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Dustin Hoffman in 'The Graduate' (Embassy Pictures/Getty Images)

An Oscar Crop With An Instinct For Change

Sep 1, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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In 1968, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., prompted a brief postponement of the Oscar ceremonies.

The favorites going into the Academy Awards that year were Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. But the Oscar for best picture went to In the Heat of The Night, starring Rod Steiger and Sydney Poitier, about racial tensions and murder in a small Mississippi town.

Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood, describes the best picture winner as a "skillful traditional Hollywood mystery with a good liberal message in it." The choice "might not have been the right choice for posterity," he says, "but it was certainly, emotionally, the right choice for the moment."

In The Heat of the Night was actually one of the tamest of the nominees. Up until that time, "Hollywood" meant World War II stories, westerns, epics and musicals. But at the 1968 Oscar ceremony, some of the new films in competition were revolutionary.

Bonnie and Clyde, for instance, was influenced by a new wave of gritty, realistic foreign films. Audiences fell in love with the gorgeous protagonists — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, playing Robin Hoods whose robbin' ways end in a shockingly prolonged volley of bullets.

The duo's first bank robbery starts out as a farce. You're laughing as Beatty's Clyde Barrow has to repeat his "This is a stick-up" — because the first time, no one hears him.

Then, their accomplice decides to park the getaway car. When Dunaway and Beatty come out of the bank, they can't find where's he's parked. They finally jump in, as the driver bangs his way out of the space. You're laughing again.

But all of a sudden, the bank manager lands on the back window. Clyde shoots him through the eye, and his face explodes in blood. To this day, that scene still surprises audiences.

The Graduate, too, made its mark in a number of ways. It was the biggest hit of the five nominated movies. It stayed in theaters for two full years — unimaginable these days, when movies only last a few weeks — and it was the third-highest-grossing movie in history.

The scenario: Upper-middle-class L.A.; disaffected college grad (played by Dustin Hoffman) is seduced by older woman (Anne Bancroft), falls in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross).

That's not so unusual, Harris says: The idea plays like a mid-'60s sex comedy. But what even the actors didn't realize until shooting began was that the perspective would come from Dustin Hoffman's character.

"Suddenly," says Harris, "the camera head shifted, and this was looking at the Generation Gap from the other side — from the young side."

Young people — an audience Hollywood undervalued at the time — flooded theaters around the country.

"And that's who movies got made for after that," says Harris.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, about interracial marriage, was another best picture nominee. But it almost didn't get made.

There's much Hollywood lore surrounding the circumstances of the film. The director, the late Stanley Kramer, always contended that Columbia Pictures was afraid of the subject matter. (During the filming, interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states.)

So Kramer kept refusing to give the studio a final script. When he finally handed one in, it included the first on-screen kiss between a black man and a white woman — and the film was cancelled.

Columbia claimed the studio couldn't afford to take a chance on the ill health of actor Spencer Tracy. Kramer felt that was a cover, so he deferred his own payment to force Columbia's hand.

Filming resumed, and Spencer Tracy died not long after shooting was completed. He was nominated for best actor, posthumously. (The award went to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night; Sydney Poitier wasn't nominated for either movie.)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was an enormous hit, despite some bad reviews. Real life helped the film in several ways. Months before the film's release, the U.S. Supreme Court said laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional.

Then, the daughter of Secretary of State Dean Rusk married a fellow Stanford student, who was black. Rusk offered his resignation to President Lyndon Johnson, to save the administration from embarrassment. Rusk also made it clear he was going to walk his daughter down the aisle either way, according to Harris' book. Johnson didn't accept the resignation.

The fifth nominated movie? A big-budget disaster, and the only nominee at the 1968 Oscar ceremony that was truly a throwback to the old Hollywood: Dr. Doolittle.

Few remember it now — another sign, as Mark Harris says, that something happened in the late 1960s to a Hollywood that was always a bit behind the times.

It was a moment, Harris says, when "movies finally started to catch up with what was going on in the culture at large."

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