“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul.”

— Marilyn Monroe

Behold one of Hollywood’s greatest and most forgotten films, John Schlesinger’s 1975 “Day of the Locust,” a cynical and panoramic view of depression-era Hollywood and the “locusts” who populated that sun-scorched landscape.

Schlesinger, who gave us “Midnight Cowboy” and “Marathon Man,” both starring Dustin Hoffman, didn’t fare well by the critics and “Day” only won two Oscars, one for Burgess Meredith for supporting actor and one for Ann Roth for her costumes. Karen Black won a Golden Globe for her work.

But in the years since, “Day of the Locust” has found a permanent perch on the dais of great American films, and has become a cult film with cinema fans, one that features a stunning performance by Karen Black who plays the wannabe “greatest movie star in the world,” Faye Greener.

“Locust,” based on the novel by Nathaniel West (“Miss Lonely Hearts”) is the story of dreams, big Technicolor dreams, crushed dreams and broken hearts. In his novel, West irised down the hundreds of thousands to just the inhabitants of the San Bernadino Arms, a dusty Hollywood apartment house, a broken down, earthquake- damaged pile of stucco in the Hollywood Hills.

Here we meet Faye (the best role of Black’s career) as a young wannabe starlet who dreams of being the next Jean Harlow. Faye lives here with her ex-vaudevillian father, the impossibly brilliant Meredith. Meredith is Harry Greener, a long ago failed bit part actor who now prowls the Hollywood Hills with a shabby suitcase, selling a suspicious liquid that serves as a health drink or furniture polish, your choice.

Faye’s entourage of local dwellers and bit players who float around her in clouds of lust, include a cowboy extra, a Mexican cock fight promoter and the male lead/lover/hero, Willliam Atherton as Tod Hackett. Hackett is a Yale grad junior grade scenic designer whose apocalyptic designs foreshadow the last fifteen minutes of the film when all hell breaks loose at the Hollywood premier of the film within the film.

Atherton was the perfect choice to play the WASPish, ambitious East Coaster eager to climb the golden ladder to fame. When he moves into the cluster of shabby flats, his first glimpse of Faye is through a dirty window, as she sits bathed in golden sunlight. He loses his heart in a flash, and for the rest of the movie and his life, he is consumed with this white fudge fantasy who is the antithesis of everything he represents.

But Faye gives her love and attention like a delicious apple marmalade that she spreads, politically and foolishly, across a wide spectrum of admirers, always in small portions.

Of all her dalliances, Hackett is the most stable. But it’s Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland in the most brilliant performance of his life, as a sexually repressed accountant) who plays the largest role and whose selfless obsession with her brings the movie to its shattering crescendo.

“Day of the Locust” is filled with the greatest array of characters, both in number and color, since Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” or Edmund Goulding’s “Grand Hotel.” Each one keeps coming at us like a chorus line of magical cutouts. Many of Hollywood’s old guard keep popping up in cameo roles, like Billy Barty, Natalie Schafer, John Hillerman, director William Castle and Paul Stewart.

In the center, like a gorgeous butterfly chased by dozens of collectors with nets, is Black. Watching her scenes over and over, it occurs to this critic that, in this role at least, she was the descendent of Harlow and the forerunner of Marilyn.

“The Day of the Locust,” has its list of critics and fans. It’s a flawed masterpiece, to be sure, spectacular and over-long with some scenes that could have used the scissors of Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s brilliant editor who receives yet another award at this year’s festival.

Still, it ranks among the greatest of Hollywood epics, featuring the filming of a frightening and brilliant collapse of a major studio set, and the unforgettable breathtaking final scenes that revolve around the cataclysmic riot at the movie’s premiere, where the locusts, enraged by the vicious murder of a child, turn the streets of Hollywood into a flaming war scene. With palm trees aflame, people being trampled, Schlesinger gives us an apocalypse, with a symbolic crucifixion of one of the main characters.

Some saw it as overdone. Perhaps, but it was the real thing. The hordes that tore through the streets were all extras, real people without the cheating of computer generated crowds. When the smoke clears, and one of the survivors makes it back to the San Bernadino Arms, you’ll be exhausted. And you’ll know you’ve been to a movie.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

THE MOVIE

“Day of the Locust” shows at the Maine International Film Festival today at 3:15 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema screening room 2.

 

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