The Goulden Age

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

Like these "Brooklyn bright boys," little Elliott Goldstein grew up absurd, living in a cramped two-and-a-half-room apartment, sharing the bedroom with his parents until he was 11. His father schlepped in the garment district; his mother, who arranged for tap-dance lessons and served as his mambo partner during summers in the Catskills, was, as he once suggested, the Anna Magnani of Bay Parkway. "If life is preparation for art," Newsweek decided, the "self-analytical, verbal, sports-crazy, hung-up, talented, and irreverent" Gould should play the anti-hero of Portnoy's Complaint. But he turned it down.

Gould, who no longer likes to discuss his childhood, was busy, man! "I had let myself be known before I understood myself," the actor told me portentously from his Los Angeles apartment when I spoke to him recently by phone. "I don't come with any ego." Maybe now, but not then, when together with his Brooklyn compadre, former studio publicist Jack Brodsky, Goldy from the block became a producer. Gould and Brodsky bought the rights to Jules Feiffer's black comedy Little Murders and Gould was wacky enough to write Jean-Luc Godard to "please direct my picture." Only in 1970: Godard wrote back, calling Feiffer his favorite American writer. (They took a couple of meetings, but nothing came of it, and Alan Arkin wound up directing.)

Gould identified with a whole Jewish-American revolution. He and Brodsky planned movies based on novels by Bernard Malamud and Bruce Jay Friedman—they bought the bestseller Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask as a comedy vehicle for homeboy Woody Allen. Who knew then that Woody harbored dreams of being Brooklyn's Ingmar Bergman and, at the time, who cared? But, as reported by Time, Gould's "remarkable year [was] capped by the ultimate cinematic coup—a leading role in a film by Sweden's consummate filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman." And Goldy had never even seen a Bergman flick!

Illustration by Tim O’Brien


Tune in: J. Hoberman talks Elliott Gould

Gould turned down the opportunity to play the greatest of Jewish wise guys, the sainted Lenny Bruce, in the Broadway production of Lenny; told M*A*S*H director Robert Altman to find someone else to star in his new western McCabe & Mrs. Miller; and nixed Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Off to Sweden. Bergman's The Touch turned out to be a trip—if not a mindfuck. Necessary, perhaps; two years later, Altman would direct Gould's quintessential performance.

Like more than a few good movies, The Long Goodbye was the product of many fortunate (and some unfortunate) accidents. One was Gould's mental state.

Working with Bergman had turned Gould inside out. His psyche was probed; his mind was messed. He came back, he would say, "as a baby," just wanting to share his newfound knowledge, but somehow wound up fighting with everyone. Gould's production company broke up; he walked off the set of his new movie and had to pay Warners a penalty.

"I went very far very fast," Gould recalls. "I didn't know I had no perspective and no judgment. I was in free fall." He went shaggy; he had the first of two children with 19-year-old flower child Jennifer Bogart. He played a lot of schoolyard basketball "to re-establish myself as a guy" and didn't work for 18 months. Before signing him for The Long Goodbye at a quarter of his pre-Ingmar rate, United Artists insisted that he take not just a physical but a sanity test.

Robert Altman, meanwhile, was on an incredible roll. Beginning with the 1970 mondo smash M*A*S*H and ending with the 1975 critical triumph Nashville, Altman was Hollywood's most exciting and innovative filmmaker, mixing bold (if failed) experiments Brewster McCloud and Images with credible genre-revision jobs Thieves Like Us and California Split and two brilliant reworkings of popular Hollywood mythology, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye.

Adapted from Raymond Chandler's last Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye had been kicking around since the mid '60s. Now the hot, young cinephile Peter Bogdanovich was set to direct. Bogdanovich envisioned Chandler's private eye as a neo-Bogie like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum (who would play Marlowe a few years later). But UA was thinking youth market; the studio floated Gould's name, Bogdanovich split, and Altman, looking more to work with Gould than make a private-eye flick, entered the picture.

Altman conceived of Chandler's detective as Rip van Marlowe—a '40s gumshoe wandering through the Brave New World of 1973, his private-eye code of honor hopelessly at odds with America's new morality, new permissiveness, and New Age nonsense. The movie opens in the hero's cruddy apartment at 3 a.m. Asleep in his cheap suit, lights blazing, Gould's Marlowe is woken up by his hungry cat and, good-natured as he is, puts on his tie and goes out for cat food. The half-dozen usually topless young women who live next door are planning cannabis treats and ask him to bring them back a box of brownie mix. "Mr. Marlowe, you're the nicest neighbor we ever had," one trills. "Gotta be the nicest neighbor, girls; I'm a private eye," Gould mumbles mainly to himself. Niceness scarcely pays as the private eye's loyalty to an old pal immediately embroils him in a nasty series of deaths and betrayals.

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