Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution.

Reading between the lines.
March 4 2008 4:15 PM

Hollywood Archaeology

What five Academy Award contenders can tell us about the '60s.

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris.

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.

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.