Tuesday, February 12, 2008

As the Tides Turned: Hollywood in 1967 Through the Lens of Five Films

"The Graduate" (Associated Press); "In the Heat of the Night," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (Everett Collection); "Dr. Doolittle" (Photofest)

From left, Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”; “In the Heat of the Night,” with Sidney Poitier and a uniformed Rod Steiger; Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde”; Rex Harrison in “Dr. Doolittle”; Mr. Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

By Janet Maslin writing in The New York Times
Published: February 11, 2008

In the same year and even on the same planet, five crazily diverse films became nominees for the Academy Award for best picture in 1967. At its April 1968 ceremony the academy chose among an instant-classic vision of the brand new Generation Gap (“The Graduate”), a painfully dated Hollywood dinosaur (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), a fierily innovative, mythic outlaw tale (“Bonnie and Clyde”), a walking lecture on racial prejudice (“In the Heat of the Night”) and a budget-busting musical full of animals (“Dr. Dolittle”). The last of these, stinker that it was, appropriately had to be filmed on sets with drains patrolled by workers wielding brooms.

Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris
Illustrated. 490 pp. Penguin Press. $27.95.

It seemed to be a boom time for the movie business. When Variety, in 1968, printed its list of all-time top-grossing movies, a third of them were 1967 releases. And yet, as Mark Harris explains in a landmark new film book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” the whole industry was poised on the brink of irrevocable change.
Mr. Harris sifts through the evidence with reportorial acumen and great care, conjuring up the social and cultural history of a lost world and drawing on sharp new interviews with many of its major players. Forty years after the fact, people like Dustin Hoffman, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Sydney Pollack, Robert Towne, Robert Benton, Lee Grant and Buck Henry sound as if they’re still making sense of 1967’s tidal wave.

“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. But if Mr. Harris has his share of hair-raising particulars about, say, Rex Harrison (whose unhinged and abusive Dr. Dolittle seemed in need of his own doctor), his main emphasis is much more serious.

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 task of seguing among five such different films is a tough one. But Mr. Harris handles it seamlessly, in part because his book is tethered to larger subjects than the making of individual films. Racial politics, for instance, plays a huge part in this story, thanks to the illustrative presence of Sidney Poitier, the only bankable black actor of his time and a man much criticized for sticking to dehumanizingly righteous roles. Mr. Poitier figured in three out of the five best picture nominees. (Though he did not appear in “Dr. Dolittle,” he was courted to play a particularly benighted role in it, and was the star of both “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and the eventual best-picture winner, “In the Heat of the Night,” though it was his co-star Rod Steiger who came home with the best actor award.)
Thoughts from Mr. Poitier’s own memoir, “The Measure of a Man,” are among the insights culled by Mr. Harris. Mr. Poitier’s experiences were bruising, but they paved the way for a drastically altered professional landscape for black actors by the time 1967 was over. (In an early screenplay for “In the Heat of the Night,” Mr. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs was equipped with a copy of “The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre” to establish his bona fides.)
Mr. Poitier’s role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is shown to signal the end of an era, not only for implausible, hamstrung black characters but also for veteran screen personages like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. By then, compared to either of them, Mr. Poitier was a much bigger box office draw.

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