Films That Expose Hollywood: The Day of the Locust

The Movie Sleuth continues its expedition into films that expose Hollywood with one of the more disturbing entries into the thread.

'And may I see this storage facility?'
Most cinephiles regard the first instances of auto-critique within the moviemaking machine known as Hollywood to be 1950s features like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, shining a spotlight on the darker underbelly of Tinseltown's inner workings.  In actuality, however, the vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood as a kind of apocalyptic Hellscape of sin and avarice, forgotten fame and broken dreams began much sooner with Nathanael West's 1939 nightmarish novel The Day of the Locust.  Closer to David Cronenberg's recently released Maps to the Stars than anything, the story concerns an ensemble cast of characters struggling to make it in the film industry only to find more disappointment and despair.  Eventually, the satirical, episodic journey through executive producers' drunken orgies, unsimulated cock fighting and egregious nastiness from all sides boils over into absolute pandemonium at a Hollywood film premiere that erupts into a violent and chaotic riot echoing the grotesque and terrifying imagery of Hieronymous Bosch and Gerald Scarfe.  The whole film is a gradual buildup to, as Dr. Venkman termed it in Ghostbusters, 'a disaster of Biblical proportions' and in 1975, one daring film artist attempted to bring the bleak and disturbing tale debunking the American dream as Hollywood to the silver screen as a literal minded big budget epic with one of the most terrifying riots ever staged for a fictional film.

All Hell is about to break loose...
Produced by former schlock maestro William Castle (who also cameos as a reckless director) and starring William Atherton as Tod (yes, Walter Peck from Ghostbusters), The Day of the Locust tells of a disillusioned painter looking for conceptual artist work in Hollywood where he meets the aspiring but woefully hopeless actress Faye Greener, played to pitch perfection by Karen Black.  Coming off of her Academy Award nominated performance in Five Easy Pieces, no one could play the ditzy, vacant bombshell quite like Karen Black.  Her performance as an oversexed, flaky extra is at once convincing, intentionally annoying and at times compassionate when she comes to care for her pathetic, boozing father Harry (Burgess Meredith as you don't want to see him).  Meredith's always been a charismatic character actor, best known as Rocky's personal trainer, but here he goes out on a limb to look like a withering ghost with more alcohol than medicine in his blood.  Probably the most complex and difficult performance of the movie goes to Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (likely an influence on Matt Groening's The Simpsons), an elderly, ineffectual nebbish who's largely silent and passive aggressive, masking a rage that will eventually boil over into violence.  Across the board, everyone here gives extraordinary performances as thoroughly unlikable demons desperately trying to break into a field that could care less whether they live or die.  In one of the film's numerous shocking episodes including but not limited to rape, attempted child murder, cuckolding, racism and a general disregard for human life, an action scene of a period drama goes awry when the set collapses and severely injures much of the cast and crew.  Tod, who was nearby when the incident occurred, couldn't help but notice no one bothered to run a safety check on the set and when he confronts an executive with the situation, the reply to his inquiry about what would have happened if someone died is a cold and unfeeling 'does it matter?'.

'Just Another Brick in The Wall'
As with Maps to the Stars, this is an extreme film that's a bona fide chore to sit through.  Filmed and directed without compromise by the Midnight Cowboy director, it pulls no punches and throughout the film the characters make decisions so despicable you can't help but remain at arm's length away from them.  The film also has a decidedly surreal tonal shift, particularly near the end, as it moves further away from snarky and satirical dramedy to a full blooded horror film replete with ghoulish imagery not dissimilar from the German expressionist movement.  The scale of the film is staggering and though it appears mostly natural locations were used, we learn to our amazement they were in fact set pieces designed specifically for the movie.  Unfortunately the controversial and provocative epic proved to be an underperformer at the box office and critics to this day are still divided over the Hell on Earth finale with loose connections to the Book of Revelations.  As it stands today, only a confident auteur as sure of himself as John Schlesinger could have made one of the greatest anti-spectacles of all time, a film of opulence designed to disgust, frighten and repel.  Schlesinger's literary approach to the novel might be unrealistic but it captures the essence of the source's vision of Tinseltown as a modern day Pagan Rome on the verge of anarchy.  Hands down The Day of the Locust is the most terrifying film not technically of the horror genre and the overblown Grand Guignol scream of a finale will stay with you well after the picture has ended.  It's a forgotten masterpiece of ambitious 1970s filmmaking by a daring and confident auteur which more and more filmgoers should make a point to see, learn from and respect.


- Andrew Kotwicki