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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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.


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.


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



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.


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)

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