One of the best movies about the movies ever made, John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust is an unsettling, unconventional blend of satire, gothic melodrama, and straight-up weirdness with a nerve-rattling, lunatic ending.
The movie adapts Nathanael West’s 1939 novel about a talented young art director, Tod (William Atherton), who journeys to Hollywood and instantly falls into the orbit of Faye (Karen Black), a talentless wannabe actress living with her decrepit father (Burgess Meredith). Faye quickly senses opportunity and wraps Tod around her finger, much the way she already has with the sycophantic sad sack Homer (a brilliantly damaged Donald Sutherland).
The relatively normal Tod doesn’t stand a chance in a town populated by a veritable parade of bitter, spiteful, neurotic, and bizarre losers and misfits dying to be worshipped like tin-plated gods by the masses. He adapts quickly to Hollywood’s excesses and Faye’s machinations, going with the flow while the psyche of the deeply repressed Homer crumbles. The story climaxes with a shocking, traumatic riot sequence that illustrates one character’s complete and utter perdition.
Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) and screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico), give the movie an air of authenticity. Though emtionally remote at times, it nevertheless is an engaging, fascinating work, thanks in large part to the cast and the excellent photography by Conrad Hall. Like so many other great movies, The Day of the Locust failed at the box office; post-Vietnam audiences just weren’t in the mood for such a cynical work that so rudely stripped the glittery veneer from Tinseltown.