by Pauline Kael
If Nathanael West is a satirist at all, he’s an unfunny satirist—showing his characters as grotesques but never releasing us to laugh at them. It’s his sadomasochistic visionary tone, with the language pared down to essentials and each detail sharp, that makes The Day of the Locust such a distinctive and highly readable book. Readable and, in a certain sense, a literary achievement, but I don’t find it likable. I feel a slight recoil from the hero Tod’s attitudes and from West’s assumptions, and the recoil prevents me from believing in the story as a valid metaphor for the American dream turned into a nightmare. To Nathanael West, the retired people who flock to Los Angeles for the sunshine and oranges are “savage and bitter,” because they “haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure.” To him, they are “all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.” His book ends with an orgasmic explosion—not a revolution but a vengeful mob scene at a movie premiere that becomes an apocalypse. West is more clever than convincing. Who can believe that Homer Simpson, the toadying mass-man from the Midwest, knows only one song—“Oh, say can you see”? Who can believe in that chaste blob Homer on any level? And what is Faye Greener, the seventeen-year-old sexpot who dreams of becoming a star, but an urban Tondelayo, a pre-Marilyn Monroe Marilyn Monroe—one of those James M. Cain dirty-animal women who destroy men? When West sees hatred in the faces of the elderly sitting on sidewalk benches, isn’t it mostly a projection of his own fear of aging—a child’s terror of deformity? Surely if you have to be poor and old it’s better in a warm climate, better in a horizontal slum than a vertical one. West seems to have taken a medieval vision of the grave drawing him closer and converted it into a rambling series of journalistic impressions and symbolist speculations about a city that will be set on fire by its hollow-eyed gawkers and cripples—its walking dead.
The new John Schlesinger film version, from a screenplay by Waldo Salt, is generally faithful to the events of the novel. The leisureliness of the opening sections has a pleasing rhythm, allowing us to bask in the yellowy light and the fine thirties re-creation. The cinematographer, Conrad Hall, succeeds in achieving the painterly, calendar-art look of California Spanish, and the designer, Richard MacDonald, understands the lazy weight of it. The sunny slums, torpidly picturesque, like a giant piazza—that’s what L.A. was like, all right, before it went proudly Pop and got its bright, wide-awake modern-city chic. The feel of the film is auspicious, and Schlesinger seems to be working at his peak, but we follow one character and then another, and each time we become engrossed we’re yanked back from involvement. We expect the characters’ separate dreams and problems to coalesce, and they don’t. In the book, what holds the sketchy characters, the narrative chunks, and the ideas together is West’s maggoty wit—positioning himself halfway between contempt and fear, clinging to literary sophistication as if it were the Mother Church. The film is a mosaic that never comes together.
Actually, these sleep-filled stucco cottages and the motionless atmosphere are so authentic that they work against West’s conceits. If The Day of the Locust and the mauve, nightmarish Chinatown could exchange their atmospheres, they might both be better: the water-rights and real- estate swindles that formed the plot of Chinatown could have been clarified if the film had had a realistic base—if we had seen the dust in the air, as we do here—while Locust, to make any sense at all, should be a hysteric’s view of L.A. Despite West’s straightforward prose and his maplike accuracy about buildings and streets, his is a disjointed, fever vision, and his spangly scenes—a vicious cockfight, a party at which the lusting men circle around the lone woman Faye and fight over her, the ecstasy-seeking mob running wild at the premiere—might add up to something excitingly tumid if this movie were less literal. Schlesinger never finds a controlling mood or tone to suggest where he’s heading, so the apocalyptic ending comes out of nowhere, and, since it’s also the most inept part of the picture—hyperbolic yet dull—the movie disintegrates at the very point where it needs to fuse.
West sees people from the outside, and he deliberately makes his characters so limited that they’re unreal; his device, like that of the painter Ensor (and, later, Francis Bacon), is to seize upon the excruciating, farfetched, everyday truth. The movie’s mistake is to trust the book’s sensibility, and to assume that the events of the book, when they are presented on film, will communicate what Schlesinger and many others believe to be the most important line in the novel: “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” But it was West’s black-comedy whammy to see eccentrics and harmless nonconformists and old Angelenos—who may be brainwashed by the sun and the years—as monstrous, and to see L.A. as a place that attracts dreamers and then betrays their dreams, leaving them enraged. Without his rather forced prose explanations, almost none of this comes across, and if one hasn’t read the book, the bit players, whores, extras, and hangers-on who live at the slummy San Bernardino Arms, and the pooped old people who stare blankly, like ambulatory statues, are just figures in disparate scenes from an L.A. Weimar.
