Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Book Review: Scenes From A Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood

Scenes From A Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. Canongate Books (2008), Hardcover, 496 pages

This is a work which covers a rarely covered period of Hollywood in the standard histories – the mid-Sixties between the hegemony of the old studio system and the rise of the director/auteur. American filmmaking of this decade has been less well catered for than the British industry, with its reflection of ‘Swinging Sixties’.

The author’s approach is to focus in on 5 very different films, the Best Picture nominees of 1967 (In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), each of which represent a strand of filmmaking at that time, and hold them up the changes which are going on in society around them. The films themselves may seem tame today, but between them they reflected the impact of the Production Code, the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of counterculture. The argument the author makes that these are radical films which changed (or at least were a catalyst for change) is compelling.

This is a meticulously researched and referenced work, and for any scholarly film historian would be critical reading, however it is also extremely accessible to anyone with a general interest in the history of film (or the Sixties in general). The stories of the five films, one weaving in and out of the other as their gestation occurs over a period of years keeps the reader interested. The principal characters are sharply depicted, almost wickedly so in some cases. Struggling actors and studio moguls alike could almost be stereotypes, but the author provides enough detail and background to create individuals.

It’s the detail that impresses, based on interviews and original documents it makes the work fresh – Ranulph Fiennes attempting to sabotage Dr Dolittle, the trading of scripts and production rights, and perhaps most poignantly these days how filming of In the Heat of the Night was cut short in Tennessee by racism (only one hotel in the town would accept black people).

I’ve read few works on behind-the-scenes Hollywood which attempt to give such a full context for the production, the process is as much the star as any of the actors.
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