The Day of the Locust November 18, 2021
2 Hrs., 24 Mins.
ohn Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) says what movies about Hollywood love to say almost as much as they do that “making movies is magical”: that this city is much more a town defined by shattered success and cynical commodification than it is a beautiful place where dreams have an unusual ability to come true. Stale primary statement notwithstanding, this adaptation of Nathaneal
West’s 1939 novel still has a few things that make it stick out among the Hollywood-movie crowd. It has an inspired, often garishly bright visual style that replicates the texture of a 1930s drama (the film is set in 1931) with a certain nauseousness, forced cheer. It also has a bracing combination of the antic and the pessimistic that makes this California town feel closer to purgatory or a nightmare than plain and simply a cruel place. (Once The Day of the Locust gets to its finale, it resolves to make its official descent into Hell.) Notions of Hollywood’s perceived goodness being more affecting than its realities to outsiders and newcomers are showily epitomized when a character, at the start of the movie, places a pretty red flower in a crack in his new apartment’s wall.
Aside from these interesting idiosyncrasies, The Day of the Locust never really comes together. It doesn’t have any emotional pull — the drama has an airless sadness to it. And all the characters, basically a line-up of grotesques, feel less like people and more representatives of the various kinds of misery with which the Hollywood machine can infect a person once they’ve come into contact with it. The story begins when a recent Yale graduate, Tod Hackett (William Atherton), arrives in town looking for work — something preferably related to art (he comes from a design background) and the movies. He’s quickly hired as an illustrator at a major studio, then slowly makes his way up the ranks. He’s a sort of flat character, though that’s by design. Tod is the somewhat detached observer meant to guide us through a movie that will reveal itself to be a larger portrait of failure — a portrait of people who can only dream of getting work that matters as much as his does. (And his barely matters in the grand scheme of things.) Their despair employs them full time.
Tod rents an apartment at the no-frills San Bernardino Arms and gets involved with a neighbor, Faye Greener (Karen Black), who fancies herself a starlet whose big break is coming any day now. (She makes her money through work as an extra until that time comes.) Through her, Tod also gets to know Harry (Burgess Meredith), Faye’s impish former vaudevillian dad whose inability to make it big eats at him so much that he treats everything as a performance almost as a way to cope; Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), a sexually repressed accountant who loves Faye and spoils her in lieu of any real romance; and other oddball figures who have in some way been damaged obsessing over the wide gulf between dream and achievement.
These performances are all technically proficient, yet they’re all missing something. (This excludes Meredith — he’s startling.) I don’t think that’s the fault of the actors: you can’t pinpoint them doing anything in particular that makes these characters have a tinniness. I think it instead has to do with how the story, as depicted by Schlesinger, doesn’t let them come alive. They’re too strong of symbols. Tod is the bright-eyed outsider whose optimism is in danger; Faye the never-to-be movie star who will eventually succumb to giving up; Homer the timid human blob who lives vicariously through others to a dangerous degree. The Faye character has an additional offness: in West’s book, Faye is 19, whereas Black is 36 here; the character might have made more sense on screen if she were played by an ingenue who could convince us for a time that her angling for stardom isn’t completely delusional.
This lack of life makes it hard to care about what happens in The Day of the Locust. When the infamous ending arrives — a full-on apocalypse brought on by an angry mob that rouses awake at the premiere of a new Ginger Rogers movie — the movie hasn’t earned something so epically cataclysmic, even though this final sequence is, taken on its own accord, wonderfully put together. (Visually it really does resemble a frenzied locust swarm where the locusts themselves have been creepily replaced by sad-eyed people happy to have an opportunity for catharsis.) This specular ending also works as the final piece of the movie’s overarching allegory — that the American dream so many people ache for (here exemplified by the belief that fame awaits) is actually a carefully constructed sham, and that when this is realized the devastation is like a personal explosion. But the ending is so markedly a “final piece” that we watch it not as much genuinely unnerved as we do impressed by its staging and the idea that drives it. That feeling permeates The Day of the Locust — never really invested but nonetheless admiring of what it commits to film. C+