Pictures at a Revolution
Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
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New York Times Notable Book
CODES Notable Books Council Award
Theater Library Association Award
The New York Times bestseller that follows the making of five films at a pivotal time in Hollywood history
In the mid-1960s, westerns, war movies, and blockbuster musicals like Mary Poppins swept the box office. The Hollywood studio system was astonishingly lucrative for the few who dominated the business. That is, until the tastes of American moviegoers radically- and unexpectedly-changed. By the Oscar ceremonies of 1968, a cultural revolution had hit Hollywood with the force of a tsunami, and films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and box-office bomb Doctor Doolittle signaled a change in Hollywood-and America. And as an entire industry changed and struggled, careers were suddenly made and ruined, studios grew and crumbled, and the landscape of filmmaking was altered beyond all recognition.
One afternoon in the spring of 1963, Robert Benton went to the New Yorker Theater to see François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. It was not his first time; it may have been his tenth or twelfth. Benton, then thirty years old and the art director of Esquire magazine, was using the movie both to nurse a romantic injury—the painful end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Gloria Steinem—and to indulge a passion for European films, particularly those of the French New Wave, which was becoming something like a common language among young, smart, city-dwelling moviegoers.
Jules and Jim, with its delicate love triangle, its studied disregard for the moral and narrative strictures of Hollywood filmmaking (Truffaut himself called it “deliberately boring”), and its equal doses of hopelessness and romanticism, was a perfect choice for Benton—and it’s unlikely that he was the only one to travel that May afternoon up from midtown Manhattan to Dan Talbot’s theater on Broadway and 88th Street so he could luxuriate in one more encounter with it. The movie, Truffaut’s third, had opened in New York more than a year earlier to initial business that was only modest, but its cult was devoted, and the film was still holding on, playing one week on the Upper West Side, then a few days in the East Village on Avenue B, then a week on Bleecker Street. The deep chord of longing the picture sounded in many moviegoers was understandable—emotional ambiguity and grown-up sexuality were virtually black market items in American movies of the time. And Jules and Jim’s calculatedly casual visual aesthetic, its diffused light and gentle nods to flickering silent film imagery, held particular interest for Benton as a magazine designer who always had his eye on the next new thing, particularly when it was an unexpected synthesis of old things.
But even if
When a filmmaker who was considered serious-minded would take on an adult subject (usually smuggled into Hollywood in the respectable packaging of a Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman play or a novel by John O’Hara), his work would be subjected to the censorious standards of the Production Code, which had barely changed in thirty years, and would end up stripped of meaning and sense. When the results arrived on screen—a Butterfield 8 that was not quite about a prostitute, a remake of The Children’s Hour that, twenty-five years after the first time Hollywood tried to adapt it, still couldn’t refer to lesbianism, an adaptation of Elmer Gantry that had to shield timid sensibilities from the full content of a book that people had been reading since 1927—smart critics groaned, audiences applauded the actors and forgot the movies quickly, and the directors themselves expressed impotent disgust. “If you go to
As it turned out, there was no need for Zinnemann or anyone else to go to
But a hope that the studios could eventually incorporate some elements of European cinema and the French New Wave was very much on the minds of a new generation of directors trained largely in New York television production and theater—Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet. And the possibility that American movies could, one day soon, break the shackles of old-Hollywood thinking excited Benton and David Newman as well. At Esquire, they made a slightly Mutt-and-Jeff-ish pair, Benton low-key, precise, bespectacled, and single and Newman impulsive, hyperkinetic, unruly, and already, at twenty- five, a husband and father. Newman had arrived in
By 1963, Harold Hayes was turning Esquire into the repository of a free- swinging style of writing that eventually became known as New Journalism. It was a place where Norman Mailer could serialize his novel An American Dream, a home for Tom Wolfe, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune who had just started publishing stories in the magazine that year, and a venue in which Gay Talese was reinventing the magazine profile with long takes on director Joshua Logan and the boxer Floyd Patterson that, in their language, their shaping of scenes, and their sense of drama, felt cinematic in precisely the way American films of the time didn’t. But beyond its status as a home for influential prose, Esquire, under Hayes, was becoming the monthly exemplification of a way of thinking about what it liked to call “today’s man”: urban, sophisticated, unshy about sexual appetite and a love of “the good life,” but also cynical, suspicious of cant, and contemptuous of mediocrity, conformity, and 1950s-style groupthink (not, however, of hyperbole). The scent of tobacco, Scotch, and heady after-hours arguments wafted off every page. And on many of those pages, style was content, which meant that a collaboration between someone with as keen and witty a sense of presentation as Benton and a writer as sharp as Newman (together, they were largely responsible for the look and tone of the magazine’s famous Dubious Achievement awards) was bound to be fruitful. Benton and Newman had jobs to do at Esquire, but also time to spare and energy to burn. In 1963, the two of them spent many afternoons and evenings mapping out their own manifesto for the magazine: a massive, sweeping piece they planned to call “The New Sentimentality” that would define by brash dictum what was in and out, arriving and over, modern and hopelessly maudlin, in pop culture. “We were sort of bad kids,” says
