An Oscar for the Ages

When the Oscar nominations for the five best pictures of 1967 were announced, it was clear, even then, that Hollywood was undergoing a massive identity crisis. The times they were a-changing, to borrow a phrase, and the schizophrenic lineup of contenders pitted the old guard against what would later be dubbed The New Hollywood. Representing the past was Fox's big-budget musical disaster "Dr. Dolittle," a widely dismissed white elephant whose nomination had been bought with lavish champagne dinners for the voters and studio bloc voting. Also looking moth-eaten was Stanley Kramer's racial civics lesson, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," starring Sidney Poitier—at the time the biggest box-office star in the country—once again typecast as the flawless, unimpeachable representative of his race. The future was symbolized by two watershed movies that plugged into the countercultural energy that was about to divide and transform not just the movie business but the country: "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate." The fifth nominee, and ultimately the compromise winner, was Norman Jewison's racial murder mystery, "In the Heat of the Night," also starring Poitier—a movie that had one foot in the old and one in the new.

Mark Harris, the author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood," isn't the first to note the import of that best-picture face-off. But he has much more on his mind than a 40-year-old Oscar race. In telling the story of the making of these five movies—beginning in 1963, when two young Esquire writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, begin to write their "Bonnie and Clyde" screenplay, dreaming that their cinematic idol François Truffaut would direct it (and he almost did)—Harris gives us a juicy, multilayered chronicle of a turning point in American culture. This is page-turning social history; someone reading this book who didn't live through those days would understand why "the '60s" had to happen. Poitier refused to shoot "Heat" below the Mason-Dixon line, and with good reason: a year earlier the mixed-race cast of Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" had received death threats in Louisiana, and a crew member was chased from a laundry when he tried to wash the hotel bedsheets of the black cast members.

Harris doesn't just rely on the copious books about this period, from John Gregory Dunne's account of Twentieth Century Fox's downfall, "The Studio," to Poitier's two autobiographies. He's interviewed almost all the participants, and the fresh details he's uncovered make old stories seem new. His complex portrait of a brilliant, sometimes arrogant Mike Nichols—starting with the battle to get "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" made without compromises and continuing with how he both inspired and humiliated Dustin Hoffman on the set of "The Graduate"—is revelatory. He repeatedly told Hoffman, "Don't forget to clean the inside of your nose" before the cameras rolled. It wasn't until years later that Nichols realized how he had turned Benjamin into a version of himself, the immigrant and outsider. "I was turning Benjamin into a Jew … Without any knowledge of what I was doing, I had found myself in this story." The generation gap is played out on the disaster-plagued set of "Dr. Dolittle," where a volatile, alcoholic, vain Rex Harrison peppers newcomer Anthony Newley with antiSemitic insults, and the young cast members take sides against their elders. There's pathos in the plight of the well-intentioned Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's foremost liberal, who thinks of himself as an outsider and can't fathom why he's dismissed by critics as an old establishment fogy.

There's nothing gushy or star-struck about Harris's take—there's no halo on his Katharine Hepburn—which is informed by a sophisticated understanding of the social, political and cinematic lay of the land. His perceptive, balanced view of Poitier's dilemma—as his fame, fortune and accolades multiply, he's under increased attack from the left as a desexualized token—has a bitter poignancy.

"Pictures at a Revolution" ends with the tense Oscar ceremonies in April 1968, delayed two days because of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. A new generation and a new, European-inspired esthetic would soon transform movies, but it would take the Academy itself years to catch up. If you looked at the next year's nominations ("Oliver" and "Funny Girl" among them) you'd think nothing had changed. The movies that didn't get nominated are the ones that now define that time: "Rosemary's Baby," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Producers," "Faces," "The Battle of Algiers." But then, when it comes to history, the Oscars are always one step behind.