Saturday, November 17, 2007

B.W. At The Movies: The Fountainhead

My mind keeps lingering over what seems to me to be the single glaring difference between the novel and the film The Fountainhead: Big Newspaper Publisher Gail Wynand's final fate. After his last conversation with Randian Man Howard Roark, the camera lingers in Wynand's office to view something that does not occur in the book. I have found that the change was made to accommodate the notions of Hollywood censors of the era, but it was such a jarring change that it cinched my opinion: Not surprisingly, the film does not live up to the novel. Wynand's character is deeply flawed, and while he considers this action when we first meet him in the book, his exit from the flick is a decision that would be out of character by the end, in my humble opinion. Strike three.

Strikes one and two are the performances of lead actors Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Ayn Rand created characters who might best be described as eccentric when compared to us common folk - deep thinkers, lovers of the best that humanity can create, disdainful of compromise. But there's a word Rand throws into the mix that is utterly lacking in the performances of Cooper and Neal: exaltation. As cynical as they might be of the collective mentality that was infecting the world in Rand's time, they loved life.
When a man entered [Stoddard's Temple of the Human Spirit], he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed. It was a joyous place, with the joy of exaltation that must be quiet. It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the peace of spirit never granted save by one's own glory.
Howard Roark and Dominique Francon as portrayed by Cooper and Neal are not in touch with the joy of living or the exaltation of being free spirits. Their faces reflect the constipated angst of people who know they're right but haven't been able to convince the world otherwise. The "real" Roark especially never wasted a moment worrying about what other people thought of him. Cooper has a couple of moments where he conveys that aura, but often he seems angry and/or troubled, emotions that are mostly absent in the man Rand created.

In the "Making of" featurette that accompanies the DVD, it's said that once Cooper saw the whole movie in context, he wished he had delivered The Big Speech at the end in a different manner. No kidding. Cooper runs through it like an oration that he'd memorized during a long sleepless night; Roark would have spoken from the heart, eyes and body flashing with energy and virility. And, after watching the movie, I was more convinced than ever that a real-life jury would send this guy to prison. It's a shame, too, because in movies like Meet John Doe, Cooper has proved he can play a man of ideals and individuality who's comfortable in his own skin. He just didn't pull it off this time.

It was an interesting exercise to watch the film just a few days after finishing the novel. Rand the screenwriter did a notable job of telescoping her sprawling landscape into a portrait that strikes the notes she considered most important. Still, Leonard Maltin gives the film 2 1/2 stars and calls it "ambitious but confused." I can't disagree with him.

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Blogger Wally Conger said...

Great analysis, B.W. And I agree with almost everything you say, but I'd argue that Patricia Neal is a terrific Dominique Francon. Hubba-hubba!

6:22 PM  

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