The Day of the Locust
directed by John Schlesinger
starring Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Bo Hopkins
John Schlesinger’s 1975 adaptation of Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, is a searing and often surreal takedown of the fantasy of Hollywood’s golden age.
Artist Tod Hackett (William Atherton, Die Hard) arrives at the San Bernardino Arms apartments in hopes of finding work as a production artist. What he finds at the San Bernardino is a collection of Hollywood’s castoffs, including Abe Kusich (Billy Barty, Foul Play), a degenerate gambling dwarf, odious child actor Adore (Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen), and an aspiring actress stuck in day player purgatory, Faye (Karen Black, Airport 1975) who lives with her ex-Vaudevillian father, Harry, who never got his Hollywood shot and ekes out a living selling miracle tonics door to door. Existing just on the edge of glittering dreams, this little ersatz community peacefully coexists until Faye decides to get her hooks into a simple, unassuming midwestern accountant named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland). Yes, The Day of the Locust is where Matt Groening took the name for the patriarch of his famous yellow family. The lives of the denizens of the San Bernardino continue to intertwine and clash, until they ultimately set off a deadly riot on Hollywood Boulevard as a gala premiere is happening at the Chinese Theater.
Starting out with sunny optimism, the film, like its protagonist Tod, grows increasingly dark, cynical, and surreal. There isn’t a lot of plot to drive the film, as it is really just a collection of characters all in search of belonging, in a place that they will never belong. Tod comes the closest to what he thinks he wants and is repulsed and broken by what he finds there. The on-screen action is mirrored in Tod’s artwork, and the once friendly faces and figures he paints mutate into hollow ghosts in a fiery hellscape.
Neither John Schlesinger nor Nathaniel West were terribly subtle about their feelings on the subject of the Hollywood meat grinder, and the fact the tale still resonates today is a sad indictment on the whole entertainment industry. The Day of the Locust is a clear influence on far more recent films, including David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake.
The Day of the Locust did not lure an audience upon its release in 1975, but did snag Oscar nominations for cinematography (Conrad Hall) and supporting actor (Burgess Meredith), but the terrific ensemble of actors and the film’s pervasive perversity have garnered a cult following. It is not an easy film, but it now feels more accessible to audiences than it was in 1975.