[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

The Individual, the Collective

Vidor’s standpoint, if it seemed clear during the course of the film—in favour of individual creation, and against all collectivist diktats—was in fact rather ambiguous throughout his life: here he collaborated with a novelist who was very much on the right (she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with great pleasure, even going beyond the McCarthyist doctrine). This seems to tally quite well with the way this filmmaker, who voted for Eisenhower, makes fun of Reds in Comrade X, revels in the massacre of the Indians of the Northwest Passage. On the other hand, there was also the Vidor who filmed the everyday life—sometimes so difficult—of the average American in The Crowd (1928)—a first in Hollywood cinema—and Street Scene (1931), or the beautiful collective struggle of peasants to irrigate their land in Our Daily Bread (1934), a very Rooseveltian film which won an award at… the Moscow Film Festival. Not to mention Vidor’s great film-to-be, Ruby Gentry[1], shot in 1952 and written by Sylvia Richards, a well-known feminist and left-wing activist, which took a swipe at the narrow-minded and upstart bourgeoisie of the South.

We’re thus dealing with a highly complex character, which is also true of John Ford, the director of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) based on Steinbeck, but also of colonialist movies like The Black Watch (1929) or militarists films such as The Long Gray Line (1954) or Korea (1959), and of William Wellman, who could be considered one of the harbingers of socialism in light of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), but who also made anti-Red products such as The Iron Curtain (1949) or Blood Alley (1955).

To be sure, we can see this as an effort to adapt to the dominant ideology, from the New Deal to the witch hunts, but also as the ambition of a Hollywood director to work in all fields, to show that what counts is his way of doing things, more than the underlying ideology. If it comes to that, the ideal for a filmmaker would be to make a masterpiece out of both the Jud Süß and Salt of the Earth.

And when I try to make an assessment of the situation, everything is rather fuzzy. Because, on one hand, collectivism is as much the motto of soulless capitalism, based on stock exchanges and standards, as of the Soviets. And on the other hand, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and even Lenin perhaps represent the triumph of an individual, under the guise of collectivism, more than that of communism.

To complicate things, we notice that the left-wing press in France, in the years when The Fountainhead was filmed, began by celebrating the great individuality of auteurs fighting administrations and capitalism (Stroheim, Griffith, Welles etc.). And then, after May ‘68, there was a very clear reaction on the left against the all-powerful auteur. Godard, Duras and Resnais wanted to make collective films (or sometimes pretended to make them, by rigging the credits). The auteur was therefore classified as a right-wing figure. To this case file, let us add the brilliant creator Roark, who dynamites a social housing project…

I must add that Ayn Rand, by making Roark an architect who lives solely for his work and the satisfaction it brings him, puts him in a much more limited position than Wright, whose houses were made with the obvious desire to allow his clients to find pleasure in living in them and who was flexible enough to satisfy his client. Thus, in 1895, he built the Moore House in a rather old-fashioned Tudor style. Vidor always had the desire to please the viewer by all means possible. His film is proof of this, and we will come back to it later. Moreover, I believe that, of all the filmmakers, he is probably the one who has given the audience the greatest number of emotions.

Having turned his nose up at The Fountainhead, Vidor asserted solipsism, the doctrine that everything exists through the ego.

It could be concluded that, throughout his life, Vidor never ceased to oscillate between the two extremes, individualism and a sense of the collective, pure auteur cinema (Truth and Illusion, Our Daily Bread) and studio production: he made fifty films within the System. His tactic was to alternate: an easy film, and then a more committed film. Let’s say that, rather than taking a radical stance, he was passionate about the individual/collective relationship, which is what differentiates him from other filmmakers like Lubitsch, Leone or Hitchcock, who didn’t give a damn about it.

The Go-to Movie

The Fountainhead comes across a little like the filmmaker’s Bible, especially for the American filmmaker, for whom the problem of the final cutthe director’s right to make the final copy of the film—has always been crucial, especially after the dramatic examples of Stroheim’s Greed, Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and so many others, the equivalence between architect and filmmaker being obvious.

