In 1967, the five movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards represented the winds of change in Hollywood. The Graduate, rejected by every movie studio, was an iconic film for a generation; Bonnie and Clyde gave a 1930s counter-culture sensation a 1960s sensibility; In the Heat of the Night captured America’s racial tensions in performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the ultimate Hollywood “message movie,” was the final role for Spencer Tracy, the last of the Golden Age icons; and finally, Dr. Doolittle, a train wreck of a movie that showcased all that was wrong with the dying studio system.
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Smithsonian.com’s Brian Wolly talked with Mark Harris, a columnist for Entertainment Weekly about his book Pictures at a Revolution and the Academy Awards.
There appears to be a returning theme in your book of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” where quotes or passages could just as easily be written about today’s Hollywood. Which aspect of this surprised you the most in your research?
All I knew about Dr. Doolittle going into the book was that it was an expensive disaster, which I thought would make a great counterpoint to these other four movies which were not disasters and all put together did not cost as much as Dr. Doolittle. There were certain things about the way it was made that I thought really had not come into play in Hollywood until the 1980s and 1990s that I was surprised to see were alive and well in the 1960s. For instance, picking a release date before you have a finished script, not worrying that you don’t have a finished script because you just imagined the script as a variable that you didn’t have to worry about. Thinking about no matter how bad the movie is, you can solve it either by tweaking it after test screenings or a really aggressive marketing campaign. Throwing good money after bad, thinking, “Oh we’re in so deep, we just have to keep going and we’ll spend our way to a hit.”
One review I read complimented you on not going in-depth on what was happening in the United States, the protests, the politics. You only really made parallels where it actually fit, as in Loving v. Virginia. Was this intentional on your part?
I didn’t want this to be a year that changed the world book, there are a lot of those out there and some of them are really interesting. This was a book specifically about movies and changes in the movie business. But I don’t think its possible to understand why movies in 1968 were different than movies in 1963 without understanding what went on in the country during those years.
Maybe a simpler way to put it is, it’s less important what was going on in the civil rights movement than what Norman Jewison [director of In the Heat of the Night] was aware what was going on in the civil rights movement versus what Stanley Kramer [director of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner] was aware what was going on in the civil rights movement. Their different levels of engagement with what was happening in terms of civil rights both within the country and within the industry tell you a lot about why each of those movies came out the way they did.
One of the more astounding points laid out in the book, at least for someone of my generation, is that movies not only stayed in theaters for months, but that they stayed at the top of the box office for months as well. When did this shift happen? How did affect how movies are made?
I think the shift happened when aftermarkets were invented. Movies did stay in theaters for months in the 60s and 70s, and sometimes even for a couple of years if they were really big hits. The only chance that you would ever have to see a movie after it ran theatrically was network television, where it would be interrupted by commercials and where anything objectionable would be cut out. There’s not a lot of reason now to rush out to see a movie in a movie theater, and in the 1960s, there were tons of reasons.
In your book, there is a constant theme of the roles Sidney Poitier plays and how white and black America viewed race relations through him. But given the research you lay out, you seem to be more on the critical side, that Poitier played black roles that were palatable to white audiences. Is that a fair reading?