By Peter McAlevey
December 20, 2009
I'd never pretend to be a book reviewer. On the other hand, it's been
years since I've read a book like Mark Harris' "Pictures at a
Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood"
(Penguin), now out in paperback.
Now, you have to understand, there's a lot of jealousy here -- for
one thing, it seems like virtually everyone I know has already won a
Pulitzer Prize: my college roommate Tim Page (for criticism for the
Washington Post), Ric Burns (for his documentary "The Civil War"),
Columbia College classmate playwright Tony Kushner for "Angels in
America;" et al. And now it's Mark Harris', Kushner's companion, turn
for the kudos.
But that's not really what makes me jealous -- rather, it's that I
thought I had a lock on that old "anniversary year" business … maybe
my one great contribution to journalism. (Many would say my "only"
contribution.) You have to understand, until I came up with it over
a couple of drinks with Mike Ruby (then foreign editor of Newsweek)
and Mimi Sheils (business editor) and Lynn Langway (arts editor) at a
steakhouse in Manhattan in 1983, no big magazine had ever run one of
those now ubiquitous "that was the year that was"-style stories.
Even though I left Newsweek for Disney shortly after, Newsweek
continued working on a piece built around the year 1968 and how it
changed history, only to be beat to the punch by Time magazine's
"Annus Mirabilus" cover in 1988, looking back to 1968 from the
Martin Luther King assignation to the riots in Chicago to Nixon's election.
Of course, today everyone's doing it, from U.S. News & World Reports'
recent "1957: The Year that Changed America" to Newsweek's finally
running my "1968" issue last year 40 years later!
Actually, I can't take too much credit -- when I was busy pitching
the idea to my bosses at Newsweek over martinis, none of them
realized I was just recycling a headline I'd found in the subway one
day in '78. In a leftist magazine entitled Seven Days dropped on the
subway, I read the headline: "1968, End of the Postwar World" written
by that notorious German radical Danny the Red. All I did was add 10
years to the concept!
But the truth was Danny was right -- there are those "moments in
time," as someone once put it, when all the lines in history cross:
In the case of 1968, it was not just assasinations and riots from
Chicago and to Columbia itself … it was also the year of the Prague
Spring (and the Russian crackdown), student riots that convulsed
France, the Tet offensive that led to the end of the Vietnam War and more.
And in movies, as Harris points out, it was the year in which the
Academy Awards almost equally split the difference between the "old"
Hollywood of big-budget musicals like "The Sound of Music" and
historical epics like "Cleopatra" and "Dr. Zhivago" and the "new"
Hollywood of "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" that would lead,
the next year, to "Easy Rider" (the movie that changed everything)
and an era of unprecedented cinematic upheaval.
In the same category, of course, you can't forget to put a copy of
Peter Biskind's "From Easy Riders to Raging Bulls" on your night
stand -- he starts out with a quote from me, so how bad a book can it
be? But, in truth, Harris has in "Pictures at a Revolution" painted
as glorious and detailed a history of the post-war film industry as
could be considered humanly possible -- and far better than "Raging
Bulls," Emanuel Levy's "Cinema of Outsiders" (he also begins with a
quote from me) and any of the numerous other books that have attempted same.
For one thing, in focusing on just five movies -- the five "Best
Picture" nominees of 1968 -- he's limited his scope to manageable.
(Biskind and Levy try to cover hundreds!) On the other hand, each one
-- "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night,"
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Doctor Dolittle"-- represented
one aspect or another of the new/old Hollywood divide.
For instance, he's clearly most drawn to "Bonnie and Clyde,"
certainly a seminal movie whose violence was well understood by a
young generation used, since the Berkeley Free Speech movement of
1964, to rioting in the streets. In fact, "B&C" was not just a hit;
it truly changed everything, including critics. Years later, in 1978,
when I was studying at Columbia, I remember a small seminar with
Bosley Crowther, once the world's most important film critic, having
been reviewing films for the make-or-break New York Times since the late '40s.
He was finally firedas he himself admitted that day -- because he'd
"missed" "Bonnie and Clyde"'s importance. He was replaced with a
younger critic, Renata Adler, who fell in love with the glorious
French director Jean-Luc Godard, a love story told in her classic
book "A Year in the Dark."
Ironically, in Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," we learn Godard
had actually been offered the chance to direct "B&C," only to lose
out to producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn.
Harris spends a similar amount of time on "The Graduate," the story
of a 1968 Columbia University grad who returns home to Beverly Hills
only to be told to concentrate on one thing: "plastics." Harris
details how director Mike Nichols finally talked another Columbia
grad, Artie Garfinkle, and his partner Paul Simon into doing the
music, which did as much as anything to push the movie over the top.
Less time is spent on the genesis of "In the Heat of the Night" and
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," both of which starred Sidney Poitier
in the high water mark of African-American actors to that point (and
heights Poitier would never accede again), with "Doctor Doolittle"
thrown in for comic effect, just to show how hard it was for the old
Hollywood to let go.
Despite its Academy nominations, "Doolittle" returned only 15 percent
of it's investment to Fox, while each of the other movies turned out
to be immensely profitable -- to the point where many of the
performers (who had taken deferred salaries) would never had to work
again (though they all did, of course.)
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the story is the shameful way
the producers were treated -- if it weren't for Elinor Jones and
Norton Wright, who spent years schlepping the 75-pages treatment of
"Bonnie and Clyde" around to François Truffaut and Goddard (both of
whom wanted to do it), it would have died the same early death as so
many other projects.
It was only when the ultimate star, Warren Beatty, heard that
Truffaut wanted it that he got interested and then, learning that
Jones' and Wright's option was nearly up, just out waited them so he
could produce it himself.
Similarly, everyone remembers that multi-award winner Mike Nichols
directed "The Graduate" and Buck "Get Smart" Henry wrote the final
draft screenplay, but who remembers the years that producer Larry
Turman schlepped the book around and the half-dozen writers he hired
to do drafts before Henry? Even poor Arthur Jacobs, who spent the
better part of the decade getting "Dolittle" made was passed over at
the Academy Awards -- but then, he got his revenge by hooking up with
the new generation and producing his next movie himself, a little,
cranky art film called ..."Planet of the Apes."
So, like I say, I'm jealousof all of them, from my friends with the
Pulitzers to a writer like Harris who can manage such material to the
filmmakers and producers, famous or not, who were there.
And now, thanks to this book, you can be jealous too!