Newman and Benton shared other tastes—an appetite for true-crime books, particularly John Toland’s just published history of Depression-era outlaws, The Dillinger Days, and a ceaseless fascination with Godard and Truffaut (whose second movie, Shoot the Piano Player, was based on an American crime novel and had toyed knowingly with
Toland’s book made reference to two of the era’s minor criminals, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
Neither Benton nor Newman had ever read a screenplay, and they barely knew anyone in the movie business; a few weeks earlier,
“We didn’t know how to write a screenplay,” says
As they wrote, Benton and Newman tried to give themselves a crash course in both film technique and the gangster era. They’d return again and again to the Hitchcock retrospective, listening to what Bogdanovich, who at only twenty-four was about to publish a monograph on the director, had to say about the ways in which his movies were constructed. They would read and reread what Truffaut had written on the difference between creating shock and building suspense. Benton would leave the office to browse through used-magazine and old-book stalls on Sixth Avenue in the lower 40s, sometimes returning with treasures like the 1934 book Fugitives, written by Bonnie Parker’s mother, Emma Parker, and Clyde Barrow’s sister Nell Barrow Cowan, or vintage crime pulp magazines, including a 1945 issue of Master Detective that included photographs of Parker and Barrow and a story about how “adventure and bloodshed marked the Law’s long pursuit of the Barrows and their murderous molls.” And as a touchstone, they kept returning to a sentence about Bonnie and Clyde from The Dillinger Days: “Toland wrote, ‘They were not just outlaws, they were outcasts,’ ” says
In some ways, Parker and Barrow were natural subjects for a movie. They were young—Barrow was twenty-five and Parker twenty-three when they were killed. They had a great hunger and flair for self-invention and self-promotion, taking photographs in which they posed as hardened outlaws as if they were playing dress-up and sending Bonnie’s doggerel about themselves to newspapers. And although Barrow’s record stretched back to his teens, their history together—a string of robberies that often led to murder, interspersed with periods in which they lay low—lasted only about a year and a half, ideal for the compressed narrative of a movie. Parts of their crime spree and relationship had already been appropriated for Fritz Lang’s 1937 pre-noir drama, You Only Live Once, with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, and 1958’s quickly forgotten The Bonnie Parker Story, which starred Dorothy Provine, had depicted a peculiar version of their lives that turned Clyde Barrow into “Guy Darrow.”
Benton and Newman were interested in all the historical information they could get their hands on, but not in documentary realism. Already, they knew they were going to leave out certain unromantic details: Parker’s early marriage to another man, Parker’s and Barrow’s separate stretches in jail, and the fact that Parker was severely and disfiguringly burned in a car crash almost a year before she and Barrow were killed. Their version of Bonnie and
By November 1963, Benton and Newman were putting what they thought were the finishing touches on a seventy-five-page treatment of Bonnie and Clyde and, says
Jones was dazzled by their enthusiasm and by their conviction that a movie based on their screenplay could bring a Nouvelle Vague aesthetic to as American a subject as Dust Bowl bank robbers. At the time, she was working as an assistant to Lewis Allen, a Broadway producer who was trying his hand at low-budget art films (that year, he had produced a movie of Genet’s The Balcony as well as Peter Brook’s adaptation of Lord of the Flies), and she was eager to start producing as well. Her younger brother, Norton Wright, then a twenty-eight-year-old production assistant, shared her ambition. “In the early 1960s, low-budget pictures were being made in New York City for $350,000, and some of them were good movies,” says Wright, who had learned the ins and outs of working with a tight schedule and minimal budget as a production manager on a number of those films—“indies,” before the term was in common use. Wright and his sister shared
By the end of the meeting, it didn’t seem impossible that, if the two would-be producers got the script into the right hands, they could raise the money to make a lean, no-frills, black-and-white version of Bonnie and Clyde themselves. And they had a well-placed ally: The Joneses’ attorney was the powerful entertainment lawyer Robert Montgomery of the
-Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times
"A landmark new film book . . . sifts through the evidence with reportorial acumen and great care, conjuring up the social and cultural history of a lost world and drawing on sharp new interviews with many of its major players. . . . Can take its place alongside top-shelf film industry books."
-Janet Maslin, The New York Times
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