The Day of the Locust sounds like a horror movie because it is. Where some people write love letters to Hollywood, this is a hate note. It comes from a 1939 novella by Nathaniel West, and is directed here for the screen in 1975 by UK filmmaker John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy). It’s a caustic, quite brutal take on Hollywood in the 30’s, peeling beneath the glamour to reveal the seediness of a town brimming with people drawn in by a fantasy that only a select few will attain. From extras, to studio technicians, this is a grotesque film about the outliers attempting to eke out a living until their break finally arrives. What they don’t realise is that their proximity to the dream, yet its complete lack of attainability breeds a toxicity that infects themselves and everyone and every thing around them.
This could be why Kim Newman in the extra features suggests that in The Day of The Locust “everyone is calculated repellent.”
Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) is aspiring actress Faye Greener, who is so enchanted/ deluded that she attempts to the play the role of a movie star in real life. She lives with her father Harry, played by Burgess Meredith (Rocky) a down his luck vaudeville clown, now reduced to aping it up selling door to door elixirs. They live in the rundown LA complex The San Bernardino Arms, and its here that clean cut Todd, played by William Atherton (Ghostbusters) enters their world, promptly falling for Faye. Todd is a young designer from the East, looking for a break at the studio. It’s through his eyes we see their life on the fringes. From cockfighting to brothels and stag films to the wreckage of their relationships, it’s pretty bleak when you live in the shadows. Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now) as, wait for it, Homer Simpson (no relation) is less dynamic than we’ve ever seen him before. It’s like he’s had a personality bypass, full of uncertain looks and passive silence as he courts Faye. His performance here is truly remarkable, everything plays across his face, yet he doesn’t move a muscle. He’s so docile, impotent and eager to please. It’s devastating.
Homer’s relationship with Faye is particularly difficult to watch. “…As it goes on Faye becomes quite abusive,” reflects film historian Kat Ellinger in her feature commentary, noting how rare it is for a woman to be abusive in cinema. Faye moves into his house, ordering him around, whilst also moving in her cockfighting lover and his b grade cowboy buddy.
In 1975 The Day of The Locust was big budget Hollywood, filmed on the Paramount set, with a ridiculous amount of extras. Hollywood has looked at itself warts and all before, in everything from the original A Star Is Born to All About Eve, but never like this. Where the aforementioned films have characters who struggle for fame only to discover it wasn’t everything they hoped, The Day of The Locust asks what if your break never comes? It’s a film that sees glamour as artifice, propped up by the blood, sweat and shattered dreams of thousands of immediately replaceable unknowns.
It’s a film that builds. The run time is significant at two and a half hours, but the ending has a sting in its tale. Its quite biblical in its scope and impact with a baying mob at the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Buccaneer.
The Day of the Locust didn’t do well when it was released. Its bleak tone was too much even in the 70’s. Whilst the run time does work against it, there are plenty of moments that are truly astounding, from the on set accident, which highlights the disposability of the extras, to a trip to the hills for some tequila swilling and rough trade where things turn ugly, and then there’s the aforementioned ending.
It’s the kind of film that’s difficult to like as it torments its already tortured and repellent characters. But it does create an impact. It might be grotesque, but that’s the great irony. Somehow despite the callousness and despair inherent in the business, somehow when all the stars align Hollywood is also capable of creating moments of great moments of uplifting beauty that touches us all.
The lavish extra features include an interview with William Atherton, where he reflects on his experience making the film, even breaking down at one point. By all reports it was a pretty challenging shoot. There’s a typically informative feature length commentary from Kat Ellinger where she suggests that although Polanski was filming Chinatown at the same time he was watching rushes of The Day Of The Locust to inform the look of his film. There’s also a video interview with critic Kim Newman, as well as a theatrical trailer and some stills.