An Academy Award-winning movie isn’t made in a day. In Pictures at a Revolution, critic Mark Harris chronicles the half-decade of hard work that went into the production of the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1968. Harris uses the nominees as a lens for looking at Hollywood in transition, offering a blow-by-blow account of the bold assault mounted by a new generation of talented young filmmakers against the aesthetic and political conservatism of Hollywood’s old guard. Drawing on both the historical record and extensive new interviews with Hollywood insiders, Harris spins an engrossing tale of the collision between artistic ambition and studio politics, all set against the backdrop of the dramatic cultural upheaval of America in the ‘60s.
According to Harris, the Academy’s selection of Best Picture nominees in 1968 reflected the growing divisions among filmmakers about the direction Hollywood should take. Representing the traditionalists was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, an old-fashioned, brightly-lit soundstage production starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn—as well as Sidney Poitier, then the top box office draw in the country. In the wake of the enormous success of The Sound of Music, Hollywood powers also had high hopes for Doctor Doolittle, a big-budget musical starring My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison, along with a large ensemble cast of squirrels, cockatoos, apes, and giraffes.
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s younger generation was set on reinventing American cinema under the influence of European directors like Truffaut and Antonioni. When the bloody and ironic gangster film Bonnie and Clyde hit theatres, older moviegoers were put off by its tone and raw’ violence, while younger audiences found much to like in its humor and its anti-authoritarian leanings. Similarly, The Graduate—about a young man rebelling against the empty materialism of his parents—struck some members of that older generation as a direct assault on their way of life, while also resonating deeply with those who were coming of age in the late ‘60s.
Harris contends that the winning film on Oscar night essentially split the middle between the two camps. In the Heat of the Night, also starring Sidney Poitier, was in many respects a mainstream detective thriller. The film was unusual, however, for being shot on location and using a dark and shadowy color palette. And while In the Heat of the Night ends with a timid fantasy of racial tolerance—in which a racist sheriff learns the error of his ways—it also offers Poitier unprecedented room to openly express anger over the inhuman treatment his character has received. When a wealthy white murder suspect slaps Poitier in the face, Poitier hits him right back.
Although Harris makes much of Hollywood’s generational battles, he also takes care not to overstate his case when the facts do not fully support it. He is quick to point out that, however revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde may have been, its producer and star Warren Beatty was a product of the dying Hollywood studio star system. Also, Harris smartly avoids mythologizing the younger filmmakers for any kind of prescience or vision. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate did, indeed, capture the zeitgeist of the era—but the people who made them certainly hadn’t anticipated the upheaval of the late sixties when they started working on their projects back in 1963.
For all five films under discussion, Harris does a remarkable job of capturing the day-to-day business of making a movie, offering rare insight into both the creative labor of actors and directors and the backroom negotiations of producers and executives. Invaluably, Harris presents highly detailed accounts of the process of filmmaking—including an intimate reconstruction of the editing-room decisions that shaped the elaborate death scene at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, as well an insider’s view of the techniques Mike Nichols employed to coax a great performance out of nervous newcomer Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Harris also finds room for numerous entertaining anecdotes about disasters on the set of Doctor Doolittle—a production plagued both by the filmmakers’ inability to control the behavior of its hundreds of animal performers, and by frequent fits of enraged jealousy on the part of human lead Rex Harrison, who was so determined not to be shown up by any of his costars that he repeatedly demanded expensive rewrites and reshoots simply to reduce the size of their parts.
Pictures at a Revolution does suffer slightly from a lack of critical analysis of the movies under discussion—Harris offers endless information about their production and contemporary reception, but does not offer substantial or nuanced readings of the content or style of the films themselves. But that’s only a minor complaint, as the book’s main focus—and great success—comes instead in its vivid and extraordinarily well-researched portrait of Hollywood caught up in a moment of great cultural and creative change.