What five Academy Award contenders can tell us about the '60s.
Two smart young guys worked at Esquire in the early to mid-'60s, and in their spare time they worshipped films of the French New Wave. They had no clue how to make movies. But they were bold and lucky. They teamed up to write a screenplay about a sexy couple of bank robbers in Depression-era Texas. They sent a story treatment to their favorite French director, who, improbably, loved it. Then their top choice (François Truffaut) got busy with something else and passed the project along to a French friend.
The team was excited to work with this second French director. But they balked when he told them that instead of taking the time and doing the prep work to shoot at authentic locations, he wanted to shoot quickly—in New Jersey, in the winter. Thus—unimaginably, to anyone who knows the finished work directed by Arthur Penn—for the briefest moment in the early development of the film that was to become Bonnie and Clyde,the director could have been a playfully abstruse Jean-Luc Godard. And the star to whom Godard might have yelled "action" on an icy morning in Jersey? Instead of Warren Beatty, that could have been Elliott Gould!
Godard's flyby "flirtation" with Bonnie and Clyde is one of dozens of facts in Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood that invite a double take. After beating back an early critical scolding on its release in 1967, the film was hailed for its groundbreaking sensibility. It was expert in the art of raising tension, visually highly designed yet aggressively naturalistic, with some of the least euphemized violence up to that point in American film. Some of its images (the actress Faye Dunaway, honey-haired under her raffish '30s beret) quickly became iconic.
But the film's success turns out to have been anything but inevitable. Harris, in giving us the circuitous back story of its production—and the twists and turns in the creation of the four other 1967 films vying for the 1968 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture (The Graduate, the dueling Sidney Poitier vehicles Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Dolittle)—reminds us how long and frustrating, and above all how mysteriously contingent, the process of making movies is. And, by extension, how easily the icons of any era might have been utterly different from the ones we've come to know.
The unspoken premise of Harris' look back is not quite what you'd expect from a writer-editor at Entertainment Weekly, where instant zeitgeist readings reign: When you live through a tumultuous time like the 1960s, and you work in an industry like the movies—whose projects, unlike a rock 'n' roll song, take years to gear up and require the investment and teamwork of seriously disparate people—it's more in retrospect that you can see the pattern of how a new sensibility was born. On the ground, there are hunches and uncertainty. Only over time—after the film comes out, after spontaneously erupted polemics and unplanned popular borrowings and an embrace or rejection by the audience (back then a much longer process than our make-or-break opening weekend)—can you trace out which direction the culture was heading in. The negotiations are filled with energy and ironies and can-you-believe-this anecdotes. Anyone who wants to—geniuses and idealists and hacks, profit seekers, the passionate and the easily pleased audience—gets to pitch in.
Sarah Kerr writes for the New York Review of Books and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications.