CONVERSATIONS WITH WOODY ALLEN: His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking -- By Eric Lax Knopf / 416 pages / $30
Woody Allen biographer Lax has been conversing with the elusive, beloved film director for 36 years, and here's the proof: transcripts of their detailed shop talk distilled into chapters covering seven elements of filmmaking - writing, casting, shooting, etc. - and Allen's career as a whole. Despite a reputation for being odd and unapproachable, the man revealed in these dialogues is likable, forthcoming and even humble: "It's just not in me to make a great film; I don't have the depth of vision to do it." Fans, of course, will want to argue otherwise, but they'll be too absorbed by this fascinating, decades-long discussion to register the grievance. Readers will find a trove of Woody-on-Woody insight (heavy on second-guessing, light on personal details), and there's much advice for the aspiring artist: "The key is to work, enjoy the process, don't read about yourself ... and keep your nose to the grindstone." Even casual fans will appreciate this work; with a handy index for tracking down favorite films and something interesting on nearly every page, it's a perfectly browsable volume.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: A History of American Screenwriting
By Marc Norman Harmony / 560 pages / $27
Popular impressions aside, screenwriters have been central to moviemaking since the first motion picture audiences got past the sheer novelty of seeing pictures that moved at all. Soon they wanted to know: What happens next? In this truly fresh perspective on the movies, veteran Oscar-winning screenwriter Marc Norman gives us the first comprehensive history of the men and women who have answered that question, from Anita Loos, the highest-paid screenwriter of her day, to Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman and other paradigm-busting talents reimagining movies for the new century. The whole rich story is here: Herman Mankiewicz and the telegram he sent from Hollywood to his friend Ben Hecht in New York: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots." The unlikely sojourns of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner as Hollywood screenwriters. The imposition of the Production Code in the early 1930s and the ingenious attempts of screenwriters to outwit the censors. How the script for Casablanca, "a disaster from start to finish," based on what James Agee judged to be "one of the world's worst plays," took shape in a chaotic frenzy of writing and rewriting - and how one of the most famous denouements in motion picture history wasn't scripted until a week after the last scheduled day of shooting - because they had to end the movie somehow.
PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris Penguin / 496 pages / $27.95
While one might think that the films discussed in this book have been thoroughly plumbed (The Graduate; Bonnie and Clyde; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Dr. Doolittle), Entertainment Weekly writer Harris offers his take in this thorough and engaging narrative. Instead of simply retelling old war stories about the production of these five Best Picture nominees at the 1968 Oscars, Harris tells a much wider story. Hollywood was on the brink of obsolescence throughout the 1960s as it faced artistic competition from European art films and financial implosion due to an outdated production system and rising budgets. Harris doesn't shy away from complexity in favor of easy answers, and the personalities that he profiles - among them Sidney Poitier, Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty and Richard Zanuck - are certainly worthy of the three-dimensional approach. Harris also peppers his narrative with moments that capture the rising cultural tide that broke in the late '60s: chipping away at the moralistic Production Code, and Hollywood's inconsistent engagement with the civil rghts movement, are continuous sources of interest throughout this fascinating book
Sources: Publishers' Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Booklist