Ask Mark Harris about Oscar-worthy films, 40 years ago and today
Just in time for the Oscars, EW columnist Mark Harris’ new book Pictures at a Revolution, in stores today, offers a snapshot of the tumultuous upheavals in American filmmaking during the 1960s as seen through the lens of the 1968 Best Picture Oscar race, when the nominees — The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Dolittle, and eventual winner In the Heat of the Night — were emblematic of the struggle between old and new for the soul of Hollywood. Now, PopWatchers, Mark is ready to answer your questions about the book (you can read an excerpt here), the films of the 1960s, the Oscars then and now, or movies in general. First, though, I had a few questions for him myself. Read our IM conversation, then submit your questions in the comment section. Watch for Mark’s answers in a future post.
Gary: Mark, what lessons does the Oscar class of 1968 offer for this year’s Oscar handicappers?
Mark: Well, not that Oscar handicappers need or want lessons from me. But I think one thing to
remember is that Academy voters are often more willing to reach out to innovative or forward-looking films in the nomination stage than people give them credit for being. In ’68, that meant a huge number of nominations for Bonnie and Clyde, which had been the subject of a bitter months-long critical dispute, and The Graduate, which was the emblematic movie of the Generation Gap. And this year, we see that with There Will Be Blood — it’s exactly the type of movie that people who hate the Oscars always claim is too cool to be nominated for Oscars, and it’s up for eight.
But when it comes to the awards themselves (as opposed to the nominations), voters tend to go toward the middle ground. In ’68, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate only won three Oscars between them, and the big winner turned out to be In the Heat of the Night. The thing is, this year, I don’t think anybody knows what the “middle ground” is. Juno? Michael Clayton? No Country For Old Men?
Gary: Maybe the compromise this year is geographic. (We certainly saw a geographic split a couple years ago, when L.A.’s favorite movie, Crash, beat Brokeback Mountain, championed by East Coast critics.) This year, No Country and There Will Be Blood are both Westerns, of a kind, while Michael Clayton is a thoroughly New York movie, and Juno has an Eastern vibe as well. So the compromise might be England’s Atonement.
Mark: Isn’t Juno actually set in Minnesota? What ahuge demographic miscalculation for the Oscars! What were theythinking?! They don’t have nearly enough electoral votes. I think thegeography theory is interesting — but it’s a very good reason NOT topick Atonement. In celebrating this amazing year for American movies — not just the nominees, but I’m Not There, Into the Wild, Zodiac… — are Oscar voters really going to go for a British period piece?
I think the split this year may be by age — older traditionalists versus younger, artier voters. Which might be why No Country For Old Menis the presumed front-runner; it’s a strange, dark, unsettling literaryadaptation by two maverick filmmakers, but it’s also a scary,suspenseful Western thriller. So both sides can be reasonably happy.
Gary: (Not to belabor the geographic thing, but it iscurious that this year, in what is indeed a terrific year for Americanmovies, half the nominated performances are by foreigners.) There doseem to be some apparent parallels between the age split you describetoday and the generational shift 40 years ago. Do you think this year’srace marks a similar upheaval in American filmmaking, or is it agradual evolution that’s been happening for a while, whose milestonesmay be apparent only in retrospect?
Mark: One of the fascinating things about ’67 was that at the time, nobody would have called it a revolution. Bonnie and Clyde was Warren Beatty’s first film as a producer; The Graduatewas only Mike Nichols’ second as a director. Both films were consideredby the Hollywood establishment to be anomalies — until they becameblockbusters and the studios couldn’t ignore that there was money to bemade. This year is a bit different: People like Joel and Ethan Coen andPaul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher are already established guys whoseem to be hitting a new level as artists. But these movies (except forJuno) AREN’T blockbusters… and (except for Michael Clayton) they’re made by studio boutique divisions, not studios.
So if we are seeing a revolution, the revolution might be that thosecompanies — Focus, Miramax, Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, SonyClassics, Picturehouse and the like — are going to be the permanent newhome of serious American filmmaking. Not the big studios, which justdon’t seem to be that interested, and not the world of completelyindependent filmmaking, which doesn’t have enough money and which,frankly, is stuck in its own creative rut right now.
Gary: One thing that’s often said about the landmark ’60sfilms is that they expressed a generational sensibility. (Though ifthat’s true, it seems like it was seldom explicit. The concerns weusually associate with the era — Vietnam, civil rights, studentprotest, the hippie culture — are nowhere to be found in The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde and are barely referenced even in Heat of the Night. None of these films is directly about “the ’60s” the way, say, Easy Rideris.) In any case, do you see any kind generational expression in thisyear’s films? Certainly there was a lot of talk earlier this year abouthow many films seemed to address the Iraq War — and how audiencesavoided them.
Mark: You’re right about the films from 1967; the”generational sensibility” argument was always too simple. Arthur Pennwas 45 when he made Bonnie and Clyde; Nichols was was 35 when he made The Graduate(which some young people criticized for not showing things like studentprotests at Berkeley, which kind of missed the point,don’t you think);Robert Altman was was 45 when M*A*S*H came out. The filmsbenefited from their experience. But beyond that, those films didn’treflect “the ’60s” because people were still LIVING the ’60s and tryingto figure out what they were.
It’s hard to create art out of today’s news, and maybe it’s not evensomething that artists should necessarily attempt unless they know thatthey have something more illuminating to say than we can already readin the papers. No really good Vietnam movies were made during theVietnam War; perspective takes time. I was really impressed with PaulHaggis’ Iraq war-themed In the Valley of Elah,but audiences clearly wanted nothing to do with it, which may have todo with the fact that we were told so many lies about the war, thatright now, people want fact, not fiction. They want to digest theactual news first before they see it processed into drama.
In any case, to get back to your question about this year’s movies, the obvious “youth” choice is Juno. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a generation gap there — it’s being enjoyed by audiences of pretty much all ages.
Gary: The other big shift in filmmaking in 1968, it seems tome, was the end of the Production Code and the introduction of themovie ratings system. Today, that system, like the old Code, seems tohave outlived its usefulness. How likely are we to see any kind ofchange now that would allow for more diversity of content in commercialfilmmaking? Will technology help us out there?
Mark: I never thought I’d be defending the current ratingssystem, and I’m still not a fan of the NC-17 rating, since I thinkparents, not the MPAA, should decide what their kids can and can’t see.But there’s a huge difference between ratings and the old ProductionCode, which, until it fell apart in the mid-’60s, was an actualcensorship system that at its worse forbade entire plotlines andcharacters. I don’t think the current system is so bad in itself —after all, Ang Lee just made an NC-17 movie, Lust, Caution,that had no trouble finding a major distributor or theaters to show it.It’s the double standards with which those ratings are applied thatremain a big problem. But technology has already helped — the ratingssystem is pretty powerless against Netflix, streaming video and thelike.
Gary: Any final points you’d like to address?
Mark: Not really. Working on this book taught me thatcultural revolutions are awfully hard to spot when they’re justbeginning — sometimes you don’t know what’s happening until it’salready happened. So as far as whether anything revolutionary is takingplace in American movies, let’s get together in five years and we’llboth know a lot more!