Futility and failed dreams, with a cast of hundreds, directed by John Schlesinger.
by Tom Burke
And it came to pass, just as Nathanael West told us: Hollywood collapsed and fell into this $88,000 hole on…
The wind machine is in the shot and it is not a period wind machine. The first assistant director rasps that through his bullhorn down the resonant length of Stage 15, Paramount, Hollywood, and the other assistant directors, the special‑effects and lighting men and the stunt coordinators converge upon John Schlesinger like flies on a crumb. Whispered consultations are held.
"Spray the f‑ thing black," is Schlesinger's decision. A thousand artists, actors and technicians wait in freeze frame until this is done, until five glossy Panavision cameras, turning with the whisper of feeding insects, focus again on an old Mitchell camera shaped like a 1937 Cord, resting on an ancient camera crane with iron struts like the Eiffel Tower's, as it feigns the shooting of "The Battle of Waterloo," the climactic scene of Waterloo, the movie‑within‑the‑movie of the novel The Day of the Locust. An asbestos stone farmhouse, set against an elaborate faked French‑countryside backdrop, bursts once more into nonconsuming flame cannons fire blanks, rented horses rear, and men dressed as soldiers charge up Mont St. Jean, a steep wood‑and‑canvas hill erected and dressed reverently all week like a Druid mound. The hill topples spectacularly in a complex mess of splintered scaffolding. Schlesinger grins, wickedly triumphant, not just because his shot has gone so well. In The Day of the Locust, the novel, Nathanael West meant the collapse of the Waterloo set as metaphor for the future collapse of Hollywood movies. He perceived, even in the Thirties, when he wrote his books, that no other culture in all the aeons had invented movies because no other culture had so needed opulent, perpetually replaceable illusions; that the illusions wouldn't work; that the industry that produced them would attract staggering multitudes of the psychotically vain and avaricious, the monumentally self‑serving, who would finally destroy it. In Hollywood at this moment, no one is more aware of this, or more removed from it and amused by it than John Schlesinger.
For in what the current illusionists hopefully refer to as the New Now Hollywood, Schlesinger has never been and is not now either new or now. In spite of Darling and Midnight Cowboy, both of which made a good profit, and Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which didn't, but was vaguely assumed by movie people to be "quality product," meaning it was authoritatively discussed but largely unattended; in spite of Oscars and the delivery to audiences of Julie Christie, Jon Voight and Alan Bates (previously unknown and mostly unemployed), Schlesinger has missed, or avoided, becoming really fashionable and therefore readily bankable. People don't want to finance his movies. He is not invited to Bel Air brunches where film deals are conceived, he is not asked to Sue Mengers' parties, Bob Evans doesn't give little dinners for him. Joyce Haber doesn't know from him. Hef doesn't ask him up to the Playboy Mansion West. His name is mush upon the palates of the gas‑station and parking‑lot entrepreneurs who back films; it is chronically mispronounced, the "ger" enunciated not like the "G" in Gene Kelly, as is correct, but like the "G" in Gulf and Western.
