“Pictures at a Revolution” by Mark Harris

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Easily one of the Top 5 best books I’ve read about American film history is Mark Harris’s terrific 2008 tome “Pictures at a Revolution.”  “Pictures” focuses on the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967 and through chronicling the genesis, production, and release of these films, Harris makes a strong argument that this was the tipping point between the Hollywood of old and the “new Hollywood” that emerged in the 1970s.  If you enjoyed Peter Biskind’s seminal 1970s Hollywood chronicle “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” “Pictures” is a worthy prequel and, arguably, just as complex and readable as Biskind’s famous book.

However, please note that while Harris focuses extensively on the five Best Picture nominees of 1967 (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dr. Doolittle,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night”), this isn’t the limit of the tale that “Pictures” tells.   Harris paints vivid portraits of the creative forces behind these films (Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Norman Jewison, Rex Harrison, Faye Dunaway, Francois Trauffaut, Buck Henry, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Anne Bancroft, and Joseph E. Levine among several others) as well as other films from the era that were also making a huge impact (“Jules and Jim,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Blow Up,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “A Patch of Blue” among several others).   While “Pictures” may not be as gossipy as Biskind’s classic, it serves as a wonderfully entertaining social history of how 1960s Hollywood reflected (and in many cases, resisted) the cultural changes that swept the nation during that tumultuous decade.  If you have any interest at all in film or social/cultural history, Harris’s book is a must-read.

Favorite anecdote:  Warren Beatty is showing “Bonnie and Clyde” to Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner.  Warner advised that if he has to get up to go to the bathroom, the picture will not work.  Warner excused himself three times to use the restroom.  At the end of the screening, Warner advised that the film was terrible because it was “a three-piss picture.” Beatty tried to flatter Warner by saying that “Bonnie and Clyde” was an homage to the gangster movies that made Warner Brothers a huge success in the 1930s.  Warner’s reply: “What the f–k’s an ‘homage’?”

“Bugsy” (1991) dir. Barry Levinson, scr. James Toback

From 1991’s superior gangster melodrama “Bugsy,” Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel goes Joe Pesci on an associate who has stolen from him.  A really intense, wild, scary, and weirdly amusing scene.  I wish I could find this in better quality, but this was the best I could find on YouTube.  Due to rough language and disturbing behavior, not safe for work or little ones.

Oddly enough, this scene was inspired, not by something Siegel experienced, but by something screenwriter Toback did.  According to Peter Biskind’s stellar biography on Beatty, “Star,” Toback had a meeting with studio executive David Begelman in the early 1980s.  Begelman told Toback he would get back to him tomorrow with his confirmation on whether their deal would be good for Toback to write/direct a film.  Toback asked him why he couldn’t confirm right now.  Begelman said he might change his mind and asked Toback what he was going to do about it.  Toback grabbed Begelman’s ear and slammed Begelman’s head down on his desk.  Begelman agreed to make the movie, but then pulled a gun out and told Toback: “Don’t think you scared me by threatening me like that.  You think you’re afraid to die?  I’m much less afraid to die that you are. I load this pistol with a bullet and put it to my head every day, and sometimes I squeeze the trigger and sometimes I don’t.  You’ll never be as unafraid to die as I am.”   Toback then made Begelman crawl around the room and oink like a pig and bark like a dog, which he did willingly.   Again, this is Toback’s side of the story, according to Biskind, but considering that Begelman (at the height of his career with Columbia Pictures in the early 1970s) famously got canned for forging a $10,000 check to actor Cliff Robertson, this has the air of sad truth.   Beatty insisted Toback include this in his script for “Bugsy” and the above clip is the result.  Another case of truth being a hell of a lot weirder (and more interesting) than fiction.

“Reds” (1981) dir. Warren Beatty

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Warren Beatty allegedly HATED this trailer (at least according to Peter Biskind’s terrific and lengthy bio on Beatty called “Star”). But I very distinctly remember seeing it when I was 11 years old … before some Burt Reynolds comedy about “surrogate motherhood” (yes … my thoughts exactly) … and being incredibly pumped to see “Reds” when it got released months later. Again, I was 11-years old in 1981, living in Virginia (arguably THE most conservative state in the USA), weened on “Star Wars” and “Smokey and the Bandit,” and this lengthy trailer got me excited about seeing a 3-hour plus film about an American Communist during the Russian Revolution. Maybe it was the rousing strains of “The Internationale” playing during the last two minutes that did it for me. Anyway, the movie didn’t disappoint and it’s still astonishing that a big-budget Hollywood film with this subject matter ever got green-lit, financed, and produced. Seriously, NOTHING like this on this kind of scale would ever be made today in Hollywood. The last hurrah of the 1970s “New Hollywood.”