The problem of the final cut is less of an issue in Europe, although there have been terrible struggles over this matter (Godard with Contempt, Ophuls with Lola Montes, Zurlini with Indian Summer, Eisenstein with Bezhin Meadow). The problems in Europe were more at the level of censorship. But there exists, in principle, a solidarity with American filmmakers, which means that the final cut also has an emblematic value in Europe.

The Fountainhead is therefore a go-to movie for a filmmaker. It is worth noting that Martin Scorsese and Alain Resnais have included The Fountainhead in their list of the most underrated American films. It was perhaps with Howard Roark in mind that, for eight years, Resnais opposed the release of Statues Also Die in an atrophied, censored form. Many of us didn’t have the courage, or even the opportunity, to confront the problem; Vidor most of all, since he expressed his disagreement with changes made by a producer only through minor or purely formal actions, as we have seen.

In the final cut of my Valse des medias, partly financed by the Centre Pompidou, which I had filmed to showcase the freedom that reigned at the time in this Centre (books freely accessible to all, tramps admitted), I had inserted in the commentary: “This atmosphere of freedom improves the image of the Cerberus of May 68.” I was referring to Georges Pompidou here. The Centre didn’t appreciate this line, although it expressed the reality. With The Fountainhead in mind, I held on for a week—my shot at glory—but finally yielded to the adversary, especially since I was embarrassed to put my executive producer, a product of May 68, in a tight spot. Besides, it would have been smarter of me to express the content of this line in images without any commentary (it is easy to say anything in a commentary), which would have been much better and would probably have been accepted without a problem. It is easier to censor the spoken and written word—an old censorship habit from centuries past—than the image, a newcomer to the cultural horizon.

Among filmmakers, there is a deification of Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, who seems to us to be the model to follow. But has anyone gone as far as he did? One recalls the case of Claude Lelouch, who is said to have burnt the negative of one of his two best films, Les Grands Moments. But he was the producer and had all the rights. Other filmmakers tried to prevent the release of one of their films that they didn’t like, like Bergman (This Can’t Happen Here), Kubrick (Fear and Desire), Marker (Cuba Si), Hawks (Trent’s Last Case) and Vidor (Japanese War Bride), but it was years after the film was finished.

Vidor also questioned the legitimacy of Roark’s final act: “Warner didn’t want to change the ending, the contract with Ayn Rand forbade him to do so. The architect who destroys the building is an anarchist […]. I told Warner Bros. to change the ending: if I make the film the way I want it, and if you change it afterwards, you’ll have to forgive me if I burn the negative, since you want that architect to be forgiven. They replied: ‘No, we wouldn’t forgive you, but the judge might’. So I lost the battle, and I kept this stupid and ridiculous ending.”[2]

In recent years, The Fountainhead has benefitted from a new relevance. Indeed, there has always been a (minoritarian) backlash against these inhuman skyscrapers. And Vidor has always shown characters who destroy, flood (Ruby Gentry, Our Daily Bread), burn (Northwest Passage, War and Peace), cut down barbed wire (Duel in the Sun, Man Without a Star). One can sense from the power of the images that he took pleasure in this destruction.

He’s not the only one. There was 9/11. The big difference is that Roark makes sure that no man dies in the explosion. And above all, in France, there has been a whole series of implosions of low-rises, inaugurated by the implosion of the Debussy low-rise, at the 4000 de La Courneuve, in 1996. Destructions that were made official, publicised, subsidised, encouraged and magnified. Low-income housings that perpetuated poor living conditions because they were poorly designed, because the mediocrity of the architecture prevented the inhabitants from seeing themselves in them, leading them to a contempt for the place, to delinquency. Cortlandt/Debussy, the same fight. Howard Roark rehabilitated, sanctified.

Howard Roark (Gary Cooper)

The Superman

The Fountainhead comes in the great tradition of films centred on a main character, whom the viewer follows with interest from beginning to end, and with whom he can identify. It is certainly a little difficult to identify with Roark, who is an intellectual and an exceptional individual. But in recent years, moral considerations have become less necessary for identification than physical presence on the screen.

