Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part I)

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.
  • That said, Harris does seem oddly fixated on a scene ultimately cut from the screenplay -- a "three-way" between Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and C.W. Moss (to be played by Michael J. Pollard). Truffaut or Godard might have had fun with that, but Arthur Penn, who eventually agreed to direct after turning down the project multiple times, thought it diluted the intensity of Bonnie and Clyde's relationship. It also would have unquestionably raised hackles from the MPAA and the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures, and there was already plenty to complain about. (Harris charts the influence -- and antiquated ideas -- of both groups masterfully.)
  • 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."
  • Jack Warner, sole head of Warner Brothers and Old Hollywood dinosaur by the time the 60s rolled around, half-heartedly gave the green-light to 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.
Next: a musical debacle, a studio's shameless Oscar-whoring, and a mighty ego named Rex....


Adam Zanzie said...

Holy smokes, Craig! I've noticed that Bonnie and Clyde has been getting a ton of recent blog attention (probably because of Dede Allen's death), but this is definitely the best I've seen yet.

It's pretty early in the morning so I promise I'll read more of this later... but did you notice that Ebert is tweeting about this? I envy you, man!

Unknown said...

I have been enjoying these pieces a great deal, first the Altman biography and now this. I knew about both of these books and can hopefully tackle them in the near future.

For me, while there were plenty of important and great films before 1967, it was the films starting with this year that most formed my tastes and sensibility when first getting interested in films.

"Bonnie & Clyde" I consider the most lasting of the four Best Picture nominees I have seen from that year. The editing rhythms, the acting styles and its depiction of violence has influenced so many filmmakers (here and abroad) for the following four decades.

aaronmeister said...

I read this book a few months ago and I loved the details through out. Its an important book and the stories on how these films were made are incredible.

I still need to check out Dr. Dolittle.

The Film Doctor said...

Impressive work, Craig. I wrote something on Bonnie and Clyde last year in relation to Pictures at a Revolution, but your post (like the one on Altman) is nicely thorough, and I like the way you tied in developments since then. I've often wondered exactly what was Beatty and Penn arguing about every day during the shoot in Texas. The answer would probably make for a great lesson in filmmaking technique.

Craig said...

Adam -- By complete coincidence, I watched "Bonnie and Clyde" the day of Allen's death. I'd wanted to see it again while reading Harris's book, focusing specifically on her editing. With Allen, Anne V. Coates, and Thelma Schoonmaker, what is it about these great female editors? Would they have been great directors in a less patriarchal Hollywood?

Steven -- Harris does a great job with the years leading up to 1967, namely the great "New Wave" pictures coming out of France, becoming hits in the States, and making the once powerful Production Code increasingly irrelevant. He also cites great performances during those years, like Rod Steiger's in "The Pawnbroker," and shows that the demarcation lines between Old and New Hollywood weren't always apparent, that actors like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda could talk the talk in both worlds.

Film Doc -- Apologies for missing your "Bonnie and Clyde" piece, or I certainly would have linked to it. As for your question about Beatty and Penn, I recall one lengthy argument over whether or not Clyde should finally be able to consummate his relationship with Bonnie. (Beatty won that one.) Overall, I got the sense that Beatty associates creativity with debating, and that Penn was one of the few directors who understood that.

aaronmeister -- I can't remember if I've ever seen the original "Dolittle." It can't be more entertaining than the making of it.

Details soon!

Jake said...


"With Allen, Anne V. Coates, and Thelma Schoonmaker, what is it about these great female editors? Would they have been great directors in a less patriarchal Hollywood?"

Well, editing of course used to be passed on to women because the patriarchal system didn't place much care in it so they designated it "woman's work." Of course, filmmakers came to realize that editing is the very foundation of the cinema as its own unique art form, as it is the only aspect of filmmaking unique to the medium. It's funny, then, how women had a massive hand in the creation of classics because they'd been placed by condescending males into what turned out to be the most important role in production. I love it when bigots and chauvinists get egg on their faces.

Justin Kownacki said...

Just wanted to say that, after reading your excellent summary of the Altman biography, I saw you'd covered this as well, so I just decided to buy the book and read it myself. Glad I did; it's one of the best books I've read in the past decade -- akin to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Thanks for the nudge.