Partly, the problem is physical: Schlesinger is forty-eight, and though he sometimes wears Bel Air circuit uniforms, suedes and leathers do not quite hang right if you rather resemble Santa without the hair. Those directors for whom little dinners are given ‑Peter Bogdanovich, Billy Friedkin, Francis Coppola, Sydney Pollack, the Pointer Sisters of contemporary film making‑ are not only the correct age, a sort of perpetual thirty‑eight, and the correct size, also thirty‑eight, but they make correct movies, appropriate products to represent our nation at foreign film festivals. Their work is regarded, in Hollywood, as intelligent without being intellectual, and sensual while remaining heterosexual, whereas Schlesinger's themes are held to be dank, anti-American, too thoughtful, and rather too kinkily British. "Of course nobody in Hollywood had actually read The Day of the Locust," a film producer, not with Paramount, asserts. "You don't exactly see the book on Beverly Hills coffee tables. All they knew was that it was supposed to be Schlesinger's great Hollywood put-down. Except one big‑studio p.r. man, I swear this is true, he said to me, very seriously, 'I hear Schlesinger wants to bank this English sci‑fi, about bugs…
All of which vastly entertains Jolly John. The shooting of the collapse of Mont St. Jean is supposed to last four days; everyone knows it will last seven because Schlesinger is notoriously painstaking and will not be hurried, not by anybody's budget. This is the first day, Monday: after the shooting of an early, brief battle sequence involving only a few extras, studio carpenters begin hammering moodily about the great hill's superstructure, rigging cables that will be tripped for the final collapse. The wait for the next take will be long, and Schlesinger pauses, a rarity, in someone else's canvas chair, because Marge Champion's son, who plays a French drummer boy, is doing homework in his. "Whether I am an A party guest or a B party guest is of supreme disinterest to me," he offers, when asked. His teeth are perfect, and appear real. "I categorically refuse to attend these bloody Hollywood parties where movie deals are done, movies either get made or they don't get made. I put together my own packages. I don't want some hostess saying, 'Listen, dear, be a good boy and read this script, it's written by a brilliant client of ours and of course he knows that dear so‑and‑so is dying to work with you.' What utter bullshit. Too comical. Oh well, I'm not fashionable at home either. Critics everywhere dislike me, the studio boys blanch at the sight of me. They read Bloody Sunday and said, 'Uh, do those two men have to kiss? Could they just be involved on the phone?' Jesus! One simply stands one's ground, and if you think they are dense in this country, go to England, where there is no film industry now whatsoever without American backing.
The distribution and release patterns there are prehistoric: they sit around conference tables in Wardour Street and decide that if there is a bit of a queue outside Bloody Sunday in Leicester Square, then you distribute it as you would a James Bond. 'Well, this ought to go in university towns,' they say, and then release it when the students are on holiday…”
A great clattering up on the mountain stills him; one repeats what Lindsay Anderson said of Bloody Sunday at a London cocktail party: "We have better dramas than that on the telly." Schlesinger does something that he does, he smiles as if his jaws were wired with steel and he was testing its tensile strength. "Well, there's this sad lack of generosity, this hideous sour bitchiness among British artists that I deplore, it's so boring. In England, it matters very little whether you succeed or fail; success is rather unfashionable, whereas here it counts for everything, and in that sense I am very American. I am terrifically volatile and emotional and enthusiastic, and I want everyone around me to be so." Then, sweetly, "I really have no quarrel with Hollywood, quite the contrary: I'm mad for the place."
He's on his feet, speaking with satiric relish. "Where else could Kathryn Kuhlman have become a great star? When I first saw Hollywood, in 1967, I'd just read Locust and Jesus, how bizarre: West realized that this was America, this city, the dream ended here! I'd come from London for the premiere of Far From the Madding Crowd, which had been a disaster in New York, and all the MGM brass met me at the L.A. airport looking sepulchral‑they ushered me down that concourse with those incredible children's paintings as if to the grave; in the limousine they said, 'We've canceled the parties but we can't cancel the premiere.' I paid no attention. I was already overwhelmed with the garish quality of the city, the smog like an enchanted mist, people gardening in the afternoon in nightdresses and pajamas! Sprinkler systems with no one tending them, watering grass, cement, finally watering water! Film sets spilling out into the streets, Mayan cottages, Assyrian split‑levels, what delightful zingyness! There are no seasons, it's always spring, even the time of day is unimportant, the sun blesses everyone all the time, it doesn't matter if you work, if you get out of bed, if you shave. The first day here I drove past a cemetery and saw a woman planting, on a grave, a plastic Christmas tree, in October!"
