(Penguin Press, 496 pages, $27.95)
By Mark Harris
Most years the range of Academy Award best picture nominees has little to tell us about the state of the art, let alone the state of the nation, but in 1968, the five choices offered a view of Hollywood that mirrored the groundswell taking over the country and the industry. Hollywood, run by entrenched old-timers, was about to be overtaken by a new and dissenting sensibility, a younger generation alert to the changes of the ’60s and anxious to capture them on film. Mark Harris’ deeply researched account of the diverging fortunes of these movies en route to Oscar night turns this elegant premise into one of the most fascinating insider histories of Hollywood since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
The movies were Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the logistical nightmare that was Dr. Doolittle—offering what Harris calls “a five-snapshot collage of the American psyche as represented by its popular culture.” In Harris’ account, the first two were created largely by cynical, skeptical New Yorkers—Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry, and Arthur Penn and writers Robert Benton and David Newman—with no pre-existing stake in Hollywood and little deference to its culture. But almost by accident, they laid out a template for the new generation of directors of the ’70s. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night was a transitional film about racism, updating traditional Hollywood liberalism in a tense thriller.
The old guard was poorly represented: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in Harris’ opinion, demonstrated that the well-intentioned, mid-century paternalistic liberalism of producer-director Stanley Kramer had reached a point of creative stasis. And what to say of Dr. Doolittle, which he characterizes as “a universally dismissed children’s musical that most observers felt had bought its way into the final five.” Producer Arthur P. Jacobs is said to have energetically bribed and browbeaten the smaller craft unions with epic steak-and-martini dinners.
Tracing each movie from the germ of an idea through Oscar night, Harris retells some tales recounted elsewhere, but he has managed to interview almost every single surviving figure anew, conferring freshness upon familiar stories while adding countless new ones. So we glimpse Dustin Hoffman signing up for unemployment straight after completing The Graduate; Mike Nichols somehow winning every creative battle (“I was kind of an asshole,” he admits); Warren Beatty blindly feeling his way toward the proper mood and tone for Bonnie and Clyde; and Doolittle star Rex Harrison, aged, alcoholic and insecure, indulging in grotesque anti-Semitism at the expense of his co-star Anthony Newley (“You cockney Jew!”). Dr. Doolittle was the most troubled of the five productions, but really, all the movies were nightmares to complete. Mastering a wealth of detail, Harris takes the reader on a thrilling journey culminating at the Oscar ceremony, which was delayed for 48 hours because of the assassination of Martin Luther King. The result is a landmark of the genre.
Review written by John Patterson.