By Jeremy Carr.
There has never been a self-referential Hollywood feature quite like 1975’s The Day of the Locust, a twisting and twisted tale of sullied lives, desperation, and, ultimately, sheer madness.”
Hollywood has always been rather good at building itself up, generating films that flaunt the glamour of Tinseltown, the glory of sun-kissed stardom, and the charm of movie magic. At the same time, and particularly in the hands of more iconoclastic filmmakers, Hollywood has also proved adept at tearing itself back down, exposing the seedy side of industry exploitation and dashed dreams to produce films that are by turns tragic and comic, cynical and downright scathing. But there has never been a self-referential Hollywood feature quite like 1975’s The Day of the Locust, a twisting and twisted tale of sullied lives, desperation, and, ultimately, sheer madness.
Based on the 1939 novel by Nathanael West and adapted by the Midnight Cowboy (1969) team of screenwriter Waldo Salt and director John Schlesinger, The Day of the Locust focuses its acerbic lens largely on a trio of outsiders. There is, first, Tod Hackett (William Atherton), toiling away in a large studio’s art department waiting for his big break, which he eventually gets when assigned to an ill-fated historical epic. Then there is his bungalow neighbor, Faye (Karen Black), an aspiring actress who does everything she can to make her presence known as she struggles to get so much as a bit part where she can utter even a single sentence. They initially form a relatively standard couple, hesitantly romantic and both longing for something grander than their current station. After a while, Homer Simpson (yes, Homer Simpson) enters the picture. Played by Donald Sutherland, he is a hapless accountant who also develops a lopsided and untenable relationship with Faye while losing himself in the enfolding mania of her social circle.
Atherton, in one of his earliest roles, just a year after his appearance in Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, essentially plays the straight man, observing his surroundings and those around him with detached bemusement. His commonplace demeanor works effectively enough as the surrogate vessel for our introduction to the sights and sounds of his—and the film’s—domain, but a drunken night out reveals an aggressive, depraved side hitherto unknown and significantly altering our perception of his character. With Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) behind her and Nashville coming out the same year as The Day of the Locust, Black was more established and has a more beguiling bearing. Much older than her character in West’s novel (just 17 in the book), Black adds a worn-down weariness and volatility that would likely have been difficult for a younger actress to convey, though she does it exceedingly well. Sutherland, meanwhile, is instantly peculiar and suspect; not because he seems remotely malicious, but because he is so awkward and so out of step with everyone else (he is at one point literally on the outside looking in). Fidgety and pained, Sutherland’s eccentric performance is the first in a series of creepily magnetic roles, soon followed by similarly unsettling characters in 1900 (1976) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976).
Set just before World War II, The Day of the Locust suggests a realm wholly of its own creation and existence. Tod and Faye attend a screening of one of her movies but quickly and carelessly depart when a newsreel showing Hitler comes on screen—that is not their world, nor is it their concern. This sense of exclusivity, no matter how negligible, feeds an undercurrent of infectious, infesting alienation that spreads throughout the picture.
In crafting this meandering film (running nearly two-and-a-half-hours), Salt and Schlesinger often ride a fine line between intrigue and bewilderment, allowing ample time to explore a vast cast of disparate people, canvassing the chaos, monotony, and uncertainty of their survival and the perversion that could easily—and often did—tarnish the golden age of Hollywood: a “mecca of broken dreams,” as a tour guide sardonically dubs the town while standing beneath the Hollywoodland sign and telling of a starlet’s suicide. The roundabout quality of The Day of the Locust can at times drag the picture down into periods of banality and even boredom, but these digressions also form part of the film’s mounting tension, a steady unease that builds and builds as individuals come and go and the tone fluctuates between capricious romance, comedy, calamity, and horror.
Along the way, some of those encountered have a more lasting impact than others, like Faye’s elderly father, a former vaudevillian turned door-to-door salesman played by Burgess Meredith. He embodies the film’s tonal sweep by coming across as pathetic and heartbreaking in one scene, humorous in the next, and vindictive in the one after that. By and large, though, and perhaps this is Hollywood in a nutshell, everyone is aiming for a unique singularity while also attempting to attain an acceptable conformity. From the ruthless studio head Helverston (Paul Stewart), balking at a catastrophic accident on set, to the diminutive Abe (Billy Barty), a nasty wannabe tough, to the obnoxious child star Adore (a young and astonishingly disturbing Jackie Earle Haley), it takes all sorts to make this town successful, and, as The Day of the Locust shows, it takes all sorts to make it a hellscape of depravity and danger.
The Day of the Locust bares imperfection in a way that is sharply condemnatory, at times quite callous, and almost always captivating.”
On that note, however, while there is an attempted rape and a few minor scenes of stereotypical Hollywood debauchery (gathering for a stag film and booze-fueled revelry), The Day of the Locust is surprisingly restrained in what it could have depicted. But that is not to say Schlesinger is always conservative. The picture’s diffused, engineered gloss and queasy illumination are uncomfortably affecting (cinematographer Conrad L. Hall received one of the film’s two Oscar nominations; Meredith received the other), while a delirious religious gathering evokes the “Jesus Saves” hysteria glimpsed and heard in Midnight Cowboy and a cockfighting sequence is undeniably alarming. Where The Day of the Locust differs from something like Midnight Cowboy, though, is in its lack of consideration. Certainly, Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso and Jon Voight’s Joe Buck are also alien social outcasts, and the earlier film similarly exposes the darkness behind closed doors, but we are almost immediately aligned with their despairing plight in a pitiless world. This is not the case with Tod, Faye, and Homer. They are curious characters to be sure (especially Homer), and there is a degree of sympathy for their conjoined and individual trials, but they are more like constructed movie character types than they are distinguishable humans.
Given its occasionally halting momentum and uncertain track, one can never be sure where The Day of the Locust is heading, so when the film does reach its climactic movement, taking place at the red-carpet release of a Cecil B. DeMille picture, the insanity that ensues is stunning. The picture descends into nightmarish bedlam, partly driven by the pandemonium of a star-studded premiere but mostly induced by a moment of awful savagery that is unexpected and undoubtedly the most memorable part of the movie. Of course, a radio announcer spins the mayhem as just another showbiz spectacle, but the truth is something more apocalyptic, more surreal, and more terrifying. But that’s Hollywood: pretention, deceit, and fabrication. Like the crack in the wall of Tod’s apartment, the disrepair can be easily covered with a painting or prettied by a flower, but the crack remains all the same. The Day of the Locust bares that imperfection in a way that is sharply condemnatory, at times quite callous, and almost always captivating. For all its harsh realities, the film is also removed from reality, an emblem of the dream factory’s capacity for fantasy and façade and a poignant critique of what one would never see splashed across the pages of a fan magazine.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.