Any serious or casual movie buff should read this book. It interweaves the
stories of five movies nominated for Best Picture Oscar in 1967: "In the Heat of the
Night", "The Graduate", "Bonnie and Clyde", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", and -
most improbably - "Dr. Dolittle". These disparate films, with their long, tortured
development and production histories vividly described, represent a watershed moment
in the history of the US film industry. The old Studio System, dominated by moguls
and super-producers like Jack Warner, Joe E. Levine, Stanley Kramer, Walter Mirisch,
and the like, was tottering on its last legs, consumed with turning out expensive
"road-show" musicals and epics like "Cleopatra", "The Sound of Music," and "The
Bible" - which, if successful, could put a studio in fine financial condition. But
if they failed, which they began to do with shocking regularity in the mid-60s, they
could break a studio and end careers.
"Guess/Dinner" and "Dr. Dolittle" represented
this Old Hollywood model in 1967. "Dinner" was the last teaming of the legendary
screen duo of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who died shortly after filming
was completed. It was glossy, tame, and relentlessly old-fashioned despite its
"risky" subject matter of an interracial marriage. Despite critical drubbing, it was
a huge hit. "Dr. Dolittle" conversely was a ghastly flop, attempting to bring an
aging series of children's books to the big screen with a big splashy budget and the
musical-comedy star of the moment Rex Harrison. None of it worked for a minute, the
reviews were savage and the kids stayed away, but that didn't prevent its studio
from buying its way into the Oscar race.
But real change was in the air. Warren
Beatty, then a successful young star, tried his hand at producing a film that would
translate the concepts of the French New Wave to American audiences. "Bonnie and
Clyde" was very stylish, hip, and youth-oriented despite its shocking - to audiences
of the time - bloody violence. Beatty sold the concept to Warner Brothers, despite
Jack Warner's antipathy to the concept and the final result. Even though Warner did
their best to bury the film after its initial release, word of mouth and Beatty's
relentless salesmanship eventually made the film a must-see hit and one of the most
talked about and written about films of the last 50 years.
Coming alongside it was
"The Graduate", an edgy anti-establishment film based on a novel by Charles Webb and
directed by Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols, and starring an unknown New York actor
named Dustin Hoffman. The risks Nichols took in a script by Buck Henry and casting
Hoffman paid off in a huge way, resulting in another iconic masterpiece.
somewhere in between was Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night", a tense story
of a black detective (Sidney Poitier) helping a racist Southern sheriff (Rod
Steiger) solve a small town murder.
Poitier, then the only African-American movie
star with proven box office clout, also starred as the saintly groom-to-be in "Guess
Who's Coming to Dinner" the same year, but was not nominated for an Oscar for either
one. Poitier was stuck between his uncomfortable role as a movie star expected to
present the best features of his race to traditional white audiences still not used
to seeing black leading men, and the high expectations of younger and black
audiences who wanted a stronger, rougher, less idealized black man to be an advocate
for civil rights. Poitier's dilemma is a centerpiece of Harris' book.
The book is
meticulously researched, and Harris interviewed most of the surviving principals.
The narrative makes very clear how agonizing making a film can be, and how perilous
the process is at every step: artistic and financial compromises must be made, years
and scripts go by, stars come in and drop out, and the whole thing can fall apart at
any minute. The determination of producers and directors to see the process through
is truly an act of love and faith.
Harris' book serves as a prequel of sorts to
"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" which chronicles the "second golden age" of American
filmmaking in the 1970s, before blockbusters and comic book retreads destroyed what
was left of the studio system. The mid-1960s was a time of transition that laid the
groundwork for directors (auteurs) like Coppola, Altman, Ashby, Scorsese, Hopper,
Friedkin, Cimino, and others to create enduring films outside the Hollywood factory
system. Harris captures this change with a wonderfully written history of a
Hollywood long gone.