Ayn Rand's romance with Hollywood

The browsers ecstasy

Ayn Rand's romance with Hollywood

Grand flaw: Stills from ‘Atlas Shrugged’, adapted from Ayn Rand’s book.

She points to Ayn Rand’s own take on the book, when the producer of The Godfather, Al Ruddy, came to her asking permission to make the Dagny Taggart romance the focus of Atlas Shrugged and Rand simply responded, “That’s what it always was — a love story.”

After decades in production hell, the first part of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy has drawn mostly unfavourable reviews from critics. The complaint is not so much an objection to Rand’s much derided philosophy, but that the adaptation is not nearly as entertaining as her fiction.

In Twilight of the Goddess, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s sparkling and bracing essay on Rand, (from Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World) we learn that Ayn Rand herself claimed she was compelled to write political books, but what she really wanted to write were romance and adventure stories — like the ones from all those Hollywood movies she was crazy about, growing up in Petrograd.

At the end of her life, Pierpont says, she did begin such a novel, but her illness kept her from finishing it. A novel about rejected love, and how her heroine suffers for it. This was the only kind of novel, she was interested in writing, after Atlas Shrugged. And it would end, Pierpont tells us, with her hero at last realising the ‘qualities of the woman who has worshipped him with such passionate intensity, and returns her love. He begs her to forgive him for all the pain he caused her.’ “The last line of Rand’s only work to be liberated from politics is the woman’s simple but consoling reply: ‘What pain?’ she asked.”

Ayn Rand completed her screenplay for The Fountainhead in June 1948. When the film was completed in ’49, many friends recalled how euphoric she sounded. Ayn wrote: “For the first time in Hollywood history, the script was shot verbatim, word for word as written.” She was happy that not a single word of her script had been cut. But 12 years later, she confessed that the whole thing had been a miserable experience. There had been frequent arguments on the sets with the director, Vidor, over ideological and stylistic aspects. Once she walked in to find Vidor shooting a shortened version of the notoriously long courtroom speech Howard Roark makes at his trial. She stormed out in rage shouting that she would take her name off the film completely. Warner Bros, terrified that the cult of readers the book had gathered, would stay away from the film, ordered that no cuts could be made from her script.

On the opening night of the film, Rand discovered one crucial Roark line (“I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others”) had been cut after all, but no one had dared tell her beforehand. In the end, the movie had not been a hit, commercially or critically, with the New York Times critic labelling it ‘high-priced twaddle’.

We learn all this from Anne C Heller’s judicious book on her, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Heller throws light on why Rand put on a happy front and pretended to like the film for the first few years. It had always been the grand flaw in her character, observes Heller — the inability to see or admit that she was not as perfect as her characters. In this instance, not willing to concede, even to herself, that she may have written a flawed script.

The experience also ended her romance with Hollywood, Heller tells us, making her swear that she would never work in films again, and would never allow her future work to be turned into movies. Unlike probably all the acolytes of The Fountainhead, who read it when they were in their teens, Heller devoured the book (and Ayn Rand) in her forties and became “a strong admirer, albeit one with many questions and reservations… Like Dickens, Rand’s art is the art of melodrama. At heart, she was a 19th-century novelist illuminating 20th-century social conflicts.” Her book is also interesting for the kind of hidden biographical details she unearthed: as a school girl in Russia, one of Ayn’s closest friends was Olga Nabokov, the writer’s sister. Heller demonstrates why that legend about the author plucking her name from the Rand-Remington typewriter she owned, is only a myth: in 1926, the Rand-Remington had not come into the marketplace. How she came by that name will always remain a mystery.

But we learn from Heller — and again, perhaps for the first time — the story behind her first name. Ayin (‘an affectionate Jewish diminutive for bright eyes’) is how her father called her when she was a child in Russia. And Ayinotchka, Heller notes, “is a perfect Russian inflected endearment for a little girl with bright, bold, hypnotising eyes.”

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