I read Ayn Rand’s massive novel Atlas Shrugged during my second year in college and thought I would never get through John Galt’s 100-page-plus speech near the end. So I had (and have) absolutely no desire to see the recent film trilogy (2011-’14) based on the book, each with a no-name cast and lackluster talent behind the camera. To be fair, though, I do remember thinking that the novel was OK science-fiction, reminding me more than anything of Robert Heinlein on a rant.
My other experience with Ayn Rand was by way of the movies, specifically The Fountainhead (1949), which I saw for the first time on TV in the 1960s. Gary Cooper was terrific, I remember, as was the stylized look of the film and its striking use of black-and-white design, reminiscent of the early German expressionists (like Fritz Lang) whom I was in the process of discovering.
Stopped at a traffic light just the other day, I was totally surprised by the license frame on the car in front of me, which proclaimed “The Ayn Rand Institute” on top with the web address on the bottom. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing!
Stupid me, of course. In a culture where people subscribe to Scientology as a religion, Rand’s objectivist philosophy makes incomparably better sense.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to revisit the film version of The Fountainhead, the critical reputation of which has risen over time. And I wasn’t disappointed. Scripted by Rand herself, the film is directed with style by King Vidor, whose career included classic silent films like The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928) as well as more contemporary hits like Northwest Passage (’40) and Duel in the Sun (’46).
As the superhero Howard Roark, an architectural genius of uncompromising integrity and will, Cooper was also the physical embodiment of Rand’s ideal man. Newcomer Patricia Neal, who got the coveted part of Roark’s love interest over many other stars of the time, fell under Cooper’s spell as well, embarking on a passionate love affair that spilled over into the press.
Cooper had the reputation of sleeping with just about all his leading ladies, but the relationship with Neal (20 years younger than he) proved more serious than others, even threatening his long marriage before he and Neal finally broke it off. She would shortly marry British author Roald Dahl Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in 1953 and win the Oscar for Best Actress in Hud opposite Paul Newman in 1964. But in 1951, while Cooper was filming High Noon (which would get him a second Oscar) and bedding costar Grace Kelly on the side, he and Neal were still an item.
Gossip aside, however, the film version of The Fountainhead endures today because of the movie’s visual dynamics, particularly as embodied in Cooper and Neal. Rand’s screenplay reads more like a checklist of conflicting ideals spouted either by the collectivists (the bad guys) or the individualists (the heroes). Howard Roark’s seven-minute courtroom speech near the film’s end (the longest such speech in film history up to that time) reflects Rand’s passionate integrity, no doubt, but it’s still clunky. Vidor wanted to cut it, but Rand threatened to leave the project if one word was omitted. He relented.
Whether the film is better than the book, like one contemporary reviewer suggested, is of course up to the individual, as even Ayn Rand and Howard Roark might grudgingly admit. This time, anyway, I’ll take Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal over words on a page.