Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gould standard

A Seventies star turns 70 on Aug. 29. Elliott Gould is starting the celebration early courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is hosting a two-week program that takes its title from a Time magazine cover story on the actor, "Star for an Uptight Age." It begins tomorrow with a week of screenings of 1970's M*A*S*H, which, along with 1969's terrific Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (his Oscar nominee, screening Aug. 16) launched the native Brooklynite into stardom.

True confession: I didn't like M*A*S*H at the movies (too self-consciously hipster, overrated) or on TV (too earnest), and I'll be a party pooper next week. But I'll join in, at least in spirit, next Friday, Aug. 8, when Alan Arkin's superb film of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders (1971) screens, with Gould making a Q&A appearance. This is as black as black comedy gets, and the actor's shell-shocked performance sums up the period zeitgeist as a crime-ridden New York crumbles all around him. Gould and M*A*S*H director Robert Altman did much, much better by me with 1973's delightfully unconventional take on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, The Long Goodbye (pictured), which screens Aug. 9 (again with Gould in attendance) and the gambling comedy-drama California Split (1974), with he and George Segal two peas in a pod, or a blackjack table. (Due to music rights issues the DVD is annoyingly cut, so the big screen is the best place to enjoy the film.)

All of these movies have aged well, and all of them pretty much flopped back in the shag carpet days. (Note to nostalgists: Yes, the Seventies had a lot of exciting films, but then as now it was the dreck that drew audiences. It's just that our dreck has superheroes.) Unlike his contemporary Dustin Hoffman, who bided his time between plum parts, Gould struck while the iron was hot post-M*A*S*H, and struck it again and again till it was ice cold. 1970's Getting Straight, the dead-on-arrival I Love My Wife, and Ingmar Bergman's poorly regarded The Touch (1971) are rarely revived artifacts from a meteoric streak that burned out fast. So was the later Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), which helped kill off the nostalgia craze ushered in by The Sting and Paper Moon in 1973, but Gould liked playing a larcenous song-and-dance man, so in it is.

1974's Busting (Aug. 10) is a gritty cop buddy picture with Robert Blake. Its director, Peter Hyams, cast Gould as a wearily idealistic journalist caught up in a conspiracy in the excellent Capricorn One (1978), one of the actor's last trademark parts. He's still worked, of course, gaining a new audience via Friends and the Ocean's movies, and a new film, The Caller, with Frank Langella, that looks promising.

There are other, better pictures that BAM might have selected. I would have swapped Harry and Walter with William Friedkin's nimbler The Night They Raided Minsky's. Besides Capricorn One, a superior action movie, there is the nerve-quickening thriller The Silent Partner, where he matches wits with a diabolical Christopher Plummer, and especially Bugsy, where he is in top form as the lummox gangster who friend Warren Beatty has to deal with. But it's his party, and after highs and lows offscreen and all those iconic parts where he never quite got the girl or the version of the American dream his characters had concocted he's earned the right to celebrate it his way.

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