The Goulden Age

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

Ethnic Jewish characters lost the prominence they had attained during the mass alienation of the late '60s, although ethnic characterizations did not. An example of premature identity politics, beginning with Bye Bye Braverman and The Producers in 1968 and thus anticipating Blaxploitation by several years, the Jew Wave crested before audiences were accustomed to finding such issues in popular entertainment. Italian Americans supplanted Jews as Hollywood's white ethnic group of choice. The urban neurotic hero disappeared as well—or, rather, was subsumed into the persona of Woody Allen—at least until he resurfaced in '90s TV sitcoms like Seinfeld and Mad About You, as did Gould, appearing as Ross and Monica's Jewish father in 20 episodes of Friends.

Gould maintains that, hardly satire, his Marlowe was Chandler's Marlowe: His nasal baritone has served as Marlowe's voice in a half-dozen books on tape and, owning the rights to one of Chandler's early Black Mask stories, he'd love to revisit the character. But what character is that? Gould's Marlowe is nice rather than macho and a crazy fool more than a romantic one in subscribing to a code of ethics he seemed to have learned from movies that everyone else had forgotten.

Illustration by Tim O’Brien


Tune in: J. Hoberman talks Elliott Gould

Amazingly, The Long Goodbye has things both ways. As the personification of last year's zeitgeist, Gould was used by Altman to portray a Marlowe at once hippie idealist and absurd '40s relic. And in its projection of a divided consciousness, the movie also became a metaphor for the star's career. Gould expresses (or feigns) puzzlement when it's pointed out that even in the role of Philip Marlowe, he comes across as Jewish: "I just wanted to be American," he insists. That's a pathos John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart never experienced.

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