Thursday, March 27, 2008

The revolution will be televised on NBC and hosted by Bob Hope

Most film bloggers love the Oscars as much as the movies they write about. It's a tricky, kind-of shameful dual love, since the Oscars are needless and distracting and not really about the art as much as the ego and the cash. Occasionally, though, constructive theses can be built around both movies and the awards for which they are nominated. So, attention guys and gals of the film blogosphere: You should buy "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood." Those five movies are the best picture nominees from 1967, and writer Mark Harris uses them and their makers as the protagonists (or anti-heros) in a story about the passing of the torch (or fight to death) between Old and New Hollywood, which was figuratively acted out on the stage of Santa Monica Civic Auditorium six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Half of the nominees seemed to be snearing at the other half: The father-knows-best values of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were wittily trashed by The Graduate; the hands-joined-in-brotherhood hopes expressed by In the Heat of the Night had little in common with the middle finger of insurrection extended by Bonnie and Clyde. ... What was an American film supposed to be? ... In the last year, the rule book seemed to have been tossed out. Warren Beatty, who looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box office attraction in an industry that still had no idea what to do with, or about, his popularity.

It was the year of dragons versus dragonflies, as Harris paraphrases The Los Angeles Times. In one corner: Stanley Kramer, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Rex Harrison, Darryl Zanuck. In the other: Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway. All of these players collided with each other at the '68 Oscars, a ceremony that took Hollywood's temperature just as it was getting feverish. Toward this suitable climax Harris threads his narratives: Will Bonnie and Clyde writers Robert Benton and David Newman ever bring the French New Wave to America? Will Harrison self-destruct before his picture (Doctor Dolittle) does? Will audiences recoil at the notion of Hoffman as a leading man and sexual being? Will Poitier and Rod Steiger move race relations forward or backward with their performances of an accomplished (yet sexless) black man and a bigoted (but vulnerable) white man? Will Tracy croak before completing his scenes?

The inherent drama of producing movies unites these five stories. Virtually everyone who worked on these films was yolked with crippling insecurity, Harris finds, and it's fascinating to read just how unsure Hoffman, Penn and Norman Jewison were about their tasks. Harris illustrates with bluntness and sly humor how the best picture nominees went from pie-in-the-sky dreams or commercial gambits to disasters-in-the-making to either critically immortalized triumphs (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate), critically reviled bombs (Dolittle) or best-picture winners (In the Heat of the Night). The juiciest bits of the book are the gems from interviews with Hoffman and Nichols. A whole other book could be devoted to their manic anecdotes, and I would love to see the raw transcripts of Harris's interviews.

Much has been written about the second golden age of cinema, but most of the literature focuses on the rebellion and not the establishment. Harris gives equal play to Old Hollywood's arthritic grapplings, led symbolically by dedicated boozer Rex Harrison, who (along with wacko wife Rachel Roberts) is given the most delicious characterization and emerges from "Pictures at a Revolution" as a kind of silver-screen British Caligula. Leading the rebel forces was Nichols, a tough-as-nails maverick who perhaps was unaware of his own position and power at the center of all the change. If only he and Harrison could've worked together. (I envision a picture called Whiskey before Breakfast, wherein Harrison plays a bluegrass musician who discovers he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and tries to manage two followings, one religious and one musical. Nichols directs, of course. Ashby writes and edits. All are nominated, Harrison wins and tries to swallow his Oscar onstage, tumbler in hand.)

When Harris brings us to the Oscars, there's genuine suspense (even though we know who wins) because of what's at stake, both personally for the players and creatively for the industry. This is where Hollywood discovers what it's really thinking now, and what it's capable of next. The conferral of those stupid statuettes had not meant so much before, and has not meant as much since.