2008, Books

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) by Mark Harris

This is an excellent and enthralling survey of the five films nominated for Best Picture for the 40th Academy Awards, a symbolic moment in the history of Hollywood when both “new Hollywood” and “old Hollywood” films were up for Best Picture. The movies are Bonnie and ClydeDoctor Dolittle (seriously), The GraduateGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night.

The book uses the stories of the making of each of these five movies – from conception to the Oscars ceremony – to tell the story of a time of rapid change in Hollywood, as the studio system crumbled (or appeared to crumble) and the Production Code became irrelevant. Harris is an excellent writer and makes each of these stories – including that of Doctor Dolittle – very compelling, by focusing on the characters involved in conceiving and shepherding the films to completion. There are interviews with many of the participants who were still living when Harris wrote the book as well as archival quotes from those who had long since died. The book is full of fascinating anecdotes about most of the people involved in each of the films, as well as lots detail about how movies operated back then, much of which I didn’t know. It’s also a real page turner.

I don’t really have much to say in criticism, except that I think I probably like Harris more as a historian than a critic. I haven’t read his criticism but at least some of what he has to say about these movies doesn’t necessarily ring true for my memories of them. (I should point out I have only seen four of these films and I haven’t seen any of them in years.)

But really, this book is just a delight. If you are at all interested in the history of American movies, it’s pretty much mandatory reading. One of the more enjoyable books I’ve read recently.


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