This is a common, and very effective, principle in cinema that Vidor has adopted most notably in The Crowd, Northwest Passage, H.M. Pulham Esq, An American Romance, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry. It is what differentiates the film from the novel, which is composed, as I said, of four parts, each bearing the name of one of the men in the novel. As a result, in the book, Roark vanishes from page 398 to page 506.

This particular choice of Vidor’s corresponds to a requirement of the film business, Roark being more charismatic than the others and each new film character adding to the expenses—since well-known actors need to be cast as the protagonists—whereas a character in a novel costs nobody anything.

We don’t immediately see Gary Cooper. In the first three sequences, he is in the shadows, seen from behind. This solves a first problem: the novel is set over a period of twenty years, from 1922 to 1941, and the film perhaps over a roughly equal, but prudently undefined duration. In the very first shots, Roark is dismissed from his architecture school. Gary Cooper was then forty-seven years old. It is hard to imagine him attending courses at a university. These shots from the back make things more believable.

Moreover, this shadowy entrance reinforces the mythical aspect of the character. When God or a famous head of state was to be filmed, only his silhouette was shown.

The audience wonders, “Is this Gary Cooper?” It is pretty sure it is—the credits have just confirmed his presence—but it doesn’t have the proof just yet.

This slight doubt keeps the suspense alive. We do see him from the front in the fourth sequence, but he is filmed from a distance, and in the fifth sequence, he is filmed from closer up. A whole presentation ceremonial, like for a monarch or a VIP that the average Joe can’t have an immediate access to. This is the famous delayed entrance, a very rewarding principle.

In the beginning, it is the others who speak, abundantly. Roark doesn’t say a word. Vidor has removed all the text spoken by the character in the novel, which also has the advantage of considerably reducing the length of the sequences: the first thirty-five pages of the book last one and a half minutes on screen.

From here on, lines spoken by the hero of the book will be reduced as much as possible or removed. This is a far cry from those actors who accept a role only when the number of lines of dialogue is high (on TV, it sometimes determines the salary amount). If Cooper says something, it’s yes or no, the second possibility being more frequent than the first, whereas everyone else goes on and on… This bestows a superiority on Roark’s character. He doesn’t belong to the same world as the others. He is, he does. Gary Cooper has something of the oracle of Delphi. Inflexible as a rock, he knows what he wants, whereas the others, Dominique and Gail Wynand in particular, constantly change their attitude during the film. When he speaks, the movements of his mouth are very light: the words, said very quickly, without a raised voice, seem to slide over his lips, which open by no more than two centimetres. This adds a lot of depth to the film, whereas in the book, he is as loquacious as the others. That would have been tiring on the screen and is already tiring in the novel.

This choice is also explained by the fact that Cooper, who was more of a horseman than a theatre actor (he never acted in the theatre), didn’t like long speeches and had difficulty, it is said, remembering his lines. Laconism had become his trademark.

Howard Roark knows things; he doesn’t need circumlocutions to express his thoughts. His words seem to come automatically from within himself, or from divine inspiration. His skyscrapers appear to be the fingers of God. He speaks like Joan of Arc. He betrays very little emotion, just a short creasing of the lip, a quick glance to the right. He underplays while the others overplay.

Roark sketches his models at the drop of a hat (whereas, I believe, the genius of the architect, like that of the filmmaker, consists of a long patience). When he makes decisions where his future is at stake—whether to compromise for the sake of living or to starve—he hesitates for barely two or three seconds, closes his eyes for a moment, as if to avoid looking at his tragic future if he says no. We would like him to take a little more time to give his answer. That would make him a bit more human, a bit more fragile. His decisions would then be the result of a real choice, weighing the pros and cons.

Note that, in the scene where our hero is asked to sketch a mundane private house, Vidor takes advantage of Gary Cooper’s drawing skills.

In contrast to such a determined character, this at-times-unlikely superman—when it came out, Ayn Rand’s novel opened with a quote by Nietzsche—we are offered a gallery of characters who—a great originality in cinema—seek to do what they hate most, to act against their desires and against their tastes, because they feel that the System would curtail their freedom. I don’t know if one could find such a contradiction in other films.

This masochism, this inconsistency isn’t as strange as it may seem.

