[EDITOR’S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled “Oscars Revisited,” Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]
Nineteen eighty-one was the last gasp of the independent spirit of the ’70s American cinema movement. The previous year’s Raging Bull and Heaven’s Gate may have represented both the climax and glorious ruin of the previous epoch; the all-consuming onslaught of Spielbergism and Reaganism commenced the following summer with the paradigm-changing success of E.T. But in 1981 there still was a kind of film being made which was soon to disappear: a film designed for intelligent, upscale adult audiences willing to be entertained on a more sophisticated level. Warren Beatty could only have made Reds at this point in his career, and of all the films nominated for the 1981 Best Picture Oscar, it works best as ’70s swan song, especially in its interpolated documentary portions of aging witnesses to the life of John Reed. Otherwise, Reds was an ambitious and impressively literate mounting of a Lean-like spectacle that, since it celebrated the aspirations and ultimately lost dreams of fervid young 1917 communists (and by allusion, the contemporary counterculture), was unrevivable and largely forgotten during the rest of a conservative decade. The other four contenders were a varied lot: Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the year’s pre-eminent popcorn smash; Chariots of Fire, a solidly produced British tradition-of-quality prestige yawner that was given some emotional texture by a stirring Vangelis score (as played on the opening credits over a pan of euphoric runners); On Golden Pond, a turgid sentimental spectacle of aging veterans Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda working together for the first time and co-starring with Fonda’s daughter Jane; and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. Malle’s film was the least pretentious and assuming of the bunch, yet also the most movie-movie-ish (even moreso than the mechanical Raiders). It is also the nominee whose reputation has grown the most over time.
Atlantic City was a French-Canadian co-production and the second film Malle made in America. Most visibly, however, it provided a splendid vehicle for Burt Lancaster at the peak of his twilight period, and it would surely have gotten him the Best Actor if not for unavoidable auld lang syne spectacle of the never-before-awarded Henry Fonda, then languishing on his deathbed, being brought the award by his co-starring daughter. Indeed, Lancaster’s avuncular presence and assured performance anchors the film. As more than one observer noted, it was a rare chance for the actor to essay in America the type of roles he was previously finding only in Europe.
Made more in the spirit of the American New Wave than the French, Atlantic City is a whimsical sigh not only for the crumbling New Jersey city of the past but a certain mode of filmmaking that was entering its twilight. Still, one has only to compare it to its obvious predecessor, Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), in which a deserted, wintertime Atlantic City becomes a brilliant metaphor for an America stripped bare after the shock of Vietnam, to see how a certain element of upbeat sentimentality has watered down potentially pungent material. David Thomson has suggested that if the film had been French, Malle might not have been so kind to his characters. Indeed the melancholy mise-en-scene of an Atlantic City on the chopping block and on the verge of corporate renovation is at odds with the feel-good narrative trajectory of its whimsical losers and loners all getting their share of an ecomomic, emotional and romantic redemption before the final credit roll. As Andrew Sarris wrote,“Atlantic City is a wonderfully sleazy dance across the boardwalk of Atlantic City, through the interlocking destinies of characters caught in the spell of Monopoly money fluttering in and out of their lives.”
The film’s iconic image is the European-scented scene of Sally (Susan Sarandon) cleaning herself with Lemon wedges by an open window, serenaded by classical music and gazed at across the way by a furtive Lou (Burt Lancaster). Sarandon was never more beautiful and sensual than in 1980, with her distinctively large eyes and ample bosom (well-exploited by Malle, both here and in his previous film Pretty Baby). She plays a worker at an oyster bar (hence, the ritualized lemon cleansings) who is also training to be a dealer in the casinos. Michel Piccoli is likely Malle’s stand-in as a wizened Frenchman tutoring her in the rules of the game as well as the Gallic language itself. She’s visited by her ex-husband, a ratty drug dealer who’s happened upon an illicit wad of cocaine, and his pregnant hippie girlfriend, Chrissie (also Sally’s sister). Lou lives next door. He’s an aging numbers runner who “worked for the people who worked for the people”. He spends his time nursing Grace (Kate Reid), his lover from way back who came to town, took third place in a Betty Grable lookalike contest, married a mobster and stayed. Grace’s bedroom is as gratuitously overdecorated as one of the boudoirs in Pretty Baby‘s New Orleans brothel.
