Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

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Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood Mark Harris. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

The dust jacket shows Warren Beatty at the wheel, driving Faye Dunaway, all smiles in a slouch Fedora, to a reckless encounter, perhaps somewhere in Texas. Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution proves to be as much fun as the dust-jacket portrait promises; hence, maybe, in this case, you can judge a book by its cover, after all. This movie-rich narrative resembles an Armenian pastry, with intersecting layers of tasty filo, as Harris tells the stories, concurrently, of five movies that changed the world (or, with one Dolittle exception, at least Hollywood), at the Academy Awards of 1967, from the cussedly predictable 20th Century-Fox musical Doctor Dolittle, to the "father-knows-best" values of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, to the edgy race drama In the Heat of the Night, to the top trendsetters for the "new" Hollywood, The Graduate, and the impossibly upbeat noir gangster romp, Bonnie and Clyde, which seems to be the author's favorite.

Now, that's a lot of entertainment on the plate, but Harris is able to keep his entrees separate, teasing readers with constant servings of tasty appetizers. At times the service slumps, as when Harris pauses too long toward the end of chapter four to ponder the limiting career choices available to Sidney Poitier in 1964. (Unsurprisingly, no one was offering him the lead role in King Lear back then, either.) But Harris has a knack for perking up his story, as when he writes at the top of chapter seven, "Robert Benton hadn't been thinking much about Bonnie and Clyde on the morning that Warren Beatty showed up on his doorstep, asking if he could read the screenplay" (85). Fortune knocks, with this unexpected Gentleman Caller!

Harris's book starts in 1963 in New York, with Robert Benton, ending a romance with Gloria Steinern (is that name-dropping?) and going to see Jules and Jim at Dan Talbot's New Yorker Theater. Eventually, Benton would collaborate with fellow Esquire writer David Newman to write a screen treatment of the criminal careers of Clyde Borrow and Bonnie Parker, but the film would be four years in the making. It was to be an American gangster film "about all of the things they don't show you in a gangster film" (12). They had hoped that New Wave talent François Truffaut would direct, and they eventually even met with Truffaut for a story conference. So apparently Truffaut was interested, but when his interest began to lag, Benton and Newman then met with the great Jean-Luc Godard, without apparently knowing how to handle the volatile director's temperament. No, neither Godard nor Truffaut ultimately directed Bannie and Clyde (Godard wanted to shoot the film in New Jersey!), but what a close (and interesting!) encounter this was with the French New Wave, whose directors were certainly infatuated with American gangsters. Director Arthur Perm would decline invitations to direct three times before the film actually got made.

Of course, not all of the films covered in this book are as interesting as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Heat of the Night, arguably the three best. The background for Doctor Dolittle, for example, is even sillier than one might have expected, and the stories involving its temperamental star, Rex Harrison, who overplayed the arrogance card and got fired, only to be rehired later, are more appalling than amusing, as when the drunken wife of the star decides to do handstands at a famous restaurant in Los Angeles, but had somehow neglected to wear undergarments that day. …