With Nathanael West's 1939 novel as his vehicle, director John Schlesinger used what was left of the studio system to savage Hollywood in his seventies opus The Day of the Locust. Ironically, Schlesinger's film serves as both a cautionary tale of the sinister influence of Hollywood's dream factories and an object lesson of Hollywood's capacity to produce artful films. Certainly, no studio would fund this nightmare vision of Hollywood as Sodom today; Schlesinger would be lucky to get independent financing for a scaled-down version of his eccentric tour de force.
Making the most of Conrad Hall's Oscar-nominated cinematography, Schlesinger opens the picture with absurd glimpses behind the camera on a thirties costume drama: a cardinal reading Variety, a princess blowing bubble gum. Actors grumble about their dawn call time, apply greasepaint, and shuffle to be selected as extras. Soon, the bizarre reality recedes into a picture-perfect fantasy as the cameras roll on a glittery palatial party. This is Hollywood, where a studio pays artist anti-hero Tod Hackett (Willliam Atherton) not to work; he's a dime a dozen, waiting with the rest of the pack in a cramped bungalow. Soon enough, he's plucked from the frying pan and tossed into the fire by art director Claude Estee (Richard A. Dysart), who aptly describes Hollywood as "a disaster area."
Hackett is different than the rest: he intuits Hollywood's seediness and tries not to succumb to its deceptive promises (tellingly, he admires the earthquake fissure on the wall of his rented bungalow at the San Bernadino Arms). Here, food and drink and other distractions (like cock fights) replace sex, an endless source of apprehension for the characters. Formerly blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico) diagnoses the male itch for sex and the female urge for companionship. Hackett's Hollywood hopeful neighbor Faye Greener (Karen Black of Nashville) is the single hen circled by a bunch of rabid "cocks"; a bipolar virgin dreamer with a Tarzan Escapes poster over her bed, she maddens every man she denies, including Hackett and a schlub named Homer Simpson (played to mealy-mouthed perfection by Donald Sutherland).
Greener, of course, is doomed to be sullied by rapacious and whore-ridden Hollywood. Faye is one of dozens of hangers-on festering in the town's margins and failing to make headway: other denizens of Faye's apartment "complex" include an angry and profane little person played by Billy Barty, a family of Eskimos who came for reshoots of Nanook of the North and never left, a cruel and androgynous child actor called Adore (Jackie Haley) and his harridan stage mother. Perhaps the most tragic is Faye's roommate, her broken-down father Harry (Burgess Meredith, in an Oscar-nominated supporting turn). This washed-up vaudevillian in a bowler hat sells snake oil door to door, rattles everyone he meets with his hoarse cackle, and calls Faye a "C.T."; later, he finds himself on the receiving end of evangelistic showmanship, further proof that everything is for sale.
Of course, the sordid Hollywoodland (the sign was shortened a decade later) paints a profoundly disturbing portrait of America, its dreams run rough-shod over its mostly poor and impotent denizens (Simpson mutters, "Sometimes I'd wish I could tear it all down"). The "haves" neither know how to conduct business responsibly—Estee half-jokes, "Sometimes I wonder what we're doing here. Grown men making mud-pies to sell to the great unwashed"—nor what to do with what they've got, illustrated by the dead horse at the bottom of Estee's pool, a "must-have" fashion accessory. The height of authoritative arrogance is the blithe damage control following an on-set accident which rocks Hackett's set.
Estee calls Faye "a tin pan alley tune you can't get out of your head." The tune is "Jeepers Creepers," the film's funky anthem of mesmeric nonsense, destructive beauty, and obsession. Between invocations of the then-contemporary Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren song, Tod and Faye dance, while crying from hurt, to "Dancing on a Dime," a song of unattainable romantic perfection. Schlesinger's daringly poetic film culminates in a notoriously shocking climax to the themes of dog-eat-dog intolerance, insanity, and the worship of false gods: at the premiere of The Buccaneer (directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Hollywood's poster boy for excess), repression erupts forth. The show-runners may model "teasing" from behind their velvet ropes, but cruelty amidst the miserable masses is equally inevitable and horrifyingly human.
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