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The incurable romantic


THE WORLD is probably divided into those who like Ayn Rand and those who don't. I like her great gift for plotting and storytelling, the scale of her melodrama, her improbable characters, and most of all, her absolute, uncompromising, deadly romanticism. But I'm not crazy about her philosophy. Because of the years of embarrassment of having once liked "The Fountainhead", readers today keep away from anything to do with Ayn Rand. And so, what gets lumped unfairly with the book's reputation is the magnificent film version of the book — which to me is the most underrated Hollywood classic from the 1940s and 1950s.

The film is now out as an original VCD in music and film stores across India. Buy it (it's a steal at Rs. 200) or rent it (it also shows on and off on cable) and see for yourself. Directed by King Vidor with a screenplay by Rand herself, the film hasn't dated a bit. In fact, it feels clearly ahead of its time: stylish, crisp, modern with some beautifully stark black and white cinematography.

All the philosophy has been pared down to a few scenes (it's unbelievable how minimalist, spare and ruthless Rand has been with her own book — she understood the mechanics of Hollywood storytelling so well) and what is left is the book's riveting, melodramatic, suspenseful plot that is brilliantly narrated. And those unforgettable characters played with such heady abandon by Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. With Raymond Massey as Gail Wynand, Kent Smith as Peter Keating and Robert Douglas as Ellsworth Toohey. Cooper's great face is Roark, and while Neal's face may not be what we imagined as Dominique's, she becomes Ms. Francon before our very eyes as the movie progresses. In the minds of many fans, Neal's (later Roald Dahl's wife) haughty, sexy performance was Ayn Rand.

After all these years, just when you thought you'd gotten over all that Howard Roark-Dominique Francon foolishness, the movie knocks you silly with their romance. And you get a high from watching these tormented romantics taking on the world.

Boy, that Wynand-Domnique-Roark triangle! I mean, what melodrama, what dialogue, what emotion. (The movie ought to be very close to Indian hearts). Forget Objectivism, forget laissez faire capitalism (and the floral dollar sign Rand asked to hang over her coffin), forget individualism, forget the commie-bashing: think of the movie instead, as a parable for genius — the story of a struggling architect (modelled on Frank Lloyd Wright) so ahead of his time that only a few can comprehend his ideas. And the magnificent woman who loved him for it.

It's a classic romance. As good as anything Hollywood ever made, with all the characters brilliant and driven and conflicted. But because the book is saddled with so much puzzling philosophy and everyone — or nearly everyone — is convinced that Dominique and Howard seducing each other was rape, the movie has never gotten its due.

The irony of it — the Catch 22 here — is that the critics dismiss the movie because they think it is not worthy of a master filmmaker like King Vidor and yet it won't be the powerful, gripping, audacious movie it is, if it had not been made by him.

Vidor (1894-1982) was, for 40 years, obsessed about the theme of life as a battle in his films; between men and men, men and women, humans struggling against all odds. Against rock, concrete and steel in films like "The Crowd", "Duel In The Sun", "The Citadel", "Our Daily Bread", "An American Romance", "War and Peace" and "Solomon and Sheba". So, "The Fountainhead" wasn't a departure at all. ``Vidor's eye for composition,'' writes David Thomson in "A Biographical Dictionary of Film", ``is unendingly based on the emotional content of man's struggle.''

Elsewhere he writes, ``There is a kind of spiritual violence in "The Fountainhead". It is one of the most beautiful and mysterious of films.''

If you've been ignoring Ayn Rand, another interesting and very intriguing movie you've probably missed out on is "The Passion of Ayn Rand" with Helen Mirren playing the derided author.

The film looks at Ayn Rand as a character rather than as a mouthpiece of a philosophy. Made for television, you can catch it on Hallmark (No, it isn't a Hallmark movie at all, so don't dismiss it so quickly. It's made by Showtime — the best original television programming after HBO in America — but aired by Hallmark, for which they have my gratitude. There's also an Oscar-winning documentary on her called "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life", made in 1997).

Based on Barbara Branden's book of the same name, the film is a fictional recreation of the last controversial years of Rand's life, tracing the tangled 15-year love affair between the author and Nathaniel Branden, her handsome, much younger protégé. She was 49 and he was 24. Amazingly, the affair was conducted with the consent of Nathaniel's wife, Barbara, and Ayn's husband, Frank O' Connor.

In Nathaniel, Ayn felt she had at last found her intellectual heir. But this strange quadrangle was doomed from the start. After it ended, Ayn Rand retreated and turned even more reclusive. She was 77 when she died in 1982.

In an interview that accompanies the film, Helen Mirren, Britain's sexiest, smartest older actress says she grabbed the chance to play Rand because here was ``a woman with the size, grandeur and flaws of a Shakespearean character.'' Mirren pulls off something unusual and fantastic here: along with all the anger, intelligence and passion, she also shows Rand's vulnerability.

Until the very end Ayn Rand believed, quite beautifully, that ``romantic love is a response to your highest values.'' Make that a capital R. All of us who came under the spell of "The Fountainhead" have, at one time or another, searched for our respective Dominique Francons and Howard Roarks. Did we ever find them? Ah, but that's another story.

For Ayn it was enough that you believed and looked. For all her grand flaws, she was — is — the supreme romantic. If the book can't tell you that anymore, the movie will.

(pradeepsebastian

@hotmail.com)

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

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