“The Day of the Locust” is an edgy take on lust, greed, fame and Hollywood. It takes place in the 1930s, but remains relevant today. It is also a successful adaptation of an accomplished novel of the same name by Nathanel West (named one of TIME’s “the 100 best English-language novels 1923-2005”).
I cannot say I remember many “grand” novels who were turned into amazing movies. It is an even rarer case when I like a movie more than the famous original (and I read the book first). This is such an exception.
Because of the overabundance of masterpieces in 1970s American cinema, some great movies are a bit forgotten nowadays. Let’s look at the movies of 1975. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jaws. Dog Day Afternoon. Three Days of the Condor. Nashville. 1975. Just one year. Can you wonder why “The Day of the Locust” could feel a bit outdated compared to those movies, taking place in 1930s?
Why West’s novel should matter today?
“By paying homage to the Hollywood machine and its invisible workers, West was able to illuminate the film business from the bottom up. There is not much beauty to be found in what he called the ‘Dream Dump,’ or in his chronicle of American life in the Thirties. It’s all violence all the time, with sickening scenes that still retain the power to shock. W.H. Auden would call West’s people ‘cripples.’ They weren’t cripples to West, who lovingly described his excitable characters as ‘screwballs and screwboxes.’ His original title for the book, The Cheated, accurately reflected their frustration”
(read the whole review by Marion Meade here).
The novel’s protagonist is a young man named Tod Hackett. I think many young people could identify with him: a true artist compromising himself for money. A Yale graduate could starve as a painter or earn some money as a designer in Hollywood. He chooses the second option, but remains aware of vanities and emotional void that surrounds him. Todd is an outsider and an artist which gives him a unique perspective to see what’s going on. He becomes infatuated with Faye Greener, an attractive starlet without talent but with high aspirations.
Many grotesque figures appear in the book, the most important ones are: Homer Simpson, a lonely and inhibited businessman exploited by Faye; Faye’s father, an ex-vaudeville clown who sells homemade silver polish door-to-door; and Adore Loomis, a cruel young boy whose mother has been stylizing as a child star.
The movie was directed by John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy,” “Marathon Man,” “Billy Liar”) and follows the book closely. It is actually extremely faithful towards the book. Paradoxically, it is to its disadvantage at times. Although the novel is very short, it drags for its first one third. As the movie does not skip anything, it repeats this mistake. I feel that at least a few episodes could be cut for the sake of brevity (total 144 minutes is too long in this case).
But the acting is without a miss. Karen Black and Donald Sutherland are perfect in their roles. Jackie Earle Haley is amazingly creepy in his early role as Adore. But it is William Atherton’s acting that impressed me most, as you can just read Tod’s thoughts on his face (instead of hearing voice-over). You see that he realizes how phony Faye is but he falls for her anyway. And it’s acted with just a slight change in his facial expression. It’s a shame I never paid any attention to William Atherton before.
1970s. You have no CGI, but stunts, make-up, fake blood, real fire. And real crowd, not multiplied individuals which were created at movie studios. Very risky movie to fund as it looks very expensive. It is a shame no such risk would probably be taken today.
The movie depicts people pursuing dreams and fantasies. They fool themselves and ignore reality. Everything in Hollywood is attractive for the crowd. A place of somebody’s suicide is a tourist attraction. A funeral house is a great hideout when waiting for Clark Gable to arrive at the cemetery.
It’s far more interesting to see members of this crowd than attractions they are waiting for. In any other job they could be happy if they could pay their rent, etc. But everybody desires something more. Their need of power, success, money and sex is killing them.
It is not a film about some wannabe actress/actual prostitute and all the fools that want to sleep with her. Nor it is a movie about failed actors, performers and filmmakers. It rips the covers of human beings and shows what hides underneath: human desires, animalistic forces, the utter need to either copulate or destroy. It is not only a movie about Hollywood but about the mob mentality and the repressed individuality.
The last moments will reward you for your patience with some unforgettable images.
Just to give you the glimpse of what a ride the ending is I give you two pictures.
I cannot remember reading so many comments/reviews/etc. such as “this movie was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen” about a non-horror movie before. Consider yourself warned. And invited to see this movie.
“Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those peepers?
Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?”