Scriptwriter John Guare neatly bisects Atlantic City into an intriguing character study-cum-low level mob flick. The second half kicks into gear with the machinations of a good TV potboiler when B-movie thugs come to claim what’s theirs, knifing Sally’s ex, tearing through her and Chrissie’s apartment, and threatening Lou and Sally. Eventually Lou gets the chance to behave like the old-time gangsters he once admired and shoots them both, giving his life the spurious meaning it lacked. Sally gets the spoils of the drug money’s larger portion and heads off to a new life in Florida. The film ends with Lou and Kate striding proudly on the gleaming boardwalk while in the background, the wrecking ball of time continues on its inevitable path of destruction and change.
Atlantic City’s narrative texture and freewheeling romanticism have earned it a place as one of the most beloved American films of its period, but what struck me on my most recent viewing was how much it resembled a colorful, Jonathan Demme-esque survey of tacky Americana. A late ’70s sign extolling the era’s ecominic boosterism (“Atlantic City-Back on the Map Again”) fronts the dillapidated exterior of Sally and Lou’s crumbling apartment complex; Lou takes Grace’s yapping toy dog to the “Pet-tique”; Robert Goulet and a tiny couplet of showgirls incongrously entertain at the hospital where Sally identifies her ex’s body; the funeral parlor has ‘We Understand’ affixed under its name; the local news reports have a tacky authenticity. Sally leaves A.C. listening to “Sunrise Semester” on her car radio. The end credits music mimics a car radio shuttling down the dial, with different recordings from different eras evoking what Atlantic City once was and the city in transition that it had become.
Outside of France, Malle as a director was apparently only as good as his collaborators. Atlantic City is easily his best American film, although Pretty Baby and My Dinner With Andre (1981) aren’t too far behind. He was the most commercial and calculated of the New Wave subset, better than a Phillippe De Broca but nowhere near a Truffaut. Prior to Atlantic City he made a mark with two films of unusual provocation, Murmur of the Heat (1971) and Pretty Baby, which take indulgently European, non-judgemental attitudes toward incest and child prostution respectively. Over time, Pretty Baby, a movie that made a star of Brooke Shields and that was once ubiquitous on cable, has become as seemingly untouchable as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1977). Atlantic City is refreshingly free of such hooks. Crackers (1984) and Alamo Bay (1985) were two aborted exercises before he returned to his home country to make his best film, the autobiographical Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987). He died in 1995, but not before leaving behind two other exquisite entertainments, May Fools (1992), which looked back to the Paris of the ’60s, and his final film, the American production Vanya On 42nd St. (1994).
Atlantic City won uniform raves. Both Sarris and Pauline Kael were enthusiastic, with Kael typically effusive: “When you leave the theater you may feel light-headed, as if there were no problems in the world that couldn’t be solved.” As for Burt, Kael thought “if this was a stage performance, the audience would probably give him a standing ovation.” Sarris wrote that Atlantic City was “a cinematic tone poem, sifted with classical grace through modernistic sensibilities.” Vincent Canby called Lou “…one of Mr. Lancaster’s most remarkable creations, a complex mixture of the mangy and magnificent.” Newsweek liked Sarandon, calling her “touching and funny,” and Sarris wrote that Sarandon provided “a creative mix of shrewdness, vulnerability and sensuality.” Independently financed by Canadians, the film was picked up by Paramount who opened it in April. Despite the critical drumbeat, Atlantic City failed to do business and mostly played in the larger cities. My first memory of seeing the film was with my dad (a former exhibitor who was teaching film at the time) at one of the local shopping mall theaters. The house was empty but I do remember the line for the film next door, Friday The 13th Part II, reaching way into the back recesses of the mall. I remember my dad saying that if most of those waiting for the slasher flick would actually try Atlantic City they’d be surprised and have a good time. Perhaps some of them would, but even then, at the age of thirteen I knew that Malle’s film was a genre film for more sophisticated and cultivated tastes. As incarnated by Burt Lancaster’s world-weary loser seeking and being granted redemption, Atlantic City was a romance best appreciated by those who’ve experienced the better part of life, and the movies therein.