24 January 2009 | bkoganbing
A Plague Descends
It took over 35 years and the collapse of the big studio system before anyone in Hollywood, in this case Paramount, brought Nathanael West's novel The Day Of The Locust to the big screen. That climax at a Hollywood premiere is certainly not something the studios would want to show the public as a typical event.
The book is based on West's experiences while writing B pictures in Hollywood during the Thirties and some of the characters he knew. His main protagonist is William Atherton, an aspiring artist who is making a living doing set designs. That's one competitive business and he's got to go over his immediate supervisor John Hillerman's head to get his work noticed by producer Richard Dysart. Like the rest of West's characters, he's sacrificed pride a long time ago. It's his eyes that we see the other characters through.
But he's a paragon of virtue compared to starlet Karen Black who will do anything and anybody to advance her career. Atherton would love to get something going with her, but he's mindful of how amoral she's become. Her only real attachment is to her father, an ex-vaudevillian and now door to door salesman, Burgess Meredith. Even trying to do his shtick with sales doesn't gain him clients.
But the saddest one in the lot and the fellow with the best performance is Donald Sutherland who is an outsider to the film people, a businessman named Homer Simpson who Black uses and abuses. Sutherland's performance is not too different from the hapless cartoon character. Imagine the cartoon Homer Simpson dealing with real life heartbreak and you've got Sutherland's character. The line between tragedy and comedy can be a very thin one.
Geraldine Page has a brief role as an Aimee Semple McPherson like evangelist, shamelessly bilking the Depression's downtrodden. She's great in the part as is Jackie Earle Haley, a really rotten child star of whom I'd love to know who West's model was.
The Day Of The Locust was directed by John Schlesinger who got an Oscar for The Midnight Cowboy. Like that film, The Day Of The Locust deals with some fringe people just trying to get by. Burgess Meredith got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and the film also got a nomination for Costume Design.
Before Newton Minow referred to television as a vast wasteland. I think that's what Nathanael West had in mind in writing about his experiences in the movie capital. I'd recommend seeing the film to see how well Schlesinger put West's vision across.