Pictures at a Revolution (12 page)

Levine loved publicity; he'd call press conferences to announce nothing in particular and take out twenty-page ads in trade publications touting his upcoming films if he felt he was being ignored. No matter how often someone would call him crass or a philistine or even make fun of his enormous belly, he'd keep coming back for more; in 1963, he had allowed himself to be the subject of a documentary by Albert and David Maysles called
Showman
that depicted him in all of his overblown, hyperbolic glory. Levine didn't even seem to mind it when remarks like “You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right” were attributed to him, as long as the headlines kept coming.

“I never quite knew that Larry had been to every other outfit,” says Nichols, “either because he didn't tell me or because I was still so naive. I certainly knew, though, that in every possible sense, Joseph E. Levine was scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
40

But like so many men in the movie business accused of being coarse or tasteless before and since, Levine also wanted to be thought of as a Medici. Every so often, Embassy would depart from its dub-'em-and-dump-'em distribution model; in the last couple of years, it had brought Fellini's
8 1/2
and Pietro Germi's
Divorce Italian Style
to U.S. screens, and Levine's knack for promoting the films with ads that played up their “forbidden” European sexuality, as blunt a tactic as it may have been, was also responsible for helping those films reach a much larger audience than they otherwise would have found. Levine himself had put up the money for Sidney Lumet's highly praised 1962 adaptation of
Long Day's Journey into Night
and was about to release Godard's
Contempt
, exploiting its star, Brigitte Bardot, for every millimeter of exposable skin he could get away with showing. “Levine was a vulgar vulgarian, but he wrote a check for the entire cost of
Long Day's Journey
without blinking,” says Sidney Lumet. “He had Katharine Hepburn in a Eugene O'Neill play—it was just what he wanted, which was class with a capital K! We went out for the Academy Awards—I had never met him until then—and I remember him sitting in the Polo Lounge, so happy, a hooker on each arm, each hand on a different tit. But I ended up having a real affection for him—he really stuck by the film when it was doing no business. He didn't have taste, but he knew it when he saw it.”
41

“Joe was the king of the schlockmeisters,”
42
says Turman, “crude and crass, but not dumb.”
43
Though publicly all Levine had to say about Fellini and Truffaut was that “some of these films are liked by the critics and nobody else,”
44
he enjoyed the Oscar nominations and the temporary luster that being connected with their work brought to Embassy. Levine, who was based in New York, knew Nichols's work and his reputation and was eager for the chance to associate himself with the director. He and Turman had a brief, tense standoff when Levine demanded executive producer credit. Turman refused, and Levine blinked first. On October 7, 1964, Embassy announced that it would finance
The Graduate
and that the film would begin production in the summer of 1965.
45

Nichols was now back in New York, happy to know that
The Graduate
had a backer and happier still to be working in the theater again. That summer, he had directed his first off-Broadway play, Ann Jellicoe's
The Knack
, a British comedy that marked an early venture into the “swinging London” genre; his direction received rave reviews, and the play went on to run for more than eighteen months. In the fall, he returned to Broadway with another comedy, Murray Schisgal's
Luv
, an extended three-character sketch about neurotic New Yorkers in which Nichols had a cast that was up to his level—Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson—and material that allowed him to exploit every possibility for a laugh. The play was a smash, running for more than two years and sending Nichols on his way to a second consecutive Tony Award for Best Director. With three hits now running in New York simultaneously, his reputation as a director started to outstrip his fame as a performer. “Things have reached such a monkey-see monkey-do situation that it is now incumbent upon anyone who has written a funny play or novel…to send the work to Nichols with a note exhorting him to direct it,”
46
said
The New York Times.
The same week,
Time
magazine called Nichols “one of the more gifted and promising new directors to take his place in the American theater since Elia Kazan left Constantinople.”
47

If studios hadn't known who Nichols was when Turman was trying to sell his movie, they did now, and one of them was about to make him an offer that would set
The Graduate
back more than a year. In March, Jack Warner had spent $500,000 to acquire the movie rights to Edward Albee's 1962 play,
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
48
Warner thought the play—if its raw language could ever be sanitized enough to meet the stringent requirements of Production Code chief Geoffrey Shurlock—would make a great vehicle for Bette Davis and James Mason,
49
and he hired Ernest Lehman, who had adapted
West Side Story
, to write the script.

