While half the blogs in the known universe are posting reactions to the 2008 Oscars telecast (Javier Bardem actually won for No Country?! OhmyGod!!! But seriously, best speech: Tilda Swinton), Living RomCom would like to talk about the Oscars show from 1968 -- as relived in one absolutely scrumptious book.
By this time in 2009, you'll prob'ly have a hard time even remembering who won what this year (this oft-experienced Oscar amnesia is a clear indicator of how fundamentally trivial our modern era's Academy Awards can be), but I'll wager that the movie book-reading public won't forget Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. It's the best book written about the movies and what they mean to us to come down the pike in a long while, and its subject matter is particularly intriguing in terms of its contrast to the times we live in.
Harris's basic story concept is brilliant. Pictures uses the Best Picture nominations of 1967 to explore that seminal moment in film history when the old guard of Hollywood was pushed, wheezing and whelping, into confrontation with the New. On the left was Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate; on the right was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle (yes, really); occupying the conflicted middle-ground was In the Heat of the Night.
Night won the night, but the ultimate champion was a new breed of filmmakers that was to nearly destroy the old studio system, dragging it under protest across a just-solidified generational dividing line, and therein lies the fascinating core of Harris's tale. The book is at its shrewdest and most revealing when it explicates the particulars of a rather Oedipal story, showing how a motley crew of European-inspired sons (among them, Warren Beatty and Mike Nichols) slew the already staggering Hollywood dragon-dads (e.g. Jack Warner), creating a passel of more modern myths even as they enacted an ancient one.
Harris's cinematic narrative strategy is to cross-cut the creation stories of all five future Best Pic noms; we follow each movie from conception, through production, to release, spanning a four year period. It's an involving and suspenseful gambit, due to the cliff-hanging nature of its subplots (a crash course in how miraculous a feat it is to actually get a movie made), and the colorfully diverse cast of characters involved. Being a fly on the wall in a legend-filled room is one of the great pleasures in movie-book reading, and Pictures puts you in many such stellar suites.
I loved, for example, discovering that screenwriting team David Newman and Robert Benton, while trying to sell Francois Truffaut on helming Bonnie and Clyde, sat through a screening of Gun Crazy he'd set up for them along with Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Godard briefly considered directing Bonnie himself -- and as Picture reports, after it later lost Best Picture, sent a telegram to Newman saying "Now, let's make it all over again!"
The book cuts from Gene Hackman agonizing over having been fired from Bonnie, to Stanley Kramer wondering if Spencer Tracy will live long enough to finish Dinner. You get first-timer Dustin Hoffman's totally traumatic experience of working on The Graduate while everyone else in show biz considers him miscast, juxtaposed with Sidney Poitier's refusal to film in the deep South for Night because there was no guarantee he'd get out of there alive.
The era's portrait snapshots are priceless. Here's Sidney Lumet remembering vulgarian producer Joseph E. Levine "sitting in the Polo Lounge, so happy, a hooker on each arm, each hand on a different tit." There's young Peter Fonda (with then-unknown chums Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper) cheering on the Byrds while they play his mom and Roger Vadim's Malibu beach party -- with "Daryl Zanuck and George Cukor both staring dumbstruck as a barefoot young hippie began to nurse her baby in front of them."
Next to the passionately innovative serious-ities of Arthur Penn and Nichols, the disastrous saga of Dr. Doolittle serves as black comedic counterpoint. That it was clearly a movie that didn't want to have been made is borne out by a telegram sent, after typhoons and animal seizures jeopardized its bloated, ill-advised production, from a crew member on location in St. Lucia to Anthony Newley and wife Joan Collins: "Insect terrible from very wet summer STOP everyone covered in welts and sores two people bad infections from bites STOP six people ill last week from dysentery."
Meanwhile, it's the life-and-death issues of that era -- when the Civil Rights movement was peaking and the Vietnam War was beginning to divide the country -- that give this movie race its gravitas. The book explores how The Graduate came to embody youth culture before the term existed, how Bonnie seemed to react to the war and the violence in the heart of America, how Night's success (and Dinner's datedness) were informed by events that culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- a tragedy that caused the Academy to postpone its show for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Harris's well-written and prodigiously researched work (even the footnotes are intriguing) has an aptly-timed resonance. As I devoured the book, I couldn't help occasionally humming Dylan's Things Have Changed. This year's picture race? There Will Be Blood does speak to the tyranny of oil-lust that underlies our current administration's downfall, No Country can be seen as an indictment of the nihilistic violence we live with now, and Juno certainly has its finger on the pulse of kids-these-days. But no one could sanely make a claim that this crop of pictures signifies a revolution of any kind -- or that they've even connected with America with anything like the force that 1967's wildly popular bunch did (many critics have pointed out that prior to the Awards, Juno has been the only major moneymaking hit among this year's nominees).
In its tacitly elegiac way, Pictures takes a picture of a now long-gone moment when movies were still at the uncontested epicenter of popular culture, and a clear embodiment of what "we" were all thinking and feeling. Micro-trended into a vast collection of disparate cultural tribes, we (or, all the many "we"s) simply don't live in that world anymore. But Harris's book delivers its bygone era to us in an indelibly vivid way. All I can say is: hie thee with this tome to a comfy chair, 'cause boy, is it ever a damn good read.