Clare Binns: The early 1970s produced some great films and filmmakers. There was George Lucas with THX 1138 (1971), Steven Spielberg with SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972). Bob Rafelson directed THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS in 1972 just when Hollywood was being taken over by the young Turks. He led the pack, producing EASY RIDER (1969) and directing FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and then this film, the story of two luckless brothers embroiled in a real estate scam. It stars Jack Nicholson, before he became the mannered actor that came after his Best Actor win for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). Ryan Gosling’s towering performance in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012) is the nearest you can get to how Nicholson was back in the day, and this film sees him at the height of his powers.
If you want to tick a box in the ‘films you have to see before you die’ list, then this films needs to be seen. Moody and magnificent, with a cast of starry supporting actors including Bruce Dern and Karen Black and the awesome cinematographry of Laszlo Kovacs (SHAMPOO, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and NEW YORK, NEW YORK), the film is a heart-breaking story that just can’t afford to be missed.
Neil Hepburn: How do you follow up a downbeat character drama as brilliant as 1970’s FIVE EASY PIECES? For Bob Rafelson, the answer seems to have been simple. Make another one. Sift through the wastelands of the American dream and see what you find. Imaginative outsiders. Dysfunctional families. Edgy locations. Jack Nicholson. Bruce Dern. It’s a great formula.
The resulting gem, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972), is back on cinema screens this year, thanks to Park Circus. Presented in a new restoration, László Kovács’ artful cinematography is more striking than ever, bringing us uncomfortably close to a grotty ’70s Atlantic City, dreamlike in its emptiness and faded grandeur. A small, personal story that’s driven by character rather than plot, it sits alongside a slew of brilliant American art films made by the innovative BBS Productions, the stable that brought us THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.
Jack Nicholson stars as David, a pretentious Philadelphia radio DJ summoned to Atlantic City by his brother Jason (Bruce Dern). David soon finds himself embroiled in a chaotic hustle towards Jason’s pipe dream: to buy a Hawaiian island and turn it into a casino. A disturbingly manic Ellen Burstyn tags along as Jason’s long-suffering girlfriend Sally, accompanied by her step-daughter/prostitute-in-training Jessica. Seen through the eyes of Nicholson’s David, this perverse set-up is wonderfully awkward. The characters wander through the wintry streets of Atlantic City’s real-life Monopoly board and into a series of increasingly surreal set pieces. The absurdity of the film is amplified by David’s deadpan observations as he’s drawn into Jason’s frenetic world and doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of it. The imagery is often uncanny, such as the moment when Sally welcomes David at a desolate train station, accompanied by a ramshackle oompah band. Or a Miss America beauty pageant staged in an empty hall, a sequence that has an almost nightmarish quality.
Nicholson’s clamped-down, mannered performance is truly compelling to watch. Firmly on the path to superstardom, he was in the midst of an extraordinary run of form. His next three films would be THE LAST DETAIL, CHINATOWN and THE PASSENGER. Bruce Dern turns in a charismatic performance as a wild-eyed dreamer bound for tragedy. He’s less crazy than in his previous film (SILENT RUNNING), but no less wired. The addition of a dangerously good turn from Ellen Burstyn as the unhinged Sally lends the film a genuinely combustible tension. The more the squabbling brothers sideline her, the more she steals the show. Things can only end badly, but you may be surprised by quite how badly.
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is a time capsule of a bygone age, captured in all its desolation, humour and weirdness. “In the house of fun, how do you know who’s really crazy?” David asks his invisible radio audience in one of his lonely monologues. The answer, it would seem, is an ominous one. After all, we’re dancing around the fringes of the American dream here. It’s hard to tell who’s crazy and who might just be a visionary genius. And that makes the world an even more dangerous place.
Don’t miss this film on the big screen at Picturehouse cinemas on Tuesday 9 July.