Having no emotional center, the film leaves little impression—only a chill. There wouldn’t be much to remember if it weren’t for a few of the performers—especially Burgess Meredith. As Faye’s father, Harry Greener, the washed-up old vaudevillian who sells ‘‘Miracle Solvent” door-to-door, Meredith does what is very likely his best acting in his forty-five years as a professional. Maybe you need forty-five years of experience to give this kind of performance. Meredith’s Harry is a compulsive entertainer, a little, piggy-eyed, round-faced clown who failed on the stage but turns every place he’s in—even his deathbed—into a theater. Harry Greener, boozy, his mind lost in a theater warp, doesn’t know how not to put on an act. Life and show business are the same thing to him, and performing, wheedling, and conning have become indistinguishable. It’s not a starring role, and it doesn’t stand out and announce itself, yet Harry, the small-timer who has no world but the theater that never even knew he existed, is as fully lived-in a portrait as Olivier’s Archie Rice. The conception is West’s, but Meredith—strutting with a child’s idea of raffishness, his face a frowzy high pink—makes you believe it. Meredith endows Harry with something of the frazzled indomitability of a Mickey Rooney, that giving-out even when one is faking giving-out. Like Rooney, Harry is manic by nature, and he never loses his awareness of the audience.
Billy Barty, who used to be Mickey Rooney’s younger brother in the “Mickey McGuire” shorts, plays the dwarf gambler-tipster, Abe Kusich, and although his role is limited to a few scenes, he gives a major performance. In the novel, Abe, a macho dwarf, is an obscenely angry little man, but in realizing the character Billy Barty goes way beyond this. This Abe is dapper, with a hawk-eyed alertness to his rights and opportunities, and in the cockfight, when he tries to breathe life into his dying rooster, his whole soul is engaged in his side’s putting up a fight, and there’s tenderness in his handling of the wretched, mutilated bird. Many years ago, in Gold Diggers of 1933, when Barty popped up in the “Pettin’ in the Park” sequence, winked at Dick Powell, and handed him a can opener to use on Ruby Keeler’s shiny tin costume, he seemed to embody Busby Berkeley’s most wayward Hights of fancy; now, like Burgess Meredith, he moves right into the character he’s playing, and lives there. He gives Abe Kusich a rambunctious fullness that exposes West’s sadness-of-the-monstrous for the self-pitying, self-aggrandizing bull it is. These two—Harry and Abe—escape West’s patronizing categories; they have an independent existence that Tod, who represents West’s own consciousness, doesn’t.
Tod, hired right out of Yale to work on set and costume designs, is meant to be a virile, gifted artist, at ease in society, and William Atherton (he was Goldie Hawn’s husband in the Sugarland Express) is impressively sensitive in a difficult, bystander role. Schlesinger handles Tod well, and Atherton gives a fine Arrow-collar performance, but they can’t cancel out the snobbish weakness in West’s conception—that he wanted to see himself as a gentleman-artist, a courtly, impeccably dressed Yale Wasp, an outsider looking on at the grotesque world. Tod, who is putting the other characters into his giant painting “The Burning of Los Angeles,” is redeeming his time in L.A. by making art of it as West was doing in writing this book, which is essentially Tod s painting. But Tod is a thankless role, as authors’ dream images of themselves so often are, and since he lacks a stake in the action and Faye doesn’t respond to his advances, he seems sexless and unmagnetic—a gentleman, all right. Maybe The Day of the Locust wouldn’t work however you adapted it, but if it wasn’t to be stylized as Tod’s phantasmagoria, Schlesinger and Waldo Salt might have done better to rethink the book radically and get rid of Tod. One possibility would have been to reconceive Homer the lump (Donald Sutherland), to take him out of his stupor and make him the central consciousness, because the theme doesn’t need a Yalie-aesthete observer, it needs someone to draw us into the story— the person to whom the story is happening so that we can see Los Angeles and the tinhorn show people through his duped, glamour-struck eyes. There’s nothing specific the matter with Sutherland’s performance as Homer, yet it’s just awful. How is a screen actor supposed to express the collective yearnings of the inarticulate masses? The film begins to drag the moment Homer meets Faye, and it never fully recovers; we re there with Tod, watching Homer knead his big hands into his thighs, instead of feeling the rage building in him. As Faye, Karen Black is far from the teenager who occupied Tod’s thoughts—the girl who looked “just born, everything moist and fresh, volatile and perfumed”—and his falling in love with her isn’t convincing. Besides, Karen Black’s lopsided caricature of a pretty face —her carnal squint and plush-pillow mouth—has been so overexploited that at the moment it’s hard to see her as anything but Karen Black. She s so recognizable and so jangly that she kills illusion. She was perfectly cast in Portnoy’s Complaint, but usually she can’t disguise her acting. She’s working seriously here; still, she spells out how she wants us to react, and she can’t bring credibility to Faye (who is, in any case, one of those literary concepts whose day has passed—hallelujah).
