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Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and Burgess Meredith star in a black-hearted satire on 1930s Hollywood. By Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger
Nathaniel West's novel about the sordid reality behind the American Dream factory is one of the most incisive dissections of the film industry ever written; as caustic, comic and lyrical as anything by F Scott Fitzgerald. Director Schlesinger's adaptation saw him reuniting with Midnight Cowboy screenwriter Waldo Salt. The result was a flop, audiences unhappy with the pessimistic tone and an ending that borders on the surreal. Time, however, reveals a fascinating, if flawed, example of the film industry turning the lights on itself and finding nothing there but darkness.
The story follows the failing fortunes of a group of Hollywood wannabes in 1938. At the group's core is trashy starlet Faye (Black), no stranger to the casting couch. In love with her is designer Tod (Atherton). But Faye has her eye on tepid accountant Homer Simpson (Sutherland - Matt Groening fans may ponder the significance of that). It's this love triangle which underpins events, but much of the pleasure rises out of the desperate screw-ups who surround them; Faye's former Vaudeville star father (Meredith), a scary child actor, a desperate dwarf and a lethal stuntman.
Schlesinger follows West in making little attempt to keep these characters likeable. But they are very vividly drawn, there isn't a bad performance and great set-pieces - a cockfight, a movie premiere - highlight their brutal, freakish world. The conclusion, a disaster set in motion by Simpson after Faye has finally pushed him too far, is both macabre and melodramatic. But the scope and relentlessness of the satire, and the grim delight Schlesinger seems to take in it, make this a spectacular and memorable analysis of the disillusion behind the illusion.
By turns gaudy, bitter and occasionally just plain weird, but great performances and magnificent design make this a spectacular and highly entertaining film about Hollywood and its attendant horrors.
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On Film4: 31 August 2014