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An American Dream

An American Dream (1966)

Synopsis: Stephen Rojack (Stuart Whitman) is a former war hero and ex-Congressman who is now the host of a popular syndicated talk show on television that revels in hot-button, sensationalistic topics. His current rantings are targeted at Eddie Ganucci (Joe De Santis), a powerful Cosa Nostra chieftain, and the Los Angeles police department, who may or may not have ties to the gangster. When Rojack's wealthy estranged wife Deborah (Eleanor Parker) dies in a fall from her penthouse balcony during a fight with Rojack, Lt. Roberts (Barry Sullivan) and his team of police detectives try to arrest and convict the TV commentator for murder, despite his claims that his wife committed suicide. Unable to hold him without proof or a confession, Rojack is released and, after a chance encounter with Cherry McMahon (Janet Leigh), an old girlfriend now working as a nightclub singer, the former lovers resume their affair. But their future looks uncertain: Cherry is Ganucci's mistress and both the police and Ganucci's henchman begin shadowing Rojack's every move.

The film version of An American Dream (1966), which was based on Norman Mailer's fourth novel, would have been an ambitious project for anyone as the storyline was heavily metaphorical and driven by the author's wildly agitated but poetic prose style. Only an exceptionally gifted filmmaker would be able to pull it off and when Warner Bros. announced it had bought the rights to the novel, critic Pauline Kael wrote, "my reaction was that John Huston was the only man who could do it. And what a script it would be for him!....Possibly, because of the way that big movie stars and directors live in a world of their own, insulated and out of touch, he might not even recognize that An American Dream was the spectacle of our time; was, even, his spectacle." Unfortunately, Huston was not selected to direct An American Dream. Instead, the film version was a collaboration between three television industry veterans; actor/director Robert Gist (Naked City, Route 66), screenwriter Mann Rubin (Perry Mason, Mission: Impossible), and William Conrad, who started as a character actor in Hollywood (The Killers [1946]), moved into television directing in the late fifties and between 1965 and 1968 produced 10 low-budget films including Two on a Guillotine [1965], Brainstorm [1965] and The Cool Ones [1967]. An American Dream was easily the most ambitious project of them all and it proved to be a creative and commercial disaster.

There are so many things that went wrong in the translation from book to screen but one of the major flaws of the film version of An American Dream is the ambiguous presentation of Rojack. As played by Stuart Whitman, the protagonist is a conflicted, disillusioned man but still sympathetic and following his own moral code. In the novel, Rojack was a violent, raging alcoholic with delusions (he was convinced he was receiving messages from the Moon). He brutally murders his wife (in the film, the death is staged as an accident) and goes on a 24-hour bender, prowling a nocturnal world populated by prostitutes, gangsters, cops and drunks. Writer/poet Ted Burke noted in an essay that Mailer's novel came "at a time when the Hemingway cult of quiet, manly stoicism managed through a singular, privately held code of honor was exhausted of compelling narrative potential. Mailer's idea was to see what would happen if the man who might have been the Hemingway hero, suffering his hurts in some poetic privacy, had instead a psychotic break." The filmmakers obviously refrained from making their protagonist a self-destructive psychotic for fear of completely alienating audiences. But, as a result, Mailer's viewpoint was lost for even though Rojack is obviously deranged and dangerous he can still see through the banalities and false promises of fame, wealth and the American dream.

Other aspects of Mailer's novel become overstated and absurd when dramatized for the screen, particularly the depiction of Deborah's death. Not only does she plunge to her death from the top of a penthouse balcony but as soon as her body hits the street, it is run over and dragged some distance by a car. Inside the car are gangster boss Ganucci, his chauffeur, and his mistress Cherry, and the trio end up at the police station for questioning where they encounter the murder suspect, Rojack. This sort of outrageous coincidence usually works better in fiction where a gifted writer can suspend the reader's disbelief by spinning it as allegory or hallucination or a moment of madness. But in the movie version of An American Dream, the depiction of Deborah's demise is so literal-minded that it achieves a flamboyant awfulness of immense proportions.

On some levels, An American Dream is almost as entertainingly bad as The Oscar, which was made the same year and shares some of the same acidic views of fame and fortune. Like that film, it also has its share of quotable lines that sound like they were culled from a Jacqueline Susann novel like Valley of the Dolls instead of Norman Mailer. "Never marry a rich woman buddy. There's no way to prove to the rich that you aren't after their money. They punish you for not loving them for themselves" or "I take pills, therefore I know I'm still alive."

