Friday, October 7, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Day of the Locust (1975)

The Day of the Locust (1975) ***
Directed by: John Schlesinger.
Written by: Waldo Salt based on the novel by Nathanael West.
Starring: Donald Sutherland (Homer Simpson), Karen Black (Faye Greener), Burgess Meredith (Harry Greener), William Atherton (Tod Hackett), Geraldine Page (Big Sister), Richard Dysart (Claude Estee), Bo Hopkins (Earle Shoop), Pepe Serna (Miguel), Lelia Goldoni (Mary Dove),  Billy Barty (Abe Kusich), Jackie Earle Haley (Adore), Gloria LeRoy (Mrs. Loomis), Jane Hoffman (Mrs. Odlesh), Norman Leavitt (Mr. Odlesh), Madge Kennedy (Mrs. Johnson).

There is so much of The Day of the Locust that works so well, that I forgive the films its flaws. Here is a film, based on the short novel by Nathanael West, which is often called the quintessential Hollywood book, that goes on for at least a half hour too long and drags terribly in places. And yet, it also features three great performances – by Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and Burgess Meredith – and surrounds them with a talented supporting cast. The period detail of 1930s Hollywood is wonderful, the cinematography by Conrad Hall is brilliant. The screenplay by Waldo Salt has some of his best work in it, as does the direction by John Scheslinger. In short, it is worth the parts of the movie that fail, to get to the parts of the movie that are brilliant.

The film tells the story of many on the fringes of Hollywood during the great depression. Our conduit into this world is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), who lives in a rundown apartment complex, and works at one of the movie studios – although all he really seems to do is sit there and wait for his boss to come and give him an assignment – which he never really does. Into his life walks Faye Greener (Karen Black), the strangely beautiful young woman who lives in the same complex, alongside her aging dad Harry (Burgess Meredith), who was once a famous vaudeville artist, but is now a door to door salesman – although one who still does his routine. Faye wants to be an actress, but the closest she has gotten is being an extra in some B movies. Tod falls in love with her, but although she likes him, she doesn’t want to date or marry him – she is saving herself for someone rich and powerful, who she is sure will eventually come along and sweep her off her feet and put her in the movies. And this is the heart of The Day of the Locust – the unrealistic dreams that Hollywood sells their audience, and how dangerous it can be when people buy into them.

Into their life comes Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland). He may not be powerful, but he has money. He is an accountant (of course he is, he’s a loser, and everyone in my profession, according to Hollywood anyway are losers). We first see him when Harry goes to try and sell him on his “Miracle Solvent”, and collapses. When Faye comes to get him, Homer falls in love with her. Eventually these two will move in together, although a more mismatched couple I cannot imagine. Faye is larger than life, full of huge mood swings and romantic dreams. Homer is repressed and painfully awkward and shy. For Faye, this is simply a relationship of convenience – for Homer, it consumes him.

The Day of the Locust is a painfully sad film. There isn’t a single character who is happy in it – although Harry and Faye at least put on a brave face and fake it for a while. It is painful as we watch Faye devolve, from an idealistic kid holding on to her virginity “like it’s the hope diamond” (this is according to her father). Every man in the film seems to fall in love with her, she is the cause of so much pain and heartbreak, and yet she remains somewhat oblivious of it. She quite simply no longer cares by the end of her journey. For me, the truly great performance in the movie is by Sutherland, who somehow makes the painfully quiet Homer into a sympathetic dope. We know long before he does that Faye is using him, but he has been so lonely, for so long, he cannot see what is obvious to everyone else. By the end of the movie, sitting alone during a huge Hollywood premiere, when he is attack by Adore (Jackie Earle Haley, playing the perhaps the most hateful child in cinema history), and he completely snaps, we understand why he has done it. It is this glitzy movie premiere that devolves into a riot where The Day of the Locust is at its best. Yes, it is a strange coincidence that seemingly every character in the movie has been drawn by the same premiere separate from each other, so that all their storylines can climax at a single event. And yet, the way it is staged by Scheslinger makes it work.

The film should have been cut way down. Why such a slight novel needed to be turned into an epic (144 minutes) is beyond me. Perhaps Salt and Scheslinger simply liked their characters too much to cut anything. I don’t know. What I do know is that lost in the 144 minute movie, which has moments of brilliance and moments that are dull and boring, is perhaps 100 minute masterpiece. What we have is good – but should have been great.

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