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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pictures at a Revolution

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, who currently writes about the Oscars for Grantland, is a fascinating look at the film industry of the mid to late 1960s. Harris convincingly portrays the era as a watershed for Hollywood, when a number of forces came to bear on the studios, creating whole new ideas for what movies could be.

The conceit of the book is a strong one. Harris takes the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967 (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Doctor Dolittle, and winner In the Heat of the Night) and shows how the making of each film highlighted the massive changes of the time.

Among the major issues covered by Pictures at a Revolution are race relations, the influence of foreign movies, changing audience tastes, the effects of television (especially color television), and the death of censorship and the restrictive production code.

The stories of each film's production will make you wonder how any movies ever get made. Some of these movies are among the most successful and beloved of their or any time, and yet each of them faced substantial resistance, even after they started shooting.

Harris conducted an astonishing number of interviews for the book, and the payoff is that it really feels as though Harris is intimately familiar with all of the people in the book. I enjoyed getting to know all of these colorful figures, the heroes and the villains of each production.

The heroes are people like Robert Benton and David Newman, the screenwriters of Bonnie and Clyde, who waited five years to see their screenplay filmed, and then only after the director turned them down three separate times. Sidney Poitier is a major figure in the book, as he starred in two of the five films and nearly took a role in Doctor Dolittle as well. Poitier's part in the novel is kind of tragic. Stuck in a strange position as really the only prominent black actor, Poitier struggled with his career decisions, and ultimately wound up alienating many black people by playing dehumanized, idealized black men.

There is also the story of Spencer Tracy's and Katharine Hepburn's last film together, as they filmed Guess Who while Tracy was clearly running short on time. And the disastrous, incredibly ill-conceived production of Doctor Dolittle will make you laugh, and will make many aspiring movie actors reconsider.

For anyone with an interest in this era of film history, Pictures at a Revolution is a must-read. Anyone with an interest in insider stories of the movies will also find it enjoyable.

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