IT HAS BEEN a bad year for the classics of twentieth century American literature. Following in the tradition of the shoddy treatment given Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, director John Schlesinger has successfully denuded Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locusts of most of its brilliance, leaving behind a heap of gaudy celluloid.
Schlesinger's first mistake was to attempt to induce a plot line into a novel which has no story. West's book is less a novel than a series of sketches of the seamier side of life in Hollywood which he combines into a collage of circus-like characters, aggressively pursuing empty dreams, turning vicious at the earliest opportunity to express their frustration and disillusionment.
While it is true that West's book does have a narrator, he's never allowed to intrude as clumsily into the scenes he is observing as he does in the film. It is certainly not a very successful device in the novel, probably not even a necessary one, but in the movie the narrator becomes an embarrassment, a burden that the film cannot support and which finally drags it down to a level of silly redundancy.
The first scenes are done in a saccharine style that only certain parts of Gatsby could equal (the scene where Redford and Farrow take nearly half a minute to run into each other's arms across a seemingly endless expanse of screen comes to mind). Locusts opens with Tod (William Atherton) driving Faye Greener (Karen Black) through the streets of Beverly Hills, past the well-cultivated lawns of auspicious mansions, as "Isn't it Romantic?" plays on the soundtrack.
The movie does not remain at this high pitch of sentimentality. Schlesinger's real intentions quickly become clear. Tod will serve as our eyes. He is trustworthy enough--he seems to wear his Ivy League diploma on his face, a combination of Yankee "good sense" and rather innocent sexuality intended to instill confidence.
THERE WILL BE no real story, there will only be Tod's gradual insight into the violence which lies beneath this palm and stucco paradise. Nothing is going to happen--the undercurrent is always there, whether Tod perceives it or not, so the holocaust of the final moments is a foregone conclusion.
While Schlesinger has in most respects been overly faithful to the book, in his attitude towards Tod he has clearly missed West's irony and distance. Tod is basically a fool, with high pretentions of being an artist that underscore his self-important airs. From West's novel:
Yes, despite his appearance, he was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes. And "The Burning of Los Angeles," a picture he was soon to paint, definitely proved he had talent.
But Schlesinger has chosen to ignore this detachment and tries to get us involved in Tod's search for true romance and success. It's an impossible proposition, for he is nominally a "real person" among a gallery of freaks, and his problems are simply not that interesting.
What is interesting is the freak show, the long line of grumpy midgets, washed-out showmen, and childishly cruel, empty-headed blondes seeking to fill the vacuity of their existence with rich and "devilishly" handsome men. The performances in the film are on the whole superb. Burgess Meredith is excellent as Harry, Faye's father, who has come to Los Angeles after a long career on the vaudeville circuit, now reduced to selling bogus cure-alls door-to-door to the indifferent and openly contemptuous rich. He is the compulsive actor, always "on", even in the midst of his death throes, only rarely exposing the layer of bitterness which rages underneath his act. Contemplating the reasons that he was never able to succeed in show business, he attributes his failures to the dominance of the industry by Jews.
One of the most powerful sequences in the movie is a fight he has with his daughter. He emits a terrifying, maniacal laugh and she pleads, them demands that he stop. He continues to laugh and she responds with a weapon from her own arsenal, singing "Jeepers, creepers! Where'd y'get them peepers," aggressively shaking her breasts in his face. The scene ends with Faye slapping him, then explaining patiently to Tod that she had to do it, for his own good.
As Faye, Karen Black displays the selfishness and banality of a seductive blonde eternally on the make. Always on the defensive, she seeks to extract what she can from any situation while giving up as little as possible. When Tod asks why she has taken up with Homer Simpson, a retired clerk from the midwest, she brays impatiently that Homer is the only one who "doesn't want anything from me."
IT'S TOO BAD that Schlesinger didn't have the courage to be a little bit more adventurous with his material, because there are many things intrinsic to the novel that he does well. What he is particularly good at is capturing the character of the Hollywood hangers-on, those people who come to funerals and sit in the back row nervously tapping their autograph books with their pens, their eyes gazing mindlessly into space, nervous smiles on their faces, waiting for some big star to arrive and inject some excitement into their lives. Their relationship with the film idols is a symbiotic one, of the sort that Norman Mailer described in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, a sexual excitement that feeds the emotional needs of the star and that makes her feel all the more alluring, thereby upping the ante, raising the fans' tension one ontch higher, and so the game continues.
But, as Mailer points out, implicit in this magnetism between fan and star is an ever increasing potential for violence. It is simply a matter of tease on the star's part, she never intends to let the public devour her. But passions have been set into play and they cannot be neutralized by an act of will. The other side of adulation is murder.
It is murder we have in the last ten minutes of the film, murder on a scale of horrifying proportions. The occasion is the premiere of a movie. The excited crowd throbs as it watches Nelson Eddy, Dick Powell, and Jeanette MacDonald emerge from sleek limousines, it bursts into applause as the Hitler look-alike at the microphone announces their arrival.
HOMER IS WANDERING aimlessly through the crowd, Faye having just left him. He sits down on a bench, oblivious to the mob around him. Adore, a child actor, who has been taunting him throughout the movie as a Nazi spy, now appears again to harass him. Homer finally loses control and attacks the boy, unleashing the torrent of violence raging inside him against this city where he came to find his paradise and that has given him only pain and humiliation.
The city responds in kind, for it is a city of bitter, empty people waiting for the occasion to express the bitterness within them. They go crazy, literally tearing Homer apart, turning over the limousines that only moments ago they had greeted with their frenzied love, men pawing animal-like at women's breasts and legs, smashing windows and looting stores.
All of this is done convincingly and terrifyingly. But Schlesinger's original error, his failure to structure the film gracefully, resurfaces to ruin the devastating effect these last moments have had. Tod is an eyewitness to these events, and he sees the scene as a parallel to his vision of the "Burning of Los Angeles"--this is the holocaust. In his mind Tod sees the people in the mob linking their arms together, their faces transformed into ugly papiermache masks, while the soundtrack overlays the scene with incantations reminiscent of the theme of the green-skinned guards of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. The whole thing is too inane to be believed.
I'M NOT CONVINCED that it was impossible to adapt West's novel into an effective movie. What would have been required was a little more daring, a little more imagination on Schlesinger's part. He might have forsaken the gaudy, lush colors with which he chose to evoke Hollywood for something simpler, more barren, might even have filmed it in black and white, thereby allowing his excellent cast to draw their weird, surrcal characters against a stark background instead of having them clash confusingly with their environment. He would have done well to have completely eliminated Tod and had more confidence in his own cinematographic eye to paint the spectacle.
At one point Tod is told by his boss that his sketches for movie sets are good, but a little too "facile." But don't worry, he says, "out here that can work to your advantage."