Elliott Gould: “The values don’t age.”
by Richard von Busack
Elliott Gould once described his method as an actor: “I live what I do, but I was a tap dancer”. Gould, who appears at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose Mar 2, was (noted critic J. Hoberman) the youngest actor to make it to the box office top ten since Elvis. He was phenomenally popular at the cusp of the 1970s, starring in three Robert Altman classics, and a later cameo in The Player.
Gould’s appeal as an actor seems obvious. Over the decades, the seeming effortlessness of the dancer yielded into portrayals of men with warmth and humane shrewdness. He was the ailing heart at the center of the hit Ocean’s 11 movies, and a regular on TV’s Friends: but when considering the best work of his heyday, you come back not to the cool battlefield surgeon Trapper John in Altman’s movie MASH but to his slightly haphazard Phillip Marlowe in 1973’s The Long Goodbye…without this film, there would be no defective detective Lebowski; watch and learn.
Elder-mensch roles Gould can do with stunning ease, as he does in the new indie film Dorfman, which brings him to Cinequest. Note also his scenes as the helpless-to-help father of the angst-ridden son in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995). It’s a character that’s like a study of Jeff Daniels’ far more toxic father in Baumbach’s later Squid and the Whale. Less Strindbergian, Gould’s character may be more human.
So much of Dorfman is about the renewal of L.A.’s downtown. Had you been coming down there much over the past few years?
Well that’s not what the movie is about! The producer has property down there, that’s a motivating fact, but it’s about Sara Rue’s renewing her view of life and of nature and relationships. It’s nice to have Los Angeles in it. But what I brought to it was an old actor with a lot of experience and love in my heart.
What’s your favorite scene?
The scene where I’m outside, sitting on the bench. The father tells the daughter she has to be able to think of herself and she deserves to have a life, that there’s nothing wrong with her. Her father had somewhat of a closed mind and a closed heart up to that point.
I would have thought it’s the scene where the female bartender asks you out.
See, that’s nice, but the movie’s not about me, I have this overview of life. I believe there’s nothing of value in this life except what we have to share. I love that John Lennon song “Working Class Hero,” do you know it?
Loneliness, alienation sorrow depression, insecurity…we’ve got to be able to communicate, we’ve got to be open so we can be there together equally in the moment. I love to work, I’m very grateful for any opportunity especially at this time.
Ego and vanity are very toxic. A grain of pride is good for the heart, but more than that is blindness. My father was very proud man and that blinded him a little. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, I have had to accept my own ego and vanity.
METRO:To get back to the roles: Did you start doing more gangster roles after the part you played in Bugsy?
(above: in Ocean’s 11)
Well, I played a few gangsters afterwards. Whatever parts I can get are based on what people think of me, and if they’re interested in my work. Some times we can be typecast. The character I played on Friends was a stereotypical character: it worked famously, but it needed to be somewhat to be stereotypical and two-dimensional.
I didn’t think that I would do it, and then I saw what Jim Burroughs was doing with the show. He was the son of the fabulous director Abe Burroughs, incidentally, whom I worked for once.
I realize you get asked a lot about The Long Goodbye…
For a while it was my favorite film, I wouldn’t have gotten to do it if Altman hadn’t taken it over. Besides my mother, Altman was my main muse. United Artists sent him the script—he called me from Ireland, where he was shooting Images, and asked me, “what do you think?” I said, “I always wanted to play that guy.” He said, “you are that guy!”
I saw The Long Goodbye the day it opened, when I was a young kid, and I had no idea how much I’d love it 39 years later. I remember being angry at the time, particularly with the ending. It was not at all simple stuff for an adolescent who romanticized Phillip Marlowe.
I remember seeing it with Leigh Brackett—she co-wrote the script for The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. She was the first to note how the book had changed the ending, and she said it had broken the mold. I was making Busting with Robert Blake, a film directed by Peter Hyams, and Peter said he hated it. [Then Los Angeles Times film critic] Charles Champlin destroyed it.
The studio didn’t know how to present it. It was against the grain, nobody’s been able to get close to The Long Goodbye.
It was made with some very original chemistry and lines like: “tell the guy next door, it don’t hurt to die”. See, I was breaking down grammar, I’m not the most highly educated creature, I tried to use the dialogue musically.
Altman’s original plan was to remake everything of Chandler, one book every two years. It didn’t happen. I got so much trouble with the establishment.
I know I’m good, I have a really good heart, but I didn’t recognize that this is a business. I wasn’t a businessperson. It took me a long time to awaken to the fact that it was all a business, all a challenge. I choose to continue.
I’m still trying to make the sequel to The Long Goodbye but I can’t find a nickel to make it! I’d like to do it in a way we’ve never seen the character of Marlowe. The values don’t age. The sequel would be based on a short novel, The Curtain, a book written before there was a Marlowe. We worked some time with the Chandler estate, and they sold me the rights to the book for a dollar. Altman and I started to talk about it—the concept for it, bringing Marlowe into the present, having him old and arthritic. The title would be It’s Always Now.
Alan Rudolph wrote a script, which I haven’t transposed yet.
One of your interviews said you saw Marlowe as “a very unorthodox patriot”; it noted that your Marlowe wore a tie with American flags monogrammed on it. Was this film a response from the heat on you after MASH, about the way it depicted the soldiers’ lives? I remember the army doctor who wrote the original book MASH was based on was supposedly mad about how anti-war the movie was.
(Above: A Bridge Too Far.)
An unorthodox patriot? Why not? What’s a patriot anyway? Something that just got beat in the Super Bowl. I want to quote John Lennon—Imagine a world without national boundaries. Religion is fundamentally discipline, and no one can tell me that one can be better than any other one. We’re all here at the same time, and we’re all the same-it’s not dog eat dog: survival of the fittest is for plants and stuff, things that don’t have the human quotient.
As for anti-war films, I was just watching A Bridge Too Far with my grandson; you could say I watched it through the eyes of a 12 year old. (Which reminds me, I need to reach out to Richard Attenborough and say hello.) It’s really an anti-war film itself. I was the only fictional character in the film. They put me in to contemporize it. After I finished my assignment I left Holland and went to London and bought a watch to celebrate, even though I don’t wear a watch. Gave it to my son, and engraved it with the date of his birth: and the inscription “There is no bridge too far.”
I saw you played Albert Einstein once…
GOULD: I did, I did! I was at a film festival at Port Townsend, Washington, talking to a class of 11th and 12th graders, and they had a picture on the wall of Einstein and a quote: “Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science”. I got a copy and got it framed.
The Time magazine cover you were on described you as “a hero for an uptight age”: “Uptight” isn’t what I think of when I watching you in a movie: certainly moments of outburst, like your character Harry Bailey, Getting Straight when he rebels against the department chair’s thesis that F. Scott Fitzgerald was secretly gay.
Is it still an uptight age? Are these times worse than the cusp of the 1960s and the 1970s?
I would think probably—in terms of all the media exists, all the disinformation that’s being put out, and how the environment is being affected by our lust and greed and blindness…these times are very likely the worst.
Anyway, I decided to come out and promote the film, see people, and assess the body of work.
Oh, I know who I want to mention:
John Wooden, have you heard of him? He was a coach; he was one of two people I wanted to meet most in my life. He was 99 year old when I finally got to meet him– I knew someone who knew his son. I knew Wooden was a brilliant coach—he should be on Mt. Rushmore, actually. But I didn’t know he was a teacher, he taught English in Indiana He told me the most important word in the English language is “love.” But he said there was a second most important word: balance.