News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: The King of Marvin Gardens

This week’s screening for The Politics of the Seventies Film was The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), an achievement that represents everything the New Hollywood aspired to be: small scale, minor key, intensely personal, expressly cinematic, and ultimately indelible. “The King of Marvin Gardens is Monopoly minus the reassurance of toy money,” wrote David Thomson, an early champion of the film. “The movie conjures with the prospect of Hawaii, but delivers nothing more than an airmail blue shirt that will be stained with blood.”

A BBS production, Marvin Gardens was one of the films that resulted from the handshake that was the holy grail for a new American cinema: a struggling Columbia Pictures offered partners Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner the right to make six movies—and as long as they came in under their modest million-dollar budgets, the studio would have no say whatsoever over creative content. The first BBS production was Five Easy Pieces (1970), and Marvin Gardens was something of a follow-up: also directed by Rafelson, shot by Laszlo Kovacs, and starring Jack Nicholson—talents joined here by Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern. Burstyn, who had read for the part of Rayette in Pieces (Karen Black got the role), was not of a mood to be turned down a second time. She wrote in her diary (shades of the screenplay?) “Either I play Sally or he dies.” Dern, just off a head-turning performance in Nicholson’s directorial debut (and BBS production) Drive, He Said (1971), joined the cast to play Nicholson’s brother, and a strength of the movie is that two actors were purposefully cast against type.

Rafelson, working with screenwriter Jacob Brackman, crafted an uncompromisingly bleak assessment of America adrift in the fading wake of its twentieth century achievements. Shot on location in Philadelphia, and, more pointedly, Atlantic City, the setting matched the mood, as that once bustling resort community had fallen on hard times by the 1970s. Looking up from the beach and past dilapidated boardwalks, Kovacs’ camera captured the last days of soon-to-be-razed, once-palatial hotels like the Marlborough-Blenheim, where most of the movie’s interior scenes were shot.  Outside, the camera is still and the colors washed-out. But in those interiors, the camera glides effortlessly in long takes through under-lit settings, occasionally yielding to the vibrant colors associated with Jason and the enthusiasm of his wild plans (and which contrast with David’s inevitable white shirt and black tie).

A requiem for the American dream, Marvin Gardens can also be seen as part of what I have dubbed Jack Nicholson’s alienation trilogy: starting with Five Easy Pieces and concluding with Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). In each of those films, the desperate desire to escape from oneself is a key theme: Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces sheds his skin at every crisis; David Locke makes a more radical (and equally unsuccessful) attempt to leap out of his own shoes in The Passenger; David Staebler hopes against hope that Jason’s dreams of escape to a Hawaiian paradise are somehow more than castles made of sand.  But that long shot seems unlikely to pay off, as David, summoned to Atlantic City by Jason (Dern), is promptly confronted with two formidable barriers: getting backing for the scheme, which seems increasingly doubtful given Jason’s deteriorating relationship with his boss Lewis (Scatman Cruthers), a local mobster, and the emerging crisis in Jason’s ménage à trois, as Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) begins to eclipse her stepmother Sally (Burstyn) as the principal object of Jason’s affections. These problems increasingly intersect, notably during a pivotal and almost surreal lobster dinner with two would-be Japanese investors. (Oh and there is a gun, which is introduced casually but surfaces repeatedly as it is passed back and forth eight times between six characters over the course of the film.)

David, as he will describe later, would have liked to have stayed “in the funhouse” forever. But ever the realist, he finally arranges to meet with Lewis to establish with certainty what ought to have been obvious: there will be no financial backing for the Hawaiian escapade. Lewis, unintentionally equating the brothers, explains that Jason is no businessman; “he’s an artist”—a designation previously associated with David, in reference to the spellbinding monologues he presents on his free-form radio show back in Philly.  Jason is an artist, in a way, and the expression of his exuberant schemes can be seen as the flip side of David’s introspective tales. But his financial and personal affairs are unraveling, twin crises that come to a head in a riveting six-minute scene back at the hotel, as the movie heads towards its surprising (if in retrospect inevitable) climax. “The King of Marvin Gardens sends us home more aware of ourselves,” David Thomson concluded. “So astute about the romance of success in America, it was always likely to be a commercial failure.  But it will survive that.”

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