Friday, November 19, 2010
THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949): Ayn Rand in Hollywood
Ayn Rand has both been overly criticized and overly praised. She spoke so highly of herself that she never escaped notice. Her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged (apparently to be made into full length movie in the next year or two), is about as bloated and full of inconsistencies as any piece of fiction ever written. It’s not that Ms. Rand was insincere. It’s more likely that she was self-delusional. Add stubbornness as one of her traits and you have someone who succeeds because she simply doesn’t know that she’s supposed to fail. She wrote the novel, The Fountainhead, in 1943, and she also wrote the screenplay for the movie of the very same name. I read one critic who referred to the novel as preposterous, but that isn’t fair. Take away the soap opera qualities of the novel and it’s little different than any tale about a starving artist. Take away the political overtones that are inevitably read into the text (because it is written by Ayn Rand after all) and you have a protagonist in the novel that was as much of a nonconformist as any character penned by Jack Kerouac. Her brand of politics (a.k.a. laissez-faire capitalism) was and still is unpalatable for most people, but her dismissive approach to anyone that disagreed with her is what truly caused her to grate upon others. And she wrote into her novel and screenplay the character of an architect almost as unappealing as herself.
Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) was expelled from architectural school while his polar opposite, the mediocre Peter Keating (Kent Smith), became the school’s valedictorian. Keating met with one success after another while Roark faced almost nothing but rejection. Roark (whose character was loosely based upon Frank Lloyd Wright) for a short time found employment with the great architect, Henry Cameron (Henry Hull) (whose character was loosely based upon Louis Henry Sullivan). The problem was that Cameron was now a souse and no longer respected in a profession he at one time dominated. Roark learned all that he could from Cameron before Cameron eventually succumbed to all of his vices. Keating, on the other hand, worked for one of the most upscale architectural firms in New York. Keating eventually came to the attention of the premier architectural critic (top hat and all), Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Now Toohey is a first-class bastard that scorned all greatness in others and only wished to see the rabble rule – with him of course providing the guiding hand. Toohey did this by praising the likes of an incompetent architect like Keating while scheming in every underhanded way to bring down a brilliant artist like Howard Roark.
After the death of Cameron and with no professional prospects, Roark works for a short time in a granite quarry owned by Keating’s boss. The boss had a voluptuous daughter and temptress by the name of Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). This is when the movie gets steamy. Dominique sees Roark working in the quarry, once strikes him across the face with a riding crop when she feels that Roark has been brash, and the end result is that she gets herself raped by Roark in her home near where the quarry is located. As can only happen in Hollywood, she was actually hoping this would occur. So we have the love interest in the movie. But as is needed in every melodrama, the love interest soon enough must become a love triangle. Enter the newspaper tycoon, Gail Wyand (Raymond Massey).
Wyand, like that other great newspaperman on the opposite coast, William Randolph Hearst, practically controlled all public opinion in the area where his newspapers were published. Wyand, convinced that no such thing as greatness existed, has his life transformed by chance meetings with Dominique Francon (who he marries) and with Howard Roark, who he hires to build his home. Ellsworth Toohey (who works for the Wyand’ papers) personally would like to see Gail Wyand and Dominique destroy each other in a messy divorce. But the individual he would like to bring down the most is, of course, Howard Roark. Toohey understands that he will never achieve the power he so much desires so long as a talent such as Roark has goes unchecked. Toohey thus schemes to have the threesome work against each other. Part of the scheme involves the pitiable Peter Keating.
Keating, having spent his life, selling his soul at every opportunity suddenly discovered that he was almost out of options. Like every other man, he had been in love with Dominique Francon only to discover that she despised him. His clumsy attempts at architectural design were no longer drawing in the best clients. For the first time in his life he felt alone and wished for acceptance. His one opportunity was to design a public works project for renters on limited incomes. Other architects had tried to submit designs, but all of them were rejected for failing to meet all of the specifications. Keating knew of only one architect that could possibly pull the project off. He thus approached Roark and asked him to design the complex for him. Roark agreed. Roark knew that the complex would not otherwise be built because Roark would not be allowed to present a submission. With the designs all complete, Keating then proceeded to start on the building but contracted the various tasks out to all of the wrong people. The contractors were all stooges for Toohey. Thus, Roark’s brilliant design was distorted into one gigantic mess. Not to be outdone, Roark had one simple solution to the dilemma: he dynamited the building.
