The Goulden Age

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

Self-mocking yet self-protective in his alienation from the host culture, Gould's nice neighbor exhibits definite symptoms of schlemielism. Not only that, the movie itself is the shamus' spritz. Rather than a noirish voiceover, The Long Goodbye is shaped by Gould's improvised stream of wise-guy consciousness. The first day of shooting, he ad-libbed the line "It's OK with me," which became his catchphrase. Gould is on-screen in every scene, with Altman providing him many oddballs to bounce off of: Former major league pitcher Jim Bouton plays his glad-handing friend; Swedish folksinger Nina Van Pallandt (mystery woman in the Clifford Irving scandal, played by Julie Delpy in The Hoax) is the mystery woman here; former child actor Mark Rydell is a sociopathic bookie; and Sterling Hayden gives his career performance as an alcoholic writer. Ronald Reagan is unseen, but the then governor is pointedly evoked (and in a modest cosmic coincidence, the baby-faced Arnold Schwarzenegger has a walk-on as hired muscle).

Los Angeles 1973 is riven by real racial and class distinctions, yet fantasy is ubiquitous. As self-conscious as its star, The Long Goodbye is bracketed by the song "Hooray for Hollywood"—the bloozy theme jumps from car radio to supermarket Muzak to cocktail lounge piano to Mexican funeral band—and the characters habitually refer to each other as cartoon creatures. If, as ex-wife Streisand once suggested, Gould was the American Belmondo, The Long Goodbye is the closest Hollywood ever came to making its Breathless. Seldom has artifice seemed more spontaneous. The camera is in constant motion. Everyone acts as though they're acting in a movie—none more than Gould, whose improvised arrest scene culminates with his taunting the cops by smearing his face with fingerprint ink to sing Jolson's "Swanee." But, as foolish as this minstrelsy might seem, the private eye turns out to be the movie's moral center, if not its Old Testament avenger, using the final minutes to metaphorically bring the whole Hollywood temple crashing down.

The Long Goodbye had its premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater. It was a disaster. The un-Hollywood was so 1970; the industry was waiting for the sort of hyper-real noir restoration that Roman Polanski's Chinatown would provide in the summer of '74. Moreover, how could Marlowe (or was it Humphrey Bogart?) be this Brooklyn shmegegge? (Who could forget the joke of Woody Allen's schmo-like devotion to Bogie in Play It Again, Sam?)

Illustration by Tim O’Brien


Tune in: J. Hoberman talks Elliott Gould

Los Angeles reviewers were outraged by The Long Goodbye's desecration, although Variety did suggest it could be a " 'cult' film." UA yanked it from theaters and delayed the New York opening for six months. Altman devised a new comic-book-style ad campaign by Mad magazine artist Jack Davis, cannily locating The Long Goodbye in the realm of candy-store shtick. New York critics embraced the movie, albeit too late for the box office and perhaps its star as well.

Voluble and free-associative, Gould lives these days in a Los Angeles apartment with a framed portrait of his "friend" Sigmund Freud. He's re- reading Malamud—indeed, he still owns the rights to A New Life, Malamud's novel of a Brooklyn shlimazl who reinvents himself (kinda) as a college teacher in the Pacific Northwest. Gould wonders whether Philip Roth might do the adaptation. A year shy of 70, Gould is more comfortably heymish. The actor talks about his grandchildren and treasures his friendship with Sid Caesar, the man who brought the Borscht Belt to TV. They played opposite each other, with Shelley Winters as Gould's mother, in Menachem Golan's 1984 generational comedy Over the Brooklyn Bridge—originally called My Darling Shiksa and described by Gould as a "Jewish Red River."

Gould recently tried to turn Caesar on to Sacha Baron Cohen, but the older man couldn't deal with Cohen's vulgarity. Gould rhapsodizes over the Marx Brothers—"If Duck Soup were made today it would be recognized as an improvisational masterpiece"—and recalls his friendship with the elderly Groucho. Once "when I was in my long-hair-and-overalls period, I changed a lightbulb over Groucho's bed. He said, 'That's the best acting I've ever seen you do.' " Asked if he sees himself in any younger stars, he answers "Adam Sandler" without pause.

Sure—but there's not much id in that yid, and very little anxiety. On the other hand, Woody wanted Gould for the title role of Deconstructing Harry—which might've been a second Long Goodbye—but the actor had a prior commitment he couldn't break. "I very much love being part of the system," he insists. He has a recurring role as a Vegas dealer in the Steven Soderbergh Ocean's series. The day after we spoke, he left for South Africa to play LL Cool J's rabbi in a movie with William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Gould grew a full beard for the role: "I'm always in character," he says.

Marlowe was for a long time Gould's favorite performance until, he tells me, he stopped having favorites. "Bob [Altman] shows life taking its course. He gave me so much space, I became a jazz actor. I'm a chorus boy and a tap dancer—I understand rhythm and repetition!" Gould gave Altman another terrific improvisational performance in the compulsive-gambling drama California Split, a movie he calls "semi-autobiographical" and which paired him to excellent effect with fellow Jew Wave actor George Segal. But times had changed; Gould's career as a leading man was over well before the '70s expired.

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