A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: Forty Years Ago


I was maybe more in tune with the day's big hoopla with this review that ran in the Washington Post today:

PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris
The Penguin Press, 496 pp., $27.95

Oscar plays it safe. You can trust the Academy to pick a “Forrest Gump” over a “Pulp Fiction,” an “Ordinary People” over a “Raging Bull,” or a “Kramer vs. Kramer” over an “Apocalypse Now.”

Or a well-made, socially conscious melodrama like “In the Heat of the Night” over groundbreaking movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.” That’s part of the story that Mark Harris tells in his richly fascinating book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” which focuses on the five nominees for best picture in 1968 – the other two were “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Doctor Dolittle.”

The conventional way of writing about five movies would be to devote a section of the book to each. But Harris does something more difficult and far more illuminating: He weaves together the stories of how each movie was conceived, crafted, released, critiqued and received. He writes about the five or six years in which the filmmakers, some of them old pros and some of them rank novices, struggled with a studio system in collapse, an audience whose tastes and enthusiasms seemed wildly unpredictable, and a culture being transformed by volatile social and political forces.

A few figures dominate Harris’ narrative – writers Robert Benton, David Newman and Robert Towne; actor-producer Warren Beatty; producers Lawrence Turman, Stanley Kramer and Arthur P. Jacobs; studio heads Jack Warner and Richard Zanuck; directors Mike Nichols, Norman Jewison and Arthur Penn; actors Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Dustin Hoffman, Rod Steiger, Rex Harrison and Sidney Poitier. The book has what Hollywood publicists used to brag about: a cast of thousands.

Poitier figures in the stories of three of the movies – "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in which he acted, and "Doctor Dolittle," in which he was cast in a featured role until its chaotic filming led to his being written out of the script. He had become an unexpected star – in 1967, Harris tells us, “Box Office magazine … rated Poitier as the fifth biggest star in Hollywood, ahead of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. His drawing power was a shock to an industry that had, until recently, treated his employment in movies as something akin to an act of charity.”

But at the same time, a “rift had grown between Poitier and a younger, more militant black cultural intelligentsia” that mocked him as an Uncle Tom. The author of one of these denunciations, Clifford Mason, now admits that he “jumped all over Sidney because I wanted him to be Humphrey Bogart when he was really Cary Grant,” but he persists in his criticism of the “role that Sidney always played – the black person with dignity who worries about the white people’s problems – you don’t play that part over and over unless you’re comfortable with that kind of suffering.”

Racial tensions and the protest against the war in Vietnam played a large role in shaping these movies. Harris, a writer and former editor for Entertainment Weekly, not only demonstrates how the filmmakers responded to social and political change, but he also has a working knowledge of the film industry that allows him to elaborate on how a colossal flop like “Doctor Dolittle” came about (and how it could be nominated for a best picture Oscar over better-received movies such as “In Cold Blood,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Two for the Road”). Its producers were inspired by the smash success of “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music.”

“Historically,” Harris comments, “the only event more disruptive to the industry’s ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic.” Imitation was the first impetus behind “Doctor Dolittle” – Alan Jay Lerner, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were the talents the producers sought for the film, but they wound up with only one of them. The panic came later – a good deal, but not all, of it caused by the irascible and demanding Harrison, whom Harris presents as a man filled with "anger and paranoia." Among other things, Harrison was an anti-Semite, which led to confrontations with his co-star Anthony Newley, whom he disparaged "sometimes to his face, as a 'Jewish comic' or a 'cockney Jew.' "

Harris has created what seems likely to be one of the classics of popular film history, useful to dedicated students of film and cultural historians, and also to trivia buffs. (Did you know that Beatty’s original choices to play Bonnie and Clyde were his sister, Shirley MacLaine, and Bob Dylan?) Harris writes with a wit that’s sly, not show-offy. He can encapsulate the woes of shooting “Doctor Dolittle” in four words: “The rhinoceros got pneumonia.” And he can slip in a bit of insider humor with a reference to Newley’s then-wife, Joan Collins, who “reentered the Hollywood social scene she loved with the vigor of an Olympic athlete” – the syntax leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the prepositional phrase modifies “reentered” or “loved.”

Indeed, almost the only complaint about “Pictures at a Revolution” is that, except for an “Epilogue” that briefly sums up the later careers of the major figures, it ends at the Oscar ceremony. You want Harris to go on, to talk about how the success of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” also caused the studios to resort to their old habits of “imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic.”

And there were other consequences: “Kramer vs. Kramer” now seems like little more than a well-made domestic drama, while the film that it defeated for the best picture in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s audacious mess of a movie, “Apocalypse Now,” is regarded as a classic. “Kramer vs. Kramer” also won Oscars for its writer and director, Robert Benton, one of the writers of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and for Dustin Hoffman, who had become a movie star in “The Graduate.” In eleven years, Benton and Hoffman had gone from being icons of a film revolution to pillars of the establishment. That’s the way things work in Hollywood. If you can’t beat ’em, assimilate ’em.

