Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2008

posted by Nick Hornby September 8, 2008 at 11:32 am Books , ,


  • 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


  • 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 ofDoctor 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 GraduateBonnie and ClydeIn 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 likeour 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.