Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1975. Paramount Pictures, Long Road Productions. Screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by Nathanael West. Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. Produced by Jerome Hellman. Music by John Barry. Production Design by Richard Macdonald. Costume Design by Ann Roth. Film Editing by Jim Clark. Academy Awards 1975. Golden Globe Awards 1975.
William Atherton begins to work as an art director at a movie studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking up residence at a crummy apartment complex. The San Bernardino Arms (or “San Berdoo”) also houses a peroxided blond (Karen Black) who hopes to be a star, her faded vaudevillian father (Burgess Meredith) who now sells potions door to door, and an obnoxious child star (Jackie Earle Haley) who wears a curly blond wig and does abrasive song and dance numbers on everyone’s stoop. Atherton falls madly in love with the mercurial Black and is distressed when she takes up with a strange Donald Sutherland (playing someone named Homer Simpson), so he throws himself into work, while she descends into increasingly desperate methods to make a living that mean her dreams are increasingly less possible. John Schlesinger’s paean to the broken dreams of Tinseltown yore is acerbic and strange without ever being self-righteous, but the two and a half hour running time is not justified by a narrative that picks a new protagonist at every movement and features many uninteresting scenes of dialogue exchange. What makes it worth watching are two sequences of immense quality that are superbly directed and unforgettable: the destruction of a giant war film set is terrifying (and the aftermath with the bosses is the film’s harshest criticism of the old studio system), while a climactic riot begun by a grisly murder that turns into a nightmare of property destruction and frenzied crowds is a breathtaking accomplishment. Also featuring a terrific cameo by Geraldine Page as Aimee Semple McPherson (under a different name), this one is suggested only for the brave, as it is hard to sit through and will leave a dark and heavy emotional stain.