Jan. 15, 2011

The Day of the Locust (1975)
Grade: 75/100

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: William Atherton, Karen Black, Donald Sutherland

What it's about. Set in 1938 Hollywood. Young, ambitious illustrator William Atherton arrives to conquer Tinsel Town. He moves into a seedy complex with eccentric neighbors, most of whom are also trying to make it in the movies.

They include flirtatious and selfish extra actress Karen Black; her aging, alcoholic, ex-Vaudevillian father Burgess Meredith; malicious child actress Jackie Earle Haley (yes, I know Haley is male); and feisty aging midget Billy Barty.

Within this group, Atherton's career appears the most promising. He's already moved beyond his increasingly jealous boss, John Hillerman, and ingratiated himself with the deeply jaded Richard Dysart, who oversees Paramount's sets. Dysart introduces Atherton to Natalie Schafer of "Gilligan's Isle" infamy, who runs a high-class cathouse.

Atherton is more interested in someone whom money can't quite buy: Karen Black. Atherton wants Black, but although she values him (and his film connections), she won't commit to him, or sleep with him. She has other boyfriends as well: cowboy Bo Hopkins, cockfighter Pepe Serna, and socially awkward sugar daddy Donald Sutherland. She moves in with Sutherland, because he is able and willing to pay for her dresses.

But sooner or later, it becomes obvious even to Sutherland that he is being played for a sucker, and during the mob scene for the premiere of The Buccaneer, Sutherland finally loses it.

Geraldine Page shows up briefly as an over-the-top faith healer.

How others will see it. Director Schlesinger was highly respected in 1975, and that led to a few prestigious award nominations despite mixed reviews and a lackluster box office. Burgess Meredith was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor, a nod he also received from BAFTA and the Golden Globes. The latter also nominated Karen Black for Best Actress.

Today, the film is relatively little known. At imdb.com, it has received 2,308 user ratings, compared to, for example, the 258K user ratings for The Godfather: Part II, released the year before. Nonetheless, the user ratings are respectable at 7.0 out of 10, and are fairly consistent across both genders and all adult age groups.

How I felt about it. The Day of the Locust has no shortage of messages, some of which may even be true:

Among all the hard, unpleasant truths, what is the biggest lesson of all? If it isn't working, walk away from it. That is what Atherton apparently does at the end, since he has moved out when Karen Black tries to get the hook in him again.