I am thinking of those soixante-huitards who became CAC 40 specialists; of Africans, Arthur Rimbaud, Patrick Grandperret or Serge Bard, who, by jumping from one continent to another, completely changed their style, their lifestyle; of Francis Leroi, Claude Bernard-Aubert, who moved seamlessly from art films to porn; of Claude de Givray, who left his highly personal cinema to head the drama department at TF1. And I, an atheist, enjoyed writing for three years at a Catholic newspaper. I got 6 in philosophy in my baccalaureate with a dissertation I loved, and three months later, I got 13, even though I had written nonsense, which I didn’t even reread.

Let’s take stock of the situation.

Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal)

Total, physical and moral love

Since she believes that one will always be crushed by the System if one follows one’s desires and vocation, Dominique decides to do absolutely the opposite of what she wants to do. She destroys the statue she adores. She gets engaged to, then marries, the men she despises the most. She hates Roark because he taunts her by doing what he wants, because her love for Roark will make her lose her freedom (but the System has already made her lose it); she fears that he will inevitably be crushed by today’s world. She asks him to live with her in the provinces, where he will have a small job. Patricia Neal is admirable when she promises him with passion: “I’ll cook, I’ll wash your clothes, I’ll scrub the floor.” He refuses. She is physically very attracted to him (even though she doesn’t know he is an architect), but pushes him away. Since her desire is so strong, she has to go against him. And then there are moments when she reacts quite normally. Nevertheless, for two-thirds of the film, she could be categorised as masochistic, contradictory and fickle. She is one of the most unusual characters in American cinema, where, in general, everyone acts according to their desires.

This character, who may seem crazy, is not presented in a negative way at all. The quivering Patricia Neal, acerbic and classy despite her smooth face, midway between Jeanne Moreau, Jeanne Balibar and Frances Farmer, gives it a romantic aura. This is her second film. But her personality seems very adult: a deep chest voice, which seems to reveal a complex and profound inner being, with nothing of the hussy, the wild teenager, the coquette about her (except at the beginning, in her room, when she simpers admirably before Cooper: “You might have thought I was laughing at you”). No flashy outside attractions. A sovereign, noble charm, made of sober elegance, resting on a perfect figure.

One might think that she overplays. That’s not the case. It’s simply that she uses the power of her dark, sometimes murderous glance to the fullest. Everything is conveyed by her eyes, and their abrupt changes.

She and Gary Cooper form a perfect couple, which we will see again in Bright Leaf (Michael Curtiz, 1950), another mix of biography and melodrama—a hit that was made possible by the intimacy that was beginning to develop between the two actors.

With Patricia Neal, Vidor practises a style that is completely new to him: a medium shot, and after a shot of still life or another actor, an extreme close-up, which is not called for by the story, nor by the action, nor by the dialogue, but which corresponds to a purely internal need, to a lyrical effect, accentuated by the music.

A tremendous work by costume designer Milo Anderson helps the actress blossom: no less than nine very different outfits over twelve minutes in the episode at the quarry. Gary Cooper changes clothes less often. He is focused on a single goal, she is fickle: the work on costumes reflects this fundamental difference.

Vidor says he realised that it was firstly a romantic film only after the shooting. The strength of The Fountainhead is that it’s a work in which everything seems to be centred on architecture, with its ups and downs, on strategies in the architectural milieu—it sounds like a film by an obsessive—whereas, without appearing to be, it is in fact, above all, a very beautiful love story. Architecture almost becomes a MacGuffin. In many films, love limited to itself becomes tiresome. Here, it is something that happens in addition, seemingly naturally. This is what prevents the film from becoming mawkish and getting into a rut. There is nothing more romantic than this passion, born very quickly, bursting out in the course of a single night, which is made very ambiguous thanks to the understatement necessitated by censorship, and which will only blossom ten or twenty years later, in a perfect communion.

It is remarkable that this is, at the same time and separately, a physical love and a moral love. Indeed, Dominique, when she falls in love with Roark, just by looking at him, does not know that he is THE great architect. And, when she admires his buildings, she doesn’t know that they were built by her one-night lover. Beauty is the splendour of goodness, as Plato said. There is no ambiguity, no influence of moral love on physical love, or vice versa. It is a total, pure love, a passion such as one hardly ever finds.

Dominique’s character falls in the straight line of post-war American cinema, with its tormented, complex heroines—Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road and Johnny Guitar, Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Hedy Lamarr in Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious—very different from the women of the 1930s who were meant to play foils or romantic reliefs to the heroes. This type of character would dominate in Vidor’s work between 1945 and 1955, possibly because the filmmaker was constantly thinking of the problems of his third wife, Elizabeth Hill, who became very disturbed after the accidental death of a first son.

Patricia Neal went on to make remarkable films with Wise, Sirk, Kazan, Edwards and Altman[3], but she never found a more memorable role.

Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas)

Academicism pure and simple

He is the architecture critic who is very respectful of official standards and proclaims that an architect must obey the wishes of his clients and the public. He asserts his ideal with an authoritarianism that veers very close to Nazism. His justification is quite simple: it has always been done this way, why should it be done differently now?

Although he never agrees with Dominique, there is a common denominator to the two characters, which is quite unusual. It is that both admire Roark’s work and recognise his genius. Toohey seems jealous of Roark. If he is against him, it is not at all because he despises his work. Like Dominique, he wants to destroy what he loves. A very strange behaviour if we look at him in the context of criticism as we know it. Robert Benayoun, for example, always spoke badly of Godard’s films. It wasn’t that he was jealous of Godard. It was simply that he hated his films. The same is true of the opponents of Wagner, Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Straub. It appears that Ayn Rand literally invented this kind of character.

In the end, Rand and Vidor stick to a rather simplistic conception of art. There’s no two ways about it. Either an artist is good, or he is not. A glance at a model can immediately tell you what he really is. A creator cannot be considered a genius by some and an impostor by others. There is only one truth in art. Roark’s genius cannot be ignored. One can only pretend to ignore it. This is a naïve, very American attitude, which makes one smile, if one thinks of the evolution of criticism over time towards Shakespeare, Melville, Sade, Breillat, Pym, Keaton, Feyder, Powell and many others. In the course of their lives, specialists have completely changed their attitude towards the work of Buñuel or Antonioni. I loved Glauber Rocha after having despised him.

I think that the American public was reassured by this artistic Manichaeism, which helps paper over trials and errors. Pleasant certainties, which alone can exist, are what suit the average American.

It is likely that the Toohey character was imagined following the many criticisms directed at Ayn Rand. Let’s also not forget that she had to face the silence or hostility of numerous publishers before she was published.

The characterization that Robert Douglas gives us is striking. He is a personality who is in every way detestable, by his arrogance as much as by his double game. One thinks of the creations of an actor like Donald Crisp. Too bad that he is totally negative. It would have been desirable to see a little humanity in him. There was a bit of it in the novel. But in cinema, you often need complementary characters who are of a piece, without nuance. Only the protagonists can have contradictions because of the short length of the film, except in Renoir’s case.

He is first seen from the back. You can really only see the smoke from his cigarette: he is just smoke. With his cane (reminiscent of Everett Sloane’s cane in The Lady from Shanghai) and his permanent cigarette-holders (is it hellfire?), he reminds us of Clifton Webb. There is a bit of Mephisto in him. If he were a Shakespearean character, it would be Iago. He begins by enthroning himself in the centre and at the top of a shot that shows his vain and ridiculous power. He is a man from another century: this defender of classicism is dressed in a strict, very Victorian style, prim and proper, with the tie always in place, whereas Roark’s tie leaves the shirt button exposed. There is a kind of overplaying at work with Robert Douglas, as there is with Raymond Massey.

Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey)

Opportunism of Power

Unlike Dominique’s or Toohey’s, Gail Wynand’s dichotomy is not a fundamental dichotomy. It is circumstantial. While Toohey doesn’t change one bit during the course of the film, Wynand takes opposite routes one after the other, owing to his commercial tactics. He exhibits five attitudes in all towards Roark: at first indifferent, he then campaigns against him, simply to get a better circulation of his newspaper, a Yankee Minute. He then defends him to please Dominique, before redoubling his attacks once he loses readers, and finally placing an order for the Wynand building, his opportunistic impulses now going against the tide. This reminds us of other news executives such as Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (one move to the right, one move to the left) or André Parinaud of Arts who had given carte blanche to those of the Nouvelle Vague before opening the columns of his weekly magazine to its haters alone. One may also think of Georges de Beauregard who produced Rozier, Varda, Rivette, Demy and Godard, then devoted himself to the works of Grangier, Marcel Camus and De La Patellière. Or of politicians such as Talleyrand or Bayrou.

Wynand wants money, and, even more than money, power. It doesn’t matter which cause he defends.

Raymond Massey is the perfect foil for Gary Cooper, just as, four years later, Karl Malden will be the perfect puppet husband pitted against Charlton Heston in Ruby Gentry. He has a very disturbing angular face (he replaced Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace) with eyes that are deeply sunken into the eye sockets, but at the same time quite classy and immediately recognizable from one film to another. He is, very often, cast in the wrong role (Reap the Wild Wind, A Matter of Life and Death, John Ford’s Hurricane). He perfectly embodies perverted, decrepit Power.

He stands in perfect contrast to Gary Cooper. At the end, two successive shots show them getting up after the trial, one moving towards triumph, the other towards defeat. Wynand is the failed double of Roark, whom he is bound to by an almost homosexual relationship.

Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and others

Dwarves and Pariahs

Peter Keating is a kind of model pupil, doing everything as it should be done, a neutral and rather pretty boy, a somewhat soft Glenn Ford, apparently generous, extremely dull, cowardly and ready for any compromise. The perfect face to slap, the average American wanting to succeed. The conformism of his models can be inferred just from the way he looks and behaves. He always seems irreproachable, especially since he is always apologizing. If he chooses the wrong solution, he makes it clear that he had no choice. Like Toohey, he has little or no positive traits.

There is also another fellow, whom we don’t see much, but who is still important: Cameron, the great forgotten architect, symbolically embodied by Henry Hull, the former lead actor of Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1923), who was soon relegated to bit parts for thirty years (like Creighton Hale, who plays a very small role here after having been the headliner in a 1924 Vidor, Wine of Youth). Cameron is the defeated, desperate, at times cantankerous artist who destroys all copies of Wynand’s tabloid in the street.

We notice that there are two critics in the film, one good (Dominique), the other bad (Toohey), two clients, one fickle and rather negative (Wynand), the other more benevolent and humane (Enright), two architects, one brilliant (Roark), the other without scope (Keating), just as at the beginning of the film, there was the master and the pupil (Cameron and Roark). It is a film structure based on several duos whose two components are highly opposed.

Coupled with this is the theme of the one who prevails over the clumsy apprentice, also discernible in Texas Rangers, Northwest Passage, Man without a Star and, in a slightly different form, even in The Crowd, in the unmade A Man Called Cervantes. Readers may point out that these characters were already in the book. But it should be noted that other characters in the novel that were not similar to these models have been removed.

In the same vein, it should be mentioned that the delayed entrance of Cooper, seen first from behind, prefigures that of Toohey, which is more or less identical. And there are also Cooper and Massey who stand up at the end of the trial. The couples I have named transform into other couples, thanks to aesthetic parallels.

The other small, typecast roles mainly represent the crowd. But the crowd here is quite different from the one in the film of the same name or in Street Scene. It is a mob, not a crowd, easy to influence and often opposed to architectural modernity, as in France where the Corbusier building has always been called “the madman’s house” by the people of Marseille, and where the Niemeyer complex in Le Havre has been remembered as “The yoghurt pot.”

Henry Hull (Henry Cameron)

Ray Collins (Roger Enright)

[1] A more uneven film, but containing an absolutely stunning final crescendo.

[2] Cahiers du cinéma, interview with Michel Delahaye and Luc Moullet, issue no. 136, October 1962, p. 13.

[3] John Ford considered her for the role in 7 Women (1965) that finally went to Anne Bancroft after Patricia Neal suddenly fell ill.