Slick Willie

A busy Sunday. First, the Dallas Morning News published my review of Willie Brown's new memoir:

BASIC BROWN: My Life and Our Times
By Willie Brown
Simon & Schuster, 332 pp., $26

When you’ve lived in Texas, politics in almost any other state seems tame. That’s true even of California, despite the occasional movie star turned politico. Which may be why the two most colorful politicians in recent California history came from Texas.

The first was Jesse Unruh, a corpulent good ol’ boy known as “Big Daddy,” who ruled the California State Assembly as speaker for eight years in the 1960s, and became a power broker in the national Democratic Party. Unruh grew up in a sharecropper family in the Panhandle town of Swenson and made his way west to Los Angeles as a teenager. A brilliant manipulator of people and money, Unruh is famous for two statements, one of them “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” The other, quoted here in an expurgated version, is his advice to his fellow legislators: “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, eat their food, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.”

And then there’s the Machiavelli of Mineola, Willie Lewis Brown Jr., who approvingly quotes both of those statements by Unruh in “Basic Brown,” his engaging and sometimes outrageous memoir. Mr. Brown was born in segregation as well as poverty. His mother, the granddaughter of a slave, worked as a cook for a Dallas family, 80 miles away; she came home to Mineola only on weekends. In 1951, at the age of 17, Mr. Brown went to San Francisco to live with his uncle. Thirteen years later, he was elected to the California State Assembly, where Unruh became one of his acknowledged mentors. Most politicians, Mr. Brown says, “just want to do deals. I learned from Unruh that you could shape the game itself.” He followed in Unruh’s steps and became speaker in 1980, serving in that position until 1995. In 1996 he was elected mayor of San Francisco, and served until 2004.

Mr. Brown, one of the most prominent African-American politicians, tells us proudly, “I have never run for an assembly seat in a district that was more than 15 percent black.” But he is typically shrewd about the role of race in politics, observing that “as a black politician, you’re constantly having to spend energy to integrate yourself into the minds of white power brokers as a real, pure force of politics. You also have to spend as much time reintegrating yourself into the black community.” It’s a dynamic one can readily witness in the campaign of Barack Obama.

“Basic Brown” was compiled by San Francisco newspaper columnist P.J. Corkery from months of Saturday morning breakfast-table conversations. But Mr. Corkery is little more than an amanuensis: The voice here is unmistakably – for anyone who has witnessed him over the years – that of Willie Brown, right down to the references to himself as “Willie Brown,” which he does as frequently as Sen. Robert Dole used to invoke “Bob Dole.”

The epithet for Mr. Brown has always been “flamboyant.” Certainly, few American politicians have ever flaunted it the way he did: the $5,000 Italian suits from high-end clothier Wilkes Bashford, the Porsche that he used to make the 90-mile trip between San Francisco and Sacramento in about an hour (after making sure the Highway Patrol knew his license-plate number), the string of beautiful girlfriends. (He and his wife have been married for 50 years, but separated for 25.)

With visibility comes vulnerability, but “Basic Brown” is all about how his opponents – from the good-government organization Common Cause to the Republicans (and some Democrats) to the FBI – never laid a glove on him. It’s a lively saga with an underpinning of seriousness. For Mr. Brown, who now runs his own institute on politics and public service, essentially a consultancy for politicians, believes in making government work – even if you have to ignore, bend or break a few rules to do so.

Some of the book’s most entertaining anecdotes have to do with his mayoralty, trying to solve the myriad problems of an often fractious city. Those on the right who seem to think that liberals move in totalitarian lockstep apparently don’t know liberal San Francisco, where no cause lacks a constituency and at least two factions that oppose it. Mr. Brown tells how he succeeded in achieving a modicum of consensus, but also why he occasionally failed to solve problems that range from the treatment of the homeless to the demands of the 49ers for a new football stadium.

All politics is local, they say, and some of the political maneuvers in “Basic Brown” may not engage readers outside of California. But the book is full of delights not only for political junkies and policy wonks but also for the general reader. There’s a very funny chapter, for example, on dressing for political success, in which he critiques a few of his fellow politicos, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “While she never looks sloppy, she sometimes looks hit or miss, as if she were caught between seasons.” (You can see here why Mr. Brown was so popular with the gay community: He was fabulous, and he can dish.)

Politicians worry about their legacies, and “Basic Brown” is its author’s attempt to preserve his own. But Willie Brown’s legacy consists not so much in his achievements – which were substantial – as it does of his legend. He succeeded in having it his own way, and becoming what he set out to be: “a real, pure force of politics.”
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Brown's flamboyance is always noted. His shrewd good sense? Not so much. So here's a bit of an interview with Brown by Charlie Rose: