Jack Nicholson’s association with BBS Productions was well and truly cemented by the time he made the meandering The King Of Marvin Gardens with director, friend and BBS founder Bob Rafelson in 1972. Nicholson had starred in Rafelson’s previous film, Five Easy Pieces, had also appeared in one of the company’s lesser-seen efforts – A Safe Place – and was a regular visitor to BBS’s laid-back, post-hippy office space. Rafelson and co-founder Bert Schneider had even fronted the cash for Jack’s directorial debut, 1971’s Drive, He Said, which featured Bruce Dern; the BBS inner circle was, for a few years at least, a close, tight-knit group.
Nicholson and Dern play two brothers here. Jack is the younger of the two, a depressed late-night Philadelphia radio DJ by the name of David Staebler (Rafelson originally offered the part to Al Pacino, who declined so that he could star in The Godfather) who fills his air-time with long, personal confessionals about his family. These seem to serve as a cathartic experience for David, who otherwise keeps his feelings hidden. Dern is older brother Jason, a huckster with vague mob connections living in Atlantic City with former beauty queen Sally (Ellen Burstyn, a year before The Exorcist turned her into a household name) and her step-daughter Jessica (Julia Ann Robinson, who made her debut here but tragically died a couple of years later in a fire). David is summoned to Atlantic City by Jason, who wants to include him in plans to develop a hotel property in Hawaii. David is skeptical, whereas Jason is a dreamer, and the pair find it difficult to agree on the viability of the project. Staying for a long period in the city with his brother, David is intrigued by Jason’s connections to local gangsters as well as the strange relationship that exists between his brother, Sally and Jessica.
Atlantic City is an interesting setting, given that the story takes place prior to the legalization of gambling in the city and the subsequent development boom that took place in the mid-1970s. There is a sense of a town in limbo here, accentuated by the winter season, and the sparsely-populated beach, boardwalk and buildings are shot beautifully by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, who makes fine use of the faded seaside glamour without lingering too long on all those salt water taffy signs. Marvin Gardens appeared on the original Atlantic City-based Monopoly board (as ‘Marven Gardens’, although I gather it appears today as ‘Marvin Gardens’), and references to the game are made throughout the movie. When we first encounter Jason he is in jail, mentions ‘Monopoly’ in his first exchange with David and then jokes that he hasn’t passed ‘Go’ or collected $200. He appears to have a ‘Get out of jail free’ card due to his association with local criminal Lewis (Scatman Crothers), and there’s also Jason’s attempts to build a hotel. Additionally, the film’s original poster echoes the game’s board.
The business of property development serves as a backdrop, though, to a moody and occasionally-surreal family drama. The King Of Marvin Gardens is very much a character-driven piece; there is a linear narrative, and a few plot points regarding real estate deals and criminality, but it’s very loose and the plot often feels like a device that exists primarily in order to get four interesting characters together in the same room. We witness the principal foursome in a variety of strange, barely-connected scenes – some of them a little forced – including one in which they re-enact a beauty pageant in a huge, empty dancehall and another where they entertain Japanese businessmen in a seafood restaurant, and over the course of the film it is the slow-burning tension that exists and develops between the characters in these odd moments which fascinates, as opposed to the mechanics of any of the business dealings or the threat posed by Lewis and his cronies.
