Scenes from a Revolution, by Mark Harris

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape