Bonnie vs Sidney
Oscar night, 1968, saw Hollywood’s new wave pitted against old-school movies. A new book captures the period in all its revolutionary glory. Michael Dwyer reports
POPULAR culture was undergoing a tumultuous transformation on both sides of the Atlantic in 1967, which brought the Summer of Love, followed a year later by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the May riots in Paris, and François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard pulling down the screen on the Cannes Film Festival.
Unlikely as it may seem now, both Truffaut and Godard were courted to direct what became one of the seminal US movies of the era, Bonnie and Clyde. In exploring “the birth of the new Hollywood”, which is the subtitle of his book Scenes from a Revolution, Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris pinpoints the choice of nominees for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar as a cultural watershed.
Representing the new breed were Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. The old guard was symbolised by Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And somewhere in the middle was In the Heat of the Night. Harris delves deep inside the complicated production histories of all five movies, and their social and political contexts, drawing on copious interviews and a wealth of research to form an illuminating and fascinating book.
Having survived the debacle that was the problem-plagued Cleopatra, 20th CenturyFox rebounded with the massive success of The Sound of Music. Convinced that another big musical would be another big hit, the company invested millions in Doctor Dolittle and ended up spending many more when the misconceived production went wildly over schedule and over budget.
Composer Alan Jay Lerner delayed the project for more than a year when he failed to deliver a score, and was eventually replaced by Leslie Bricusse. The star was Rex Harrison, whose Oscar victory for My Fair Lady had swollen his already substantial ego, and he was loathed by the cast and crew for his volatility, outrageous demands and blunt rudeness. The Richard Fleischer movie was awful, and awfully boring.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER
One of the most interesting recurring characters in Harris’s book is Sidney Poitier, who became Hollywood’s first black movie star. Despite his growing box-office clout, he was typecast in “Perfect Negro” roles. In Stanley Kramer’s pseudo-liberal drama, Poitier plays a doctor who wants to marry his white girlfriend.
This ultimately patronising “message movie” was saved by the touching chemistry between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as her parents. Harris’s book deals directly with their longtime not-so-secret affair and Tracy’s alcoholism and persistent ill-health. He died in June 1967, two weeks after shooting his final scene.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
Collaborating with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, director Norman Jewison turned a conventional thriller novel into a timely picture of racial conflict in a small Mississippi town, where a Philadelphia homicide detective (Poitier again) helps a bigoted police chief (Rod Steiger) solve a murder. Filmed during
BONNIE AND CLYDE
Harris charts the confident, meteoric rise of director Mike Nichols from Broadway to Hollywood, where he made his debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a movie that shook the censors with its language. He followed it with this acute social satire in which a gauche young man (Dustin Hoffman) is seduced by an older woman, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Doris Day and Ronald Reagan were the unlikely original choices to play his parents.
Although dismissed by influential critic Pauline Kael as a “television commercial”, The Graduate became a huge box-office hit, made a star of long-struggling stage actor Hoffman, and proved highly influential in its use of Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack.
OSCAR NIGHT, 1968
an incendiary period of racial tensions in the US, it dared to include a scene in which a white man slaps the Poitier character – who promptly slaps him back. Warren Beatty was determined to produce his first feature before he turned 30, and he did, despite his daily on-set rows with director Arthur Penn, and the contempt studio head Jack Warner showed for the project. Faye Dunaway co-starred with Beatty as Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the audacious ad campaign read: “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people”.
This marvellous movie’s challenging use of graphic violence – building to a blood-splattered slow-motion finale that included 60 shots in less than a minute – drew the ire of most US critics, some of whom publicly ate their words in remarkable examples of volte-face. The Academy Awards for 1967 releases were to be presented on April 8th, 1968. When Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis four days earlier, the show was postponed for the first time in its history.
Personifying old Hollywood, emcee Bob Hope blithely remarked about the two-day delay: “It didn’t affect me, but it’s been tough on the nominees.” Expressing his distaste for the new Hollywood, he declared: “A year ago we introduced movies with dirty words. This year we brought you the pictures to go with them.”
The critically reviled Doctor Dolittle received nine nominations, generally attributed to pressure on 20th Century-Fox staff to vote for company product, and to all the food and drink given to Academy voters at previews of the film. It won two Oscars: Best Original Song (Talk to the Animals) and Visual Effects. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner had seven nominations and took two awards: Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn) and Original Screenplay (William Rose).
The Graduate received 10 nominations, but won only for Nichols as Best Director. Bonnie and Clyde, which also had 10, collected just two, for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Cinematography (Burnett Guffey).
The big winner was the middle-ground movie, In the Heat of the Night, which received five Oscars from five nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Rod Steiger), Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), Editing (Hal Ashby) and Sound.
An honorary Oscar was given to Alfred Hitchcock, who had never won an Academy Award. “Thank you,” was all he said before walking away and then returning to add: “Very much indeed”.
New wave to old school: Bonnie and Clyde (left) and The Graduate (bottom left), Dr Dolittle (below) and In the Heat of the Night (bottom)