As you would expect from this cast the acting is of a very high standard and it is interesting to see how the four characters, and the four actors, interact with each other. David is reticent, introspective and downbeat, whereas Jason is more exuberant, a man with big ideas and a worrying attraction to criminal circles, which is an interesting flip on the two brothers of Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. In that film Nicholson played the unpredictable bohemian, whereas here he is the uptight straight-laced sibling. Naturally the pair clash on occasion, and there are long-standing issues which bother David in particular, but there is the occasional flicker of brotherly love and warmth from Jason, at least. The relationship that exists between Sally and Jessica is even more complex, hinting that a mother and daughter dynamic has gradually changed over time to that of lovers, and the implication is that Jason is sleeping with both of them (it seems as if there is a wider sexual subtext running throughout the film, but it’s not exactly clear or suggesting anything in particular). Naturally this causes all kinds of anguish, particularly for the volatile Sally, whose fading beauty recalls that of the city itself; when she decides to burn all her beauty products and flamboyant clothes in recognition of a torch (of sorts) being passed on to Jessica, she does so on the beach, and even buries make-up and false eyelashes in the sand, strengthening the link. “They’re made out of mink hairs,” she says mournfully. “Did you know that?”
Sally is threatened and undermined by the blossoming of the younger, newly-defiant Jessica, and Jason’s role in all of this angers her considerably. Some of the film’s most memorable scenes detail Sally’s frustration and (understandable) explosions of rage: she angrily stomps out of the surreal lobster dinner with the pair of potential Japanese backers, and her temper makes the film’s explosive denouement seem plausible enough. Yet she lacks an independent streak, and despite her protestations she never leaves Jason’s side; perhaps this weakness is the root of her frustration, coupled with the fact she is with a man she knows she is losing to the younger woman that she herself has shaped. Her decision to stick (rather than twist) in this gambling city must be due in part to Jason’s clear magnetism, his ability to smooth talk and convince, which is all superbly relayed by the energetic Dern. Burstyn matches his outwardly enthusiastic behaviour, a series of jigs, dances and upbeat pronouncements masking a deeper, lasting unhappiness that the actress slowly reveals with formidable skill.
Nicholson’s David remains passive in the face of all this drama, although even he cannot keep a lid on his feelings, angrily remonstrating with all three other characters in the film’s final act. Depressed and introverted, the only regular outlet for his inner turmoil appears to be his meticulously-prepared radio show, and the film opens and closes with two confessional monologues that highlight the young actor’s considerable talent: the first in particular will surely stand as one of his greatest scenes when he formally announces his retirement. Anyone who pictures the manic, broad-smiling Jack Nicholson when hearing or reading his name needs to go back and watch this intense, brooding performance; there is no scene-stealing on show, and he is quietly magnificent.
Were a studio executive to pitch The King Of Marvin Gardens to colleagues today, it’s likely that they would find it a hard sell: it’s bleak, the plot is loose and the film’s low-key feel and slow-burning nature makes for a slightly challenging watch at times. It feels very indicative of the spirit of filmmaking of the time, though, and compares favourably with a number of more-celebrated films of the early 1970s which engage with the idea of the American Dream in different ways (nearly all of them shot through with a striking pessimism). Well-developed and interesting characters are the clear priority, here, and Jacob Brackman’s screenplay is filled with meaningful, realistic exchanges, many of which are instrumental in propelling what does exist in terms of the story and illustrating the subtle changes to the movie’s core character relationships. (Rafelson’s original story is said to be based on his relationship with his own brother, to a certain extent.) That said, I certainly don’t wish to give the impression that the acting is the only part of the film worth celebrating: Rafelson’s direction is sure, and the editing by John Link II is impressive. I’ve only watched it once but I dare say it seems like the kind of film that will reveal just how well it is made only to those who are prepared to view it on more than one occasion.
Sadly it received mainly negative reviews from confused and unimpressed critics when it was released, and performed poorly at the box office. This is perfectly understandable: the pitch would probably suggest that the selling point of the film is its mood, and that’s a hard thing to flog to Joe Public. In the years following its release it was largely forgotten about and ignored, but time has been kind thanks in part to the high class performances of the actors, and The King Of Marvin Gardens is today regarded by a number of critics as one of the most underrated movies of the 1970s. It just requires an open mind to submit to its delightfully odd rhythm.
Directed by: Bob Rafelson
Written by: Jacob Brackman, Bob Rafelson
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Julia Ann Robinson
Running Time: 101 minutes