A pen pal from L.A., the one who recommended the delightful Mephisto Waltz and The Living Dead Girl, clued me in to this, one of those films with a combination of elements—Hollywood satire, Karen Black, promises of being over-the-top—that sent it went straight to the top of my list. Plus, he told me to read NOTHING about it, and that it had a shocking ending, so I was pretty juiced by the time it graced my mailbox.
Okay, so we learn from the credits that this is directed by John Schlesinger, of Midnight Cowboy fame, that it also stars Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith, and is written by someone named Waldo Salt. We open with this guy Tod Hackett, played by William Atherton, looking at an apartment with a courtyard in the middle, where Karen Black as Faye Greener is sunning herself. The whole thing is shot with a hazy filter and the tone so far is announcing “IMPORTANT FILM,” which, when we’re talking about Hollywood satires of the 70s, is something I can get WAYYY behind.
Also in the apartment complex is a young boy who dresses exactly like Faye, seemingly with his mother’s consent, and goes around maliciously taunting everyone, including Tod. Anyway, Tod has his eye on Faye—she is made out to be the reason he took that particular apartment—and takes her on a date. She orders him to get her a chocolate ice cream, then ATTACKS it with bizarre gusto. She tells him that on some days she just locks herself in her bedroom, stuffs herself with chocolate, and makes up stories. Okay—so she’s BONKERS! I love it. Tod kind of realizes that, but also doesn’t care.
Faye also has an admirer who is a cowboy in the movies. She takes both men on a date to see her appearance is a movie, issuing orders to them [“Cig me. Match me.”] that they compete to comply with. She is shocked by how little she actually appears in the movie, and bemoans “They ruined it.” Afterward, she eggs both to smash a display to steal a photo with herself in it.
So Faye comes over to Tod’s and asks him if he “thinks she’s just a dumb blonde,” to which he SHOULD answer “I don’t just THINK it,” but does answer “I think I’m in love with you.” And somewhere in here you are slowly starting to realize that—Tod is a psycho, too! He makes a bold play and ends up with a job as a production artist, drawing views of Waterloo. He starts drawing all these tortured faces and wailing crowds and pastes them over a huge crack, caused by an earthquake, in his wall. Faye is now being all distant, having won his affection, but Tod keeps up with a very sincere “I really love you.” But Faye returns with “I could only ever love a rich man.”
SPOILERS > > >
Tod is invited to a very rich Hollywood party where they end up watching stag films, and he thinks he catches sight of Faye as a whore there. We then meet Faye’s father, played by Burgess Meredith as an elderly former song-and-dance man. He goes door-to-door doing his Chaplinesque routine and trying to sell “Miracle Solvent,” which no one wants. He is quite desperate. He soon comes across Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson [you read that right], This name is apparently no relation to the Simpson's character, it's just complete coincidence. Although I don't completely believe that. Anyway, Homer is introduced about 45 minutes in, and we soon realize that he is a big, oversensitive, undersocialized goon. Wow—it's a movie full of nutjobs! And I LOVE IT. We see Homer have a flashback in which we see that he appreciates nature and used to love sitting outside in his chair. He also constantly does a repetitive, obsessive gesture with his hands.
There is now scene after scene of just crazy, whacked-out shit: For example, the long sequence of suggestive licking that takes place around a campfire. It all goes on—until Tod tries to rape Faye. She continues to play with him, but moves in with Homer, who is obviously delighted to have her, although she is only toying with him. Faye starts putting out to the higher-ups at the studio in order to get ahead, although it doesn't do much for her. A huge Waterloo set, built to Tod's specifications, collapses, killing several people. The studio covers up any wrongdoing. There is a dwarf, and some cockfighting. There's a staring contest with a lizard. Homer sees Faye with the Mexican from the earlier suggestive licking sequence, and is destroyed. Then—the unforgettable, shocking climax! Which I decided I'm going to protect your innocence by not telling you about, except to say that it does bring all the themes to fruition. < < < SPOILERS END
I liked it a lot. Yes, it is wild and florid and one-sided and exaggerated, but that's what it is. This is adapted from a 1939 novel by Nathaniel West, and is said to have been written to express his disgust at Hollywood, after his experiences as a screenwriter [he wrote It Could Happen To You, Born to be Wild, and many more], and that's what gives it its power: it seems like an incoherent expression of hate, rage and pain, and all of its wild, surrealistic touches only reinforce this. It's as if West were so furious he flies off into operatic fancies that expressionistically convey the reality of what he feels, and his apocalyptic vision of what he feels Hollywood does to people.
This is what made the insanity of all the characters really work for me—West is saying that Hollywood attracts mentally unbalanced people, who, collectively, create this insane society. Faye is a wannabe starlet, and is picking up and dumping men the way she imagines she'll be able to do when she is a star for real. Her father [Meredith] is a washed-up Vaudevillian still trying to make the old soft-shoe routine work. Tod struck me as the kind of guy who imagines that he doesn't care much for dreams of fame, then finds that it's almost all that motivates him. There are other figures, but the little boy who dresses like Faye—who is herself aping Mae West—comes off as particularly perverse, especially given how we see his mother encouraging him. At the end, they find that they aren't the only ones driven into a frenzy by the closeness and excitement of fame, and—well, you see what happens.
William Atherton was great—he conveyed a careful, guarded intelligence that meshed quite well with the idea that his character was fairly obsessive and unstable. It's hard to say about Karen Black, because she's usually so oddball that it's hard to know how much actual talent she's bringing to playing an oddball, but I appreciated the gusto with which she threw herself into her character, and I would go so far as to say she was actually quite good here. But the real revelation, even for someone known as a gifted actor, was Donald Sutherland, who makes Homer incredibly moving in his vulnerable tenderness and sensitivity. Anyway, this has all the crazy characters and scenarios to please bad movie fans, but enough meat and ideas for those who like serious movies, although the sweet spot is obviously for people, like me, who love outrageous but artsy movies that take themselves wayyyy too seriously. Combine that with the fact that it's a Hollywood satire—always a welcome genre—and you've got a big-time winner.
Yes! It's well put together, outrageous, bizarre, thoughtful and moving.