When Art And Mainstream Blurred In Louis Malle’s Atlantic City

Abhishek Srivastava - 79 weeks ago

Louis Malle, doyen of French cinema, credited with masterpieces like Au Revoir Les Enfants and Le Monde Du, directed Atlantic City at a phase in his life when France did not appeal to him much.

He believed that France under Giscard d’Estaing had become a country where arts and culture had reached a plateau. To recharge the artist within, he relocated to New York and after having made a film there started looking towards the ‘New South’ for ideas. In an interview to New York magazine in June 1981, the famed French director had said, “I have always liked New York than anywhere else. New York has been an exciting part of my life and now I have become so much of a New Yorker that I am starting to bad mouth it for being dirty.” Louis Malle believed that if one were to decipher his Atlantic City, the film could be taken as a metaphor for all the wrongs that ailed America in the early 70s and late 80s. 

(Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster in a still from Atlantic City (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

Atlantic City deals with an aging mobster Lou (Burt Lancaster) who is barely able to make his ends meet amidst a changing landscape of the Atlantic City. When a cache of drugs is passed on to Sally (Susan Sarandon) after the murder of her husband, things get into motion after she moves to Atlantic City. When Lou falls for Sally and becomes her savior, a new confidence is instilled in him. Malles’s Atlantic City is about a city and it's latent capabilities to give birth to an entirely new city. The hidden subtext is also about how the present can overcome the past. Lancaster’s role in the film was dubbed as a brilliant comeback but the scene-stealer in the film remains Susan Sarandon as Sally. 

Not many know that Burt Lancaster had shot for the film in an extremely critical situation. It was in January 1980 that he had admitted himself into a medical center based out of LA for the removal of his gall bladder. The removal of gall bladder was followed by bouts of severe pain, which later turned out to be hepatitis. He went on to act in Atlantic City by dismissing the pain as ‘nothing’.

(Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in a still from Atlantic City (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

The making of the film itself could be dubbed as nothing short of a gift to Louis Malle from a Canadian rabbi. Louis Malle’s actress wife Candice Bergen in her autobiography A Fine Romance has given a detailed account under which Atlantic City was filmed. It was in 1979 when she received a phone call from the director informing her that a rabbi from Winnipeg had given him $7.5 million to make a film. The director was devoid of any idea for a film and the call was only to ask her if she had any idea. “Did I have any ideas? I did. Atlantic City was heavily in the news. Because of tax consequences, filming must come to a stop on December 31 or the rabbi would lose the tax break. It was the end of July, so the film would have to be written, filmed and completed in six months, almost to the day” mentions Bergen in her autobiography. Taking up the challenge, Malle delivered the first draft of the script in ten days and within weeks shooting of the film resumed in Atlantic City. Since it was a rushed project, Louis Malle did not bother about his technician except the soundman. According to the director “The eyes sees the beauty, but the ear hears the truth.”

The movie was exceptionally well received and was nominated for five Oscars which included Louis for best director, Susan Sarandon for best actress, John Guare for best screenplay, Burt Lancaster for best actor, apart from best film. On the awards night, the film unit came back empty handed. This was also the 43rd time in the history of Academy awards that a film nominated in the top five categories failed to win a single award. 


(Burt Lancaster and Louis Malle during the filming of Atlantic City (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

It might come as a surprise to many that despite the nomination, Louis Malle preferred to watch the ceremony on television in his homeland, France. During the filming, Louis was involved in a relationship with the leading lady of the film and fearing tension from the seating arrangement at the ceremony found it prudent not to attend the ceremony. Atlantic City can easily be dubbed as a film from Malle’s repertoire where mainstream and art seemed juxtaposed, creating a piece of cinema that till today stands the test of time.


Louie Malle / Susan Sarandon / Burt Lancaster / Atlantic City / Candice Bergen

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