Pictures at a Revolution (Review)

Mark Harris (Penguin)

Apr 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The most historic Academy Awards ceremony might well be the one in 1968. The Oscars that year — for the best picture of 1967 — were, in their way, as revealing about the changes sweeping America as the Chicago Democratic Convention. The nominees were two radical takes on American culture, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, as well as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and Doctor Dolittle. “Suddenly, the 1968 Oscar race had become a referendum on something more than the quality of the five movies,” writes Mark Harris in his excellent Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. “Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate … were instantly understood by young moviegoers as mirrors on the counterculture, even if they weren’t quite products of it.” Against Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were two movies starring Hollywood’s one true black movie star, Sidney Poitier, that tried to address the nation’s racial unrest. Heat, the Oscar winner, was a genre movie — a murder mystery — set in the Old South, where Poitier as a northern detective has to work with a wary police chief (Rod Steiger). It was both safely traditional and maybe ahead of its time. Harris sensitively explores its pros and cons. In the even-then archaic Dinner — from Stanley Kramer, the director of earnestly liberal, social-problem-oriented films like Judgment at Nuremberg and On the Beach — Poitier was a brilliant physician who improbably needed the approval of his white fiancee’s parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) to marry her. It was Tracy’s last film. Mass audiences loved all four nominees, a major difference from today when niche “indie” films use Best Picture nominations to try to find a larger audience. But the fifth, Doctor Dolittle, was an awful — and awfully expensive — musical that nobody liked. It had gotten nominated, Harris writes, only through the political clout of its producer, Arthur Jacobs, and studio, 20th Century Fox. Grade: A