The Day of the Locust

Dir: John Schlesinger, 1975. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton. Drama.
The Day of the Locust

Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.

The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.

William Atherton—a character actor whose picture you would recognize—plays Todd Hackett, a Yale graduate who comes to Hollywood to work as an art director for Paramount. He spends his days sitting in an overcrowded office on the lot with nothing to do. He’s getting paid, he’s told, so who cares? Todd lives in a classic Spanish courtyard-centered apartment complex populated with any and all number of weirdo characters on the fringe of the entertainment industry. There’s a mean little dwarf named Abe played by Billy Barty whose own Hollywood career goes all the way back to playing the leering baby in a Gold Diggers of 1933 production number. There’s a tap dancing child actor of mysterious gender played by a young Jackie Earle Haley (the latest Freddy Krueger) and a father and daughter duo named Harry and Faye Greener played by Burgess Meredith and Karen Black respectively. Faye is a ditsy actress wannabe and Harry is an alcoholic vaudevillian reduced to hawking a useless tonic door-to-door. Todd falls in love with Faye but Faye could only ever love a rich man, so she tells him. When her father dies she is forced to become a prostitute to pay for his funeral. Hollywood is full of little compromises like that. Faye sets her sights on Homer Simpson (no relation) played by Donald Sutherland. Homer is spineless and has no interest in movies, but he has plenty of money. He came to L.A. for his health and to live out the rest of his dreary days and sees in Faye an antidote to his loneliness. Faye uses and abuses Homer who will do anything to keep her. No one can tolerate Homer for long. His painful awkwardness is hard to stand. Todd doesn’t see him as a romantic rival so much as a dupe who needs to be manipulated.

The movie is full of scenes that stay with you. It has a sickly, anemic glow where even something as innocuous as a bowl of strawberry ice cream which Homer prepares for Faye looks disgusting and unnatural. In one scene autograph hounds leave a funeral to mob a car allegedly carrying Clark Gable. In another, a sound stage set collapses in a horrific scene of senseless destruction. Truckloads of extras and stagehands are hurt in the ensuing chaos. Todd goes to a senior art director to tell him that there were signs posted warning against overcrowding the set that were ignored. His superior, challenged over the pointless carnage says, “Does it matter?” The subtext being that all they have to do is put out a casting call and there will be throngs of eager would-be actors desperate for a chance to break into pictures who would gladly risk life and limb for the opportunity.

The final scene is a unique vision of hell American style: a movie premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the discovery of a murdered child nearby serve as a catalyst for mobs of spectators to riot, as if witnessing the rituals of the Hollywood dream and discovering its seething underbelly at the same time cause people to go insane. Soon Depression-era throngs are wandering a Hollywood Boulevard war zone as it burns. Todd, who has been caught up in the ensuing riots, hallucinates that the zombie-like hordes marching toward him have monstrous faces with burnt out eyes. This humorless, horrific ending seems to have left critics and audiences cold but it’s a fitting end. Selling people a false dream is a dangerous thing to do.

__________________________ The Day of the Locust was nominated for two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith) and Best Cinematography.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 7, 2010 11:00am
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