Monday, July 21, 2008

Pictures At A Revolution - Book Review

Back when I worked at DVD Planet, there were always discussions about creating a ‘Classics’ section. Customers always wanted to know where our classics were and although we had our AFI Top 100 on one wall, everyone thought we should have a separate area as well. When I was asked how I would classify a classic, I said “Any great movie before 1967.”

“Why 1967?” I was asked.

“That was the year Bonnie and Clyde came out,” I replied.

That film along with a few others, helped to usher in the ‘New Hollywood’ and my favorite era of film, the 70’s. Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway,Robert Towne, Gene Hackman, as well as Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Hal Ashby and many others were all key in making the five movies nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards. The stories of these productions make up Mark Harris’ Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.

The book starts in 1963 with David Newman and Robert Benton coming up with an idea for a movie that would become the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde. From there, Harris interweaves the narration through Beatty, The Graduate, 20th Century Fox and Doctor Dolittle, Sidney Poitier and both In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Harris interviews almost of the people involved with the five films and they open up very candidly about the work, the times and the relationships.

For those interested in the any of the films or the stars, the book is certainly an entertaining read. It moves along at a steady pace, bouncing easily between the stories about the mostly harried shoots of all of the movies. None of the films came about easily, although some of them had deeper pockets than others to help them along with the bumps in the road. However, perhaps it’s my overgeeked brain, but for any casual film fan, whom I assume the book was written for, is probably familiar with most of the stories in the book. Whether it’s the beginning of Beatty’s near megalomaniacal producer’s ego or Hoffman direction to book a room as if he were buying condoms, most of the stories here are retreads of Hollywood legend. Faye Dunaway was flightly, Rex Harrison was an ass and both studios and filmmakers were looking to ‘push the envelope’ in terms of censorship.

However, where the book got interesting for me was in the story of both of the Poitier films. It was enlightening to read about the constant conflict of color, consciousness, creativity and criticism that circled Sidney throughout his career in the 60’s. As a minority, I could only imagine what he endured as a black icon but to discover what he faced from people within his own community was truly disheartening. Poitier struggled to find his place as an artist and an activist under the barrage of scathing remarks that he was doing very little as either or more importantly, that his weaknesses in one directly affected the other. The only comparable comparison for me is that of Tiger Woods, who dominates his field but falls under the occasional scorn of the black community that he simply ‘doesn’t do enough’ for black people, as though breaking through the glass ceiling of a sport once reserved for ‘whites only’ is not enough for one man in his lifetime. Poitier did not want to be Harry Belafonte or Martin Luther King or Jackie Robinson. Throughout all his struggles to get In The Heat of the Night made, to work through a role that battled back against stereotypes and to carry over that to the Herculean task of acting opposite Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in what would be Tracy’s final film, I gained a whole new respect for the man. And at the end of the book, when he is quoted as saying, “I made not have made peace with the times, but I have made my peace with myself,” it speaks volumes to the content of his character.


Phillip said...

I remember those conversations. I agree whole heartedly since the 70s is my favorite time for film, and Bonnie and Clyde started it all. Sounds like a good book I will have to check out. My brother has always said that his favorite actor to work with has been Poitier, simply because of what he stood for but also how incredibly nice and humble he is in person and to see him act up close was incredible. A true legend. I feel like watching a Decade Under the Influence again.

Michael J. Mendez said...

For sure. Sidney hasn't even made a movie in years, presumably since he's been busy standing up to cancer and things like that. All I'm saying is that Morgan Freeman is getting very busy by himself playing all those wise sage roles.