The Goulden Age

Only in the early '70s could Elliott Gould have been a matinee idol. Since then? The Brooklyn schlemiel's long goodbye.

Only in 1970: America was falling apart, but a manic, overgrown 31-year-old kid from Brooklyn was having the greatest year of his professional life.

Coincidence or karma? Even as Elliott Gould's nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the sex farce Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was announced, the anarchic combat comedy M*A*S*H, with Gould and Donald Sutherland as the craziest medics in the U.S. Army, was en route to finishing as the year's third-highest-grossing movie. By the time M*A*S*H won the Grand Prix at Cannes, Gould's first star vehicle, Getting Straight, had projected him as the nation's number one campus radical, a Vietvet grad student ready to burn down the house—for laughs. And hardly had Getting Straight, with the fantastic good fortune to open 10 days after the Kent State massacre, completed its second run than Gould was on the cover of Time magazine: "A Star for an Uptight Age."

Yeah, baby! Gould rocketed out of nowhere (or rather, Bensonhurst by way of Broadway) to the fifth spot on the 1970 exhibitor's poll of box-office stars. (And, at 31, he was the youngest guy to make the top 10 since Elvis cracked the list in 1961.) Gould ranked just behind John Wayne—and ahead of the previous year's neophyte Dustin Hoffman, Lee Marvin, Jack Lemmon, and his new ex-wife Barbra Streisand. It was only a matter of time before this manic who's-he elbowed his way to the forefront of American popular mythology, assuming Humphrey Bogart's signature role of private eye Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye—Robert Altman's New Wave anti-noir, which opens Friday in a fresh 35mm print for a week-long run at Film Forum.

Illustration by Tim O’Brien


Tune in: J. Hoberman talks Elliott Gould

No more Mr. Streisand. Having successively personified the sexual revolution, the spirit of anti-militarism, and groovy campus rebellion, the former Elliott Goldstein and pride of P.S. 247 was the hottest young star in Hollywood, as well as the first to sport the luxuriant Zapata mustache popularized by the righteous outlaws of SDS. Gould was also the most exotic. No less than Streisand, whom he met when both were in the cast of the 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (he starred in the show, she stole it), Gould was part of the ethno-vanguard—Hollywood's Jew Wave.

"There has not been a film star of such distinctly urban identity since the days of John Garfield," Time opined. Garfield was a slum kid, the quintessential Tough Jew. But, if "Garfield strutted down city streets," Time continued, "Gould stumbles where somebody neglected to curb his dog." Leading man as schlemiel! Time was too polite to say so, but however Gould was cast, he came across Jewish—maybe too Jewish. Garfield might have been a sensitive shtarker, but all of the other Yiddish shin words— shlimazl, shmendrick, shmegegge—seemed tailored for Gould.

Not that he thought much about it. Like Barbra and Woody, Gould was Brooklyn to the bone—he'd be breathing that Coney Island air anywhere on the globe. Asked in 1970 if he were the Jewish Richard Burton or the Jewish Jimmy Stewart, he modestly allowed that he was "the Jewish Elliott Gould." And if Gould seemed the classic Semitic clown, at odds with gentile society and himself, he was a new breed of schlemiel—handsome, athletic, even dangerous. (Life ran a photo of Candice Bergen tickling Gould's mustache with her pretty toes in a post-shtup scene from Getting Straight.)

Reviewing Gould's second vehicle, Move, in which he played an Upper West Side underground man, a part-time pornographer turned dog walker, The New York Times thought Gould's "curly-haired back" might be "the secret symbol of the sexy, Jewish subculture," although The Village Voice—less enchanted—compared Gould's sex appeal to "that of a circumcised Droopy Dog." Interviewers noted his "Jerry Lewis eyes," "Philip Roth lips," and "wild Harpo Marx hair" (or resplendent "Jewish Afro"). One journalist compared Gould's nose to a dill pickle; another called him a "defrocked Chassid" reeking of stickball and schoolyards, noshing on "knishes and franks, washed down with Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray."

And of course everyone mentioned that he was in psychoanalysis. Whaddya expect? Bensonhurst was a fertile field for cultivating Jewish neurosis—or, as Lenny Bruce biographer Albert Goldman once said, Bensonhurst was to stand-up comedy as the Mississippi Delta was to country blues. Goldman, a young professor of English at Brooklyn College in the '50s, recalled hanging out with his wise-guy students and their pals: "They had developed an indigenous humor, wild and fantastic, collectively inspired but individually performed." Their comic jam sessions, with each striving to top the others, were frenzied riffs on sex, family, and the neighborhood, delivered in a fantastic showbiz argot.

Analyzing their humor, Professor Goldman noted that while Jews imagined themselves "clever and knowing, scorning the goyim as dumb and slow-witted," they also identified themselves with "weakness, suffering, and disaster," attributing "health, physical strength, and normality to the gentiles." The free-form spritz was a defensive narcissism run wild: "Instead of swallowing or disguising their emotions, these young Jews—consumed with self-hatred or shame—came out in the open and blasted the things that hurt them."

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