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.
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.”
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!
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.