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1981 was the year that Cinderella got to go to the ball. Among the five Oscar® nominees for Best Picture of 1981 were four highly touted major studio pictures - Chariots of Fire (which won the Academy Award), On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds - and one low-budget, independent sleeper called Atlantic City that almost didn't get made but went on to become the critics' darling, winning the National Society of Film Critics' Best Picture award among many other honors.
Director Louis Malle was first approached with an idea for a project by French producer Alexandre Mnouchkine after he returned from Minnesota where he had been shooting his documentary God's Country (it was filmed in the summer of 1979 but wasn't completed until 1985 when it premiered on PBS). Malle had been casting about for a new movie after the disappointing reception of Pretty Baby (1978), his first English language film, but most of the projects he pitched - a farce based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, a movie version of Joseph Conrad's Victory, a documentary on musician Stevie Wonder - never materialized. According to Nathan Southern and Jacques Weissgerber in The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis, "Mnouchkine hoped to take advantage of the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) 100 percent tax write-off for Canadian films by overseeing a motion picture he co-produced with three Canadians under his aegis: Joseph Beaubien (L'Homme en colere, 1979), John Kemeny (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974), and Denis Heroux (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, 1976). Speaking on behalf of his three business partners, Mnouchkine offered Malle a budget of just under five million to direct an adaptation of Laird Koenig's crime thriller The Neighbor. Only one catch: to take advantage of the CCA, the film had to wrap by December 31, 1979."
Malle read Koenig's novel but hated it and persuaded his producers to let him make another movie that was within the same romantic thriller genre as The Neighbor. For the screenplay, he immediately contacted playwright John Guare who he first befriended in 1977 after attending a performance of Guare's Landscape of the Body. Guare had become one of New York's most acclaimed playwrights by the mid-seventies with such Off-Broadway hits to his credit as The House of Blue Leaves and Marco Polo Sings a Solo but had no screenwriting credits with the exception of Milos Forman's Taking Off which he collaborated on with Forman, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Jon Klein in 1971.
Guare was between plays so he accepted Malle's offer and according to the director (in Malle on Malle), "we started talking. In the preceding winter, literally every day, the New York Times had something about what was going on in Atlantic City. They had just legalized gambling there. It was very controversial, and there were all these stories about 'Will the mob move in?" Two casinos had just opened and they were building several more...I said, 'Maybe this is something we should look into.' And John said, "I couldn't agree more and it so happens that one of my parents' old friends is the manager of the first casino to open, Resorts International.' We called him, we rented a car, drove down to Atlantic City and spent something like twenty-four hours there. I don't think we slept at all. His friend took us around, explained what was going on, and we saw for ourselves all the contrasts, all the gloss. The rest of the town was literally a slum. Before they legalized gambling, Atlantic City, which had had a glorious past in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, had almost become a ghost town."
Out of this whirlwind visit, Malle and Guare were inspired to create an offbeat thriller that brought together the old and new aspects of Atlantic City as represented by Lou Pascal, an aging two-bit gangster, and Sally, an ambitious young woman who hopes to become a successful croupier. In Guare's screenplay, Lou has been reduced to playing nursemaid to Grace, a former beauty queen contestant and longtime lover who is now bedridden and cranky. His drab existence, however, is considerably brightened by his friendship with his next-door neighbor Sally who works as an oyster bar waitress. Secretly obsessed with her, Lou spies on Sally as she goes through her nightly ritual of washing herself with lemon juice to kill the fish smell. Then trouble enters the scene as Dave, Sally's no-good drug dealer husband, implicates his wife in a narcotics heist which makes Sally a target for the mob. Lou comes to her aid with delusions of playing the valiant protector but actually succeeds in saving her from two thugs who think she is hiding stolen drug money. In an unpredictable and exhilarating finale, Lou is revitalized by this near-disastrous brush with danger and Sally departs for France where she plans to become a first class croupier.
Malle knew from the beginning who he wanted to cast in the role of Sally - Susan Sarandon, his lover at the time. For the part of Lou, however, he originally had Henry Fonda in mind but the actor's health was poor and presented too much of an insurance risk for the producers who vetoed the idea. James Mason, Laurence Olivier, and James Stewart were also considered briefly but also abandoned for the same reasons as Fonda. Then, Malle arranged to meet Robert Mitchum to discuss the role but when he met the actor, Mitchum told him, 'I just had my face lifted, and I only play under 45 now.' Malle then turned to another actor who had established himself in the film noir genre with his debut film, The Killers in 1946 - Burt Lancaster. Malle recalled that "Burt had read the screenplay and the first thing that he said was, 'A part like that, especially at my age, happens every ten years, if you're lucky.' He knew it was a great part and I really appreciated that he understood that right away."
As for the role of Grace, Lou's sickly, nagging employer and mistress, Ginger Rogers was offered the part but after reading the script she responded with an angry note, "How dare you! At this stage in my career, that I'm going to end up in this filth!" Instead, the role went to Canadian actress Kate Reid who is probably best known for The Andromeda Strain (1971) in which she played the acerbic, chain-smoking scientist, Dr. Ruth Leavitt.
With his cast and crew in place, Malle had no time to waste on shooting and completing Atlantic City before January 1980. In Malle on Malle, the director said, "We had a tight budget, but we could do it, because I had a smaller, faster crew. We shot in Atlantic City for about five weeks and the studio shooting took place in Montreal. The crew was part Canadian, part American, part French - all enthusiastic and very good....I improvised more than I usually do, but it had to do with the material and the fact that we were constantly adjusting to what was going on in Atlantic City. For instance, we found out that they were going to pull down a particular building and we decided to move a scene so that we could have the building being demolished in the background. And there is the scene where the husband of the Susan Sarandon character is murdered on top of this bizarre parking place with elevators - an absurd structure I have never seen anywhere else. It was so inconvenient, but it was typical of the place."
