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

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy reading fiction set in and non-fiction about the 1960s. Literature from and about this period attracts me because I was a child who was too young to remember (much less understand) what was happening then (N.B., I was born shortly after the Beatles’ flight to the U.S. from Heathrow touched down at JFK Airport in February, 1964). Since I am a “movie buff” — a term that was coined by the press in the late ’60s — it’s only natural for me to be attracted to texts about the history of filmmaking during that period. So, when I came across Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Press, 2008), I had to read it. Full disclosure: I first got this work in audiobook format (via Audible) shortly after it was published, but it took me until this year to get around to reading it (following along in the hard copy while listening). Talk about a long “TBR” list.

So much of what happened during the 1960s was about social and political change, often on a revolutionary scale. It turns out that, according to Harris, the Hollywood movie industry was not exempt from this upheaval. Rather, it was one of the foci of conflict, albeit probably not the most significant one. Harris follows five movies from screenwriting through production to release and beyond — in fact, all the way through to the 1968 Oscars. For Harris, these films represent a spectrum of reaction to the conflict between the two camps that faced off over creative control in Hollywood: Old Hollywood, whose members had been in power practically since the era of talkies, and the New Hollywood, especially those who were influenced by European filmmaking — Godard, Truffaut, and all things Nouvelle Vague. As Harris frames it, borrowing from Robert Benton and David Newman’s manifesto-like Esquire article of 1964, it was the “Old Sentimentality” versus the “New Sentimentality.”

Harris’ five films are Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Dolittle. The first two were made by the insurgent, young producers, directors, screenwriters, and actors who were to take over Hollywood in a “regime change” that took most of the 1960s to accomplish. The second two represented a kind of compromise solution between the two sides, one in which edginess and sociopolitical relevance were muted by homage to traditional Hollywood filmmaking standards. The fifth movie was one of the last of the large, long, and expensive musicals that had been a key factor in Old Hollywood’s money-making formula, represents the Old Hollywood that would eventually be conquered by the iconoclasts.

Two plot elements that are now taken for granted in American films — sex and violence — were strictly regulated on behalf of the American viewing public before this cinematic revolution took place. The MPAA exercised a self-policing function through its Production Code, which meant that any production (beginning with the screenplay, before a foot of film had been shot) had to be vetted by the Code’s administrator, Geoffrey Shurlock. Lack of Shurlock’s approval meant no distribution in the United States. Besides little to no nudity, sexual content, or explicit violence, this meant that very few “curse words” could be included in dialogue. There was also the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, which, by giving a film a “Condemned” rating, could effectually prevent movies from being seen by Americans, Roman Catholic or not. Theater owners would not show movies that received this rating. Harris shows how, through making films that challenged the Code on the basis of “artistic merit,” production companies gradually chipped away at it.

After Jack Valenti took over the MPAA presidency in 1966, the Code was all but finished. Valenti rolled out the beginnings of MPAA movie rating system that we know today. The questions for us today about the version of this system that we have inherited are many, including: Does it work? Is it relevant? Who does it benefit? Who does it infringe upon? How do ratings position movies for the viewing public? How does it compare to how other nations rate movies (or not)?

Prudish despite its liberal leanings, the early 1960s Hollywood of which Harris paints a portrait also was a fairly racist community, one that seldom cast Black actors and actresses as anything but butlers, maids, servants, and the like. Harris employs the story of the career of Sidney Poitier, whose many films included In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to illustrate how this changed, albeit in a slow, painful way. Many of the members of the Old Hollywood elite were a lot like the characters portrayed by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: phony White liberals who had to learn to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” Only after Martin Luther King’s assassination (and the 1968 Oscar ceremonies that were postponed because of it) did those in the Hollywood power elite start to express and openly advocate for their progressive political views. Hollywood was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Civil Rights era. Is this a far cry from the Hollywood of today — or not?

Although the sociopolitical changes that Harris describes are fascinating, the theme that held my attention and drove me through this book is persistence in the face of long odds. Both Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman had difficulty breaking into producing and acting, respectively. Bonnie and Clyde was rejected by every major studio, despite Beatty’s charm and persistence. Hoffman, who was considered too neurotic, awkward, and plain-looking to be a leading actor, couldn’t even get acting jobs on the stage for quite awhile and went on unemployment when he returned to New York after The Graduate wrapped. Mike Nichols took a big chance when he left the fame he found on Broadway to go to Hollywood to direct The Graduate. Despite his many achievements, Sidney Poitier still hadn’t gotten an honest, non-stereotypical movie role and was pounded by the White liberal movie media and some in the Black community for being an appeasing Uncle Tom on civil rights issues.

Since the 1960’s, there have been further changes in the world of filmmaking — as an art and craft, as well as an entertainment business. The early 1970s saw the emergence of the genre of the disaster film. In the late 1970s, the movie industry finally realized the viability of the summer blockbuster as a business model. But, as Harris points out, the studio system itself has survived and prospered by adapting to every new challenge. These challenges have included cable television, movie rental services like Netflix, video websites like YouTube and Vimeo, and streaming video services, (again) like Netflix, as well as Amazon, Hulu, etc.

Although indie filmmaking has been around for awhile, it has emerged in the early 21st century as a force to be reckoned with. Indie films with money-making potential do make it into wide distribution through the mainstream movie production system. Film festivals, such as Sundance and SXSW, provide a way for the best indie flicks to get noticed. But it appears that life is still tough for indie filmmakers (witness Si Horrocks’ persistence in running three crowdfunding campaigns to finance the production of his movie, Third Contact, and its distribution in Europe and North America — the third ends today). Nevertheless, it seems that independent filmmaking is the next “New Sentimentality.” Only the question of when it will break out of its status as a “subjugated knowledge” (Foucault, Power/Knowledge, Vintage Books, 1980) remains.

Author Mark Harris

Author Mark Harris — image source: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms

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