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Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal

"The Fountainhead" (1949); One That I Missed,
or an Overdue Film Review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

I was nearly a teenager when King Vidor's "The Fountainhead" was released. I think I might have seen it as a child, but I certainly didn't know what was going on between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal and all those other objectivist-versus-collectivist folks in Ayn Rand's showdown before a chiaroscuro skyline of New York---all of it submerged in a melodramatic music score by Max Steiner.

I caught intermittent glimpses of the film on television through the years as I began getting the gist of Ms. Rand's love of and rant for laissez-faire capitalism and the connective tissue it shares with libertarianism in America. In a nutshell, it can be defined with a line from the architect, Howard Roark (Cooper): "The world is suffering from an orgy of self-sacrifice" or, more Randspeak from her hero: "My work, my way...nothing else matters."

But the essence of the film is a sentence that escapes the lips of the heroine of the piece, Dominique Francon (played by Ms. Neal), but autobiographically as Ayn Rand, I'm sure, would have herself seen on the big screen. Dominique delivers the line to Howard in a scene not long after the script implies he has raped her.

Enjoy her words. I did when I looked at all of "The Fountainhead" in one sitting with much more focus than ever before. The dominatingly-inclined Dominique says to Howard: "I wish I'd never seen your building!"

Buildings in Rand's screenplay, as well as her novel, are penises(*). That's why I would call the film, "The Fountainhead," a phallic fable of philosophical flip-flop. (No pun intended, gentlemen.)

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper

Mr. Cooper's character, although pig-headedly fearless, doesn't really know what it is. Or, I should say Ms. Rand doesn't know what it is. Howard Roark is shown early on in the picture as a blue-collarish, forthright, honest, architect of vision about as willing to compromise on his craft as Ludwig van Beethoven would have re-written part of his Ninth Symphony as dictated by his less-talented contemporary, Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Whatever our politics, let's raise one to artistic integrity, for sure.

Meanwhile, a few reels later, Ms. Rand puts these conflicting words in Roark's mouth, as he foolishly represents himself giving a lawyerly summation of innocence for blowing up a housing project for lower-income people covertly designed by him to his unalterable specifications. "I live by the judgment of my own mind...for my own sake!"

The architect is making it abundantly clear to the jury that he doesn't care whether or not such a housing facility is helpful to less-well-off people or not. It's his right to express himself as he sees fit whether others like his creation or not. It's his right to destroy the housing complex only because others have changed it.

I've always gotten the feeling that Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony and all his great works because he wanted others to like them---to listen to them---to play them---long after his death---to remember him. That's the missing link in Ayn Rand's theory of evolution insofar as the integrity of the artist is concerned, seems to me.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

Rand's vision of the evolution of the marketplace is also blurred. Her "Fountainhead" characters seem never to cease urging Roark to sell out in order to gain success and acceptance. What makes that naïve writing? This Club for Mediocrity (so to speak) isn't covert with its rhetoric. Most real-life "successful" people never utter words that would paint them as mediocre or second-rate, whether they are, or not. They don't even say it to themselves, but continue playing to the common denominator or curry favor of the masses. There's nothing more unbelievable than an openly self-critical hypocrite. But we got more than one in "The Fountainhead."

Especially so is Gail Wynand, played by Raymond Massey. Wynand is the millionaire publisher of the New York Banner newspaper. He calls it the People's Newspaper." In his truthful dishonesty, he says he molds his readers by adhering to their whims and playing on their sense of conflict and vulnerability for arousal to a cause, however simplistic and fatuous it might be. Obviously, Wynand is Roark's foil, yet still his ironic admirer. Wynand is also the cuckold given the association Roark has with Dominique, who marries Wynand, even though she doesn't love the publisher.

In fact, love isn't much at play in "The Fountainhead" at all, even though Roark and Dominique profess it to one another in a sado-masochistic kind of way: Roark with his implied sexual assault on Dominique, following her lashing him across the cheek with her riding whip.

Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal publicity shot

Acting, across the board, is forced and wooden, especially Cooper. And other major roles in "The Fountainhead" are only of well-off people, except for what I would call the "gardener" or "pool boy" scenes with Dominique when Roark is shown as a day laborer at a rock quarry due to his no-compromise attitude that loses him the architect biz. That's about the time in the movie when Roark fixes Dominique's marble---in the fireplace. On a certain level, this picture is a real soap opera hoot, especially now, here in a brand new decade. Maybe Warner Bros. should re-title the movie, "2010: A Spacey Odyssey."

But "thankfully," Rand makes sure we get the "happy" ending. Wynand, in deep remorse for his elitist proletarian ways and quasi-worship of Roark, commits suicide, which allows Dominique, without so much as a backward glance at her dead husband, to marry Roark after his absurd acquittal for dynamiting the tampered-with housing project (a selfish act of domestic terrorism in itself).

Ah yes, all is right in Ayn Rand's reverse universe as Dominique briskly rises high above New York City on an open freight elevator to her laissez-faire artist/husband of libertarian bent who stands stiffly in the afternoon breeze atop his newest but not quite completed project: a very tall, very erect building(*).

Where is Ted Turner now that we really need him?

"The Fountainhead" at IMDb.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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