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Elliott Gould

Elliott Gould: Actor Profile

Actor Profile:
ELLIOTT GOULD
(1938- )

Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.

The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. Itís one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the weekís top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.

Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporterís values in a memorable scene in Donít Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.

Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Timeís 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."

Gould certainly seemed to possess the necessary qualifications for hipness, at least as it is understood by the mass media. Didnít he swap wives with Robert Culp in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, thereby certifying himself as "now," to use one term still in use that year, and "with it"? Didnít he star in the anti-establishment M*A*S*H, the most subversive mainstream movie of 1970? Sure did. He was also upfront about his frequent use of marijuana, the use of which may have explained his oddball personality. As a result, Gould was deemed worthy of a pop art style cover in Time.

The decision, like Timeís snubbing of the aforementioned cultural icons, now makes the periodical look like it, too, has "an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly." Gould was hot for approximately two years and most of his films are simply wretched. None of which is to say that Gould has failed to make a mark. He has, and rather impressively at that.

Born Elliott Goldstein in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, the actor with the hound dog face and haystack of curly hair was best known as the ex-husband of Barbra Streisand until earning an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for 1969ís Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. But it was the next yearís M*A*S*H that really brought him to the attention of the under 30 age group that constituted the bulk of the moviegoing audience. Robert Altmanís radical comedy, more anti-military than anti-war, made Gould (as Trapper John) and his co-star Donald Sutherland (as Hawkeye Pierce) poster boys for the counterculture. When Variety compiled its list of the yearís top grossing films for 1970, M*A*S*H was second only to Airport, while Bob & Carol... ranked fourth. A third Gould film, Getting Straight, didnít do too badly either, finishing in position 23 for the year. Two other 1970 releases, Move and I Love My Wife made less of an impression but they also helped to make Gould omnipresent in the consciousness of filmgoers.

As Time wrote, 1970 was a "remarkable year" for the actor and, in a Playboy interview some months later, Gould bragged about the flood of offers that were coming his way. "Iím in a terrific position," he said. "Within reason, I can do whatever I want in TV or movies."

By 1973, The New York Times was asking "Whatever Happened to Elliott Gould?" The actorís highly touted appearance in Ingmar Bergmanís The Touch was a failure in all respects, and Gould spent the remainder of the decade turning out one dud after another. He was memorable as a vice squad detective alongside Robert Blake in Peter Hyamsí exciting but conventional Busting in 1974, and perfectly paired with George Segal in Altmanís California Split the same year, but S*P*Y*S which reteamed him with Donald Sutherland in an attempt to duplicate the success of M*A*S*H right down to copying its title design, was a humiliation and, like Harry and Walter Go to New York, I Will, I Will...For Now, Matilda, and too many others too depressing to consider, it proved that Gould had become, as Time suggested he might, a "familiar bore." Some studio executives were even beginning to question his sanity, thanks to his reportedly bizarre behavior on the set of an unreleased and uncompleted Warner Bros. film. In 1973, before giving the green light to Gouldís casting in The Long Goodbye, United Artists required the actor to undergo a psychiatric test to prove he was mentally fit. Apparently, he was.

By the next decade, Gould was dabbling in television where, in the late 70ís, he had distinguished himself as one of the most frequent and effective guest hosts on Saturday Night Live. He briefly starred in E/R, a sitcom that seemed determined to trade on memories of M*A*S*H, but Gouldís Dr. Howard Sheinfeld was no match for Trapper John, a character that most TV viewers now associated more with Wayne Rogers and Pernell Roberts than with Gould. And there were more movies, all forgettable and forgotten until a small but effective role in 1991ís Bugsy and a recurring role on TVís Friends brought him back to prominence, this time as a supporting actor rather than a star.

So, where did Gould make the impressive mark referred to earlier?

No, it wasnít in M*A*S*H. Altmanís film may be a classic but it now looks more mean-spirited than funny and it has taken a back seat in both pop culture and the audience's affection to the long running TV series. Gouldís greatest moment came in another Altman film, the offbeat, icon bashing take on Raymond Chandlerís The Long Goodbye. In that often castigated 1973 burlesque of film noir, Gould pulled off a nearly impossible feat by making Chandlerís private detective hero, Philip Marlowe, uniquely his own, removing it from the imposing shadow of Humphrey Bogart who offered the definitive portrayal of Chandlerís "man of honor" in 1944ís The Big Sleep. Dick Powell, Philip Carey, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, James Caan, and two Montgomerys--George and Robert--all stepped into Marloweís shoes at one time or another, but they walked Bogartís walk without quite duplicating his swagger. Gouldís Marlowe broke from the Bogie mold, and broke it, as well. Though a little too self-consciously "cool" at times, Gould excels at destroying the myth of the honorable private detective. Heís a man very much out of step with the cynical, selfish 70s in which Altman places him, and his code of honor makes him a chump to boot, though not for long. "Youíre a loser," Terry Lennox tells Marlowe just before the private eye blasts his double crossing friend full of holes. To hell with Chandler and his code of honor, this film says, and as Marlowe, Gould more than lives up to Timeís description of him as "a forelorn figurehead (doing) battle for the psyched-up majority."

A star for an uptight age, indeed.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.

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