Roark was thus brought up on trial. Roark had few defenders. The Wyand’ papers at first defended him, but then even the great Gail Wyand deserted Roark when it became apparent that all of Wyand’s shareholders would desert his enterprise. Roark was left alone to defend himself, but Roark was used to facing great odds. Roark then gives a rousing summation at the trial and he is acquitted. Toohey is furious because he knows that he has now been defeated. Wyand has one last meeting with Roark. He hires Roark on to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. Once the contracts are signed and Roark leaves Wyand’s office, Wyand then pulls out a revolver and shoots himself in the head. This leaves Roark and Dominique free to marry.* Roark then went ahead and completed the construction of the world’s tallest building.
The Fountainhead in its 114 minutes does not come even close to being a perfect production. The novel was just a bit too abstract to come across entirely interesting on film. Not surprisingly, Rand blamed just about everyone but herself for the movie’s shortcomings. She thought Gary Cooper was too old to play the part of Roark and Patricia Neal (at age 24 and only in her second movie) too inexperienced to play the part of Dominique. She blamed Director King Vidor for making the movie too campy to give the theme of the movie the respect that Rand felt it deserved. Rand at least had some justification in being miffed. Gary Cooper had a long history of expertly playing the tall and accommodating type that saves the day in the end. He had no experience playing the hero with an anti-social slant that defies the expectations of everyone. Cooper and Neal did look the part, but the steaminess of the movie (with all the phallic symbols like a jackhammer and skyscrapers) overshadowed Rand’s message about the role unbridled individualism needs to play in a free society. Rand, of course, would never admit that she was part of the problem. It was Rand’s insistence that Cooper give the more than five-minute speech in the courtroom that most viewers failed to get. Rand was too convinced that her own eloquence would win over reviewers and critics alike.
Still, this strange hodgepodge of a movie is being watched sixty years later despite the fact that it was mostly panned when it first came out. Though most of today’s Hollywood would be reluctant to give Ayn Rand credit for anything, it was her very insistence that she had final say on any changes to the script that changed the way movies are now made. She took away the power of Warner Brothers to do anything they wanted with someone else’s written work. She made only the most minor concessions to the censors and this made possible for more controversial movies to be made. She attempted to make a movie (admittedly not completely successfully) with an intellectual theme that was being presented to a wide audience. And she could give a damn whether the movie was a financial success or not.
Ayn Rand was a controversial figure, and as all such controversial figures she was wrong about many things. She preferred seeing billboards along the roadside as opposed to having an unobstructed view of nature. Until she developed a spot on her own lung, she felt statistical evidence that smoking caused cancer was misleading. She was convinced that she lived by reason alone, but her passions dragged her into an affair with someone twenty-five years younger than herself that practically destroyed two marriages. She claimed to despise all religions, but her reverence for all things individual almost suggests that she believed in something called the human soul. She believed in precision, yet her writings were seldom concise or to the point. Though always preaching against compulsion of any sort, she had meetings with followers that she personally berated in the manner of a leader of a cult. Worst of all, she had almost no empathy for the suffering of other individuals though she often suggested that her own sufferings (as a millionaire) were somehow profoundly greater than others. Yet I can’t fault her for her courage or for her absolute insistence upon the need of integrity within the individual soul – even if she occasionally failed to live up to her own standards. She came to the United States from the Soviet Union in her early twenties and she never hesitated to speak of the crimes committed in her native land. With no connections whatsoever, she was determined to get her novel, The Fountainhead, published at all costs. Twelve separate publishers rejected it before it became a bestseller. In The Fountainhead, she presented a hero, Howard Roark, with as many blemishes as heroic traits. Though hardly a feminist, her strong female characters were unencumbered by the prohibitions that society had placed upon most women. In Ellsworth Toohey she created a villain, however one-sidedly evil, that nevertheless is remarkably real (I once knew a motivational speaker that could have been the prototype for Toohey). Shortly before she died, she appeared on television with Phil Donahue and to the end, no matter what the audience reaction may have been, she was determined to give her view on life in her own uncompromising manner.
I respect Ayn Rand, though I disagree with her on most of her stances. Her insistence upon everyone’s need to absolutely be their selves is something unappreciated by those who criticize her for her far right positions. Whatever she did concerning her personal life, she was a consistent critic of compulsion of any sort – and I do understand that in her mind this included the compulsion to help anyone else. She was not the great writer or philosopher that she claimed to be, and she liked to criticize individuals in both those fields that were far greater than herself. Yet she was unique, which was the message she so insistently tried to hammer through with her novel and her movie, The Fountainhead.
* In 1949, Warner Brothers (that produced this movie) was under pressure to have all scripts conform to the standards of the Production Code Administration of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Those standards did not permit the depiction of a marital affair in such a manner as to make the infidelity seem justifiable. Director King Vidor and screenwriter Rand got around this requirement by ending the marriage with one party committing suicide. Apparently, this was more acceptable.
© Robert S. Miller 2008