At first Lancaster had some difficulty coming to grips with his character who he considered "weak" and not like anyone else he had ever played. Nevertheless, he welcomed the challenge, stating "I know these characters. I...lived among them in New York." But, in the early stages of filming, Lancaster was playing his part in a broad, theatrical manner that needed to be more subtle and shaded and it created some tension between the director and actor. Malle wanted Lancaster to avoid the mannerisms that were so familiar to his film fans and impressionists, especially his much imitated smile. "I cut a lot of that grinning in the cutting room," he asserted. "I used to say to the editor, "We're going to degrin Burt.'
John Guare recalls one particular scene when Lancaster became very confrontational with Malle over his performance. "....Lancaster is running up the stairs and he says, "I'm a lover!" Very hammy. That's what Burt had been playing the part like, all through it, and Burt embarrassed Louis - on the set - because Louis kept saying; "Burt, down. Less, less, less, less." And so Burt turned to the crew at one point and he said, "Okay." He said, "We're gonna do this next shot two ways. We're gonna do it the way the little frog wants it, and then we'll do it the way it's supposed to be done." And...for a number of weeks on the picture, there were two versions shot of each scene. And Louis said.."Ohhhh....that bastard!" Burt was...awful to Susan [Sarandon]...and insulting to Louis. And Louis said..."If I didn't care so much, I would put the performance Mr. Lancaster wants - onscreen, to ruin his career!" But....[Burt] came to see rushes at one point and...looked up and....saw what it was that Louis was doing and what he wanted. And it took a few weeks for Louis to gain Burt's respect."
In later interviews, Malle was diplomatic and discreet about working with Lancaster and was quoted in Films Illustrated, saying "Burt is marvellous....It's a great character and Burt loved it. Almost a caricature of himself, an old man pretending to be a big-time macho gangster. He was so enthusiastic! He has the reputation of being difficult but he was very easy and very much with us."
Initially, it was Malle's intent to have the soundtrack and musical background for Atlantic City feature an elaborate mix of popular American songs, jazz standards and original compositions by Michel Legrand. Malle recalled that "I went to Michel Legrand because he's very flexible and can write all kinds of music. Some of the music already existed, we had recorded it during shooting, but there was some other music I wanted...we ended up having to do an original recording of the Bellini aria - the Casta diva from Norma - which is so important at the beginning. During shooting the reference was the famous Callas recording, but we couldn't use it because the rights were incredibly expensive. So we had to do a recording with Elizabeth Harwood, a very distinguished English opera singer. The first day, or half-day, in the studio in London, we had the whole London Philharmonic, and Michel wanted to add several pieces of score, since here was an opportunity for him to work with a huge orchestra....To my great shame, I cut everything out in the final mix because I realized I didn't need it; we had a number of sound effects that I felt were more interesting, and much stronger, than the score. I think Michel was disappointed, but he understood."
Malle completed Atlantic City by his December 31st deadline and delivered it to Paramount but the studio had no idea how to market it and sat on it for several months. It wasn't until the film was screened at the Venice Film Festival that it began to build an enthusiastic word-of-mouth buzz thanks to winning the Golden Lion award in a tie with John Cassavetes's Gloria. Paramount executive Barry Diller also came forward to champion the film and it was soon released to critical acclaim from almost all of the major reviewers. Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: "Atlantic City, Louis Malle's fine new movie, may be one of the most romantic and perverse ghost stories ever filmed, set not in a haunted castle but in a haunted city, the contemporary Atlantic City, a point of transit where the dead and the living meet briefly, sometimes even make love, and then continue on their individual ways." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker said "Atlantic City has a lovely fizziness. Everything goes wrong and comes out right....Louis Malle is in full control and at ease, and his collaboration with John Guare produces a rich, original comic tone." And Philip French in his Observer review noted that the film "is as elegant in construction as it is quietly elegant in its dialogue....The film scarcely puts a foot wrong, and Lancaster gives one of the major performances of his career." Critic David Denby was one of the few dissenters, stating that "Atlantic City...is sweet, funny, and affectionate, but there's not much narrative or poetic drive in it...Guare has a tendency to repeat his conceits as if they were profound or brilliantly funny, and the movie's humanism grows faintly watery and tedious after a while."
By the time Atlantic City entered the 1980 Oscar® race it had already been voted Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics, and other associations and its cast and crew had also picked up numerous accolades such as Burt Lancaster, who was voted Best Actor by the Boston Society of Film Critics and BAFTA, and Louis Malle, who was nominated for Best Director by the Golden Globes and the Director's Guild of America. On the evening of the Academy Awards ceremony, Atlantic City was represented in five categories - Best Picture, Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Actress (Sarandon), Best Director and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - but lost in every category. Still, for a film that was made on the fly with a limited shooting schedule and a modest budget made possible by a Canadian tax shelter ruling, Atlantic City really was a Cinderella story that put its competitors to shame in terms of its costs, artistry and international acclaim. Even today, it's often cited as one of Malle's finest films and a late career triumph for Lancaster, making it his fourth and final Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
Producers: Denis Heroux and John Kemeny
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: John Guare
Cinematography: Richard Ciupka
Art Direction: Anne Pritchard (production design)
Music: Michel Legrand
Film Editing: Suzanne Baron
Cast: Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), Joseph (Michel Piccoli), Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), Dave Matthews (Robert Joy), Felix (Moses Znaimer), Singer in hospital (Robert Goulet).
by Jeff Stafford
The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis by Nathan Southern with Jacques Weissgerber
Malle on Malle edited by Philip French
Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford
Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall