Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Pictures at a Revolution" (2008): Bonnie & Clyde meet Dr. Dolittle (in the heat of the night)

With the holidays near, Hollywood likes to pile on the glitter in hopes of big year-end box office receipts, and thoughts of Oscar nominations can be distant ones. Sequels, stars, and comedies dominate the awards these days -- big box-office is good business -- but in the past Oscar has outdone himself, managing to be genuinely exciting, frustrating and anachronistic all at the same time.

Mark Harris's look at the five pictures nominated for Best Picture in 1968 is a reminder that even movies were not immune from the shocks of the decade, or its ironies. (The ceremony itself was postponed by Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4.) That year, Sidney Poitier was voted the number one box-office star in a poll of theater owners, but received no nominations himself -- even though his films
In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and both of the films' directors, were in the running. At the same time, both of those movies were being considered out-of-date by an increasingly sophisticated younger audience, who made unexpected smash hits of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.

The best song of the year went to "Talk to the Animals" from that certified behemoth of a musical, Dr. Dolittle -- the fifth nominated Best Picture, which had a Sidney Poitier connection of its own. But more of that in a moment.

Despite a title too long for any marquee,
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood is 400 pages of catty intrigue, missed opportunities, and lucky breaks that capture the confusion of the times as well as the resistance of the old Hollywood guard to American movies influenced by the new wave of European filmmakers. Race, murder, and generational confusion were suddenly topics for discussion, just as old taboos were being broken and outmoded rules discarded. Finally, in the summer of 1968, the old Production Code was done away with all together, making these five American films, produced in 1967, the last of a kind nominated by the Academy.

The book itself is presented in a kind of new-wave film style, without chapter titles or even a table of contents to guide the reader. Readers, like filmgoers to Antonioni, should be prepared: Harris confounds expectations of any conventional chronology. Confusion and uncertainty is the key here -- he jumps in with an
Esquire writer's viewing of Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and we're off.

(Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde)

It's an exciting way to present a sprawling wealth of facts, opinions, and interviews. Harris did a lot of digging; there are 40 pages of bibliography and chapter notes. His main focus in the narrative, rightly, is on The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde which, given their impact on film history and audience expctation, makes all the detail more interesting. Robert Benton, that writer from Esquire with the Truffaut fascination, eventually teams up with David Newman -- and by the end of 1963 they actually get one conversation away from having Truffaut himself direct their original treatment of Bonnie and Clyde.

For film fans, however, this approach to film history can be equally frustrating. Open the book at any page and you'll find something fairly interesting: Warren Beatty tried to get Stanley Kubrick to direct
What's New, Pussycat. (Thankfully, Kubrick was already working on Dr. Strangelove.) But the interwoven stories of five separate films can be inherently distracting -- I first tried to follow the disastrous history of Dr. Dolittle over the course of the book and finally realized I would have to read about Dustin Hoffman's shyness, the studio politics of Jack Warner, and Rod Steiger's southern accent as well:

With his big gut hanging over a sheriff's belt, his yellow-tinted glasses, and his black chukka boots, Steiger looked the part and was living it as well, eating, walking, thinking and talking like Gillespie around the clock. He had worked out a ripe, flavorful southern accent that he used both on and off camera. When script supervisor Meta Rebner, a Mississippian who, as the former mistress of William Faulkner came by her knowledge of dialect honestly, would tell him, "Mistah Steigah, in the South we pronounce ouah t's. You may say whatevah you like, but we pronounce ouah t's!" he'd growl, "Nobody's gonna tell me how I talk!"

(Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night)

Steiger won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a bigoted Southern sheriff. Pictures at a Revolution reveals directors, scriptwriters, actors, producers scrambling to find someone -- anyone -- willing to make their films a reality, and making some difficult choices.

Mike Nichols turns down Robert Redford for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate because he "couldn't play a loser." The role of Mrs. Robinson was equally hard to cast; Ava Gardner courted Nichols about "his Graduate thing" in an old-Hollywood display at the Regency Hotel in New York. Harris remarks that, although she was only 43, Gardner "already seemed like a relic of a fading Hollywood universe." Nichols remembers: "She sat at a little French desk with a
telephone, she went through every movie star cliche. She said, 'all right, let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody ... no, I just can't.' I never forgot it. She really got to me. But obviously, she couldn't be Mrs. Robinson." Nichols even tried to approach Doris Day, but her husband wouldn't even show her the script. The part went to Anne Bancroft as the "older woman," who at 35 was only five years older than Dustin Hoffman.

With many Hollywood stories, the tales of disaster can be as fascinating as the successes. Dr. Dolittle seemed doomed from the start; Rex Harrison, known for his displays of temperment and binge drinking, demanded constant rewriting of the script, tried to replace the songwriter Leslie Bricusse halfway through production with Alan Jay Lerner, his own original choice, then refused to sing the songs written for him.

As the production and promotion costs soared past $29 million -- Harris estimates final cost
s in 2007 dollars at an "astonishing" $190 million dollars -- nothing went right; the menagerie of animals trained in California were refused entry into England for quarantine, and had to be replaced and trained. Then, it rained. Every day. For three weeks.

At one point, Harrison presented the film's producers with an ultimatum: "entertainer" Sammy Davis Jr. (already contracted) had to be be replaced with ... yes, Sidney Poitier. Poitier said yes, not knowing Davis had already accepted; there was an awkward meeting between Davis, Poitier and the producers backstage where Davis was performing on Broadway in Golden Boy, followed by dinner afterwards. The director, Richard Fleischer, watched as Davis "had his dream blown to smithereens." Harris describes what happened next:

Davis, understandably hurt and angry, told Jacobs he intended to make the incident public, go to the NAACP, and sue Harrison personally. By the next morning Poitier had heard what happened and changed his mind about playing Bumpo.
Not a problem, nor a missed opportunity for the non-singing, non-dancing Poitier: the role was rewritten as a non-singing, non-dancing character. In addition, the character's name was changed, and neither Poitier nor Davis played the role in the end. So it goes. In one of those spectacular, old-Hollywood twists of fate, however, Sammy Davis sang "Talk to the Animals" -- the Academy's choice for Best Song of 1968, from Dr. Dolittle -- at the Oscar ceremony in all his Vegas-glitzy, Rat Pack hipster style. Presumably, Rex Harrison was not in attendance.

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