Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood
In 1967, the American art scene was in the midst of dramatic change. Film, in particular, experienced a drastic upheaval as the money-making formula once considered tried-and-true for Hollywood’s major studio system was rapidly diminishing as audiences began to embrace the emergence of indie filmmaking and European influences. Heralded as the start of a new (albeit brief) golden age for film, 1967 made transparent the aging studio moguls’ inability to read audience desires. Where once John Wayne epitomized the ultimate American hero, Dustin Hoffman’s role in The Graduate tapped into the psyche of alienated youth to emerge as a new sort of anti-hero.
Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris captures both the last hurrah of the old Hollywood system and the dawn of a new era in studio filmmaking. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Group, 2008) focuses on the five Best Picture Oscar nominees from that pivotal year. The nominees are a contradictory clash of old and new Hollywood: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and the critcally reviled Doctor Dolittle. In chronicling the behind-the-scenes drama of all five films, following them from their initial conception to box office release, Harris captures the tumult of American cinema at a time of great change.
Throughout Oscar history we’ve witnessed a generational divide when it comes to selected nominees; however, rarely has it been more apparent than in 1967 where a “sex comedy” like The Graduate and the hyper-violent Bonnie and Clyde was paired with the outdated premise of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle, a poorly-executed attempt at gaining the box office numbers of family-friendly musicals like The Sound of Music. Where Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate capitalized on the growing demand for small art house films, the bloated Doctor Doolittle and the preachy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner felt out of place.
Harris interviewed dozens of people involved with all five of the nominated films and engagingly weaves back-and-forth between the making of each film. The book is equal measures social commentary and Hollywood tell-all. Where else would you learn that Robert Redford was the original choice for Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate? Or that French auteur Francois Truffaut came thisclose to directing Bonnie and Clyde? Or that the title for What’s New, Pussycat evolved from one of Warren Beatty’s signature pick-up lines? And even though Rex Harrison’s egocentric demands may be common knowledge today, some of the revelations that come out through Harris’ interviews will still take you by surprise.
Pictures at a Revolution is an engrossing, thoroughly-researched collection of behind-the-scenes stories and celebrity revelations. You’ll finish with both a greater appreciation for the intricate process of filmmaking and a thrill at being made privy to previously unpublished secrets from a time when a new wave of artists started to change the face of American cinema.