Scenes from a Revolution, by Mark Harris
Sunday 16 March 2008
Are American films any worse now than they used to be? It's tempting to name a year and suggest that, before this point, movies were better, but is the idea of Transformers being nominated for an Oscar any crazier than Dr Dolittle making the Best Picture list four decades earlier? There have been key periods, though, when Hollywood has experienced a sea change. In 1981, after Raiders of the Lost Ark won Best Picture, there was a shift away from films with a demanding European aesthetic, towards merchandisable matinee popcorn. In 1967, Mark Harris argues, there was another pivotal moment, as studio-generated epics gave way to smaller films that reflected the countercultural thirst for change.
It's a good hook and one that serves the author well. After all, as well as Dr Dolittle, the four other Best Picture nominees that year were Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the winner, In the Heat of the Night. Two of these reflected changing attitudes to race: Dinner was a plea for tolerance and acceptance in the form of an old-fashioned suburban comedy, the idea being that the world's most famous couple, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, invite the world's most famous black actor, Sidney Poitier, to become part of their family. It seemed condescending and schematic even at the time of its release. In the Heat of the Night, also starring Poitier, was set in the deep South and appropriately angrier. It mirrored the growing refusal of young blacks to remain complacent in the face of endemic racism. Not that this stopped more militant African-Americans from accusing Poitier of showcasing himself as a "good nigger" to appeal to a prevailing white sense of superiority.
The Graduate took advantage of changing censorship laws to examine sexual issues with a new level of sophistication and frankness. During production the script seemed mystifying and bleak, even to the cast. Mike Nichols, the director, announced "I'm thinking of using these two kids for the music – one tall and one small." Simon and Garfunkel focused attention on the hypersensitive young lead Dustin Hoffman, and the movie suddenly revealed a logical core. One wonders how The Graduate would have fared if it had been required to supply a soundtrack based on the contractual obligations of modern studios.
In Texas, the stars of Bonnie & Clyde listened to the stories of those who remembered the outlaws, and though the film turned Clyde heterosexual, it kept the sense of grievance felt by ordinary citizens who were foreclosed by the banks and who supported the robbers. It was a modest domestic hit, but European fans followed its fashions.
The odd film out – the one which reflected nothing at all of the changing world – was Dr Dolittle, a painful whimsy representative of a last-ditch attempt by studios to foist bloated "event" musicals on the public in the wake of The Sound of Music's success. The production was scuppered by Rex Harrison's capricious behaviour and the difficulty of working with live animals, and it had a horrible score that failed to spawn a single hit. Nevertheless, after a prolonged marketing campaign it went on to win two Academy Awards, and compared to Eddie Murphy's later lavatorial versions of the Hugh Lofting books, it seems a minor masterpiece.
Scenes from a Revolution weaves the development of these five films together, from script-stage through casting and production to the aftermaths of their releases, and contains enough tantrums, firings and exposed star insecurities to thrill the most jaded Hollywood-watcher. Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls described how independent films revitalised a moribund industry by putting it back in touch with its grass-roots audience. Mark Harris is a less vitriolic chronicler, and is more intent on describing the difficulties of keeping an idea in place when so many unexpected elements derail good intentions.
It's a terrifically enjoyable read, but I kept wondering, was 1967 really such a pivotal year for Hollywood? Change takes time, and the following year two musicals, two historical dramas and an art film were nominated for Best Picture. By 1969, Costa-Gavras's political thriller Z and Midnight Cowboy were still vying against a western, a musical and a royal epic. However, that was also the year in which Easy Rider appeared, confounding the studios and creating panic among executives who no longer knew what audiences wanted. By 1970 the new, cynical mood of the nation brought forth a phenomenal number of hard-edged protest and civil rights movies – but that's another story.
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