The Academy Awards are coming this weekend. If your group is interested in movies or cultural history, I can’t think of a finer title than Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. In 1967, the films released and ultimately nominated for best picture reflected not only sea changes in the movie business, but major cultural trends.
Bonnie and Clyde was the creation of new screenwriters (Robert Benton and David Newman), a new producer/young leading man (Warren Beatty), and an actress in her debut film (Faye Dunaway). With an edgy blend of violence, humor, and psychological insight (but little historical accuracy), it was a conscious attempt to bring the New Wave style to American film. Despite the best attempt of its studio to bury it, it became a big hit.
Mike Nichols’ second film after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, starred newcomer Dustin Hoffman, and staged a comeback for much-younger-than-Mrs.-Robinson Anne Bancroft. Despite a razzing by the critics, it was one of the earliest films to break out to an audience of younger filmgoers.
Sidney Poitier starred in two of the films. In the Heat of the Night, while still insinuating that a black man had to be nearly perfect to deserve respect, featured an African-American in a professional collaboration as Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs worked with Rod Steiger’s begrudgingly respectful southern sheriff Gillespie to solve a murder. It was particularly noted for the scene where Tibbs returned the slap of a bigoted white man with gusto.
Poitier’s character was even more idealized in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s hard to understand how his internationally-renowned doctor didn’t deserve a better potential wife than the vapid girl played by an overmatched Katharine Houghton. Still, the film is notable for considering interracial marriage and in particular as the last shared appearance of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Tracy was sick during filming and died before the film was released. Ironically, although both Poitier films were immensely popular, they marked the end of his popularity as a leading man: the political tide turned against the idealized characters he had made a career of playing.
Finally, the last nominee was the dreadful Dr. Doolittle. Padded beyond belief, the film was driven well over budget by bad location choices, cheesy special effects, difficult animal actors, and a more difficult leading man, the drunken and everjealous Rex Harrison. The film was supposed to build on the success of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, but instead was the beginning of the end for epic musicals. Bad voting rules and studio politics bought a nomination, but it tanked at the box office.
If the films weren’t interesting enough, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. came just a few days before the Oscar ceremony. Whether or not the awards should be postponed for his funeral was a matter of great controversy.
As you discuss this book, which is stuffed with fascinating anecdotes, you won’t be able to help but compare the movie industry of 1967 with that of today. Top off the evening with some popcorn and a mock group vote for best film, actors, and director.