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More than almost any American director since the heyday of John Huston, or possibly Raoul Walsh, Bob Rafelson made movies that were defined by a kind of pugnacious toughness. He was drawn to characters who vacillated between states of discontent and anger, and nearly every movie he ever made had, at its centre, a scene with something of the quality of a spontaneous combustion.

Think of Jack Nicholson, irate at not being able to order a chicken salad sans chicken at a diner, wiping a table clean of glasses in the signature scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970); or Jeff Bridges gracefully steering clear of weights flung in his direction by a terrifying R.G. Armstrong in a fight scene in Stay Hungry (1976); or Nicholson and Jessica Lange, as the anguished lovers first imagined by James M. Cain, grappling, amid a kitchen table full of flour and dough, in the famous love scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981).

The long-retired Rafelson, who died aged 89 this July, seemed to relish his reputation as a renegade. In a 2019 profile in Esquire, the director remembered being hired on an ill-fated studio assignment – the prison drama Brubaker (1980), from which he was fired – because Hollywood liked the idea of corralling a maverick. “It’s not because I was good, but because I was independent,” Rafelson said. “It was like capturing the last rhino.”

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

It’s no small irony, then, that Rafelson’s greatest film is also, without question, his quietest: the 1972 drama The King of Marvin Gardens, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has at its centre David Staebler (Nicholson), a morose, bespectacled radio monologuist in Philadelphia, with a rather dweeby wardrobe (think cardigan, tie and sneakers) and sulky manner. On the air at night, David regales listeners, sotto voce, with long-winded, slow-to-develop tales elaborated from incidents in his life.

In the story co-written by Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman, David is roused from somnolence by his energetic elder brother Jason (Bruce Dern), who, when not romancing a mother-stepdaughter duo (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), is involved in the latest in a series of self-enriching schemes. He’s invited David to Atlantic City to participate.

David is unmoved by his brother’s plotting; Rafelson himself is unmoved by the whole American enterprise of capitalism, showbusiness and salesmanship. Two memorable contrasting scenes here show a before-and-after view of American consumerism: Burstyn, greeting Nicholson in Atlantic City, wearing a big smile and a sash across her chest reading “WELCOME”; and, much later, Burstyn chop-chop-chopping at her hair and junking her cosmetics.

For Nicholson, the film proved a striking demonstration of his then-untested range: Compared to the actor’s loose-limbed supporting part in the Rafelson-produced Easy Rider (1969), not to mention his volatile leading role in Five Easy Pieces, the part of David is not so much an angry young man as a mildly moody young man. Few actors would have been so willing so early in their careers to discard the qualities that made them stars. Here, Nicholson’s eyebrows remain largely stationary and his smile has settled into a semi-permanent scowl. “I didn’t know that he was able to detach so entirely from his persona as to play a character who, for example, wouldn’t smile at all in the movie,” Rafelson told me when I interviewed him in 2004.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Ironically, the form of The King of Marvin Gardens mirrors both David’s fussiness (the arch, slightly overwritten dialogue is a consistent pleasure) and his inexpressiveness. Most Rafelson movies take an anthropological interest in their unique American settings – the California oilfields of Five Easy Pieces or glossy, gleaming modern Miami in Blood and Wine (1996) – but this film gives us a rough sketch of Atlantic City. Lászlo Kóvács’ static, highly controlled camera seems oddly incurious: a series of boardwalks, beaches and hotel rooms is seen but not explored. There are people milling about, but the film feels emptied out; even a faux Miss America pageant featuring Dern and his gal pals is performed without spectators.

The film is a study in privations: emotions withheld, pay-offs denied. David and Jason make for awkward, ill-matched siblings, and Jason’s promises and pledges go unfulfilled – as empty as those beaches.

The King of Marvin Gardens was one of the final films produced by BBS, the revolutionary production company Rafelson cofounded, which had already given us Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). At the time, Marvin Gardens must have seemed a disappointment, but seen today it looks like the movie that best anticipated the coming era in American cinema.

The notion of Atlantic City as a used-up no man’s land was again exploited in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980); and both stars applied lessons learned here to future performances: Nicholson again displayed his talent for moody introversion in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), while Dern resumed his role as America’s favourite smiling showman in Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975). Kóvács’ muted palette was echoed in the wintry New England Gordon Willis shot for Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), and Rafelson and Brackman’s focus on unhappy family dynamics – arguably a bold choice at a time when political/social issue films were all the rage – might be said to anticipate Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980).

So what do we have here? It’s a Rafelson film like no other: delicate where he is usually tough; hushed where he is usually loud. Here, Rafelson wasn’t “the last rhino” at all. He was more an owl perched high above the boardwalk – slowly craning his head from one eccentric character to another, silent except for the occasional hoot.

Staying vulnerable: an interview with Bob Rafelson

In tribute to the great New Hollywood director, who has died aged 89, we republish this expansive interview in which he analysed the idiosyncrasies of his first four features.

By John Russell Taylor

Staying vulnerable: an interview with Bob Rafelson

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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