April 3, 1980 [Atlantic City]

It was Jean's birthday today, and we saw Atlantic City--but I wish we were there in that beat-up old town, sitting near Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in the Knife and Fork, sniffing the wine cork and grinning. It's not too often I can use the word "bittersweet" without cringing, but Louis Malle's fond observance of one wreck and another plays both sides, at once sentimental and severe.

Lancaster carries Malle's tone like he was born to it--and here, at the middle-end of a long career, Burt proves it's true: No one has such a face--handsome and bright, weary and weathered; no one has his bearing, solid and light; and no one has mastered a fall like that old acrobat, his chin up, his eyes hard but goddammit still twinkling. And that voice: still clipped and assertive--and trailing off into a private conversation with itself--oh, I can pile on the oxymoron all night; what matters is that Burt Lancaster has managed to remain a movie star while actually acting, and he takes Atlantic City into Lou's imagined past with calm assurance--"You should've seen the Atlantic Ocean back then," he reminisces. Even geology bends its knee as he passes.

But this performance occurs in a picture that, as Chrissie the spaced-out pregnant sister announces, doesn't "believe in gravity." It ends with a wrecking ball doing its work while Susan Sarandon--lately a real straight trooper in a real bent movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show--motors off into her own imaginary world, Monaco and "that Kelly girl," two Hollywood fairytale princesses at the casino, their French as perfect as their makeup and hair.

It's sad, but Malle doesn't sneer. He gives everybody the ending we want them to have, and saunters along the boardwalk--which I know so well, from Peanut World and Convention Hall to that big Cutty Sark sign--all that's missing is a jitney chugging along the Monopoly streets, Indiana and Michigan, Atlantic and Pacific--little buses tooling past the casinos without a second glance.


Popular Posts