I was having a drink last week with a couple of people who work in the film business and one of them said: "Have you read Scenes from a Revolution? It's brilliant." "How brilliant?" said the other. "Amazing," came the reply. "When I put it down I knew that I may not be up to much as a producer, but at least I would never have tried to cast Natalie Wood in Bonnie and Clyde." The three of us sucked our teeth. Which is precisely why books like Scenes and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Final Cut and High Concept and all the rest are so loved - they remind moviegoers how thrillingly close we have come to danger.
Mark Harris's idea is beautifully simple. Take the five Best Picture Oscar nominees of 1967 - Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night - and detail how they came to be written, produced, cast, directed, edited, promoted and received, and the effect that their various commercial successes and failures had on a racially nervous America and a Hollywood clinging like a maniac to the old ways. Harris runs the stories simultaneously - a page on this, a section on that, then to Dustin Hoffman's analyst, after which François Truffaut flies into town with his entourage, and on, more more.
Harris's research (countless newspaper articles and original interviews - the appendix goes on for 47 pages) spews forth in a magnificently organised torrent of anecdote and detail. Hoffman refusing to talk in anything above a whisper in his early stage career because he "wouldn't commit to anything he thought would be false". Klansmen circling Sidney Poitier's Tennessee hotel in pick-up trucks during the filming of Heat. The hippopotamuses in Dolittle coming down with pneumonia because of the perpetual rain in Wiltshire. Spencer Tracy refusing to indulge in anything so girlish as a second take. Then dying. Rex Harrison's wife faking her own suicide off the side of a schooner after her trick of masturbating her basset hound in front of weekend guests failed to tickle her husband - he was too pissed to notice. Faye Dunaway knocking back a brand of diet pill so powerful that a single one kept her whizzing for 72 hours at a stretch (those were the days). The effect of all this is mesmerising: you will scarf the whole thing up in a night.
Obviously it was a time of great ferment: cosmic bolts of lightning hitting culture like the bits and pieces of interstellar piping with which Darth Vadar once telekinetically bombarded Luke Skywalker. Yeah, we know this already, but Harris socks it to us pleasingly straight. "The rule book seemed to have been tossed out," he types. "Warren Beatty, who looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box-office attraction."
Man, the old guard trembled. Even at the 1967 Oscars ceremony itself, with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde acing audiences across the world and inspiring seasoned critics to quit or to file 7,000-word articles in the direction of whoever would print them, most of the people in the room sat in aghast denial - it was wall-to-wall corpses and Bob Hope as MC (Christ). Hal Ashby wore a string of love beads around his neck ("Groovy. Really groovy," cabled Steve McQueen to him the next day) and Rod Steiger had cowboy boots under his tux, but the air of conservatism hung heavy. It was going to take more than Mrs Robinson to nuke this lot.
Harris makes his point about the old cultures dying hard lightly enough. Because die they did not. In last year's supposed subversive mega-hit Knocked Up, the heroine gave birth without any pubic hair. And if you can think of an interracial marriage in a recent Hollywood film please mail in and put me right. In fact, the last time I saw a black man casually in bed with a white woman, when a point wasn't specifically being made about race, was in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat in 1996. I am absolutely serious. Angelina Jolie may have had a crush on Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector (1999) but his character was paralysed from the waist down, so she was in no danger of actually getting fucked.
More interesting are the moments when interviewees confess to finding their entire profession a mystery. "Throughout the making of the film," says Poitier of watching Rod Steiger working on Heat, "I sensed that I was on the threshold of discovering what acting really is." "And that's what a great movie actor does," says the Graduate director, Mike Nichols, about the young Hoffman's ability to connect soul with celluloid. "They don't know how they do it, and I don't know how they do it." Who the hell does?