(CNN) -- When Jack Warner, head and co-founder of the studio that still bears his name, was ready to screen "Bonnie and Clyde" for the first time, he cautioned director Arthur Penn that he wasn't inclined to be gracious to Penn's troubling little movie.
Star and producer Warren Beatty, center, and "Bonnie and Clyde" paved the way for a new generation of films.
"If I have to get up and pee," he said, "I'll know it's a lousy movie."
Warner, recalls Penn in Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" (Penguin Press), wasn't suffering from bashful bladder that day. "He was up before the first reel, and several times after that," Penn told Harris.
But, in his ignorance, Warner was missing more than a few scenes of the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway gangster film. He was missing the arrival of a new era of movies, one heralded by two groundbreaking 1967 films: "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate."
Those two films are considered landmarks in American movies, but they weren't all that 1967 produced.
In his new book, Harris shows how the five films nominated for the best picture Oscar -- which also included "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Doctor Dolittle" and eventual winner "In the Heat of the Night" -- suggested not only the changing of the movie business, but a reflection of their times, with a colorful cast of characters (even movie critics) negotiating the whipsaw currents.
Harris, a columnist for CNN.com partner Entertainment Weekly, says he wanted to dig deeper into an era that has proven fodder for no shortage of excellent books.
"I certainly knew that what everyone now considers a golden age of American movies had been written about," he says in a phone interview from New York, referring to the wealth of material on 1970s moviemaking such as Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." "But I was interested in what precipitated that."
We tend to see movies as if they're of their immediate times, he observes; certainly, "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate" and "In the Heat of the Night" seem very much of their 1967 zeitgeist, when public opinion had started to turn against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement had begun to splinter.
But Harris adds, "We forget that movies take two to four years to develop." When we talk about their timeliness, he says, "we're really talking about a miracle."
"Bonnie and Clyde," for instance, originated in 1963 as a project by two Esquire staffers, Robert Benton and David Newman, intended for French director François Truffaut. Over the next four years, it accrued and dropped talent, financiers and thematic elements, its changes paralleling those of society.
And any betting studio mogul would have picked "Dolittle" as the most likely success. In the mid-'60s, when the project got under way, "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" had won back-to-back best picture Oscars, and the latter had become the biggest box-office success of all time.
Musicals were a sure thing -- or so thought the aging moguls trying to hold onto their studios, which were being gobbled up by conglomerates.
But the moguls were missing the cultural shifts of the times -- not only ways of doing business, which were shifting from top-down studio machinery to independent producers, but the rising influence of art films and youthful, film-savvy moviegoers looking for more than beach movies, weak sex comedies and bloated epics.
Harris notes the transition was anything but smooth -- even within the movies themselves. The directors and actors may have been relatively young, but some crew members (and studio heads) could trace their careers back to the silent era.
For example, "Graduate" director Mike Nichols, then a wunderkind with one film under his belt, had to find a way to collaborate with cinematographer Robert Surtees, whose career dated back to the early '30s. (Ironically, Surtees was also the cinematographer of "Doctor Dolittle.")
At its best, the relationship benefited both sides, Harris says.
"They turned into collaborators," he says. "Nichols made Surtees more modern, more contemporary in style, and Surtees taught Nichols a lot about making movies."
Harris himself benefited from talking to a number of the principals, including Nichols, Beatty, Penn, "Graduate" star Dustin Hoffman, "Heat" director Norman Jewison and 20th Century Fox executive Richard Zanuck -- not that they all agreed with each other, or even their former selves.
"I had to not only arbitrate between two conflicting accounts of people involved with the films, but also with differing accounts from the same person," Harris says. (Beatty, talking about a Penn opinion of their 1965 film "Mickey One": "He now believes I was right? That's funny, because I now believe I was wrong.")
One person Harris didn't get to speak to was Sidney Poitier, in many ways both the hero and tragic figure of "Pictures at a Revolution." He was "a complete gentleman" when approached, Harris says, "but he had his own reasons" for not speaking. Fortunately, Harris adds, Poitier has been quite candid in other interviews and books.
The African-American actor was the top box office star of 1967. Yet he was caught in several binds. His movies struggled for distribution in the South. He was too often hailed as a noble representative of his race, which lost him credibility among younger audiences, but as the only major black movie star, his choice of roles was limited by what the studios would support -- such as the flawless doctor in "Dinner."
"I don't think he would want to be referred to as a victim, but he was not only a victim of outright racism but a victim of the insidious effect of being the exception," Harris says. "He was the only one allowed to have those lead roles. It had to have been a terrible burden. ... I think he handled it as well as anybody."
The 1967 nominees didn't change Hollywood overnight; "Old Hollywood didn't magically vanish in 1967," Harris says. (Best picture of 1968: a giant musical, "Oliver!" The groundbreaking and popular "2001: A Space Odyssey" wasn't even nominated.) But they forced the studios to recognize a new age had arrived.
"What convinces Hollywood to change is money," Harris says. "By the time 'The Graduate' was at the end of its run, it was the third highest-grossing movie in history. Those are the kinds of numbers that make even hidebound executives say, 'We're in a new world.' " E-mail to a friend
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