The birth of the new Hollywood
A few dozen reporters, wire service men, studio publicity department employees, gossip columnists, and personal managers were gathered on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood outside the locked headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was the morning of February 20th, 1968 at 10.00am the doors opened and the group was led inside and escorted to the Academy library where each person was handed an unsealed, oversize manila envelope containing the names of the 1967 Oscar Nominees.
The five films vying for Best Picture that year were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In The Heat of the Night. Some Academy Award competitions offer an almost irristible temptation to imagine that the Best Picture nominees represent a collective statement – a five snapshot collage of the American psyche as reflected in its popular culture. But that morning, all that was illuminated by the list of contenders was the movie industry’s anxiety and bewilderment at a paroxysmal point in its own history. Bonnie and Clyde and the Graduate were game changers, movies that had originated far from Hollywood and had grown into critics darlings and major popular phenomena; in the Heat of the Night, a drama about race, and Guess who’s coming to Dinner, a comedy about race, were middle of the road hits that had, with varying degrees of success, extended a long tradition by addressing a significant social issue within the context of their chosen genres; and Dr. Doolittle was a universally dismissed children’s musical that most observers felt had bought its way to the final five. Of such mixed bags have countless Academy Awards races been made.
At winter, the question of who was going to win had taken on more urgency than usual. Not who was going to win the Oscars, which would shortly be decided by the usual blend of caprice and conviction, but who was going to win ownership of the whole enterprise of contemporary movie making. The best picture line up was more than diverse; it was almost self-contradictory. Half of the nominees seemed to be sneering at the other half: the father-knows-best values of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were wittily trashed by The Graduate; the hands-joined-in-brotherhood hopes expressed by In The Heat of the Night had little in common with the middle finger of insurrection extended by Bonnie and Clyde.
What was an American film supposed to do? The men running the movie business used to have the answer; now, it had slipped just beyond their reach, and they could not understand how they had lost sight of it. In the last year, the rulebook seemed to have been tossed out. Warren Beatty, how looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box office attraction in an industry that still had no idea what to do with, or about, his popularity. The biggest hit among the five nominees, The Graduate, had been turned down by every major studio and financed independently. Bonnie and Clyde had been financed by Warner Bros but loathed by Jack Warner, who rued the day and even small amount of his company’s money into it. In the Heat of the Night was made because United Artists ran the numbers and realized the film could be produced so cheaply that it would never have to play in the American South at all and might still break even. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was green lit only because Columbia Pictures owed its Producer-Director, Stanley Kramer, a movie. Together, the four films cost about $10 million. The fifth picture, Twentieth Century Fox’s Dr. Doolittle, cost more than twice as much to produce and promote as the four other combined; it was the only movie of the five that had been fuelled by a studio’s bottom line goal to manufacture an immense popular hit, and the only one that flopped.
The Los Angeles Times looked at the list of nominees and called it a battle of the “dragons” against the ‘dragonflies.’ The dragons were Stanley Kramer and Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey and Rex Harrison. The makers of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle, and what the paper termed the “armies of greybeard” technicians who had been making movies their way since the dawn of the sound era. The d dragonflies – were Beatty and Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Rod Stieger, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Norman Jewison, and Arthur Penn, all newcomers, non-traditionalists, or outsiders. The divide was generational, but also aesthetic – these were people who were rejecting what movies had been in favour of what they could be – and the fight was unabating.
In Hollywood, by the time the 1967 Best Picture nominees were made public, it was increasingly clear that something was dying and something was being created, but the transition between old and new is never elegant or seamless. The dragons couldn’t quite believe they were running out of fire power, and the dragonflies, still excited to have buzzed their way across the moat and through the palace gates, would have been very surprised to hear that they were about to achieve a great deal more than that. As iconic as the images of Bonnie and Clyde in their dance of death or Mrs. Robinson interposing herself between Benjamin and the bedroom door or Sidney Poitier demolishing Rod Steiger with the line “They call Mister Tibbs!” became the second they reached screens; they were still anomalies in a world that had just made the highest The Sound of Music, the highest grossing film in history. What paid studio bills in the mid – 1960’s were James Bond extravaganzas, John Wayne westerns, Elvis Presley quickies, Dean Martin action comedies, and a long standing willingness on the part of movie goers to suspend disbelief.
Now, people who also wanted Blow-Up and The Dirty Dozen and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a title that could have served as a rallying cry for a generation of movie goers that had emerged faster and more forcefully than the studios could have imagined. The old and the new existed in uneasy proximity, eyeing each other across a red-carpeted aisle that was becoming easy to mistake for a battle line. A fight that began as a contest for a few small patches of Hollywood turf as the first shot in a revolution.
All movies are gambles; each one begins with a prayer that what seems like a brilliant idea to its writers and directors and producers and actors at the moment it is kindled will still have meaning after years of fights and compromises and reconceptions and struggles, when it comes alive on a screen.
The five movies up for Best Picture did have one thing in common; they had all been imagined for the first time many years earlier, in a world that bore little resemblance to the one in which they arrived in 1967. This is the story of what happened to those movies, to the hopes and ambitions of their creators, and the American film making in the five years between their conception and their birth.
By Mark Harris
Publisher: Canon Gate
1967 Academy Award Nominees and Winners:
Bonnie and Clyde, produced by Warren Beatty
Doctor Doolittle, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs
The Graduate, produced by Lawrence Turman
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, produced by Stanley Kramer
The Heat of the Night, produced by Walter Mirisch
Richard Brooks, In Cold Blood
Norman Jewison, The Heat of the Night
Stanley Kramer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Mike Nichols, The Graduate
Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde
Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde
Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate
Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke
Rod Steiger, The Heat of the Night
Spencer Tracey, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Anne Bancroft, The Graduate
Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde
Edith Evans, The Whisperers
Audrey Hepburn, Wait Until Dark
Katherine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
The success of the pictures in the class of 1967 focused Hollywood’s attention on a new generation of moviemakers and moviegoers and heralded what is now seen as a second golden age of studio moviemaking that lasted roughly until the late 1970’s, when audience tastes and demographics changed once again and the dawn of the summer blockbuster era generated a durable new economic model for the movie business. But old Hollywood – the Hollywood of producer – and studio driven product intended to reach the widest possible audience – didn’t disappear; it simply reinvented itself. Even at the height of the new – Hollywood revolution, when Altman, Coppola, Mazursky, Scorsese, Friedkin and Schlesinger were dominating the conversation, the studios were beginning to find a way of creating and selling their product that didn’t depend so much on directors. In 1070, Universal, the last –choice studio for much of the previous decade, released Airport, the first movie in what soon became to be known as the “disaster” genre. It quickly became the most popular movie since the Graduate.
About the author:
Mark Harris graduated from Yale University in 1985 with a degree in English. In 1989, he joined the staff of Entertainment Weekly, a magazine published by Time Inc. covering movies, television, music, video and books. Mark worked on the staff of the magazine, first as a writer and eventually as the editor overseeing all movie coverage, from its launch in early 1990 until 2006. He now writes a column for the magazine called The Final Cut. He lives in New York City with his partner, the playwright Tony Kushner.