The Day of the Locust
February 11, 2003
Based on Nathanael West’s famous novel of the same name, The Day of the Locust (1975) is a scathing indictment of the Hollywood studio system. John Schlesinger’s film recalls a bygone era when the Hollywood sign still read Hollywoodland and people flocked to California dreaming of making it big in the movies. His movie portrays Hollywood as a town full of bitter, broken dreams. Paramount has finally released this respected film on DVD but was it worth the wait?
Tod Hackett (Atherton) works at Paramount Pictures in the late 1930s as an aspiring art director. He lives in a bungalow complex near a starlet named Faye Greener (Black) who is also trying to make it in the business. They fall in love (sort of) and Hackett ambitiously works his way up the studio ladder but is it for himself or is he doing it to try and impress Faye? The movie shows how amoral social climbers like Hackett excel while good intentioned innocents like Faye’s new boyfriend, Homer Simpson (Sutherland) are chewed up and spit out.
While Conrad Hall’s Academy Award nominated cinematography lulls one into thinking that this is going to be a nostalgic ode with its soft focus photography, which gives every scene a golden, angelic hue. In sharp contrast are the two main characters, Hackett and Faye, who are mean, selfish and self-absorbed people. She has him break into a movie theatre display and steal a still from a film that she was in. She then ditches her boyfriend (Hopkins) at the time who helped break the display and makes him walk home. When Hackett tells Faye that he loves her, she rebuffs him saying that she could only love a handsome, rich man. They are both superficial and are therefore perfect for each other.
William Atherton is known to most people as the guy-you-love-to-hate in such films as Real Genius (1985) and, most famously, Ghostbusters (1984). It’s a little odd seeing him in such a substantial role but it would seem that after this performance he would be forever typecast as this kind of character. He just naturally has that smug look of superiority—perfect for the role of a slimy studio executive.
Karen Black, who appeared in all kinds of classic movies in the ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Nashville (1975), does a great job as a superficial starlet. She thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread but really has little talent. Burgess Meredith’s plays an old, pathetic door-to-door polish salesman by the name of Harry Greener who tries unsuccessfully to use Vaudevillian pizzazz to sell his product. He represents an outdated style of entertainment that had been replaced by Hollywood movies at that time. For every Marx brothers who were able to make the transition from the stage to the screen, there were hundreds of ones who didn’t and ended up living in the gutter or worked awful jobs just to eke out an existence.
The Day of the Locust shows how life constantly imitates art. During the filming of a grand battle scene, a huge portion of the set collapses injuring several cast and crew members. It is a chaotic mess as it becomes impossible to discern which soldier extras have fake blood on them and which ones are really hurt and bleeding. The line between art and artifice is blurred.
Nothing. Not even a trailer. For such a highly regarded film this is a major crime. Perhaps Criterion could revisit this film at a later date with a souped-up special edition. And maybe they could clean up the print which is incredibly grainy and in dire need of a digital cleaning.
The Day of the Locust is a behind-the-scenes drama that exposes the dark side of Hollywood: the petulant child stars, the superficial starlets and desperately ambitious executives. It is a scathing critique of the Hollywood business and the sycophants who leech of the system. It’s a shame that Paramount couldn’t have put more work into this disc with a better looking transfer and some decent extras.