Though he had never overseen a movie before, Lehman somehow convinced Warner to let him produce
Virginia Woolf
as well and also won the right to cast and director approval. The studio thought briefly of Henry Fonda, who had admired the play (and who had lost a chance to originate the role of George on Broadway when his new agent preemptively turned down the “no-balls character”).
50
Jack Lemmon and Patricia Neal were also considered.
51
But when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton expressed interest, all casting questions came to an end, and what had been a chancy purchase of a controversial property suddenly became a gamble on which the potential risks and rewards were much higher. Fred Zinnemann
52
and John Frankenheimer
53
had both been mentioned as possible directors, but no deal had been made. Nichols had gotten to know Burton in 1961, when he was on Broadway with Elaine May and Burton was just down Shubert Alley playing Arthur in
Camelot;
he had spent time with Burton and Taylor in Italy during the filming of
Cleopatra
,
54
and the couple had talked about starring for Nichols in
The Public Eye.
55
“Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were pushing, really pushing, for Mike,” says Larry Turman. “And I thought, let Mike do all his learning on
Virginia Woolf
and then he can do my movie second. I thought I was being smart.”
56

Once Taylor wanted him for
Virginia Woolf
, Lehman and Jack Warner wanted him, too. Nichols, who loved the play, jumped at the opportunity. In December, he signed on as director for $250,000.
57
Production was due to start in March.
The Graduate
would have to be postponed.
58
In early 1965, he headed for Los Angeles to begin preproduction. He had less than three months to learn how to make a movie, outmaneuver a notoriously combative studio head and a cautious, passive producer, and figure out how to direct the world's most famous couple. And, he says, “I wasn't entirely sure how a camera worked.”
59

SIX

B
etween August 1964 and March 1965, four new movies sold so many tickets and made so much money that, collectively, they pointed toward a dramatic shift in the tastes of American moviegoers and suggested an entirely new way for the studios to do business. Hollywood did not react well. Historically, the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic.

Three of the pictures were musicals—Disney's
Mary Poppins
, Warner's
My Fair Lady
, and Fox's
The Sound of Music.
By the end of their runs, each film was the highest grosser in the history of its company, and in 1966,
The Sound of Music
passed
Gone With the Wind
to become the biggest moneymaker ever.
1
Musicals had been reliably popular throughout the sound era, but the repeat business for this trio of films, the extraordinary duration of their theatrical runs, and the sheer amount of cash they yielded changed the industry's understanding of what the ceiling on a movie's potential grosses could be. The numbers seemed to point to an evolution of popular taste in road-show movies away from biblical epics and historical pageantry and toward lighter, song-packed family entertainment. This was an ominous turn of events for George Stevens, who had spent the last several years of his career pulling together
The Greatest Story Ever Told
, and for John Huston, who had been working without end on
The Bible
, a film that seemed like a shrewd business idea when it was conceived in early 1963
2
and looked more like the last relic of a rusted-out genre by the time it opened in 1966. But it was generally good news for Hollywood, which had always known how to produce musicals and would now simply make them bigger, longer, and more frequently. Though they could be complicated and costly, musicals were a good fit for old-guard studios that were still wedded to a decades-old production model, holding on to their in-house costume construction shops, expanding their lots, and keeping music departments with seventy-five-piece orchestras on call. If the audience needed more musicals, the studios would just build more soundstages, buy the rights to every Broadway show that was still on the market, and, once that well ran dry, invent musical versions of old films from their own libraries.

The fourth movie to change the business represented a conundrum, since it seemed to contradict the message of the other three. United Artists'
Goldfinger
was the third James Bond movie to open in the United States in a year and a half. The first 007 vehicle,
Dr. No
, first arrived on American shores in the summer of 1963; it was shot cheaply, for $1.4 million,
3
and initially made a profit for the studio and for producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli that was too small to merit much attention. But even in 1961, when UA made its first deal with Saltzman and Broccoli,
4
executives Arthur Krim, Robert Benjamin, and David Picker had envisioned the Bond movies as a series that would build a growing audience with every installment. At a time when other studios simply hadn't considered that immense amounts of money could be made from movies with recurring characters (what would later be called “franchises”), UA's bet paid off staggeringly well. Working quickly, they brought out
From Russia with Love
, which cost $2.2 million and returned almost $10 million to the studio,
5
in early 1964.
Goldfinger
, which opened in December, cost $3.5 million to make—about average for a studio picture—and brought UA $23 million,
6
a then staggering sum that put the movie alongside the three musicals among the ten top grossers in history. And the money came fast:
Goldfinger
earned back its cost after just two weeks on sixty-four screens, a feat so widely publicized that it landed in
The Guinness Book of World Records.
7

