It was a packed house Saturday afternoon at Club TCM in the Roosevelt for A Conversation with Elliott Gould.
After a nice intro film (during which I got a kick out of watching interviewer Alec Baldwin light up, mouth along with lines and applaud like any other movie fan), Gould sat down for about an hour of discussion that covered a lot of ground. He spoke about his start as singer and dancer, and later during the audience Q & A answered that he might consider doing something on Broadway if his creaky joints would permit, if he could block off months for full immersion in a project, and if it was something too fun to turn down. He said he loved being on Friends and doing the Ocean’s movies, and the renewed attention those got him with a younger generation of fans and stars. He spent a lot of time discussing how his acting technique changed and improved with each project, and what he learned from working with different filmmakers.
He was intimidated by the prospect of working with Ingmar Bergman on The Touch (1971), even though at the time he was Hollywood’s number one actor. He described his struggles with expressing the emotions he thought Bergman wanted, and his shaky confidence in what he considered a higher level of picture and a risky career move. When Bergman noticed Gould was keeping his eyes closed in a key scene, the director explained that he wanted to see and capture whatever was there, even if it was “nothing.” Gould also talked a lot about how long it took him to be comfortable around a camera at the start of his career, and how he finally worked that out by interacting with the thing during set downtime when nobody was around.
We heard his thoughts about being a Time magazine cover boy and being called a “star for an uptight age”, how he got to know M.A.S.H. co-star Donald Sutherland, and that Robert Altman called him the most honest actor around. He looked up to Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, enjoyed working with Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers in his fisrt movie The Confession (1964). He was uncomfortable with the sexual subject matter of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), and some in the audience probably got uncomfortable during Baldwin’s story of the modest cinematographer who nearly had a heart attack while filming him and his then-wife Kim Basinger during a love scene for The Getaway.
A little over an hour after the end of that interview we were listening to Gould introduce The Long Goodbye (1973) over at the Egyptian theatre (with James Cromwell sitting a couple rows behind us). He said that when he stepped into the role of Philip Marlowe, he didn’t feel the pressure of living up to or needing to emulate his predecessors but approached the part like a jazz standard to be interpreted by each performer in their own unique way. His Marlowe is laid-back, irreverent and glib, but affected by violence and shaken by real danger. In the scene where he runs into the Pacific to try and rescue Sterling Hayden’s character, that danger was too real, and as Gould explained at both venues, he almost drowned filming that part. Roger Ebert wrote of Long Goodbye that “it just takes all the characters out of that novel and lets them stew together in something that feels like a private-eye movie,” and that’s my feeling about it. This Marlowe’s life is a mess and he’s a relic of the classic era who doesn’t really fit in to his time, or alongside those naked yoga neighbours, but he’s very likable and gets along by sticking to his own code and pretending nothing bothers him (“it’s ok with me”). I loved the opening bit where he makes a late-night grocery run to buy cat food. When the only brand his cat will eat isn’t in stock, Marlowe locks kitty out of the kitchen so it doesn’t see him switching the second-rate mush to a can with his favourite label. The cat’s not fooled though, and leaves in a snit. It nicely sets Marlowe up as sincere, fallible, even silly, and this pair of events nicely showcased Elliott Gould’s warmth and talent.
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