"Sir, excuse me," people are saying to him during this: without interrupting himself, with only nods and signs, he has approved changes in the placement of a tree on the mountain, in the color of the French soldiers' muskets, in the drape of the Scotch Greys' kilts. Polanski has this when he works, so does Fellini ‑a curious ability to switch concentration from the trivial to the vital to the crucial fluidly, impartially
"…And of course West saw that the movie stars who press buttons in their living rooms and a Cézanne ascends into the ceiling to reveal a screen for home showings, that they were boring and not representative, while the anonymous, the rootless, the derelicts who came here for the orange juice were the town. It's rather like Israel, where everyone came from somewhere else to find the promised land. Absolutely no reality, because there's no continuity: the sidewalks are empty, one sees only the heads of people in moving cages of metal and glass. Their eyes perpetually price things; all the houses are for sale, not actually to sell but to determine the worth of the place. Why not send your daughter into the streets to see how much she can raise? And of course there is no proportion, the cars are too large, the road signs too big to read. But my God, the faces! That first trip, in sixty‑seven, I'd begun work with Waldo Salt on the Midnight Cowboy script, and some of the, uh, more far‑out moments we used in it happened to me here, not in New York: the woman in the all‑night diner who is on an acid trip, running the toy mouse over the little boy's face, I saw that on Sunset Strip! And West had seen all this too, when it was not at all 'in' to examine Hollywood so savagely. 'Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous,' that's the most important line in the novel…"
A lady extra, costumed in musty Thirties soigné, sidles up to create a pause. "Uh, Mr. Schlesinger, may I introduce you to somebody?" When he turns she offers a young man who smiles manically. "This is Jimmy Boyd."
He says, "Nice to meet you, John. I heard you've rented Michael Butler's house? You took it with all the paintings in it and everything? I looked at it, I was thinking of buying it. Wild house."
"Well, it's for sale," Schlesinger explains cordially. When the boy is gone, Schlesinger's p.r. man says, "He was a child star, John. He recorded a song called, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Schlesinger's grin is Hogarthian, as he makes another mental note.
on Tuesday morning, the ambience of Stage 15 is decidedly schizoid: four hundred extras have been dressed for the movie‑within‑the‑movie to resemble English infantrymen, French grenadiers, carpenters, gaffers, grips and key grips, script girls and assistant directors; they are indistinguishable from the real carpenters, gaffers, et cetera, as in a Pirandello play. Schlesinger is picking his way gingerly under the hill's scaffolding, holding large storyboards on which each shot of the collapse scene has been sketched in sequence. "Today I am totally paranoid," he announces cheerfully, gesturing at the hill's fragile‑looking underbelly, its intricate framework of beams, poles, joists, laths, struts, buttresses and transverse beams, most of pine, others, the collapsible ones, of balsa wood soft as hard cheese. "I have no idea which of these cables sets off the collapse, so mind you don't touch them or the f‑ thing comes down on our heads." Saying this, he trips on a cable, the timbers tremble, as do we all. "Two areas up above on the hill are rigged to fall through as soon as anybody steps on them, this morning a workman stepped on them and fell right through, nearly killed himself. We'll use five cameras simultaneously from every possible angle: above, underneath, two sides, long shots of the whole bloody mess. Here's the sequence, on these boards: we see the troops in combat, Napoleon's lieutenant killed, lots of blood and smoke, and the old camera on the crane filming it, so we know we're on a movie set; carpenters are still hammering at the top of the hill so we know the set's not finished. Then an overzealous assistant director ‑here, in this sketch, with the plus fours and the megaphone‑ he shouts at the camera, 'Keep rolling,' and orders the soldiers to follow him up the hill. He falls through first, then the soldiers, this middle section goes, finally the whole mountain crashes down. We can't redo the last big collapse without days of rebuilding so it's got to be right on the first take. Too many variables, it's in the lap of the gods," and satirically he crosses himself.
A circling camera crane, not the antique one, misses decapitating him by six inches. Ignoring it, he turns to confer with the Coordinator of the Stunt Men, a weird youth with dilated eyes and a military demeanor who addresses Schlesinger thus: Yes, SIR, the men will be