With only one good movie so far this year (thank you, Ghost Writer) and only one likely contender on the horizon (helllloooo, Mother!), I've managed lately to catch up on my reading. Better than sitting through bad movies is reading about good ones, especially when the book is as engrossing as Pictures at a Revolution (2008).
I avoided Pictures when it hit the shelves because I thought I knew its premise too well: 1967 was a watershed year for American cinema, with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate pushing the envelope onscreen and stirring debate offscreen. To his credit, though, author Mark Harris is interested in more than just the 'Birth of the New Hollywood' of his title. His book is really about the clash between the New Hollywood and the Old Hollywood as evinced by the five Best Picture nominees that year. It's about how the movies that change the industry are rarely the ones that win awards.
Rather than approach each of his five subjects separately, Harris deftly weaves the story of each production together. For clarity, however, let's take them one by one.
Bonnie and Clyde
- Plenty of credit is given to "the boys," screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, who wanted to recreate the American gangster genre (which had long ago seen better days) in the style of the Nouvelle Vague. Their dream director was one of the French New Wave's leaders, Francois Truffaut, and they almost got him.
- Truffaut's on-again, off-again relationship with Bonnie and Clyde was frustrating, but did help Newman and Benton, who had never written a script before, shape their approach of blending comedy and violence not only within the same movie but within many individual scenes . "Of all the scripts I have turned down in the last five years," Truffaut wrote to them, "Bonnie and Clyde is the best...." Still, his heart had long been set on making Fahrenheit 451 his English-language debut.
- Nevertheless, Truffaut also helped Newman and Benton attract the interest of, first, Jean-Luc Godard, and then Warren Beatty. Godard's conceptualization was ultimately too wacky (four weeks of shooting in New Jersey -- substituting for the Dust Bowl! -- with a French actress as one of the stars). Beatty, on the other hand, was an ambitious young actor struggling to prove himself more than a pretty-boy and a pain-in-the-ass, and ultimately succeeded in negating one of those impressions.
- Harris brings Beatty to life more convincingly than anyone I've read. He focuses on Beatty's intelligence and drive and vision to be a producer back when actors had little to no say over their careers. He also refreshingly couldn't care less about Beatty's womanizing: whereas Peter Biskind leaves a trail of drool over every paragraph on the subject, Mark Harris briefly mentions and then drops it.
- Beatty had worked with Penn once before, on the flop Mickey One. They argued throughout the production, but Beatty enjoyed their arguments, saw them as boons to creativity. "Let's promise to have at least one argument every day," he told Penn shortly before filming began on Bonnie and Clyde. Not a problem.
- Penn was reluctant to direct Bonnie and Clyde because he had just made The Chase, an unsuccessful crime picture with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He finally assented after looking beyond the script's romanticism and finding a story about socioeconomic issues -- "about the agricultural nature of the country." He also knew that however heated his disagreements with Beatty might be, that Beatty would never take the movie away from him.
- Harris conveys Penn's intentions quite well, but he errs in describing an early scene where Clyde "hands a gun to a black farmhand and allows him to shoot out the window of a foreclosed house," suggesting "an alliance against the Man that crossed racial lines." Actually, Clyde offers the gun to the white former owner of the house, who then hands it to the black man.
- It's amusing nowadays to hear gripes about the movie's historical inaccuracy, since accuracy was never one of the filmmakers' objectives. In truth, Bonnie and Clyde is a fascinating amalgam of authentic settings (shot on location in rural Texas, as was Newman and Benton's original intent) and 60s attitudes, attires (note Faye Dunaway's trend-setting berets) and mores.
- Robert Towne, who would go on, it seems, to script-doctor many of the best movies of the 70s (before writing a few of them himself, namely Chinatown), was signed on by his pal Beatty to perform surgical procedures on Bonnie and Clyde. Most crucially, Towne enhanced the structure of the film. In the original script, for example, the kidnapping of the undertaker (played by Gene Wilder) came after the sequence where Bonnie visits her mother. Towne put the comical undertaker scene before the somber passage with Bonnie's mother, letting the mood gradually turn darker, foreshadowing the principals' deaths.
- Harris offers heaps of praise for editor Dede Allen (who passed away last week), suggesting that while her cross-cutting in the robbery sequences and the apocalyptic climax are justly famous, it was her focus on character that made the movie work. "Allen knew just how long she could hold a shot of Beatty to reveal the insecurity beneath Clyde's preening; she seemed to grasp instinctively that sudden cuts to Dunaway in motion would underscore the jagged, jumpy spirit of Bonnie Parker," he writes. "And Allen cut Bonnie and Clyde with an eye and ear for the accelerating pace of the story, making the building of its panicky momentum her priority."
- Bonnie and Clyde, but never understood what Beatty and Penn saw in the project and hated the finished product. (Sidebar: Harris notes that Warner Bros. was, during Warner's reign, infamous for making terrible films.) One of my favorite passages in the book is Penn's anecdote about Beatty trying to explain to Jack Warner that the movie was an homage to classic Warner Brothers gangster pictures, and Warner replying, "What the fuck's an homage?"
- Nevertheless, Bonnie and Clyde may have been saved by, of all things, the Six Days' War. Israel's victory made Warner so magnanimous he vowed to release every film that had recently completed production, even the ones he loathed.
- Pauline Kael's passionate, 7,000 word defense of the movie is oft-cited as having been a rescue mission, but actually she "was uncharacteristically late to the fray," according to Harris. Kael's piece helped her win a permanent gig at The New Yorker, but it was Joe Morgenstern's about-face in Newsweek -- initially panning the film, then admitting he was wrong -- that turned the critical tide.
- Missing the boat completely was Bosley Crowther, old-guard critic for the New York Times. Harris does a nice job humanizing Crowther, frequently regarded these days as a fusty butt of jokes. (Okay, maybe a quick jab for hailing Cleopatra a masterpiece.) Crowther wrote no less than four pieces condemning Bonnie and Clyde, revealing him as out-of-touch with the paper's growing young readership and eventually dismissed. Often unremarked is, in 1977, he would reverse many of his original opinions of the film.
- Bonnie and Clyde did decent business, all things considered, with a limited initial release in 1967. In early 1968, following the film's ten Oscar nominations, Warner Bros. (at Beatty's incessant urging) took the unprecedented step of rereleasing the film. It was then that Bonnie and Clyde became a smash and the frontrunner for Best Picture.