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1939 may have been Hollywood's high watermark for classic filmmaking, but 1967 was ostensibly the year Hollywood grew up, the turning point when the old guard faced off with the new mavericks in dominating not only the year's box office but also the year-end critical accolades. Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris cleverly and incisively looks at the five diverse films that made up the Best Picture Oscar race that year and dissects each one from development to the Oscar ceremony the following spring - The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Doctor Dolittle, and the eventual winner, In the Heat of the Night. His meticulous research feels thorough, lending a surprisingly cohesive picture of an industry in flux between the aging, out-of-touch moguls unable to forecast film-going tastes and the revolutionary novices, influenced by the European New Wave, abandoning a studio system in collapse.
Instead of tracing these films individually, the author looks more holistically at the middle of the decade when a diverse array of people concurrently faced a multitude of challenges in getting their pictures made. Many have been interviewed extensively for the book, and it becomes readily apparent why these five films epitomize the revolution when you see who the directors behind them. Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn, who directed "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" respectively, were relative neophytes who challenged studio thinking with their groundbreaking films. On the other side of the spectrum were two veterans - Stanley Kramer, who reunited legendary icons Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their final pairing, the superficially controversial "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"; and Richard Fleischer, who tried to replicate the success of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, with his big-budget disaster, "Doctor Dolittle". In between them was Norman Jewison, a studio journeyman with aspirations to become a more serious director. He found his opportunity with the racially-charged crime drama, "In the Heat of the Night", which among the five movies, best represented a balance between the two ends of the filmmaking spectrum.
Other key figures dominate Harris' narrative, such as screenwriters Robert Benton, David Newman and Robert Towne, who turned "Bonnie and Clyde" from a conventional gangster picture into an incisive character study that fluidly alternated laughs with visceral moments of violence. Obviously, actor-producer Warren Beatty figures prominently with that seminal film, especially in removing Clyde's bisexual orientation from the script and in casting his co-star, which became a Scarlett-level search among Hollywood's hottest actresses at the time. Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld and even Beatty's sister Shirley MacLaine were under serious consideration before a relatively inexperienced Faye Dunaway landed her breakthrough role. Fleischer, producer Arthur P. Jacobs and an especially irascible Rex Harrison could not help but be weighed down by all the setbacks that befell "Doctor Dolittle" from uncooperative animals to wrong-headed studio thinking resulting in an overly grandiose 2 ½-hour epic presented with fanfare in road-show engagements.
Casting on "The Graduate" turned out to be one of the biggest challenges as the original choices for Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock were, believe it or not, Doris Day and Robert Redford. While curious in hindsight, it was fortunate that Nichols and producer Lawrence Turman finally selected Anne Bancroft and a then-unknown Dustin Hoffman for the roles. Tracy's frail health was the ongoing concern during the production of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", as Kramer was able to maneuver around studio concerns over a movie about a pending interracial marriage. Intriguingly, Sidney Poitier turns out to be an important figure in three of the five films. He stars in "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", and he was also being lured to play a minor role in "Doctor Dolittle" until it became apparent that ongoing production delays eliminated this possibility. An unexpected box office draw at a time when racial tensions were escalating, Poitier turned into a lightning rod for both whites and blacks in terms of what was expected of him as a role model.
Old gossip and silver screen trivia are not Harris' priorities here as he provides a thoughtful overview of the industry from a business and societal standpoint. He vividly shows a country engrossed in racial tensions and agitation over the war in Vietnam. The author also brings to light the antiquated censorship tool of the Production Code. Nonetheless, it's the focus on the fascinating personalities involved that makes the book a must-read for cinema-philes. A prime example is his detailed description of a 1965 Fourth of July party hosted by Fonda and her husband-to-be Roger Vadim. Old and new Hollywood were in attendance and holding court in their respective corners, as her father Henry and Gene Kelly were mingling with the likes of Beatty and Dennis Hopper. Toying with Mussorgsky's famous multi-piece piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, to come up with the book's apt title, Harris has done a superb job of showing how movies are a true reflection of our cultural history.