Saturday, August 15, 2015

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD - The American Dream Re-imagined in Bolivia?

"There are no second acts in American lives."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Above: A scene from The Wire about the real meaning behind Fitzgerald's The Great Gatzby and the American Dream.

Hang on to your literary sensitivities folks. 

This is a brief essay of a novel and a movie, all rolled into one. Namely, The Last Tycoon and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

Have I lost my mind? Well, yes, but that's another story entirely and we already have enough to deal with a mashup of two different mediums and two different stories. 

So what's the connection?

Fitzgerald's line in, The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives," inspired William Goldman to prove him wrong with the true story of Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and his partner in crime, Harry Longabough, (Sundance Kid) who fled to Bolivia and dodged the law for eight years. That was their second act. 

Problem is, whether it was a second act or not, these outlaws were still on the run and in my book, that makes for a weak premise. Heroes don't run. They confront and adapt and overcome. They win. They don't go down and out in a blaze of "glory".

I think we can all agree on that.

SPOILER - Ending to the movie
Okay, let's jump into our time machine and flashback to 1969 when writer, William Goldman, along with his partner, director, George Roy hill, penned the screenplay for The Sundance Kid.  

Although, Goldman had the seed of the idea for the Sundance movie as far back as the 1950's when he began his so-called research about the original Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. Goldman loosely based the duo's misadventures that played out throughout the 1890's, for his film.

The Fitzgerald "line" first appeared in 1931 in an essay, title, My Lost City, which was a testament to New York in its day that somewhere along the line was misconstrued with a negative connotation.

 "I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days."

There you have it. Fitzgerald might have changed his mind later about the way he felt regarding the American Dream, in his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, but this line is probably truer to his original thoughts. 

People do change their minds and I have a feeling that's what happened with Fitzgerald. He got more cynical as time went on and most likely for good reason. After all, Hollywood has never been an easy place for writers and Fitzgerald had his own disappointments with the studios back in the early days.

Okay, that's my take on the famous line about Fitzgerald's American Dream. What about the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

Good question. What a mess. That's my answer. I'd tried to watch this movie many times but was unable to root for two looser outlaws on the run.  

Original Movie Poster
According to Goldman, nobody was interested in the script and only one studio wanted to buy it, with one big change; that the two looser outlaws didn't flee to South America. "But that's the real story," Goldman protested. "I don't give a shit," was the studio's response. "All I know is John Wayne don't run away."

Makes sense to me. Why would anyone want to watch a pair of hapless outlaws tuck tale and run from a posse for two hours and wind up in South America where they get their asses kicked anyway? Where's the heroism in that? I guess someone thought that two handsome guys and a pretty girl on the run was sexy and exciting. 

Not to mention all the set pieces with the loud, intrusive music. B.J. Thomas's, Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, over the bicycle scene with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross. Kind of cute, but annoying just the same. Although, it did wonders for the song, winning best original score.

"Well, maybe if you're a narcissist that might work, but for most of us, that's not the kind of story we like to follow."
Goldman has admitted he's not proud of his Sundance movie. I think the film is more famous for its faults than its great qualities, which are a few at the beginning of the movie, where the two outlaws establish their sharp shooting and clever escapes. 

Other than that, the story degrades into a mash-up of hide and seek from the law, mixed in with a dash of bravado here and there. All talk and no action, this film comes across as a beautiful disaster. You want to root for these guys and hope they win their way to freedom, but that only comes in the end when it's too late and they're cornered and lynched like the hapless rats they really are.

That ending didn't work for Bonnie and Clyde, and it sure didn't work for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What's the big takeaway? Crime doesn't pay

Really? That's a heck of a way to say it.

A scene from the movie. Butch and Sundance on the run.
So how does this film succeed? How does this movie, after 40 years, continue to win over critics and audiences alike? The short answer to that is perception. People, movie-lovers want to love this film. After all, they like Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and guys love Katherine Ross. 

So what's the problem? Everyone is all-in with the stars of the film and consequently, on-board with the movie, warts and all. There's just no other way to put this. Here's a movie that's famous for being flawed in a beautiful way.

While watching this movie, I always had an uneasy feeling about every scene. Everything felt a little off and nothing felt quite right about the plot, the dialogue, or the main theme in particular.

If we can pinpoint one thing about this film, it's that its theme, crime doesn't pay, is off-putting to audiences. There's no way to mask this theme or turn it into something it is not. It is a theme with inherently non-heroic overtones. 

"There's something about it we cannot deny."

Many of the scenes include dialogue about regret and "going straight" mostly from Butch Cassidy, whose character was not as determined as his partner, Sundance Kid, and who repeatedly commented, "Who are these guys?" Meaning, who are the guys that don't fear us and are wiser and more determined than us. Guys who are willing to chase us and capture us and probably even kill us.

This movie flopped in 1976
This kind of dialogue further highlights the weakness of these two outlaws and questions why we should follow them. Where is the glory in following a couple of fearful, doubtful outlaws?

There's no glory in that and there's no glory in them martyring themselves in the end. When they run into a hail of bullets, it is an act of desperation, not heroism. And we cannot applaud that or find any redeeming qualities in their decision, and the ending, as well as the entire movie fails on many levels for that reason.

That being said, the reason we're still talking about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is because it has become the subject of study and debate among writers and movie enthusiasts. 

This film does have its moments of heroism. Well, maybe just in the opening scenes, and so we tend to forgive its shortcomings. There's something about it we cannot deny. 

Or better yet, someone we cannot deny.