The Films that
Changed Hollywood

by Wendy Smith

BY TODAY'S STANDARDS, the Academy Awards ceremony of April 10, 1968, was a tame affair. No one denounced a war or declined an Oscar to protest social injustice; Film Editing nominee Hal Ashby’s turtleneck and love beads were the only noticeable violations of the Academy’s white-tie dress code. “The tone was [intended] to be tranquilizing,” writes Mark Harris in his smart, savvy study of the five films contending for Best Picture that night, Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin Press). “The evening was meant to reflect Hollywood’s sense of its own history, elegance, and importance.”

The movie industry’s self-absorption was such that when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, the Academy initially planned to go ahead with ceremony as scheduled, on the night before his funeral. It required the threat of non-attendance by four prominent black entertainers to force a two day postponement. Even then, Hollywood aspired merely “to provide a measure of relief” to the traumatized nation with a display of its traditional glitz and glamour.

A simple glance at the list of Oscar nominees should have told the old guard that this was a futile proposition. Two of the Best Picture candidates, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, dealt with the fraught subject of race relations in America—and they were far more conventional than their principal opposition. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, as Harris ably summarizes, “were game changers, movies that had originated far from Hollywood and had grown into critics’ darlings and major popular phenomena.” The fifth nominee, Doctor Doolittle, was a big-budget bomb, the latest in a long line of mediocre films muscled onto the list by 20th Century-Fox, which employed a substantial percentage of the Academy’s voting membership.

This wildly disparate group, Harris comments, mirrored “the movie industry’s anxiety and bewilderment at a paroxysmal point in its own history…Half the nominees seemed to be sneering at the other half.” Delineating in cogent detail the genesis, production and reception of these five films, he vividly captures a transitional moment in American popular culture.

The old-fashioned studio movie was by no means dead in the mid-1960s; Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music were the highest-grossing films in their respective companies’ histories, spawning a flood of expensive wannabes like Doctor Doolittle. Stanley Kramer, the director of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was a veteran member of the Hollywood establishment who had sought with films like The Defiant Ones and On the Beach to prove that it was possible to make serious, socially conscious movies even within the constraints of the anachronistic Production Code. Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate, had already showed how far the Code could be pushed with his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, retaining most of Edward Albee’s profanity-laced dialogue and wringing nervous approval from the Code’s appeals board.

Hollywood was trying to make room for new ways, but it kept shoehorning them into outmoded vehicles. The most poignant figure in Harris’ narrative is Sidney Poitier, star of both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. He had worked steadily in studio films throughout the 1950s, almost always as the noble Negro who shows up the evils of prejudice, and in 1964 became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was weary of playing a credit to his race, and hurt that in the increasingly militant atmosphere of the ‘60s many black people viewed these characters as emasculated and unrealistic; nonetheless, he took another Perfect Negro role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the chance to work with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the parents of his white fiancée.

The homicide detective Poitier played opposite Rod Steiger’s Southern police chief in In the Heat of the Night was stronger and more confrontational; the scene in which he slapped a white racist drew gasps from audiences. But although the studios that financed them (at bargain-basement prices) considered both films risky, they were mainstream enough in style and attitude to garner Oscar nominations for Poitier’s costars Hepburn and Steiger and slots in the Best Picture race for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night.

Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, by contrast, might have been filmed on Mars as far as the moguls and many critics were concerned. Director Arthur Penn’s in-your-face juxtaposition of comedy and violence, coupled with the script’s deliberate eschewal of moralizing in its depiction of a pair of bank robbers, made Bonnie and Clyde a homegrown equivalent of the European New Wave movies that had been electrifying sophisticated cinephiles since the beginning of the ‘60s.

The Graduate’s deadpan satire of a disaffected young man adrift in the sea of American affluence was in some ways even more unnerving. Adults loathed its portrait of them as materialistic, licentious hypocrites; college kids lined up to see it. Older critics, even ones as with-it as Pauline Kael, dismissed it as shallow and obvious; 25-year-old Roger Ebert led the younger reviewers who found it a hilarious blast against the “ferociously stupid” suburbs.

The generation gap was a new concept in 1967, and Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate revealed that it divided moviegoers too. “The two films added up to a kind of joint statement on what the future of American movies could and should be,” Harris writes. “A large, youthful audience, desperately impatient for films that reflected social upheaval in the way that music was already doing, finally had some evidence that American movies could speak their language.”

Academy Award voters didn’t much care for that language. Estelle Parsons’ Best Supporting Actress nod for Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ statuette for The Graduate were those films’ only major wins. Oscar’s favorite that night was In the Heat of the Night, which employed a time-honored Hollywood strategy for dealing with uncomfortable social issues in its “racially charged dual character study effectively disguised as a whodunit.” It took home five awards, including Best Actor for Steiger and Best Picture. “We was robbed,” said Warren Beatty, smiling, as he left the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. In Harris’ astute analysis, the responses to his remark once again demonstrated that the squares just didn’t get it. “Bonnie and Clyde’s detractors took it as sour grapes, while the film’s fans understood it as nothing weightier than a wink.”

It’s ironic that Pictures at a Revolution should appear ten years after Peter Biskind’s bestselling Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Harris’ intelligent analysis of the period when traditional movies still made money and (sometimes) commanded critical respect, even as the studios’ fingers slowly slipped from the pulse of popular taste, should really have come first. Thoughtfully assessing how Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate tapped into a new audience, which “made its wishes for a new world of American movies so clear that the studios had no choice but to submit,” he sets the stage for Biskind’s scathing look at the rebels who stormed the Hollywood citadel in the wake of that paradigm shift.

Biskind acknowledged The Graduate’s impact, but devoted far more attention to Bonnie and Clyde, whose cast and crew fit better into his depiction of the New Hollywood as a gang of overreaching, self-indulgent Young Turks ultimately swamped by their own excesses. Harris is more generous towards his subjects, less judgmental about the movie industry’s commercial imperatives (he was, after all, an editor at Entertainment Weekly for 15 years), and finally more accurate. He’s frank about the old-timers’ short-sightedness and the newcomers’ occasional arrogance, but he doesn’t reduce either group to caricatures. Instead, he paints a colorful, comprehensive and nicely nuanced portrait of the movie industry in the throes of wrenching yet liberating change. •

from the May-June 2008 issue

Older critics dismissed The Graduate as shallow and obvious; 25-year-old Roger Ebert led the younger reviewers who found it a hilarious blast.

Bonnie and Clyde

The Graduate

In The Heat of the Night

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?