Like any religion, the movies have their martyrs—some even sacrificed on the altar of art. The archetypal frustrated career is Orson Welles’s, but years before the industry gave the onetime boy genius his comeuppance, there was the case of Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957). Subject of a two-week Film Forum retro, Stroheim directed for barely a decade and spent the rest of his life in exile, reduced to acting even as he was revered by cineastes as a visionary too big, too bad, and too prodigal for Hollywood.
Personifying Hollywood in another way, Stroheim was as self-invented as any screen star. Departing his native Vienna in 1909, this son of a petit-bourgeois Jewish hat manufacturer declared himself a “Von” on the boat to Ellis Island; a deserter from the Austrian army (which he had served in as a private), he augmented his new pedigree with a suitably aristocratic military career. After years of odd jobs, Stroheim drifted out to Hollywood, where he broke into pictures with D.W. Griffith. An adviser on all things Prussian, Count Von Stroheim carved out an acting career playing the bald and monocled Hun during World War I: He was billed as The Man You Love To Hate.
Stroheim parlayed his exotic sex appeal into the self-directed vehicle Blind Husbands (1919), considered by film scholar Richard Koszarski to be “the most impressive and significant debut film in Hollywood history” until Citizen Kane. It was a hit, and Stroheim immediately expended the capital of his success on Foolish Wives (1922)—building a lavish replica of Monte Carlo and running through so much money that desperate Universal would hype the production as the first million-
dollar movie. Then his troubles began. The autocratic free-spender had one moneymaker, The Merry Widow (1925), and a series of disasters. His two most ambitious films—Greed (1924) and The Wedding March (1928)—were taken away and butchered. He was fired from Merry-Go-Round (1923), Queen Kelly (1929), and the talkie Walking Down Broadway (1932), which ended his directorial career.
Greed, Stroheim’s official masterpiece, is something of an anomaly—his only silent movie set in America. For the most part, Stroheim used his new home to project himself back to the old one—in the guise of an omnipotent ruler rather than a déclassé Jew. In that sense, The Wedding March, playing this weekend, is his quintessential film, proclaimed by the opening credit to be “in its entirety an Erich von Stroheim creation.”
Only half the movie Stroheim wanted to make—the complete version would have been a Griffithian epic about the fall of the Hapsburg empire—The Wedding March nevertheless allowed him to live out his fantasy, striding in boots and jodhpurs through his version of Vienna 1914, a reconstructed city with “a code of morals all its own.” The rather mature son of two grotesque aristos, rich in lineage but strapped for cash, Stroheim’s Prince Nicki is introduced sleeping off a night of dissolution and then hustling his parents for money to pay gambling debts—only to be told by both to blow out his brains or marry rich.
Christian symbols abound, sometimes merging with signs of Stroheim’s authority. Nicki meets the commoner Mitzi (Fay Wray) outside St. Stephens as he participates in the Corpus Christi procession. Flirtatious yet innocent, Mitzi is smitten by the uniformed Nicki, ignoring her swinish butcher boyfriend to stare adoringly up at this glittering, beplumed, and fetishized horseman. Not for nothing did Truffaut call Stroheim “the least elliptical filmmaker in the world.” The exchange of gazes is a veritable loop. The Wedding March‘s surviving prints are patchy, but nothing can blunt the intensity of Stroheim’s montage—the scene has 200 shots and more close-ups than anything until Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc.
An interpolated procession shot in two-strip Technicolor is scarcely the movie’s most spectacular effect. Nicki courts Mitzi in an apple bower amid a rain of falling petals. (Stroheim had the trees decorated with thousands of handmade blossoms.) There is also the film’s notorious orgy in a brothel populated by an assortment of Chinese, Nubian, and Polynesian cuties. The preoccupied Nicki leaves early (“Tonight I crave apple blossoms”), but throughout his scene with Mitzi, the film cuts back to the revels. According to cameraman Hal Mohr, the filmmaker procured “gallons of bootleg gin,” hired a gaggle of call girls, closed the set, and shot “almost off the cuff.” Mohr claimed that, given the drunken sexual shenanigans, “only about a fiftieth of what we shot was usable, but that was the way [Stroheim] would get his realism.”
Stroheim began filming The Wedding March in June 1926 at his customary 30- or 40-to-1 ratio. The plug was pulled after seven months. As with Greed, Stroheim proposed showing his incomplete epic in two parts, but only the first half was released, in October 1928. It flopped despite the desperately newfangled addition of a sound-on-disc recording. Thus, rather than continuing into World War I, the movie comes full circle, returning to St. Stephens for Prince Nicki’s arranged marriage.
Mitzi has been seduced and abandoned, but Stroheim is less puritanical than his master Griffith—his heroine has no regrets; they belong to Nicki (now a glorified gigolo). Rain mixes with Mitzi’s tears as she watches her stoical lover goose-step into a hopeless future. Rudely truncated, The Wedding March is rendered all the more solipsistic—it’s not just the tragedy of Prince Nicki but that of the man who played him.
“For Stroheim, a film was merely the most efficient means of affirming his character and his relationships with others, particularly women,” André Bazin once wrote. In this sense, the exhumed ’60s artifact Coming Apart might be considered a Stroheim descendant.
Coming Apart—reopening Friday at the theater where it had its much hyped premiere 30 years ago—failed to establish its 33-year-old neophyte writer-director, Milton Moses Ginsberg, as the genius of the age. It did, however, lay claim to a degree of Stroheimian naturalism—although, in its 10-minute takes, fixed camera, blatant voyeurism, and explicit sexual content, Ginsberg’s opus was more directly derived from the films of the Warhol Factory.
Renting an apartment in the Kips Bay tower where his ex-mistress lives, a Manhattan shrink (Rip Torn) uses a hidden camera to film his trysts. The movie opens with an appropriately Freudian icon—paranoid-looking Torn splayed out on his own couch—and proceeds through a series of highly theatrical erotic adventures. One woman reveals a chest scarred by cigarette burns and hysterically offers to “do anything.” Another arrives with her baby carriage, strips, gyrates, then protests, “I never did anything like this before in front of my baby,” when Torn—who plays most of his scenes in boxer shorts—tries to jump her. A pair of Eugene McCarthy canvassers pass through, as does the shrink’s ex (Viveca Lindfors). The camera never moves (although Ginsberg cheats by shifting the setup), nor do Torn’s features, frozen in a wide-eyed frown. The big effect is the huge mirror over the couch, reflecting the midtown skyline as well as the action that the camera records.
Things pick up with the appearance of an unstable former patient (Sally Kirkland, herself an early Warhol performer), whom the shrink first seduces, then humiliates at the sub-Stroheim orgy that signals his downward spiral. After an hour and 45 minutes, a freaked-out Kirkland trashes the pad in sensuous slow motion. Her tantrum provides the means for Ginsberg to literalize his hero’s crack-up (and demolish his own pretensions) in a beautiful final image.
Ginsberg’s would-be structural skin flick is something more than a self-indulgent exercise and something less than a misunderstood masterpiece. While it would be humanly impossible to take Coming Apart as seriously as the movie takes itself, it would be foolish to deny the melancholy satisfaction that the spectacle of such smashed ambitions affords.