The Fountainhead: How Ayn Rand's wildly popular novel got made into 1949 Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal film
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Adapted from Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead (1949) is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a genius modernist architect whose refusal to accept established styles and conform to public standards make him a pariah among his peers.
Roark declares that his primary quest is his work itself, not its possible beneficiaries. He does not accept the judgment of collectives and knows that no “group, board, council or commission” would give him projects. Recognising his greatness, but lacking the courage to be by his side, are Dominique (Patricia Neal), an architecture critic in love with Roark’s work (and thus Roark), and Wynand (Raymond Massey), a self-made media baron trying to regain the strength of character he lost on his way to the top. Running the crusade against Roark is Toohey (Robert Douglas), a social-minded critic at Wynand’s publication who is convinced of Roark’s genius and wants to break him down for that very reason.
Much of the drama of the script, adapted from the novel by Rand herself, passes through a romantic triangle. Dominique is in love with Roark, but is afraid that the world will grind him down. To protect herself from the heartbreak, she marries Wynand, who also loves Dominique. Wynand is a very nuanced figure, an antagonist trying to redeem himself, who sees in Roark the man he could have been, but was too scared to become. Roark, for his part, is a cipher, an emotional monolith who refuses to compromise his work, whatever be the personal and professional cost of that attitude. The characters’ attraction to each other is modulated less by erotic fervour than their appreciation of each other’s moral outlook.
There’s a starkly new style of acting afoot in King Vidor’s film, no doubt informed by the nature of the material at hand. Unusually for a Hollywood hero, Roark is not someone the viewer identifies with. Vidor’s direction divorces our perspective from that of Roark, whom we get to know only through information supplied by other characters. In the opening volley of exchanges, Roark stands as a silhouette at the edge of the frame, as his varying interlocutors describe his personality by way of cautionary advice: stubborn, uncompromising, visionary, individualistic, too idealist for this business. Throughout the film, we hear about the brilliance of Roark’s Frank Lloyd Wright-like designs, but we’re never told why they are so.
Cooper, in turn, dials down his already minimalist style and turns the character into a near-mythical figure. Many shots present him from the back, his obscured profile lending him a larger-than-life presence. Rand’s story constantly compares buildings to people and locates the integrity or inauthenticity of architects in the designs they produce. Roark, like his creations, is solemn, impassive, upright, impenetrable and flawless. Cooper is really playing a slab of marble here. He stands tall, hardly moves and performs very few actions. Except for a pair of gestures involving his fingers, his hands always remain close to his body or in his pockets. Whatever reactions he has, he conveys using microscopically calibrated facial expressions. His general unflappability becomes a moral quality, set against the neurotic body language of characters like his frazzled, coveting peer Keating (Kent Smith). This idea of laconic speech and reduced physical movement conveying a superiority of character was already present in Cooper’s role in Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and it’s taken to its philosophical extreme in The Fountainhead, thanks in no small part to Rand’s scenario.
Similar principles are at work with Patricia Neal’s character. In the initial stretches of the film, Dominique is dead-eyed, never blinks or moves her pupils when she fixates on something. She is cold and removed, her distance an expression of self-protection and a fear of loss of control. In her first scene, she tosses away a pretty statue because, she says, it’s too beautiful for this wretched world. Her melancholy defiance and whip-wielding dominance, of course, melt away when she lays eyes on Roark’s chiselled body drilling down a marble. As a result, Neal’s eyes become progressively warmer, her hands less in control. Vidor cranks up the sexual tension to untenable levels, curiously sublimating it in architecture talk. The dynamic culminates in the proto-fascist iconography of the final scene where Dominique, now wholly submitted to her love, ascends via a fork lift towards Roark, who stands atop a skyscraper looking down at her, his hands on his hips.
This melodramatic framework is fundamental, and not incidental, to Rand’s script. In direct opposition to Freud, Rand believed that a person’s emotional life was founded on a bedrock of reason and that one could direct one’s sentimental life by rational analysis. “A man falls in love with and sexually desires a person who reflects his own deepest values,” she wrote. In flagrant contrast to the Hollywood model, Roark and Dominique fall in love with each other through an appreciation of each other’s moral, intellectual virtues. A long scene of romantic confession takes the shape of Dominique’s admiration for Roark’s nonconformism. This notion of an amorous relationship based on “rational self-interest”, if it isn’t given a lie by Rand’s own love life beset by passion and jealousy, at least makes for odd drama.
Another aspect of Rand’s script that goes against the grain of classical Hollywood is its unapologetic verbosity. Rand adores reiterating her declarations against mass culture (incriminating Hollywood indirectly), collectivism, altruism, solidarity and common standards in exceptionally lofty, impossibly articulate dialogue. She puts her most scandalising lines in the mouth of Roark’s rival Toohey, whose cigar-blowing critic is a caricature of the New York intellectual. This writerly excess reaches its crescendo in an extended courtroom scene where Roark spells out his (and the film’s) philosophy in unequivocal terms. Like Roark, Rand sold the film rights on the condition that not one word of any of this be changed.
All the same, Vidor activates the material with a vertiginous imagery scored to Max Steiner’s thunderous score. Vidor’s style here can justifiably said to be baroque. His strong, rectilinear compositions in deep space make dazzling use of Edward Carrere’s modernist interiors and the highly directional lighting. A scene set at a marble quarry is a veritable series of minimalist canvases harnessing the straight edges of rock formations to great effect. Vidor’s eye for geometry is visible in minor scenes like an idyllic interlude of three characters relaxing under a tree. The filmmaker’s characteristic camera movements impart a dynamism to scenes threatened by Rand’s wordiness. Even the long-winded courtroom speech is made snappy thanks to Vidor’s fluid sequencing and Cooper’s deadpan line delivery.
Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Rand’s novel during the war, but it couldn’t be made into a film because of America’s pro-Russia stance at the time. In 1949, however, things were markedly different. The Cold War had begun and anti-communist sentiment was in the air. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursued its investigation into leftist infiltration of Hollywood. At the famous HUAC hearings of 1947, Cooper and Rand were summoned as friendly witnesses to denounce communism, which they did in their own unmistakable manner. First among those promising cooperation and clean-up was Jack Warner, the head of the studio that saw a major workers’ strike in 1945. It’s something of a bitter irony that Warner Brothers, known for its socially-conscious cinema and films about the little man, would go on to make a work that decried these very values. But the climate had changed, and one thing that the old Hollywood moguls understood well was which direction the winds blew. The Fountainhead was fashionable once more.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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Updated Date: Feb 02, 2020 16:46:09 IST