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Explore a time of change and not just in Hollywood!
on 14 March 2008
Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood is traced through the events that lead to the production and nomination of "In the Heat of the Night", "Bonnie & Clyde", "Doctor Doolittle", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "The Graduate" for the best picture in the Academy Awards Ceremony of 1967. As you read it you become painlessly enmeshed in the practical nuts and bolts of movie making as well as the political, social and technological changes affecting their production and distribution. It is clearly based on meticulous research and interviews so you get both the contemporary take on things and the older and perhaps wiser reflections on events of many of the main characters.
The context is that Hollywood in the mid 60's was still mainly organised as factory-studios with the exception of United Artists that was a publisher-distributor (a producer put a creative package together and agree costs and profits and UA marketed and distributed.) But the whole system was in reality the walking dead. Before the mid 50's back to the 30's 5 of the 8 big studios also controlled the theatres. This link was broken by a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that required exhibition to be separate from distribution-production. This system had allowed the studios to do block booking which was usually a package of 5 films- one good and the rest a range of A and B stinkers. It was this practice that the judgement had ruled on. The solution was seen a divorcement which RKO as one of the weaker studio had jumped on for its own advantages so forcing a chain reaction of separation. Ironically, it was the first to be broken up by an outside conglomerate, stripped of its film assets and finally came out of the movie industry completely.
The studio's economic model was churning out colour, bright light big screen westerns, war and sex-comedies (think John Wayne, Doris Day) and the occasional musical aimed at families. TV was seen as the big competitor and a destroyer of its mass market so they resisted allowing films being distributed to TV. Directors would even sue them because the commercial breaks were affecting the artistic balance of the film. The big earner in this economic model was to have a road movie. This was a film that would open in the big theatres with booked seats charging above average prices and would only be released to the next range of theatres when the income started to fall. In this way a film could be an income stream for 2 years. However in the 60's the big road movie had been the Sound of Music so the studios were falling over to produce the next big expensive musical most of which were to be box office turkeys and become the final nail in the coffin for the studio-factory system.
Another factor in this light fare was the aftermath of McCarthyism with the Studios steering away from anything political despite the obvious major social revolutions taking place due to the Civil Rights movement, the growing anti war movement and the baby boom generational cultural revolutions. The production code also imposed self censorship and meant that films were increasingly at best out of touch or at worse reactionary. For example, afro-Americans appeared in films as servants and nowhere behind the scenes with the exception of Sidney Poiter as the "good Negro" had which itself reflected the racism of the time of which Sidney Poiter was fully aware.
Yet by the 70's this whole economic model had changed. All the studios had become distributor-producers with close links to TV' production and distribution. They were all on they way of being absorbed into conglomerates. The summer blockbuster had arrived, and franchises (think Bond, Jaws, Planet of the Apes, StarTrek) were integral to profits. The key market was no longer families but the 15-21's, censorship was replaced with ratings. Integration behind and in front of the camera took off as Hollywood realised the economic power of its black audience. And they embraced European film making and styles.
Don't think this is a dry history book as much of this context is woven into the real heart of the book which is to look at the twists and turns of the stages of the films production. The structure is like a novel in that you read so far in the events of a movie before switching to another often by following how the events in the one gave or frustrated opportunities in the other. This list gives you a flavour of the complexities of making a move and the serependity of the results.
* Screenplay- Bonnie and Clyde by writers who wanted the film to be the start of American New wave. Or ones that started as novels adaptations such as the Graduate. What is hot or not then depends on what is seen as the next big book office which what drives the Doolittle project
* The Producer-Doolittle and the Bonnie and Clyde film had a rocky ride before this became clear. What is hot is not depends on how well you did so Kramer could get a package for Guess who coming to dinner but Warren Beatty could not but his charm proved to be the winner
* The Director. Bonnie and Clyde had a very bumpy two years before Penn agreed to come on aboard. And the graduate Director had never shot a film and had only just become known as a Theatre Director after years of being part of a famous comedy team. What is hot is not depends what was hot in the book office so knowing a turkey was on the way a number of projects were driven to get things moving before the money moved away.
* Casting-biggest breaker and maker of the process as the bankable star could prove a disaster in making or distributing the film as Rex Harrison for Doolittle. Or make as in the case of Hepburn and Tracey in Guess who's coming to Diner. You also see the turkeys that might have been- Doris Day as Mrs Robinson and Robert Redford as the boy in the Graduate
* Production-pre, filming and post production. It becomes clear the importance of lighting, choosing locations, editing all had a powerful impact on the final films and how the decisions taken were shaped by the civil right struggle, the power of the studio, changes in the production code etc
* Distribution and the critics- Warner Brothers tried to bury Bonnie and Clyde- it had got as far as it did because Jack Warner in the last few weeks of being the last old time Studio Boss had been distracted by the making of Camelot. But a powerful critic going into print acknowledging that he had been mistaken in his first review gave Warren the chance to start the year long campaign to get an eventual successful national release
And before you now think that this is a nerd's book, added to the film history, social and political context and analyses of how films actually get made (kills dead any auteur theory which holds that a director's films reflect that director's personal creative vision) a detailed biography of the key actors, producers, studio bosses directors, writers, technicians etc and their relationships to each other as the films finally get made and shown is woven into the story. For example:
* Hepburn and Tracey may have been gay or bisexual and in a protective relationship- being adulterous being the better option!;
* Rex Harrison and wife were very fun of the sauce- she when drunk would do flipovers wearing no knickers;
* Sidney Poiter was used as an Uncle Tom by the film industry but his films shown on the TV( sold by the studios as worthless negro films) widened his audience appeal and encouraged TV companies to Black Actors in positive roles as in Mission Impossible and Startrek);
* Dustin Hoffman went back onto welfare until the Graduate was released and capitulated him into and stardom and the Midnight Cowboy; and
* David Webb the author admits how priggish he was in the film's changing the scene so the wedding is distributed after the vows and not before the vows as in the book
This was an extremely enjoyable book that enabled me to see these 1967 films and films in general in a new light. Its 500 pages flew by as I managed to read it over 4 days and was left begging for more. Highly Recommended.