This Sunday night, the 80th Academy Awards will take place at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, bringing the usual glitzy glut of red carpet fashion, faux-improvised speeches and what is perhaps the most important industry honor of the year: The Best Picture Oscar. Two thousand seven was heavy, judging from the nominees: No Country for Old Men, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton and Juno. Teenage pregnancy, murder, conspiracy, war, paranoia, unrelenting regret—and that doesn’t even begin to test the strange and murky waters of There Will Be Blood.
“I don’t know if the movies this year indicate that we’ve arrived at some new phase in American moviemaking or if it’s just that we’ve arrived at a place of uncertainty,” said Mark Harris, author of the new book Pictures of a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of the New Hollywood. “This was the anti-closure year. You’re not sent out of the theater comfortable; nobody is getting patted on their bottoms and tucked into bed happily. But, for those of us who don’t like that, and want to come out of a movie theater disoriented and unsettled, these are happy times.”
If you think this year has been weird, consider the Oscars that took place 40 years ago. The ceremony had been postponed for two days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the country was getting more deeply entrenched in (and becoming more suspicious of) Vietnam; and the five movies up for best picture reflected a seismic shift in Hollywood and moviegoer tastes: Bonnie & Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Doolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? In his book, Mr. Harris follows the stories behind the making of each movie, from early inception to that April evening in Santa Monica. Along the way, he manages to tell a larger story—not just about the end of the era of bloated Production Code-approved studio movies, which paved the way for the age of 1970’s auteurism—but of the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.
Late last Friday afternoon, the 44-year-old Mr. Harris, who worked as a writer and an editor at Entertainment Weekly from its inception until 2006, and is now a regular columnist there, was sitting in the bookshelf-lined living room of the Upper West Side apartment he grew up in and now shares with his husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. He is dark-haired and thin, with a winning, boyish smile. Mr. Harris spent four years on the book—which was published this week to early critical raves—researching, tracking down interviews (“through luck and persistence I got just about anyone who was still alive”) and watching 600 movies in the order they were released between 1956 and 1967.
“I thought very early on that I could use those five movies to drag along a lot of what was going on in 1967 in terms of loosening morality, race relations, the appearance of a generation gap, the arrival of a new level of violence in movies just as we were getting deeper into Vietnam,” Mr. Harris said. “Once I knew that I was writing about the mid-60’s, I certainly did not have any interest in writing only about the Oscars or only about movies, as if what was going on in movies did not connect at all with what was going on in the real world,” he said. “The whole thing that I felt was so interesting was that this whole movie revolution coincided with the revolution of everything else: a music revolution, a political revolution. I wanted to teach myself how The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde anticipated that was going to happen, or whether that emerged organically because of the people who made those movies.”
IT’S AN INTOXICATING notion: What if we could always study history via the Academy Award for Best Picture nominees? What would it tell us about ourselves? Let’s pick a year. Say, 1990. Dances with Wolves took top honors, criminally beating out Goodfellas, while also trouncing Ghost, The Godfather III and Awakenings. It was the end of the 80’s, that era of yuppie self-obsession and anxiety. As the world changed all around us—cracks in the Iron Curtain, the beginning of the end of apartheid—we looked at ourselves from various angles and came up with appealing myths to sell, from the American war hero-cum-friend of the Indians to the otherworldly (literally) powers of love. A commercial, capitalist time honored a host of commercial, capitalist films.
And how about this year? Sure, Juno, starring the sassy Ellen Page looking to give up her baby for adoption, stands out as the lone comedy, with its black humor and lacy overlay of sarcasm, but even that film raises troubling and complicated issues about the endurance of love, the difficulties in marriage and what, exactly, constitutes a happy ending. Atonement, based on the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, has all the grand sweep and epic period details of past Oscar favorites. But at its core, apart from the gorgeous glint of Keira Knightley’s green gown, is the troublesome question (and irresolution) of the tricky business of forgiveness. Michael Clayton is about one soul-weary man’s obsessive attempt to right a wrong, while No Country for Old Men is fueled by irrational acts of violence and There Will Be Blood is a 158-minute journey into perhaps the darkest American soul ever illuminated on film.