Friday, November 21, 2014

A revolution at the movies

As in the case with most Academy Awards ceremonies, there was less symbolism to be extracted from the evening than morning-after analysts might have imagined, and even that applied only to the Academy's taste in movies, not to the country's.
Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

The above quotation, found near the end of Pictures at a Revolution, a fascinating 2008 book about the five movies nominated for best picture in 1968, seems like an odd thing for Mark Harris to say, given that his entire book focuses on the symbolism of those five movies and the 1968 Academy Awards. His thesis is that what he calls New Hollywood began to take over from Old Hollywood that year. All five movies nominated -- In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle -- were American-made, following a long period of British dominance at awards ceremonies. Younger, liberal, independent film makers, greatly influenced by European directors, began to replace older, conservative studio heads.

The ceremony in 1968, which was delayed by the death of Martin Luther King, reflected the struggle of the two camps, according to Harris. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde very much represented New Hollywood, while Doctor Doolittle, the only one of the five films to never break even, represented Old Hollywood. In the Heat of the Night, which won the award for best picture that year, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, were mostly Old Hollywood, but they both starred Sidney Poitier and both dealt with race relations, a timely topic even if the latter film was considered out of date by the time of its release.

Harris goes into exhaustive detail about the making of all five of those movies. Much of his information may be gathered from other sources, yet much of it is also based on his interviews with those involved in the productions. Among the tidbits he shares:

-- French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both considered directing Bonnie and Clyde. Instead Arthur Penn made the movie and got a nomination for his efforts. It may be a good thing Godard didn't take the job because he wanted to make the movie, set in Texas and surrounding states, in New Jersey in January.

-- Among actresses considered for the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate were Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, Patricia Neal and Ava Gardner. Anne Bancroft ultimately got the part. And the Simon and Garfunkel song Here's to You Mrs. Robinson was originally written to mention Mrs. Roosevelt.

-- Spencer Tracy's monologue at the end of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner took six days to shoot. Tracy was so ill at at the time he could work just a few hours each day. He died before the movie was released.

--Bosley Crowther, the longtime New York Times movie critic, lost his job because he panned Bonnie and Clyde again and again and again. He loved Cleopatra. Meanwhile, Pauline Kael got her job as film critic at The New Yorker because of an article she wrote praising Bonnie and Clyde.

Oliver!, made in Great Britain, won the Academy Award for best picture the following year, but it was the last British film to win until 1982 (Chariots of Fire). New Hollywood had taken over.

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