Of the many myths Hollywood has churned out over the last century, perhaps the most enduring is, ironically, also its least flattering. It’s about the innocent who lost his soul in the glitter and dust of Tinseltown, lured by talent but also the promise of big money and fame. Marilyn Monroe was one such story, and in The Big Knife, playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963) tells another, set also in the heyday of the Silver Screen. It’s a time when movie studios like MGM, Paramount, and Columbia could boast of having “more stars than there are in the heavens.” But such celestial bodies come at an astronomical price, so that the artistic ambitions of early cinema would soon have to make room for Wall Street investors and the demands of the market.
It is in this world of a dumbing-down (already!) film industry circa 1948, that we meet Odets’s star, Charlie Castle. He is the golden calf of the fictional studio Hoff-Federated, with whom he has made 50 “pictures” in 12 years. When the play opens, this bronzed god, played with forced ease by Bobby Cannavale, is on the verge of signing his life away for another 14 more. In terms of fame, and if the pugnacity with which Hoff negotiates his $3.5 million contract is any indication, Castle ranks with the likes of Jimmy Stewart. For filmography, however, he rises only to the heights of a matinee idol like Tyrone Power, the original Zorro whose early fame doomed him to a string of forgotten swashbucklers. Like Power, Castle is a victim of both his good looks and studio typecasting; the potboilers Hoff feeds him and that he pumps up with his star-power won’t win any Oscars, or even satisfy his own ambitions of greatness. Still, Castle loves — “with a vicious zest”, he admits — the life of a self-described Hollywood “rajah.” To sign or not to sign?
The question is not so simple for poor Charlie Castle, or Charles Cass as his intimates once knew him. For one thing, his wife, Marion, is threatening to leave him, tired as she is of the boozing, women, parties, and the general inanity of his movies. For another, we soon learn that there is something much darker in Castle’s past, involving a hit-and-run accident for which he threw a friend under a bus to avoid taking responsibility. When Marion comes back in the first scene to serve her wayward husband an ultimatum — withhold his signature or lose her for good — it appears as limpid as the water in Charlie’s swimming pool that the transformation from Cass to Castle was a Mephistophelian bargain from which he will never recover.
Odets himself was no stranger to Hollywood’s siren call, having worked as a studio screenwriter for most of his career, but better known for his plays, one of which, Golden Boy, was successfully revived earlier this season at Lincoln Center. Like its author, The Big Knife went from Broadway to Hollywood with limited success. After Lee Strasberg took a swing at in New York, it became a film noir in 1955 featuring, improbably, the studio cowboy Jack Palance, in the role of the Tinseltown playboy.
What Odets shares above all with his hero, however, is an aversion to the whole Hollywood machine, and The Big Knife is a flashy vehicle for moving the message, but without the horsepower to bring it home. Apart from Castle and Marion, the play features a set of stock characters that anyone with the most limited cinema vocabulary would recognize: the cloying, self-serving agent, the desperate B-movie extra, the monomaniacal studio boss and his ruthlessly manipulative hatchet man… and of course, the foil to them all, the honest, hard-working writer with enough sense and integrity to leave the smoke and mirrors behind…
It’s not how Odets intended things, but in this Roundabout Theater production, directed by Doug Hughes, it’s the bad guys who have all the fun: Richard Kind plays the hyperbolic, crocodile-teary Stanley Hoff with a buffoonish vengeance, while Reg Rogers, as Hoff’s right-hand man, Smiley Coy, is an irresistible snake-oil peddler whose loyalties run only as deep as the pocket that pays him. To the rather stuffy and platonic relationship that seems to be the fate of Charlie and Marion (Marin Ireland lacks the spark to ignite Charlie’s fire), Ana Reeder (Connie Bliss) and Rachel Brosnahan (Dixie Evans) are a shot of whisky in the married couple’s weak tea, as the buxom and beautiful, but dangerous, supporting actresses in Castle’s complicated life-as-movie.
If we can’t quite feel Charlie’s pain, we can marvel at Odets’s inexhaustible backlot banter, full of double entendres and ironically chummy terms of endearment mixed up with the occasional Shakespearian reference. The egotistical and ineffectual Castle could hardly admit it to himself but his slippery morals yawn and whine at a great remove from Macbeth’s murderous schemes and Hamlet’s crippling angst. All the same, his story affords some insight into our national obsession with success, particularly as it is usually gauged, shallowly, in measures of fame and money. As Charlie’s writer friend, Hank Teagle puts it cryptically on his way back to the honest streets of New York, only Hollywood could prove without a doubt that while we go chasing ambition and making deals with the devil, in fact, “failure is the best of American life.”