Liking a film is a really subjective business. No top ten lists are the same, and one person’s masterpiece is another person’s numb posterior. But since 1927 Hollywood has awarded one film the Academy Award for Best Picture. The surprise is not so much that they like to hand out such prizes than that anyone can get seriously fired up over the result. We all know the Oscars don’t often get it right, but the reasons why they get it wrong are so varied and interesting that Pictures At A Revolution is a fascinating read. Mark Harris peels back the layers of Hollywood studio tactics and reveals something so messy and frenetic that you wonder how any films get made at all.
In 1967 five films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. They were The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and Doctor Dolittle. It helps if you know these films before you start the book, because a certain amount of knowledge about them really helps you to keep track of their development. Pictures At A Revolution starts at the initial idea stage of each film, and shows every detail of the battle to get that idea turned into a picture. Big names show an interest and then depart (Truffaut toyed with Bonnie And Clyde, and Alan Jay Lerner was lined up to write the score for Doctor Dolittle). Each leaves their mark upon the project, until people finally commit, and then the money materialises.
It’s the inescapable issue of money that all the films have in common, of course. Doctor Dolittle has money thrown at it because the studios have decided, after the success of My Fair Lady and The Sound Of Music, that musicals are a safe bet. Meanwhile, everyone is worried about how films that touch on race issues will be received. Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964 and he is hot property – but is an audience ready for something more challenging from him than his usual quiet dignity? He would love to give it, but vision is short in Hollywood in 1967.
So Harris builds up a painstaking picture of a business that is often scared of its own shadow, and certainly doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of a changing society. It’s a surprise to everyone when the films are released and are seen as statements synonymous with certain groups. For instance, The Graduate is embraced by counter-culture, and Dustin Hoffman becomes a star, which is a huge shock to him. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? is seen not as a hard-hitting film on the subject of racial tension, but a homage to an aging movie-star couple.
We endow films with a lot of cultural importance after the fact, but if there’s one thing I took away from Pictures At A Revolution it’s that a lot of film-making is madness that is short on method. When a driven personality with a clear goal comes into the narrative they stand out; Warren Beatty does whatever it takes to get Bonnie And Clyde made on his terms. Whatever else you may think of him, his passion for film shines through. Meanwhile, Rex Harrison is as difficult to please as you could imagine of any diva, and this makes up the most straightforwardly entertaining aspect of the book. If you’re looking for comic relief then the filming of Doctor Dolittle is a farce worthy of repertory theatre. In what can be quite a slow read at times, I found myself looking forward to those chapters.
The way the story of the films intertwines with current events in the later chapters lends more pace, and eventually the changing political scene overtakes everything and places the Award ceremony itself under doubt. I found it hard to shake the feeling that, for all the intricacies, talent, hard work and very occasional genius that goes into the making of a movie, at the end the uncontrollable nature of the society into which it’s released terrifies every Hollywood figure. We, the public, are a monster, eating up movies and spitting them out. It can be easy to think that we are at the mercy of the Hollywood system and we complain that movie-makers don’t have their ears to the ground. Pictures At A Revolution had the odd effect of reversing my assumptions. Some of the film-makers were trying hard to listen, and to be relevant, but how do you interpret a million messages that change in a heartbeat? Who could know that the crowd that loved The Sound Of Music would find further musicals laughable? On paper, does Doctor Dolittle seem a lot more ridiculous than singing nuns? Sometimes we discuss film as if it occurs in a bubble, and Hollywood certainly seems to be its own little world sometimes. I’m grateful to Pictures At A Revolution for reminding me otherwise.
So the next time I watch a terrible film I’m going to try to remember that it didn’t start out that way from inception. Lots of hopes, fears, highs and lows, came along and shaped the finished product. It won’t make it easier to forgive the experience of watching a very bad film, of course. And a very bad film that gets nominated for an Academy Award will remain a depressing business. I wonder if we can, at least, all agree that Doctor Dolittle turned out to be nobody’s finest moment, and the fact that it made it on to the Best Picture list with four other films is a strong reminder that so much of the film business is, at heart, all about the money.
Did you enjoy Pictures At A Revolution? Let us know in the comments section. The next Den of Geek Book Club choice will be The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kaci will be reviewing it on Tuesday 15th July.
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