For American society in general and Hollywood in particular, 1967 proved to be a year of turning points. As the nation struggled with the Vietnam War and race riots, the film industry was weathering the shift from the old studio system to the new independent producers; from the repressive Production Code to new freedoms (the institution of the ratings system was just around the corner); and from offensive, two-dimensional portrayals of African-Americans in films to increased opportunities for artists of color in all facets of production.
In Mark Harris’ terrific new book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” (Penguin Press, $27.95), he examines how the five 1967 movies that were nominated for best picture provided a snapshot of those transitional times.
“Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” both borrowed methods from the new wave of French and Italian filmmakers who had been making waves in international cinema throughout the decade, and both films struck a chord with a youth audience whose existence Hollywood was just beginning to notice. “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” both attempted, in very different ways, to examine the volatile issue of race. (The 1968 Oscars ceremony, in fact, had to be pushed back two days so as to fall after the funeral of the recently assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
And then there was “Doctor Dolittle,” one of the many flop big-budget musicals to be churned out by Hollywood in the wake of the smash success of “The Sound of Music,” which found itself in the big five mainly because its studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t have much else to push that year. (Producer Arthur P. Jacobs’ idea to hold a month’s worth of nightly press screenings on the Fox lot for Academy members, with free prime rib and champagne thrown in beforehand, probably didn’t hurt, either.)
The ultimate disaster of “Dolittle” — the film earned less than 15 percent of its production and marketing costs — was endemic of what was happening at studios all over town, with elephantine productions putting the final nail in an outmoded way of doing business.
But what do our nominees say about 2007?
While “Pictures at a Revolution” is must reading for anyone who cares about Hollywood films and their place in the cultural context, it also raises an obvious question during this Oscar season: How do this year’s best picture nominees reflect what’s happening in the world — and in the world of show business — today?
Even without the luxury of four decades of historical perspective, a few notions certainly leap to the forefront. 2007 may have been littered with films that audiences didn’t want to see about the conflict in Iraq — “Rendition,” “Redacted,” “Lions for Lambs” and “In the Valley of Elah,” to name a few — but three of this year’s nominees provide insight into the nation’s contemporary anomie.
In an age where corporate greed seems to run rampant and unchecked, enabled by a government that looks the other way when tainted beef and dangerous toys are introduced to the marketplace, “No Country for Old Men,” “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” all cast an eye on the machinations of industry.
“Clayton” deals with big business most directly, as we see a callous agrochemical concern hide behind its high-powered law firm after it sells a product that is deadly to humans. Oil prospector Daniel Plainview, in “Blood,” lies to and steals from an entire town to deplete it of its resources and line his own pockets. And while the stolen money of “No Country” appears at first to be the spoils of a drug deal gone bad, we see that the corruption goes all the way up into a Texas skyscraper, as a nameless, suit-wearing drone dispatches gunmen and seeks the money for his own bosses.
Meanwhile, there’s “Atonement,” which might someday be seen through the filter of our current obsession with celebrity gossip and scandal, which seems to have risen to unprecedented heights. It’s a movie about the destructive force of a lie, and about how we don’t always know the private motivations behind public behavior. In the same way that Harris examines 1967’s two nominated Sidney Poitier vehicles against the backdrop of a tense era in the nation’s civil rights history, we may one day read about what “Atonement” meant in the time of Britney and TMZ.com.
Which leaves us with “Juno,” a movie that aggressively extricates itself from the abortion debate that has been raging for decades. Is it a tale of female empowerment at a time when women continue to feel torn between having a career and raising a family? Does it suggest a paradigm for the enlightened male in coping with womanhood and its many mysteries?
Or does “Juno” represent the final backlash against the Iraq war movies? Could its ascension to the final five stem merely from the Academy’s — and most everyone else’s — collective feeling of helplessness? We have a president with a 19 percent approval rating and a Democratic-led Congress that was ostensibly elected to end the war but has yet to take any steps toward doing so. Who can blame people for turning off the TV and wanting to duck it all at the movies?
Maybe “Juno” provided the happy medium between “No End in Sight” and “Transformers” by being cheery and uplifting while still maintaining some sense of artistic integrity. Or maybe, on its own merits, it just appealed to enough of the Academy’s voting membership to make it to the big time. Here’s hoping Mark Harris can tell us in 2048.