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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution Brings Hollywood Turning Point to Life

Harrison: "Keep your damn muzzle shut about Newley if you know what's good for you..."

Book Review by Noah Mallin

Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution is subtitled Five Movies and The Birth of the New Hollywood and it concerns itself with the five films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture that year. It's a clever hook and allows Harris to dish juicy stories about Warren Beatty, Rex Harrison, Sidney Poitier and Kate Hepburn among many others.

The book's central scene is a July 4th party thrown by Jane Fonda and her then-husband Roger Vadim in 1965. The guest list was a who's who of Hollywood on the cusp with old schoolers and young turks each staking out their own ground. In attendance were key players in each of the nominated films that Harris covers in depth: In The Heat of The Night, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, and Dr. Doolittle.

Harris does a great job in illuminating the often tortured creative process of each film while uncovering surprises along the way. We find out that Bonnie and Clyde was very nearly directed by Francois Truffaut, Poitier refused to shoot In The Heat of The Night in the segregated South, Rex Harrison was a drunk pain in the ass and directed anti-Semitic slurs Anthony Newley's way, and Mike Nichol's was accused of making The Graduate too autobiographical by casting Dustin Hoffman instead of Robert Redford in the lead. His insight into the murky relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is particularly compelling.

The story of each film is filled with improbable actions and strange turns of luck and disaster, all aided by Harris' sharp storytelling. He lays out clearly where each film lay on the spectrum of Hollywood maverick-ness, with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate as the new guard, In The Heat of the Night somewhere in the middle, and Dinner and Doolittle as the last gasp (for Spencer Tracy quite literally) of the old guard.

Pictures at a Revolution is damn near perfect for any film fanatic, a real treat.

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