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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2008

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2008

Nick Hornby
11 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood—Mark Harris
  • The Pumpkin Eater—Penelope Mortimer
  • Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting—Penelope Mortimer
  • The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America—Thurston Clarke
  • Lush Life—Richard Price
  • The Greek Way—Edith Hamilton
  • Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America—Rick Perlstein
  • Netherland—Joseph O’Neill

BOOKS READ:

  • Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood—Mark Harris
  • The Pumpkin Eater—Penelope Mortimer
  • Lush Life—Richard Price
  • The Last Campaign—Thurston Clarke
  • Cary Grant: A Class Apart—Graham McCann

If you were given a month to learn something about a subject about which you had hitherto known nothing, what would you choose? Quantum physics, maybe, or the works of Willa Cather, or the Hundred Years’ War? Would you learn a language, or possibly teach yourself how to administer first aid in the event of a domestic accident? I ask only because in the last month I have read everything there is to read, and as a consequence now know everything there is to know on the subject of the film version of Doctor Dolittle, and I am beginning to have my doubts about whether I chose my specialism wisely. (I’m talking here, of course, about the 1967 version starring Rex Harrison, not the later Eddie Murphy vehicle. I don’t know anything about that one. I’m not daft.)

This peculiar interest happened by accident rather than by design. I read Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution, which is about the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, and Harris’s book led me to John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, first published in 1969. Inexplicably, Doctor Dolittle was, in the opinion of the Academy, one of the five best films—along with The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—of 1967. (I say “inexplicably” because I’m presuming the film was tosh—although this presumption is in itself inexplicable, because when I saw it, in 1967, I thought it was a work of rare genius.) In The Studio, a piece of behind-the-scenes reportage, Dunne was given complete access to the boardrooms and sets of Twentieth Century Fox, a studio that happened to be in the middle of making Doctor Dolittle at the time.

Fortunately, Doctor Dolittle is worth studying, to degree level and possibly beyond. Did you know, for example, that in today’s money it cost $190 million to make? That Haile Selassie visited the set in L.A., and Rex Harrison asked him, “How do you like our jungle?” That the script required a chimpanzee to learn how to cook bacon and eggs in a frying pan, a skill that took Chee-Chee—and his three understudies—six months to acquire? (I’m pretty sure I picked it up in less than half that time, so all those stories about the intelligence of apes are way wide of the mark.) Some of these stories should be engraved on a plaque and placed outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, as a monument to the stupidity, vanity, and pointlessness of commercial moviemaking.

Pictures at a Revolution is one of the best books about film I have ever read, and if you’re remotely interested in the process of making movies—in the process of making anything at all—then you should read it. Of course filmmaking has an enormous advantage when it comes to insider accounts, because every movie could have taken a different path, had crucial elements not fallen into place at crucial times. Robert Redford wanted to star in The Graduate; the writers of Bonnie and Clyde were desperate for Truffaut to direct their script, and Warren Beatty, one of the producers, saw Bob Dylan and Shirley ­Mac­Laine as the leads. (If only literature could be this interesting. You know, “John Updike was scheduled to write Catch-22 until right at the last moment. He pulled out when he was unexpectedly offered the first of the Rabbit books, after Saul Bellow’s agent couldn’t get the deal he wanted for his client….” As usual, books get stiffed with all the dull stories: “He thought up the idea. Then he wrote it. Then it got published.” Who wants to read about that?) But Harris certainly exploits this advantage for all it’s worth, and he does it with enormous intelligence, sympathy, and verve. He builds his compelling plotlines through painstaking accumulation of ­minute detail, but never lets the detail cloud his sense of momentum, and the end result is a book that you might find yourself unable to put down.

Like the best of those nonfiction books that take a moment in time and shake it until it reveals its resonance, Pictures at a Revolution turns out to be about a lot of things. The subtitle indicates one of Harris’s theses—that 1967 was a pivotal year in cinema history, the year that the old studio system started to collapse, to be replaced by an independent producer-led culture which still thrives today, although not all of these producers are making The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde. Sidney ­Poitier’s emergence as a star with real box-office clout allows Harris to weave the subject of race into his narrative. Poitier starred in two of these five movies, and only just avoided having to appear in Doctor Dolittle, too, and he ended up being attacked for letting his side down—the bland liberal pieties of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were deemed particularly offensive—while living in fear of his life whenever he ventured below the Mason-Dixon line. Meanwhile, the influx of saucy European movies that had hip Americans flocking to the cinemas had put ruinous strain on the curious, church-controlled U.S. censorship system, and Harris has fun with all the illogicalities and incongruities that were being backlit by the freedom of the ’60s: a bare breast was tolerable in The Pawnbroker because it was a movie about the Holocaust, but the naked girls in Antonioni’s Blowup were unacceptable. Harris even finds room for the slow death of one form of movie criticism, as exemplified by the stuffy Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, and the sharper, fresher style that Pauline Kael introduced.

