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Elliott Gould's Everyman Appeal

Tobias Carroll ponders the why and what of the Brooklyn native's work in the 70s, and what you can learn from his current retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Lil' MurderzThe films that open the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Elliott Gould retrospective, Star for an Uptight Age, now running until August 21st, help to explain just why the series exists. The satire Little Murders, adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own play and directed by Alan Arkin, begins as an unconventional, offbeat romance—described simply on IMDB as "a girl brings home her latest boyfriend to meet her parents"—and shifts, first gradually and then wrenchingly, into a territory somewhere between That Obscure Object of Desire and J.G. Ballard. The Long Goodbye, adapted by Leigh Brackett and directed by Robert Altman, transposes one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels to early-70s Los Angeles. In an interview on the Goodbye DVD, Altman cited the concept of “Rip Van Marlowe,” essentially, that Marlowe had reawakened in the 70s after sleeping for thirty years. Gould’s performance here moves from easygoing in the film’s early segments, to something so searing in one later scene it becomes difficult to watch. It’s that rarest sense, when watching a film, of a sort of controlled, uninhibited naturalism, anchored by Gould's very real, human presence. And while Gould disputed at a Q & A at BAM that films such as these would not be made today, it’s hard to imagine a similar convergence of star, subject matter, setting, and plot that characterize much of Gould’s work in the 1970s.


Following the sold-out Little Murders screening on Friday, August 8th, the 70-year-old Gould held court, taking some questions from New York Sun film critic Bruce Bennett and more from the audience. The session took a contentious turn early on, as one viewer took issue with Little Murders’ ending. This led into a debate over authorial intent and the film’s satire and invocation of urban paranoia and random New York shootings, which hasn’t diminished in the slightest in the thirty-eight years since its making. In his 1971 review, Roger Ebert wrote that "one of the reasons it works, and is indeed a reflection of America's darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain."


The theme of film projects close to Gould’s heart repeated itself multiple times: as a producer of Little Murders, he recounted the story of its development and reception, which included early discussions with Jean-Luc Godard and kind words after the film’s release from Jean Renoir. From there, questions about his performance in the film—which travels from an emotional numbness to something wrenchingly vulnerable and beyond—expanded to a larger discussion of his acting methods. Gould recounted the process of understanding his role, at times, through the enacting of it, saying of one scene that initially, “I didn’t understand it”. Towards the end of the night, his performance as Harry Greenberg in Bugsy was dissected, as Gould described incorporating mannerisms recalled from his youth into James Toback’s screenplay —specifically, the pronunciation of the word “incognito”.


And perhaps it appears to be a jump, to go from an underrated lost 70's film to Warren Beatty's Bugsy, but it’s here that I should mention Gould’s oftentimes free-associative style of speaking. (At one point early on in the evening, he paused to appreciate Bennett’s hightops.) In the recounting, Gould’s analysis of playing a particular scene in Bugsy might come off as dry. The opposite is true: he quickly laid out the players in the scene, the circumstances, and his own analysis of the character.


Several directors came up in the discussion, from an exchange with Straw Dogs-era Sam Peckinpah (Peckinpah: “Do you read between the lines?” Gould: “I live between them.”) to a profane meeting with Godard to Ingmar Bergman opining on tragedy. (Bergman’s first English-language film, The Touch, closes out the series on August 21). Gould reserved the highest praise for Robert Altman, however, stating that he was the sole director who could create the ideal space for him to act. Their three films as star and director (four if you count Gould’s cameo as himself in Nashville)—the aforementioned Goodbye, M*A*S*H, and the stark, exhausting California Split—feel unique among noteworthy director/actor pairings in their spontaneity and unpredictability.


gouldianThe retrospective’s films all date from the 1970s—many from the earlier part of the decade—and share, besides their star, an unconventional sensibility. The series’s title—Star For an Uptight Age—is taken from a TIME cover story on Gould from the early years of the decade in question, and his visibility at the time is worth remembering. Along with Dustin Hoffman, who had broken due to The Graduate, Gould was a sign of a sea change in film, wherein the "dashing" leading man became a New York Jew, starring in the most interesting films: quote TIME, "in this era of the inescapable nude scene, Gould’s ordinary and not especially well-cared-for proportions come as a blessed relief."


During the Q & A, Gould seemed less worried than most about the continuance of 70s-style cinema, making the case that films like the ones in the series could still be made in the present, only “in a different way." (He also singled out Eric Guirado’s The Grocer’s Son and Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor as recent films that had particularly impressed him.) Talk returned to the sensibility of Little Murders and its relevance to today’s political climate, with Gould comparing the character played by Alan Arkin in the film—a feckless, unstable detective given to long, sometimes menacing speeches—to the current occupant of the White House.


The overall impression one took away from the question and answer session was less about Gould’s knowledge and command of his craft and more holistic: though his discussion of acting in memorable films and working with acclaimed directors was fascinating and comprehensive, he seemed the most content when discussing his family—his relationship with his grandchildren, the pair of short films he’s acted in with his son Jason Gould directing. All of which might provide a clue as to the still-powerful mystique he has, the reason why Gould has made a mark: it’s a holistic sensibility he bears, equally relevant to acting and, simply, living.

Elliott Gould: Star For an Uptight Age runs through August 21 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


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