What five Academy Award contenders can tell us about the '60s.
Harris rightly takes for granted that we know the basic stormy context of the decade. Zeroing in on Hollywood in the mid-'60s, we see an industry still knocked off balance by the rise of TV and held back by square romantic-comedy and historical-epic formulas, creaky censorship codes, and dated ideas about glamour. Harris tells us how The Graduate, along with Bonnie and Clyde, helped shake this status quo. Mike Nichols, a Young Turk director hailed for an impressive bunch of Broadway successes, as well as for his skilled herding of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, leveraged his studio pull on a casting gamble. He picked a short mumbler of an actor, Dustin Hoffman, to star as Benjamin Braddock, the privileged California kid seduced by his parents' friend Mrs. Robinson. The studio suits had dismissed Hoffman as a preposterous leading man, but Nichols knew what he was up to. Hoffman's very diffidence turned out to capture the yearning, judging withdrawal of youth from the older generation. Nichols, interviewed by Harris, also recalls his own slowly dawning realization that, with a bit of autobiographical drive, he had unconsciously remolded the Benjamin character from a WASP golden boy into a sardonic, Jewish-inflected outsider.
In a fascinating side note, Harris shows how early iterations of Bonnie and Clyde had a bit of bisexual subtext that ultimately fell by the wayside. This was not yet the decade for such explorations. The big movie argument of 1967, carried out with good intentions if sometimes with pokey awkwardness, was over white society's acceptance of the black man. (If the second half of that last sentence seems lacking in irony, it's on purpose.) Compared with his cheering on of The Graduate, Harris paints a rounder portrait of Sidney Poitier, at the height of his pathbreaking career, brave, admired, and often trapped. Poitier's peerlessly composed screen presence was called upon to lift heavy symbolic burdens. Harris revisits the obstacles he faced as well as the criticism that was starting to dog him—that by continually signing on to play perfect men, he risked turning into a handy exception to the rules of white prejudice. Harris doesn't much like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but his respectful probings capture its peculiar status as a film that seemed poised to stir up anxieties about interracial marriage but turned into a crowd-pleasing hit.
Instead of offering up a familiar, tidy thesis about what the '60s "meant," Harris has dipped us into the soup of culture-making. On top of many interviews, he's pored over memoirs and clippings and critical reactions of the day, gathering up funny quotes and, in the case of DoctorDolittle star Rex Harrison, depressing but rivetingly weird gossip—a sampling, perhaps, of what the scene might have looked like if something like a TMZ had been up and running back then.
In a way, this is the '60s filtered through the zeitgeist of our time. For we are creatures of information, debating about our debates, compulsively knowing and wanting to know more. Harris' fresh approach captures the live spark of creation. The spark of revolution, though? It's in its nature to have burned out a while back. We haven't lacked in recent decades for violent, moody films about outlaws or quirky comedies with infectious soundtracks about the generation gap. If anything, for our time, the templates set by Bonnie andClyde and The Graduate wield the influence of stolid classics. Which raises the question, Who will emerge to overthrow them?
Sarah Kerr writes for the New York Review of Books and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications.