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Showtime's Passion of Ayn Rand film disappointing
Posted By: Jim Peron on 31 Mar 99 at 10:48:15 AM
Showtimes film adaptation of Barbara Brandens brilliant biography of Ayn Rand is a flawed disappointment. It is more than the problem that details were inaccurate; the film never allows the viewer to understand Rand or those around her.
The film, obviously looking for the "human interest" angle, concentrates on the affair between Rand and her acolyte Nathaniel Branden. The consequences of the relationship on the lives of Rands husband Frank OConnor and on Barbara are of major import for the story. But because the film focuses in on only the affair the actions of the individuals involved are never placed into a context.
Helen Mirren, as Rand, often gives a excellent performance. She is
particularly good as the older Rand but a bit weak when portraying the younger Rand. Peter
Fonda as Frank OConnor is adequate but his role is more background than anything
else. Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel Branden is fine but Patricia Delpy as Barbara Branden was,
in my opinion, terribly miscast. Their look is similar but their demeanor and personality
are quite different.
Barbara did suffer a great conflict. Her husband was having an affair with the person she admired most in the world. We can understand, even with her ambivalent feelings toward Nathaniel, why she might have wanted to continue her relationship with him. But we never see why Ayn Rand was of such importance to her life. Why did she endure this relationship? The only possible explanation, without the context, is that she was weak and bullied into it by a cruel Ayn Rand and a manipulative husband.
The closest the film gets to portraying Rands powerful philosophy was when they have an audience member at a Nathaniel Branden Institute lecture asks Rand to explain her philosophy while stand on one leg. This famous incident, which took place at a Random House sales meeting, is almost all of Rands ideas that one gets. There are points where quotes are given but we never see the real Rand in action.
Rand, as so many friends and critics alike have admitted could be terribly convincing. In this film she comes across as only a bully who insisted that her admirers accept her word without explanation. And while Rand could be intimidating and unnecessarily forceful the passive behavior of the audience members makes no sense. It is one thing for someone who is convinced of the importance of Rands philosophy to put up with her sometimes unpleasant personality but why would a room full of people do so? An individual who has not seen the Rand that was beneath the aggressiveness would not tolerate it Thus the viewer of the film is left wondering what is wrong with all those people.
There is an undertone to the film, which while not explicit, seems to provide an answer. People accepted Objectivism like others accept religion. It is simply a belief system you choose and once chosen you obey the prophet. The first inkling that this is their premise takes places as the film opens.
The camera sweeps in on an empty street presumably in New York City. Two
individuals are quietly marching down the middle of the street carrying a sign "John
Galt Lives". In front of them someone walks with a lit candle. The camera comes to a
long winding stairway packed with people all with candles in hand. The scene is dark and
only this group of people are on the street. A man comes out and tells the crowd that the
body will be on view for only two hours and everyone must go in quickly and leave right
away to give others a chance to view the body. "Think
Very quickly you sense that something religious is going on. But virtually all of this is pure Hollywood invention. The woman at the front of the line obviously never made such a remark because there was no woman at the front of the line. I know because I was there. The streets werent deserted since it was the middle of Manhattan on a late afternoon - so it wasnt dark either. No one marched solemnly down the middle of the street with a banner and there wasnt a single candle in view. I dont even remember any in the funeral home. And Barbara Branden, due to the conflict with her cousin Leonard Peikoff, Rands heir, was told she wouldnt be allowed to attend. An action which shows Peikoffs pettiness to this day.
No one was told to hurry up and leave. The room where the coffin was on display was packed from the moment the doors opened until the end of the viewing. The room was filled with massive bouquets of flowers from people around the world. I remember the one from a group of college students that said, "Our sorrow in your passing is only surpassed by our joy in your living." The now infamous dollar sign bouquet was considerably smaller than the one in the film and it didnt hold center stage. It would have actually been quite easy to miss considering the number of bouquets around it. I wouldnt have notice it had it not been brought to my attention by someone else.
A few of Rands closest friends were gathered around a sofa where Leonard Peikoff sat, obviously in grief. But the bulk of the mourners came to celebrate Rand and her life. Her beloved "tiddlywink" music gaily filled the room. All of us were touched by her and would miss her. But we all knew that what she had done for us would stay with us forever. There was a lot of conversation and strangers talked to each other about Rands influence on their lives. They told their life stories. The handful of reporters present seemed baffled by it all. For those of us who made the trip to say good-bye it was all quite understandable.
The affair was something that happened but it wasnt Ayn Rand. It wasnt even Nathaniel Branden, or Frank OConnor, or Barbara Branden. They all deserved more than they got in this script. Events, for the convenience of the film, are moved about or taken out of context.
Nathaniel Branden particularly will probably be unhappy since the film strongly hints at unethical behaviour on his part as a therapist. His affair with Rand ended because he had started another relationship with his soon-to-be wife, Patrecia. Rand was baffled, even tormented, by his distance and seeming rejection of her and her affection. She tried endlessly to understand it. But the facts were kept from her. Eventually Barbara faced him and demanded that he tell Ayn the truth. He sent Rand a note explaining that the age difference between them meant the end of their affair. She felt excruciating pain and responded with equally as violent an anger.
In the film there is no note. Instead they show Barbara taking Ayn into a room to tell her the truth. Nathaniel, who is supposedly in the middle of a lecture at the time, is summoned. Rand slaps him three times and he returns to the lecture hall to admit his sin and walk out leaving behind a room of baffled followers. This too comes from the imagination of the script writer. But what should really bother Dr. Branden is the fact that Patrecia, who attended lectures at NBI (called BI in the film), is portrayed as a patient in his psychology practice. The affair is portrayed as beginning during a counseling session. The Patrecia character, called Carolyn in the film, is portrayed as a sniveling woman who keeps confessing her psychological short-comings to Rand and Branden. She keeps talking about how she is so confused that she seeks self-esteem in pleasing others while groveling before them seeking their approval. In life the real Patrecia, as described by Barbara, was charming with an "unusual emotional spontaneity and openess, and, at times, a startingly acute sensitivity." In the film none of this is portrayed and thus Nathaniels love for her come across as almost pity.
What is it that drew Rand to Nathaniel Branden? The film really doesnt tell us. It intimates, in several shots, that the motive was pure lust. She calls him a genius but the reason for this is left hanging. Early on the film, understandably shows Nathaniel and Barbara meeting Ayn together for the first time. This is inaccurate but not pertinent. A brief conversation takes place and then they are in their car ranting about Ayn Rands genius. This scene sets the stage and reveals the major flaw in the script. Its lazy and amateurish. Instead of taking the effort to show us why Nathaniel and Barbara were so taken with Ayn the script writer has them simply tell us. Through out the film the same lazy method is used. Instead of getting into the story and the characters motivations the script writer has them narrated to us.
The personality of Ayn Rand is portrayed in a cardboard manner. Her complexity and her multi-faceted personality is left out. She is portrayed as fluctuating from demanding to cruel, from intolerant to uncaring. There is almost no joy portrayed and yet she was someone who could revel in it. There was no kindness though she was often kind. Rands mind was so powerful that she could bring even her harshest critics to see her point yet we dont see that. She instead puts down her critics and attacks them.
At the end of the film a woman asks Rand if she founded a cult. Rand responds that she preached individualism and you cant have a cult of individualists. She says that the use of your mind should make that apparent and then says to the girl, "You do have a mind dont you?" The girl is shown pained by the cruel remark. But the last hint, that Rand was a cruel, cult-leader is once again implanted in the mind of the viewer.
I was particularly disappointed that the real personality of Frank OConnor was never portrayed. I never met him, nor have I ever heard him on tape or seen him on video. But without exception everyone that I have ever meet who knew him or even had a brief encounter with the man have sung his praises. The words they used to describe him are "kind," "sweet," "a gentleman." I have never heard an unkind word about him. In this film he is portrayed a simply another victim of Ayn Rand. Any love she had for him is only briefly portrayed while the film shows her destroying him and never taking any concern for him.
In fact Ayn practically worshipped him. The release of hundreds of photos from Rands collection brings this home forcefully. As I sat looking through the photos I was immediately struck by the absolute joy Rand showed in his presence. Most of the photos of Rand with which we are familiar show her as a serious individual. She is rarely shown laughing or smiling. One exception is the famous photo of her standing with her hand on the complete manuscript of Atlas Shrugged. But in virtually every photo of her and Frank she is immensely happy. These photos span half a century and from the 20s to the 70s every time she is with Frank OConnor she show her complete pleasure in his company. She also seriously considered his position and often went to him for advice. She didnt simply bully him about as portrayed in the film, Barbaras book is a truthful account of Rands life. She portrayed all of Rand, flaws and virtues alike, as befitting a good biography. The film adaptation doesnt do that. It panders to the scandal of the affair. It rips it out of context and makes it appear as a tawdry sexual obsession and nothing more which is carried out with no concern for the pain caused others. The motivations of all concerned are never really shown. The only side of Rands personality we are allowed to see is her disdain and contempt for others.
I for one am disappointed. Ayn Rand deserves a film. And it shouldnt be one that fakes reality by leaving out the affair but neither should it fake reality by distorting it and given it more importance than it was worth. A film worthy of Rand would be truthful. And the obvious conflict and drama of the relationship with Nathaniel Branden would be a part of that truth. But where was the genius? Where was the Rand of the "tiddlywink" music? Where was the patient teacher and benefactor? All those aspects of Rand, which do appear in the biography, were stripped from the film. Some good may come if its showing encourages people to read Barbaras book where they may get a balanced approach. Unfortunately the lopsided portrayal of Ayn Rand in the Showtime film is more likely to feed the distorted image of her which her opponents and enemies have used to discredit her ideas.
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