A Director’s Dedicated Maniacs

There’s an energy to the early films of Bob Rafelson, one that when watching recent interviews with him you’d wonder where it came from. His voice is deep, speaking slow, saying as much in an hour as a young Paul Thomas Anderson would in five minutes. Five Easy Pieces, Stay Hungry and today’s topic The King of Marvin Gardens all typify that New Hollywood feeling. That rough-around-the-edges meandering that makes it feel as though there wasn’t a script to begin with, that all they did was take the actors with the most volcanic personalities and sit them in front of a European with an Arriflex.

Those volcanic actors were Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson. The European was Laszlo Kovacs who, along with Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis, was one of the greatest cinematographers of the New Hollywood, establishing a style that’s still mimicked today.

The King of Marvin Gardens follows Jack Nicholson, a late night radio show host, as he travels to Atlantic City to bail his estranged would-be-con-man of a brother played by Bruce Dern out of prison. Along for the ride, ticking time bomb Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson, who share an ambiguous relationship to say the least.

This film plays into my own personal tastes almost ridiculously so. Pseudo families, long and meandering scenes, simple yet beautiful cinematography with it’s fair share of film grain, estranged siblings, and people who when they get angry they monologue, stiltedly and disjointedly. It’s written, clearly, but it’s acted. Everyone talks about the 70’s being the era for method acting. It gave us Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, and Jack Nicholson here. The energy he and the rest of the cast inject into every single one of their lines gives even the more surreal and heightened scenes a real palpable emotion.

In many ways, the film can be viewed as a time capsule. Shot on location in the middle of winter in 1972, it captures a kind of grand resort town architecture that now is as foreign as something from a thousand years ago. A great many of the buildings the film sets itself around would be demolished only a few years later, replaced with towering gaudy casinos.

Julia Anne Robinson too is reason alone to watch this film. She would, only three years after the film was released, tragically die in an apartment fire at the age of 24. Plenty of attention is paid to the lost great male character actors snuffed out far too early like the ever heartbreaking John Cazale, but never enough to the women like Julia Anne Robinson or those who just faded into obscurity, perhaps willingly, like The Panic In Needle Park’s Kitty Winn.

It’s a sentiment repeated over and over, whether by Robert Altman, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, or any number of others, that directing really is just surrounding yourself with the best people you can and letting them do their job. It’s not as derogatory as it might sound as finding those people can be the hardest task of all, as is evidenced by the bad films made by those directors, or any director really. Bob Rafelson said himself, “What I felt was that America had considerable talent, but we lacked a talent to recognize talent.”

Rafelson certainly seemed to succeed here though. The King of Marvin Gardens is one of those films were you can see and feel on the screen all these disparate elements converging perfectly. Plenty of love is tossed the way of the writer/director, the so-called auteur, but not nearly enough to those folk like Rafelson, Lumet and Demme. Film is and always has been a collaborative process. Martin Scorsese without Thelma Schoonmaker, without Robert De Niro, without Leonardo DiCaprio… David Lean without Alec Guinness, without Robert Bolt, without Freddie Young… a director is nothing without the people they choose to go into battle with.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.