YS Salutes: Elliott Gould
March 10, 2007
I’ve been thinking of starting this feature for a little while now. Too many great cultural icons’ impact and popularity have disappeared to time, barely adumbrated, or otherwise dropped from the narrative. Whether they’re authors (W.D. Howells, W. Somerset Maugham), politicians (Taft, Jerry Brown), directors (Peter Bogdanovich), bands (Kool Keith), or countries (Estonia), too many of the things that made this world really great have disappeared from the cross-cultural map. Recently, my generation has been accused of being the most narcissistic generation of all-time, what with MYspace and YOUtube and Ipods (how can we expect anything else when we were practically weened on Seinfeld?). Well, I’m taking that to heart, and I am going to give something back to this world. I’m going to use my internet bully-pulpit to espouse the virtues of the lost figures of other generations.
There’s no better place to start than with Elliot Gould.
Elliot Gould is unfortunately best known by my generation for his roll as Monica’s dad on Friends or as Ruben Tishkoff in the Ocean’s __ franchise. But once upon a time he was a STAR, and one of the leading Jewish male sex symbols (number one was Arthur Miller; how else can you explain him scoring all those shikses). He was nominated for an Academy Award for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a late ’60s adult-sex comedy about emotions and free love, and captured the essence of a lost Vietnam generation in M*A*S*H. But just as quickly as he rocketed to the top, he bottomed out, the victim of the one too many flops. Already in 1975 interviewers were asking, “Whatever Happened to Elliot Gould?” It’s almost easy to forget that he played some truly terrific rolls, and for a time he was one of the most important leading men in Hollywood, and not just Mr. Barbara Streisand.
I was first exposed to the genius of the young Gould in The Long Goodbye. I’d seen M*A*S*H but hadn’t appreciated his performance; it wasn’t until I rewatched the movie this year that I was able to know its essence, and only then because of contextualization. But his performance in The Long Goodbye caught me off guard and blew me away. I watched it last year with ibiteyoureyes, a big Raymond Chandler fan, and each of us was amazed by Gould’s ability to navigate between the world of the ’70s and the noir origins of the character. Sure he was a more neurotic Marlowe than Bogart, but it was a more neurotic time, in a Los Angeles uniquely unsuited for the type of genteel-though-decaying urban life that noir depicts, and the solitary values that the detective stands for. There’s something strange about watching a private detective against the backdrop of Vietnam, Watergate, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. Gould made everything ok. Altman wanted to give the movie a feeling of “Rip Van Marlowe,” of a Marlowe who’ld stumbled into a time and went about it sort of half-dazed, never knowing if he belonged. Gould was his director’s imaginations.
He later re-teamed with Altman on The California Split, a gambling movie about Altman’s own addictions. At the same time, the movie was intended as a comeback for Gould. Once again Gould stood in for his director’s imaginings; before, his perfomance allowed Altman to tell stories of the 70’s via displacement (Korea in place of Vietnam), and now his performance helped Altman excoriate his demons. It was actually during my December Altman retrospective that I fell under the spell of Gould. I started Nashville almost upset that Gould wouldn’t be in the film. When he makes his cameo in the movie, I’m as excited as the starstruck partygoers, and the bumbling BBC reporter. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as excited by a cameo appearance. Such was his counterculture-cum-cultural charm.
I strongly recommend each of the movies mentioned here, both for their overall quality and the power of Gould’s perfomances. As he’s grown older he’s settled in as a Jewish character actor, still vibrant though not in the same way, with only American History X taking advantages of his skills at playing dramatic. It’s one of the greatest things about this era that we can continue to watch great actors in their prime, even long after. Elizabethan actors receded into the world of memory, and then disappeared completely, but Elliott Gould will always live on as Trapper John.