Pictures at a Revolution is smart, then, and it feels real, but these qualities are not what make it such an absorbing read—not for me, anyway. I should perhaps admit at this point that for the last four years or so I have been working on a film script, a labor of love that, like all such projects, occasionally looked as though it was unloved by anybody but me. To cut a long, boring, occasionally maddening and frequently depressing story short, it’s now being made into a film, as we speak, and I’m sure that the sudden metamorphosis of script into movie made me relish this book even more than I might otherwise have done: on top of all its other virtues, Pictures at a Revolution captures perfectly the long, meandering, dirty, and bewildering path from inspiration to production. There’s no guarantee, of course, that anyone will ever see this film I’ve been involved in, but the great thing about Harris’s book is that it has twenty-twenty hindsight, and it makes you feel as if anything might be possible. Who knew that the unemployable twenty-nine-year-old actor that Mike Nichols perversely cast in The Graduate would turn into Dustin Hoffman? Who could have predicted that the difficult young actress nicknamed, cruelly, “Done Fadeaway” by Steve McQueen would turn out to be the Oscar-winning star of Network? In other words, this book creates the illusion of shape and destiny, always useful when you have no sense of either.

As an added bonus, Harris introduced me to a novel that turned out to be a neglected minor classic. Immediately before Anne Bancroft took the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, she appeared in a small and apparently highly regarded British film called The Pumpkin Eater, adapted by Harold Pinter from a 1963 novel by Penelope Mortimer. It’s a strange, fresh, gripping book, the story of a woman with five children by three different husbands, now married to a fourth, a successful scriptwriter named Jake Armitage who is sleeping around. If the setup stretches credulity, it should be pointed out that the plot is scrupulously, dizzyingly autobio­graphical. Or at least, Penelope Mortimer had a lot of children by several different men—not all of whom she was married to—before marrying the successful English novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, and lawyer John Mortimer. One of the many achievements of The Pumpkin Eater is that it somehow manages to find the universal truths in what was hardly an archetypal situation: Mortimer peels several layers of skin off the subjects of motherhood, marriage, and monogamy, so that what we’re asked to look at is frequently red-raw and painful without being remotely self-dramatizing. In fact, there’s a dreaminess to some of the prose that is particularly impressive, considering the tumult that the book describes and, presumably, was written in. Penelope Mortimer’s books are mostly out of print, although the wonderful people at Persephone, a publisher that specializes in forgotten twentieth-century novels by women (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of its notable successes in the U.K.), are bringing back a couple of them this year.

I’m sorry this section is so gossipy, but The Pumpkin Eater sheds an extraordinary light on a story that fascinated both the broadsheets and the tabloids in the U.K. a while back. In 2004 Sir John Mortimer, as he is now, was apparently surprised but delighted to learn that he had fathered a child with the well-known and much-loved British actress Wendy Craig at the beginning of the 1960s, while married to Penelope; father and son met for the first time in 2004, and have since formed a bond. (Imagine, I don’t know, Garrison Keillor owning up to a child conceived with Shirley Jones of the Partridge Family and you will get a sense of the media interest in the story.) And yet in The Pumpkin Eater, Jake Armitage impregnates a young actress, just as his wife is being sterilized—a detail that sounds implausibly and melodramatically novelistic, but which is also, according to A Voyage Round John Mortimer, Valerie Grove’s recently published biography, drawn from life. It is difficult to understand how his illegitimate son could have been a complete surprise to him, given that his wife had written about it in a novel forty-two years before he is supposed to have found out. If Sir John’s surprise is genuine, then he is guilty of a far greater crime than infidelity: he never read his wife’s stuff. This is unforgivable, and, I would have thought, extremely good grounds for divorce. If I ever caught my wife not reading something I’d written, there’d be trouble.

I have read other things these last few weeks—­Graham McCann’s intelligent biography of Cary Grant; the great Richard Price’s new novel, Lush Life, which is typically absorbing, real, and breathtakingly plotted; Thurston Clarke’s inspiring book about RFK’s drive for the Democratic nomination in ’68, The Last Campaign. But I’m not going to write about them, because this is my last column in the Believer, at least for a while, and I wanted to leave some space to bang on about how much I’ve enjoyed the last five years. In 2003, when
I began “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” I hadn’t read David Copperfield or Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. I’d never read a word by Marilynne Robinson, and Gilead hadn’t been published. I hadn’t read Dylan’s Chronicles, Citizen Vince,
The Dirt, How to Breathe Underwater, Hangover Square, Feed, Skellig…. (And, on a more mournful note, two of my favorite contemporary writers, Lorrie Moore and Elizabeth McCracken, have managed to avoid being included in the “Books Read” list through the simple but devious method of not writing anything since the column began.) I have been reading great books since I was sixteen or so, which means that I should have described one seventh of my most memorable reading experiences in these pages, but it really feels like more than that: you, dear reader, have helped me to choose more wisely than I might otherwise have done, and to read a little bit more vigorously. And quitting (because, despite all the fistfights and legal problems I’ve had with the Polysyllabic Spree, they never did have the guts to fire me) worries me, because there must be a chance that I’ll sink back into my old reading habits: until 2003, I lived exclusively on a diet of chick-lit novels, Arsenal programs from the 1970s, and my own books. At the moment, though, I am telling myself that I’m leaving because I want to read lots of Victorian novels that you wouldn’t want to read about, a lie that lets me walk out with dignity, and hope for the future. Thank you for listening, those of you that did—I’ll miss you all. 

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