The most colorful exchanges are between Rojack and his shrieking banshee of a wife who lives to torment him with details of her affairs and puncture his self-confidence. In one exchange, she takes off her wedding ring and shoves it into his nose, sneering "Still fits, doesn't it? I get what I paid for pet. Ten years ago I paid for own little private war hero, just to see how long it would last in my kind of jungle with my kind of rules." Deborah is clearly an embodiment of the castrating female and in case we miss that metaphor, Eleanor Parker acts it out in one scene, using her fingers as mock scissors in a pantomime of clipping off Kojack's tie and then works her way down his crotch...snip, snip, snip. Parker achieves operatic heights of hysteria and malice here (she was equally theatrical in The Oscar) and when she makes her spectacular exit from the film, her ferocious but pathetic character is solely missed.

The rest of the cast is dull by comparison but all of them, with the exception of Barry Sullivan who projects a gruff dignity as the justice-seeking police lieutenant, have rarely been more miscast or ill-used than here. Janet Leigh as Rojack's former Las Vegas flame turned hooker/gangster moll is saddled with some of the most enigmatic and difficult dialogue of all. When she invites Rojack up to her rooftop hideaway with a 360 degree view of Los Angeles's bustling freeways, she says, "I don't know whether it's heaven or hell. It's somewhere in between. That's why I live here." Like most of the dialogue in the film, the irony is driven home with a sledgehammer. One thing you can say about An American Dream, however, is that it is a true film noir and Leigh gets to deliver a great closing line that remains true to Mailer's original bleak vision.

When Mailer's novel first appeared it was attacked by many feminist writers, especially Kate Millett, for its portrayal and depiction of women. Yet, Mailer was no kinder to his male characters and An American Dream remains completely misanthropic in its view of the world. When the film version opened, most critics panned it. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in his September 1st, 1966 review, "With four months still to go, the year's worst movie may well turn out to be An American Dream...Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Eleanor Parker and Barry Sullivan are the hapless – and we do mean hapless – prisoners of this technicolored claptrap, which mixes standard gangster fare with soul-searching liverwurst....nothing turns out right for this picture, from the understandable but earnest confusion of Mr. Whitman, to the weird, walleyed utterances of Miss Leigh. Miss Parker, before her fatal nose-dive, behaves like a scalded cat." And Pauline Kael dismissed it with her comments, "It has been written and directed by some fellows from television. The first fifteen minutes of Eleanor Parker in and out of bed can be recommended to connoisseurs of the tawdry, thought the movie as a whole doesn't rank with The Oscar. The Oscar is the modern classic of the genre."

Norman Mailer never bothered to see the film version of his novel. The reason he gave was "because I'm close enough to the violent not to want to see it. An American Dream happens to be my favorite novel. I think it's my best novel. Most people I know don't agree. They think it's my worst novel. But, either I'm right or they're right. It would be awful if neither of us is right. At any rate, it's not only my favorite novel but also I think it's the only novel I ever wrote that would have made a transcendently splendid movie. So if I go see it and see what they did to it, I'm likely to get violent. And I just stay away from it. It's like an Italian saying, "Don't insult my mudder." Friends of mine said, "Don't go see it." It's the first time in my life I've listened to friends' advice." But even if Mailer never saw An American Dream, he still voiced complaints about it based on feedback from friends, saying "when they made it into a movie, they did some criminal things, like filming it in Los Angeles when the whole psychology was New York. I mean, a guy just wouldn't push his wife out a window in Los Angeles - for one thing, there aren't that many high windows!"

Despite its negative reception from almost everyone, An American Dream did manage to garner an Oscar® nomination for Best Original Song, "A Time for Love" by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster, which Leigh's character performs in the Club Penguin nightclub sequence (she was lip-synched by Jackie Ward). The film is also photographed by three-time Oscar® nominee Sam Leavitt (The Defiant Ones [1958], Anatomy of a Murder [1959], Exodus [1960]).

Producer: William Conrad; Jimmy Lydon (uncredited)
Director: Robert Gist
Screenplay: Mann Rubin; Norman Mailer (novel); Howard Rodman (uncredited)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Direction: LeRoy Deane
Music: Johnny Mandel
Film Editing: George Rohrs
Cast: Stuart Whitman (Stephen Richard Rojack), Janet Leigh (Cherry McMahon), Eleanor Parker (Deborah Rojack), Barry Sullivan (Lt. Roberts), Lloyd Nolan (Barney Kelly), Murray Hamilton (Arthur Kabot), J.D. Cannon (Sgt. Walt Leznicki), Susan Denberg (Ruta), Les Crane (Nicky), Warren Stevens (Johnny Dell), Joe De Santis (Eddie Ganucci), Stacy Harris (O'Brien).

by Jeff Stafford

Conversations with Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael
Ted Burke, Like It or Not (



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