Tuesday, March 1, 2011
The King of Marvin Gardens
Bruce was supposed to play David and Jack was supposed to play Jason. If 1972's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS had been filmed with this original casting, it might've been a different picture. Oh, Bob Rafelson would've still directed a fascinating drama, but the choices Dern and Nicholson, respectively, make here I suspect are much their own. These are two consummate professionals who own their roles, whatever they may be, no matter what movie. Viewers may have expectations etched into their craniums as to how these actors (with patented personas) will approach their parts. They (and you) may be surprised this time out, mainly with Jack.
It wouldn't be the only time in cinematic history that such changes occurred before the cameras rolled. As reported in Bob Woodward's inflammatory biography Wired, "I think I'm the other guy", was spoken by John Belushi when he read the script for 1981's NEIGHBORS, an odd comedy about a milquetoast whose uneventful life is disrupted by the arrival of an eccentric, swinging couple who moves in next door. The filmmakers wanted Belushi for the role of said milquetoast, instead of Dan Aykroyd who instead ended up playing the other guy. While that movie was essentially a failure, the casting against type was interesting. The usually endlessly mugging Belushi turned in a nicely controlled perfomance as a precise, nervous sort. It seems that buttoned downed introverts take more skill to play than loud Type As, though I could be wrong.
For MARVIN GARDENS, patented charmer/wildman Nicholson takes a different path than usual and positively embodies David Staebler, a 30ish nebbish who lives with his grandfather in a dreary Philadelphia flat, forever slogging home in the middle of the night after another lonely shift. He's a radio monologist, not exactly like Garrison Keillor or Paul Harvey but rather a morose narrator who relays stories of his liftime across the airwaves to insomniacs. The film opens with a 5 minute tight shot on him as he explains why he no longer eats fish. The story may not exactly be portentuous but it is relevant to the film. The studio is dark, the speaker's face is half concealed in shadow. We're not sure at first where we are or why this guy is baring his soul (and to whom). Then we see a flashing red light splash up on Staebler's face, then, a guy behind a sound board in the next room signaling the narrator to wrap it up. From this first shot, we marvel at famed cinematographer Laslo Kovacs' stark compositions, his use of light.
We'll follow David as he travels to Atlantic City, a once sparkling resort town fallen on years of decay. Appropriately, the story takes place during the winter when only scattered retirees haunt the boardwalk, trolling for cheap trinkets and early bird specials. David's brother Jason had summoned him to come down and be part of the latter's latest "opportunity", something which takes little analysis to recognize as a scheme, a pipe dream. We first see Jason behind bars, an apt introduction. He tells his brother he needs to meet with a guy named Lester, a local kingpin who will not only pay his bail but also finance this latest big business deal.
It's classic dreamer pie-in-the-sky: a island resort in no less than Hawaii. Jason is kinetic in his description, like many other self-deluded souls before him. His dream sustains his dreary life in a long-past-its-prime beachside hotel, with two female companions: one a middle-aged prima donna named Sally (Ellen Burstyn), the other a younger, more traditionally attractive waif, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson, in apparently her only acting role). We'll observe the women and begin to form theories on the nature of their relationship before it is revealed. Their drama will further elucidate many things about Jason, one of the brilliant achievements of the screenplay, which often seems to wander and often frustrates the hell out of you, but after the picture is over, you realize you wouldn't change a thing. A critic noted of MARVIN GARDENS that it is the sort of film you feel tempted to walk out on, but after it is over you want to see it again.
But back to David and Jason. Their complex yet familiar relationship forms the real crux of the story. With so much history (some of which is explained to us), you can only imagine the weariness David feels by this point. He'll find himself on the floor with Jason, like a couple of little boys, peering down at a map of the Pacific, gazing at the floating paradise, the place where it will all be made right. Far away from the rust of Atlantic City, another locale of the "Lost and Found" so titled in the BBS collection. David's been in this scenario before, and part of the skill of Nicholson's work here is the way he conveys the cynicism as he listens to Dern nary take a breath, each word always a hustle of some sort.
Nicholson's nuances, posture, and reactions are all not only believable as that of a nerdish intellectual, but also as that of a relative who feels he cannot save his own. He truly loves his sibling, and a hug they share midway though the movie is genuine and painful. Nicholson conveys love and a certain resigned acknowledegment in mre eseconds of screen time. David does indeed love his brother, will try to dispense some sanity and order, but things don't look promising, especially after David finally sits down for a chat with Lester (played by Scatman Crothers, who has stated that this was his favorite role of his career)and learns what is truly happening. It isn't so much informative as it is confirming.
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is another neglected gem of the 70s, an original, lacerating drama fueled by Jacob Brackman's observant script and Rafelson's patient direction. Following the triumph of FIVE EASY PIECES two years eariler, Rafelson and Nicholson again create a vivid Americana where the Dream is constantly interrupted by the stark reality. Rafelson keeps the camera still most of the time, giving the actors their space, but allowing Kovacs to frame them so artfully, whether in hotel rooms or empty auditoriums as they act out a mock Miss America pageant (a very telling scene), with Jessica as the crowned beauty. The characters themselves seem as worn out, as past their prime as the city itself.
Where does that leave Sally? Her own dream crumbles daily as she realizes her life with Jason is listless and his desire towards her is being eroded by the younger woman. Here further explains MARVIN GARDENS' worth, the acting. Burtsyn is just great as the hysterical and sad hanger-on who will actually come to acknowledgment (her bonfire scene is powerful) before her final catharsis. Dern nails Jason with a pathetic yet unwavering confidence that holds to the end. Robinson is of course the least accomplished but she acquits herself well enough as a perhaps not so shallow young woman. Crothers only has 2 scenes but he's mighty fine as the underworld financeer. During Rafelson's selected scene commentary, he tells a great story of how he later visited Crothers and Nicholson on the set of THE SHINING, the former venting his frustrations with Stanley Kubrick's legendary perfectionism. "'I can't believe that motherfucker,'" Rafelson recalls Crothers relaying, "'how this MF makes me do a hundred takes, what's the difference the way I said this the first time and the fiftieth...?'" It's quite funny. Rafelson states that Nicholson loves telling that story himself as well.
And Nicholson is really why THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is worth the effort. It was so surprising to see him disappear into this low key character, only occasionally flashing those familiar brows and teeth, more often hunching his shoulders and averting his eyes. After years of watching his wild performances in THE LAST DETAIL, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, THE SHINING, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, and so many others, I felt like I was watching a true artist at work, not just flashing the goods or perpetuating his image, like so many actors tend to do. Take note during his final radio monologue. Never maudlin, just heartfelt.