All the way through, the biggest crowd sequences are the least effective; Schlesinger’s direction generally seems to grow worse in direct ratio to the number of people on the screen. He frequently gets complex overtones going when he’s dealing with a couple of characters, particularly if he likes them, but the ideas he’s working on seem to become cheaper and more dubious as the crowd becomes larger. And when he goes into his gilded-irony numbers he loses the relations between people which he’s built up. Schlesinger is usually at his dead worst when he’s staging parties in the Sodoms of Darling and Midnight Cowboy, yet he’s drawn to playing the bitchy moralist and exhibiting the damned damning themselves. This picture, which calls for a startling visionary, a sensualist like the young Bunuel, is exactly wrong for his talents, and the erratic Waldo Salt script gives him prize opportunities to be obvious: potshots at anti-Semites and racists, and a big tabernacle session, with Geraldine Page simulating Aimee Semple McPherson’s erotic spiel, so that we’ll recognize that when people have nothing to live for they turn to crank religions and are served a sexual experience as a religious experience. It’s one thing for West to amuse himself by describing a costly blunder when an unfinished set collapses during the filming of a big battle for the film Waterloo, but, since this episode has no direct relationship to the story, when Schlesinger goes to all the trouble of staging the scene, West’s whimsical diversion on the expensive insanity of picture-making becomes an example of it. Waldo Salt tries to make the sequence integral, but all he comes up with is a cosmetic trick—a peewee Watergate analogy—by using the blunder as evidence that the producer whom Tod works for is corrupt: the sort of demonstration which could be made just as graphically by having the fellow put a social lunch on an expense account. Some of Schlesinger’s and Salt’s decisions seem unfathomable. Why didn’t they pull the action together by having the premiere that unleashes the furies be Waterloo, instead of a movie that has nothing to do with previous events? And what did they have in mind in the romantic framing device they provide? The picture opens with Pod’s arrival at the San Bernardino Arms, and then at the end, after the big Inferno finale, Faye comes to his room looking for him after he is gone. Gone where, one wonders. Is he meant to have left that corrupt city? (West didn’t.)
* * *
One can go back to most writers one admired and re-experience what one admired them for, but with Nathanael West you’re shocked by the élitist snobbery you once felt flattered to share. Cynical adolescents may accept The Day of the Locust as a brilliant Hollywood satire, on the order of The Loved One. What could be more attractive to them than West’s view of the middle-aged and old as enraged grotesques, incapable of pleasure? He doesn’t ask you to identify with his suffering grotesques—not even in Miss Lonelyhearts. He expects you to identify with his comic horror over their plight, and when you’re young you’re very vulnerable to West’s highbrow-Christ attitude. But why is The Day of the Locust locked into so many people’s minds as the definitive Los Angeles book? Maybe, in part, because of its thoroughgoing contempt for everything in Los Angeles. As a genre, Hollywood novels represent the screenwriters’ revenge on the movies. In Hollywood, the writer is an underling whose work is trashed, or, at best, he’s a respected collaborator without final control over how his work is used. Writing a Hollywood novel, he gets his own back: typically, he himself is the disillusioned hero, and the studio bosses, the producers, the flunkies are his boob targets—all those people who he feels have no right to make decisions about his work.
The writers romanticize the processes of corruption, seeing themselves as intellectual golden boys who go “out there”—as Edmund Wilson called it—and then turn their backs on that cheap glory, returning to write the fourth-rate book we’ve just plowed through. The Day of the Locust is far from fourth-rate, but it satisfies the loftiest expectations, since it deals with the victims of the movies—the poor in spirit who bought the commercial dreams. Edmund Wilson, one of the first to recognize West’s literary worth, appreciated the book in the terms that generations of book reviewers have been using for Hollywood novels: “Mr. West has caught the emptiness of Hollywood; and he is, as far as I know, the first writer to make this emptiness horrible.”
There’s some truth in what Wilson said. The novel is about something, but it’s not about as much as West wanted it to be—it’s not about everything. West blew up his observations into a sweeping vision, and John Schlesinger takes the book seriously in all the wrong ways and compounds its overblown thesis —Faye becomes the bitch goddess, Homer is crucified, and masked figures, God help us, march toward the camera. Schlesinger’s vice as a director has always been to score against his characters, crashing bricks on our skulls so we’ll recognize how hideous they are. This picture is his primal scream: it says that women tease and humiliate men, that people are being driven mad by a lack of sex and love; it says that there’s nothing to drink but poisoned milk and we’re all dying. West created the clichés; Schlesinger falls over them, heavily, humorlessly.
New Yorker, May 12, 1975
Also in Pauline Kael, Reeling, 1976