Wednesday, February 3, 2010

1981 - Atlantic City

The Oscar nominations have finally been announced without any major surprises. I suppose The Blind Side's nod for Best Picture was not expected by most (except for Roger Ebert), but other than that, only a few minor upsets. My predictions stood up fairly well, especially the ones I discussed in detail here. 9 out of 10 Pictures, all the lead Actors and Actresses, and 4 out of 5 for the Supporting, Director, Screenplay and Animated Film categories. A total of 44 out of 50 correct. I should have stopped there and held off from linking to my complete predictions because my performance in the minor categories was a little shameful. Although, I pegged all three Visual Effects nominees.

A few trivia tid-bits about this year's nominees: Lee Daniels becomes only the second black director to be nominated, with Kathryn Bigelow the fourth woman acknowledged in the same category. Up is just the second animated film to be cited for Best Picture after 1990's Beauty and the Beast.

Meanwhile, today I began my review of the Best Picture contest from 1981 with a viewing of...

Atlantic City
Louis Malle
John Guare
Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

Trying to make a life for herself in Atlantic City's up and coming gambling scene, Sally Matthews (Sarandon) takes croupier classes while working in the seafood section of the casino's eatery. When her deadbeat husband Dave (Joy) shows up to sell drugs he stole from some mobsters, he manages to persuade Sally's next-door neighbour, Lou (Lancaster), to make some deliveries. Past his prime, Lou imagines he was once a gangster to be reckoned with, although he now seems to be little more than an errand boy. Sally and Lou strike up an unlikely relationship, both dreaming of success.

Atlantic City opens with the rather strange image of Susan Sarandon rubbing lemon juice over her breasts while Burt Lancaster spies on her from across the way, and that's just the beginning of a bucketload of strange. I recently pointed out the incomprehensibility of Zorba the Greek, which I now see has competition from Atlantic City in the incoherency stakes. It reaches its surreal heights in a scene in which singer Robert Goulet croons a song to an oblivious Sally while in a phone booth in the middle of a hospital.

The story loses some of its vagueness halfway through the picture as the narrative comes together. Even the lemon juice incident receives an explanation - Sally was just trying to wash off the fishy smell from work. A totally normal thing to do ... in front of the kitchen window.

The characters in this film are dysfunctional, to say the least. But even so, I just didn't connect with them on any real emotional level. They all behave in such a stiflingly staged manner, with little semblance to actual human behaviour. I understand that this is a different world but I ought to still relate to the characters in some vaguely meaningful way, and these characters just felt so foreign to me. Lou almost seems mentally disturbed by the end of the film, proudly confessing his criminal activity to all who will listen.

It doesn't help that the script and direction are somewhat reminiscent of soap opera. For instance, in one scene, while Lou is packing a small suitcase, he picks up a gun and decides not to pack it, throwing it on the bed. He heads for the door, stops dramatically, walks back to the bed, flings the suitcase down, picks up the gun and walks out the door with determination. Then, there are the contrivances, including one sequence which sees Sally inexplicably shove a tape player into her handbag, allowing her to conveniently pull it out when she is later offered a cassette on the boardwalk.

Most of the performances, too, are a little plastic. However, Burt Lancaster manages to retain his casual charm considering the words he is asked to deliver. In fact, the entire cast could easily be forgiven for a script that contains such enigmatic lines as the one Dave utters when Lou explains that Atlantic City used to be called the lungs of Philadelphia: "If we stay here long enough, we could be the nose of Philadelphia." What the...?


  1. After I re-watched Atlantic City, I re-read Pauline Kael's lengthy review. She described the movie as a prankish wish-fulfillment fantasy about prosperity: what it does to cities, what it can do for people. She loved the movie, especially Burt Lancaster's performance which she felt was among his best and spend much time talking about writer John Guare's farcical plays and how he applied his technique to Atlantic City's screenplay.

    I agree with Kael on Lancaster - always a favorite of mine. He gets such a kick out of telling people about his killing the mobsters, it just cracks me up. However, like you Matt, the surreal aspects and tonal shifts in the film are jarring. Louis Malle brings a European artiness to a story of dreamers and losers, but this isn't the art film that had me cheering in 1981.

    Oh, and I think the line about Atlantic City being the 'nose' of Philadelphia had to do with the cocaine deals that Robert Joy was dreaming about.

  2. That's interesting about the farcical elements. I can see them in there, for sure. Perhaps if the film itself was an all-out farce, it might have worked better. Watching Lancaster's excitement as he tells people of his murders is very amusing. Imagine how less out of place it would seem if it was in a farce.

    And thanks for explaining the 'nose' line. A little less enigmatic now, but still an odd thing to say. Although, once again, it would probably seem less odd in a farce.

  3. Matt, I don't know if you've ever read any of Pauline Kael's reviews (there are a half dozen books which compile her film reviews when she wrote for The New Yorker that cover the mid-60s through the 1980s). She's my favorite critic to read. She can be very dismissive, and it hurts if its a film you love, but she always seems to find interesting things to say. She finds a joy in movie-going that you usually don't feel with other critics.

    She mentioned in her Atlantic City review (which she classifies as a comedy right off the bat) that when non-American directors make an American film, they often have a way of showing us (Americans) about ourselves that is refreshing. It got me to thinking off-hand about some other examples:
    Wim Wender's Paris, Texas
    Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown
    Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, People vs. Larry Flynt
    Peter Weir's Witness
    John Boorman's Point Blank
    Lars von Trier's Dogville and Dancer in the Dark

    She may have something there.