ATLANTIC CITY (1980) tonight at 11:15 PM on Turner Classic Movies.
According to several of the movie-fangirl-type books I have perused over the years, Burt Lancaster was not a nice guy. He acted like a stereotypical, spoiled, studio-pampered movie star, bragging in Hollywood meetings about what he had been able to convince various women to do. And I've never had any trouble believing that. After all, this is the man who brought Elmer Gantry to technicolor-life. This is the man who embodied conniving JJ Hunsecker. Rich, famous and handsome, there was nothing that was not his, at some point.
What is so hypnotizing about Atlantic City is Burt's old age, and the way he inhabits it. He was 66 when he starred in Louis Malle's second American film, and he doesn't hide it. He huffs and puffs up the stairs; he coughs. One senses in the way he wears his hat, the way he carries himself on the boardwalk, the way he peers through the window of his seedy apartment to watch Susan Sarandon... this is a man who once had as many women as he could shake a stick at. This is a man who once had money and status, who was on top of the world. Watching this man now reduced to running numbers all over the forgotten neighborhoods of Atlantic City, we are saddened, even though fully aware that this is, after all, Burt Lancaster. But of course it is, that's the whole point: Burt Lancaster is an old man who was once a king. But no more. The way of all flesh. This man was a Matinee Idol, as they were then called. He was an old-style Hollywood star. And now, as Lou, impoverished bookie, he sits alone in a dark room and simply wants to sleep with the pretty young waitress next door. (I wondered, is this the way he felt about his own old age, or is this the way we all feel, eventually?) We get the Hollywood-persona and the movie-role all mixed up. Which is exactly perfect.
Throughout the movie, Atlantic City is being landscaped, paved-over and re-arranged for the Donald-Trump-transformation of the 80s. This movie lovingly gives us the old Atlantic City, and is something of a Valentine for days gone by. Just as Lou/Burt and his crew have gotten old, so has Atlantic City. And Old is Unacceptable, as Lou feels that HE has become unacceptable. The movie makes actual building construction an ongoing reality of the film. Blasts of noise and half-constructed parking garages constantly intrude and serve as background and plot devices. To Europeans like Louis Malle, the constant construction going on in the USA is a metaphor; we don't like it, we pull it down and start over. And Lou wonders, why can't he do that, too?
Left: Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster, photo from The Villager.
If we are truthful, we've all wondered what would happen if a large sum of money was suddenly dumped in our laps. Lou acts out some of our dreams for us. We don't actually begrudge him his con-artist routine, acted out on sweet Sally (Susan Sarandon) from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. We grit our teeth, waiting for payback.
As the shit hits the fan, watch Lou. Watch the pro, Burt Lancaster. He is having a good time. It's better than sitting in the room, doing nothing. It's better than watching the world go by, rather than participating in it.
Atlantic City is filled with fabulous performances from Robert Joy, Kate Reid, Hollis McLaren and Al Waxman, as well as the magnetic leads. As if to punctuate the passing of Atlantic City, even the late Robert Goulet shows up. Most of the hotels in the film were gone within two years of filming.
"The Atlantic Ocean was something in those days."