With the next Bond installment,
Thunderball
, already promised for December 1965, the studios could no longer ignore the fact that United Artists, the company that didn't play by their rules, was beating them at their own game. The Bond films exemplified UA's strategy of bringing in strong independent producers, letting them make their movies their way, and splitting the profits when the money rolled in, and their immense success was a major factor in the erosion of the studio system by the end of the 1960s. But in early 1965, UA's competitors couldn't quite bring themselves to believe that the UA model would supplant a way of working that had been in place since the 1930s. Even Universal, then the most minor of the majors, was still signing a roster of young actors as contract players in the mid-1960s as if nothing had changed in decades.
8
The studios knew there was a lesson to be drawn from the success of the James Bond movies, but they chose the wrong one: In the next three years, they would release more than three dozen Bond rip-offs, spoofs, and second-rate copies.

If UA's success with the Bond series was an irritant to its rivals, the box office performance of
Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady
, and
The Sound of Music
proved to be a stimulant that led to the equivalent of gold rush fever. A year earlier, when Arthur Jacobs had started to chase the rights to
Doctor Dolittle
, he was a producer in search of a property that could serve as his calling card to studios. Now, suddenly, he owned the cornerstone on which 20th Century-Fox was building its hopes for 1966, and his leading man, Rex Harrison, was no longer
Cleopatra
's aging Caesar, but
My Fair Lady
's “sexy Rexy,” the star of a box office smash that was on its way to winning eight Academy Awards.

All of which would have elated Jacobs except for one thing: Nine months after he had made his
Doctor Dolittle
deal with 20th Century-Fox's Dick Zanuck, the movie's screenwriter, Alan Jay Lerner, was not a day closer to turning in a first draft. Jacobs had known from the start that Lerner wouldn't be easy or exceptionally fast: He had been struggling for four years with the book and lyrics for a new Broadway musical,
I Picked a Daisy
, first attempting to collaborate with Richard Rodgers, who grew tired of his delays and distractibility and quit, and then with Burton Lane.
9
Lerner had made it clear to Jacobs that he would not begin work on
Doctor Dolittle
until he finished his own show.
10
But
I Picked a Daisy
still seemed to be in limbo, and Jacobs was driven mad by Lerner's tendency to drop out of communication with him for weeks or months at a stretch with no explanation.

Lerner's deadline to deliver a treatment of the
Doctor Dolittle
script to Jacobs was October 1, 1964,
11
a date that drifted by without a word from him. Aware of the pressure Lerner was facing from both his Broadway show and his impending divorce proceeding, Jacobs agreed to give him an extension until January 15.
12
A month before the new due date, Jacobs cabled Lerner and told him that it was “imperative” they meet to discuss the script before Lerner handed in his work.
13
Fox wanted a clear timetable, and Jacobs did, too: Their new plan was for Lerner to finish a thirty-page treatment in January, report to Los Angeles to begin work on the screenplay and lyrics in April, and turn in a full first draft by September 1, 1965.
14

Just before the January deadline, Lerner finally responded—by asking for still more time to write the treatment. Jacobs was out of patience. He told Lerner he had ten more days, until January 25, at which point Jacobs himself would go to New York to pick up Lerner's completed work.
15
Lerner agreed. Ten days later, Jacobs boarded a plane, flew across the country, and took a car directly from the airport to Lerner's apartment. When he got there, he was told that Lerner had gone to Rome.
16

Jacobs, now livid, sent Lerner a cable: “Extremely distressed by your failure to meet with me…. As you know I made special trip to New York for the express purpose of meeting you and receiving Dolittle treatment…. The entire arrangement including payment of your $100,000 is in complete jeopardy.”
17

That got Lerner's attention, and Lerner had Louis Nizer, his divorce lawyer, plead his case directly to Dick Zanuck, who was now concerned enough to demand a face-to-face meeting with the writer himself. Lerner was under intense pressure to finish
I Picked a Daisy
, Nizer told Zanuck, and there was also “the domestic relations matter,”
18
which was due to go before a judge in March. Around this time, Lerner's representatives made a counterproposal to Fox: Might he simply dispense with writing a treatment altogether if he agreed to hand in a screenplay by the end of April? After Lerner met with Zanuck in late February, the studio was temporarily mollified. “I was delighted with our meeting,” Zanuck wrote in a cable on March 4, adding, “As I pointed out to you it is imperative that we have your first draft screenplay May 1
st
and I was greatly relieved when you guaranteed this Stop I am convinced more than ever that we are going to have a great picture.”
19

Fox's hope that
Doctor Dolittle
would, as the studio's publicity materials had promised, represent 1966's Christmas gift to the world had all but evaporated. But the studio still wanted to hold on to the film's creative team, and the bigger a box office hit
My Fair Lady
became, the stronger a hand Lerner had to play; soon after his meeting with Zanuck, he had his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, finalize his $350,000 fee.
20
But by then, Lerner's missed deadlines were putting the whole project in jeopardy. Vincente Minnelli, Jacobs's original choice to direct the film, had long since departed, and Rex Harrison's participation was now up in the air. On April 5, 1965, Harrison won the Best Actor Oscar for
My Fair Lady
and found himself, for the first time in his long career, in demand as a movie star. Since the late-1965 start-of-production date that had originally been planned for
Doctor Dolittle
was now an impossibility, Harrison could have gotten out of his commitment to make the film, and he considered walking away. Jacobs prevailed upon Lerner, who had caused the problem, to fix it, asking him to meet with Harrison in New York and get him to agree to a schedule in which
Dolittle
would begin production in May or June 1966.
21
In a moment of post-Oscar exuberance that he came to regret, Harrison had just decided to reunite with his
Cleopatra
director, Joseph Mankiewicz, on a comic update of
Volpone
that would start shooting in the fall of 1965,
22
so he was amenable to a later start for
Dolittle
and agreed to stay on board for the moment.

As Lerner's May 1 screenplay deadline approached, a familiar and unsettling silence set in once again, and in late April, Jacobs got in touch with Lerner's team and heard, one more time, that “because of Lerner's preoccupation with the writing of material for his play” (now retitled
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
), not only would he miss his deadline, but he “would not be in a position to do any work on the
Doctor Dolittle
treatment before the first of October.”
23
Jacobs, perhaps for the first time, realized that he had wasted more than a year waiting for a script on which not a word of work had been done. On May 7, he fired Lerner and demanded the return of the $100,000 he had paid him to start writing the movie.
24

 

In the 1960s,
the producers of the Academy Awards began what eventually became a tradition of inviting the previous year's Best Actor and Actress recipients back to the show as presenters the following April. So in the spring of 1965, one year after taking home his Oscar for
Lilies of the Field
, Sidney Poitier found himself at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium again, this time handing a statuette to Julie Andrews for
Mary Poppins
, and watching the prize he had won last year go to Harrison.

If some in the film industry had indulged themselves in the belief that Poitier's Academy Award would create new opportunities for black actors in Hollywood, or even for him, Poitier had not let himself be tempted by false optimism. For all of Bob Hope's tinny jokes that evening about how the Oscars looked more and more like the United Nations, Poitier's career in the year since the success of
Lilies of the Field
had not changed markedly. For six months after the award, he didn't work in movies at all but spent much of the spring and summer of 1964 taking his most significant steps yet toward civil rights activism. In New York, he appeared at an NAACP benefit to honor the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision ordering the desegregation of schools. He went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the landmark Civil Rights Act, which passed in July.
25
(Title VII of the bill, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment, finally provided the legal clout the NAACP needed in its ongoing struggle to integrate movie industry unions.)
26
And, urged on by Harry Belafonte, who was far more politically engaged than Poitier and was forever pushing his friend to join the movement more wholeheartedly, Poitier traveled with him to Greenville, Mississippi, just days after the murder of three civil rights workers, to meet with Stokely Carmichael and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at a small dance hall. The two performers were followed the entire time they were there by members of the Ku Klux Klan. “Don't worry,” Carmichael assured them, “if they've got cannons, we've got cannons.” They stayed only a few hair-raising hours, under heavy security, before returning to New York.
27

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