings of four illustrators. “Bob called me one day and said, ‘David and I want to tell you a story,’” she remembers. Benton and Newman went over to the Joneses’ Central Park West apartment, bringing with them their treatment and their yellowed issue of Master Detective.

Jones was dazzled by their enthusiasm and by their conviction that a movie based on their screenplay could bring a Nouvelle Vague aesthetic to as American a subject as Dust Bowl bank robbers. At the time, she was working as an assistant to Lewis Allen, a Broadway producer who was trying his hand at low-budget art films (that year, he had produced a movie of Genet’s The Balcony as well as Peter Brook’s adaptation of Lord of the Flies), and she was eager to start producing as well. Her younger brother, Norton Wright, then a twenty-eight-year-old production assistant, shared her ambition. “In the early 1960s, low-budget pictures were being made in New York City for $350,000, and some of them were good movies,” says Wright, who had learned the ins and outs of working with a tight schedule and minimal budget as a production manager on a number of those films—“indies,” before the term was in common use. Wright and his sister shared Benton and Newman’s reverence for the French New Wave and had accompanied Benton on some of his return visits to the New Yorker Theater. And the two writers made a good pitching team: “You kind of had the feeling that Benton had the history and the heart of it, and David, who was very funny, was the sparkplug, the live wire,” says Wright.

By the end of the meeting, it didn’t seem impossible that, if the two would-be producers got the script into the right hands, they could raise the money to make a lean, no-frills, black-and-white version of Bonnie and Clyde themselves. And they had a well-placed ally: The Joneses’ attorney was the powerful entertainment lawyer Robert Montgomery of the New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Elinor Jones sent Montgomery the treatment for Bonnie and Clyde almost immediately. Montgomery agreed to send it to another of his clients, Arthur Penn. Penn got the seventy-five pages, glanced at them, turned it down on the spot, and barely gave Bonnie and Clyde another thought for two years.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Love Movies? Love the '60s? You'll Love This

    A fun, engrossing, extraordinarily researched book about the 5 best picture nominees at the 1968 Academy Awards. If this sounds like a slender premise for a book, think again: the nominees that year represented Hollywood's past and future, making them a microcosm of the American movie industry in turmoil as it sought to reinvent itself in the wake of the nouvelle vague (and other innovative film trends from Europe) that had crashed on our shores during the preceding decade. The best thing about the book -- aside from its wit and readability -- is its foundation on personal interviews Harris conducted with so many of the nominees' principal players: Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, Buck Henry, Arthur Penn, and many others. They dish it ... and it's all on the page.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2008

    Outstanding

    This book doesn't merely tell the story of the conception and creation of five movies. It uses those movies to tell the story of a changing industry, struggling between the security of the old and the pull of the new. And it does this while pulling you in page after page and chapter after chapter. If you care about movies and the way they are a product of the society creating them, read this.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2008

    Truly uncommonly good

    The idea of a 400-page book focused on only 5 movies sounds questionable, but I was pleased to discover that in Harris' hands, the material is more than rich enough. Some books I borrow, some I buy in paperback, but this is honestly one I want to own in hardcover. It's going on the top shelf with Sarris, Rosenbaum, Eyman and Lopate.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2008

    A reviewer

    I am a bit of Hollywood history buff and it is wonderful having a number of books on the subject out right now 'check out Misfits Country'. In this well written and excellently researched book the author takes the reader back to 1967 and analyzes the five nominees for best picture and there reflection and effects on society in at that momentous time of change. The Movies are: 'The Graduate '40th Anniversary Collector's Edition',' 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner '40th Anniversary Edition',' 'Bonnie and Clyde,' 'In the Heat of the Night '40th Anniversary Collector's Edition'' and 'Doctor Dolittle.' Aside from being a great walk down memory lane it is also full of insightful social commentary. The sixties were a special time of social change and the movies and the movies of that decade reflected and effected this change on so many levels. I would love to see the author expand on this in another book that might take on the best movies of the decade.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 3, 2013

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    Posted January 1, 2010

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews

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