Day of the Locust (1975)
Written by Waldo Salt
Directed by John Schlesinger
There’s an exhausting sunbaked feeling surrounding Day of the Locust. The music and the soft lighting make conflicting claims, but if you pay close attention, you notice the rotten smell wafting up from underneath. You see it in the cracks in Tod Hackett’s apartment, hidden by a framed quote claiming the presence of God is protecting the people within. This is shown as the landlady tells Tod about the earthquake of 1932, where she and her tenants were spared while others died across the city. Tod ends up covering the crack with his artwork, slowly building a fresco of Hollywood in flames, hollow, empty faces screaming out.
Day of the Locust is the work of Nathanael West, a writer who worked in the Hollywood system, and these are his observations and feelings about this world of dreams. Tod Hackett (William Atherton) is a new hire in the studio art production department. His apartment in the San Bernadino Arms puts him in the proximity of Abe Kusich (Billy Barty), a little person, Adore Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), a bratty wannabe child star, and Faye Greener (Karen Black), a film extra with dreams of becoming a screen star. Hackett comes into this world of delusion, caught up in his own aspirations. It’s only a matter of time before Tod begins to see the cracks in this world waiting to burst open.
This is a flawed film, yet it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I always feel like rewarding ambition, to make such a nasty film directed at the industry that produced it is incredible. I do think some of the rage of the novel has been tempered to keep the movie from becoming totally unpalatable to a general audience. Though, the grand guignol of the finale will likely put off anyone that kept up with the film to that point. It is a gorgeous conclusion that catapults the film into total existential horror territory.
While Tod Hackett might be our protagonist, the core of the film rests with Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland, the Simpsons tv character is named after him). Homer is a heartbreaking and frustrating character. We learn he has a complicated past with a dancer who left him. Religion plays a significant role in his life, as he takes Faye and her alcoholic father (Burgess Meredith) to a revival meeting. That scene, in particular, is interesting because Homer is joyously transfixed while Faye gives into the theatricality of the service. There are quite a few moments where the sacred is overtaken by the profane, and gaudy spectacle of the revival is one of those. Homer is also sexually repressed, his nervous energy transferring into his hands, the knuckles continually cracking. Faye runs into the embrace of Homer because, as she tells Tod later, Homer expects nothing from her and worships her.
Karen Black, the film darling of the 1970s, was born to play Faye. She lifts the woman out of being a caricature into a frighteningly complex and pained character. Multiple times Faye says the Greeners are a line of actors. This is reflected in her father’s drunken nostalgia over his peak during the heyday of Vaudeville. Faye is always performing, and only rarely do we glimpse the real person. Her physical appearance is modeled after the starlets of the day, her speech intonation is the breathless seduction of what she has seen in the theater. If her character feels inconsistent, that tracks with how her audience changes. When Faye is sitting around a campfire with Tod and two other possible paramours, she is overly sexual and lust-filled. Later, Faye entertains Tod’s boss at the studio and speaks in an obviously phony refined Northeastern accent. The final scene of the film is all Faye’s, and we see she’s cursed to remain in Hell while people like Tod can escape.
People are lured to Hollywoodland with promises of dreams, but a couple of scenes really underline the grotesque nature of the fame industry. During the shoot for a Napoleon film, the screaming director orders his actors to ascend a hill. This is an artificial hill built in a soundstage. The workers failed to put up the caution signs warning that supports are not in place. Dozens of actors and crew are injured, having bones broken. Later, studio heads discuss how they are going to spin the situation and use an investigation to hide their liability. Then we see a brutal cockfight that forces the audience to watch the life be torn from a living creature while onlookers leer and maniacally cheer. These are foreshadowing to the horrors that take place in the conclusion, a descent into madness both material and psychological.
Last year I read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, the former child actor’s recounting of horrific stories from the Golden Age of Movies. The refrain seemed to be that people were expected to keep their real selves and their crimes hidden in favor of maintaining the studio heads. This resulted in a trail of suicides and mental breakdowns. So many stars that shined so bright crashed to the Earth in a blaze. Day of the Locust posits that this way of living in untenable, a quicksand that pulls people under to perpetuate itself. There will be an eventual bubbling over when people realize they’ve taken, pumping so much of their life and money into a false promise. While Day of the Locust may focus on Hollywood and the movie industry and speaks to the greater notion of the American Dream and a society based on bloated consumption.