Life imitates art: The lost lady of Marvin Gardens

'Marvin Gardens' and Woodstock's lost innocence

8 minute read
Robinson (right) with Burstyn in 'Gardens': Only the strong survive?
Robinson (right) with Burstyn in 'Gardens': Only the strong survive?
The New York Film Festival will celebrate the 40th anniversary of The King of Marvin Gardens on September 30th. This dark, quirky, cerebellum-banging, criminally critic-savaged film, directed by Bob Rafelson, featured four ruthlessly memorable performances. Three of its stars— Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn— went on to glory, and one vanished as if into time's black hole.

Nicholson, already ascendant after Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, played David Staebler, a balding, eye-glassed depressive who spins truth and fantasy into verbal art on a late night Philadelphia radio show. Dern, newly emerged from biker flick obscurity into national notoriety for shooting John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys, played Jason, David's semi-nutso, racket-connected, older brother, who is tempting David into a scheme to develop a tiny Hawaiian island into a casino resort.

Ellen Burstyn, fresh from breaking through (at age 39) in The Last Picture Show, played Jason's aging girlfriend, Sally, jostled by suspicion and fear as she strides sanity's high wire. And Julia Anne Robinson, a 20-year-old from Twin Falls, Iowa, played Jessica, Sally's step-daughter, another squeeze of Jason's, whom he offers to David as a perk for participating in Jason's venture.

(The additional kink of Jessica being Sally's actual daughter was discarded as too disruptive. But the fact that it was considered at all suggests the high transgression factor that propelled this movie.)

Burstyn went on to win an Oscar in 1974 for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Nicholson would win his for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a year later. Dern would co-star his way through the decade in The Great Gatsby, Drive He Said, Family Plot and Coming Home.

But Robinson wasn't heard from again.

Rafelson's Greenwich Village scene

Rafelson"“ as befit a young man who had crowded into Greenwich Village clubs to hear Jack Kerouac read poetry to jazz accompaniment— was a director mad for words. Jacob Brackman, then a 28-year-old magazine writer, is credited with the script for Marvin Gardens, but Rafelson, a former radio monologist himself, provided substantial content.

In fact, Nicholson's famous five-and-a-half minute opening rap, from its choking grandfather to its fatal "incriminating pumpernickel," derived from a story Rafelson had written in his college freshman English composition class. (His professor thought it "twisted" and sent him for help.)

Haunting darkness

Rafelson's art is not that of the quick cut from the snippet of scene. He allows his characters to verbalize the storms that sweep their souls.

Which isn't to say that his visuals don't resonate. Nicholson by himself in the Philadelphia subway tunnels is haunting. Nicholson and Dern in the blackness beneath the Atlantic City pier is momentous. Burstyn sears while casting her cosmetic crutches into the flames. Nicholson and Dern on the immobile horses before Lucy the Margate Elephant would have turned Dali green.

And then there is the darkness— of streets and halls and rooms— toward which all is pointed, to which all is drawn and where, film ending within film, home movie within feature, all things brilliantly resolve.

Most of Marvin Gardens takes place in wintry, pre-casino Atlantic City. Landmarks of jolly summers past are present: the Steel Pier; Starns Restaurant, Club Harlem. Pokerino and salt-water taffy are mentioned. Jitneys roll by. An auction house offers china figurines to the covetous. Once-grand hotels abut a once-grand boardwalk. A serio-grotesque Miss America pageant plays in a deserted Convention Center.

Overcoats at the shore

Robinson tap-dances to Burstyn's organ solo. Nicholson sings "There she goes..." to Dern's applause. The light extinguishes before Robinson reaches the walkway's end, as if she has dropped from a plank into ocean.

But summer is gone. This Atlantic City is shadow and cloud-clotted sky. Breath fogs the air. Overcoats are required. The only inhabitants are shrunken, liver-spotted whites and menacing, Afro'd blacks. This city must be fled from or died in. The gun is not on the wall but in a drawer with the dildo and water pistols.

Brackman had lived in Atlantic City between the ages of five and ten. Nicholson had grown up on the Jersey shore, and Dern had attended Penn, an hour away. One imagines the Atlantic City of their memories contained more sun and scampers across the sand and frolics in the surf than Marvin Gardens permitted. One imagines the dread and ruin were what their director wanted.

Woodstock generation's uncle

In the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rafelson held power to shoot the films he desired. This power derived from his ability to understand and express what a growing audience wished to witness.

At 38, he was not of that generation, which was just entering adulthood; but having been busted for marching for civil rights when he was 17, having taken LSD in the 1950s, having undergone not one but two military court martials, and having hatred for (as he put it) "that motherfucker Nixon in my blood," he possessed the necessary credentials. And the grosses brought by the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, the motorcycles and violence and up-against-the-wall attitude of Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, which he had written and/or directed and/or produced, reinforced his reputation.

Most moviegoers saw Marvin Gardens as a film about brothers, but I felt something more at stake. It began filming in 1971, when Nixon was president, and (although hundreds of thousands marched in protest) the Vietnam War had expanded into Laos and Cambodia. Bombs exploded across the country, and prisoners in Attica were gunned down by their guards. So in Marvin Gardens I sensed Rafelson flinging his seasoned assessment of this reality into America's teeth.

Where dreamers die

Here, I heard him say, was where we stood. This was what we had become. Marvin Gardens was without hope or affirmation; none of its characters was redeemed. Only mistakes and misjudgments were made. Only gangsters and businessmen endured. The dreamers and artists— and both Nicholson and Dern are declared the latter— wound up dead or mad or isolated.

And in the center of this, her future up for grabs, was Julia Anne Robinson.

Robinson was 14 years younger than any of her co-stars, an artists' model who wanted to act. Rafelson met her in Jamaica, where she was sojourning with Leonard Holzer, the real estate magnate and husband of Baby Jane. Struck by Robinson's attentiveness to this powerful and rich man, Rafelson knew he had found Jessica.

"'So very American'

Robinson had been cast in one previous film, the barely known, barely financed, barely released adaptation of Frederick Exley's cult novel, A Fan's Notes. In the book, the narrator notes his first impression of the Bunny Sue character she would portray: "Wholesome as homemade bread," exuding "youth and freshness... so very American." That is equally how Robinson— blonde hair flowing around blue eyes and rosy cheeks— presents herself in Marvin Gardens.

She is, after all, Miss America to-be. But she has been tempered by her history into an obliviousness to risk or doubt. "David, there've been a lot of men," she says, not with regret or request for forgiveness, not even as a wake-up shake but more a nudge.

Robinson's Jessica shapes the film. She is carrot to some characters and stick to others. She sets all fates in motion. And at its end, we know the fates of Sally, Jason and David— but not Jessica's. She is left unaccounted for, afloat like flotsam to wash up transfigured by the tides on another shore.

Reaching out to Rafelson

Eerily, in life, the same seemed true of Julia Anne Robinson. The archives of The New York Times yield nothing on her. Google offers almost as little. I found a listing of her supposed appearance in a forgotten film of 1987 as an anonymous hooker with 50th billing, but no other credits, film, stage or TV, to track Robinson across the intervening years.

No interlude of marriage and children is suggested. No hiatus due to alcohol or cults or drugs is exposed.

This mingling of the fictional and real haunted me. Robinson had been the one member of that cast to whom Woodstock might have mattered, to whom the Age of Aquarius might have seemed a possibility.

Of the movie's principals to whom I reached out to gain understanding, only Rafelson responded. "Tragedy," was his word.

She had been cast in a community play in a small town in Oregon. She had declined an invitation to a cast party and returned to her bed.

When she fell asleep, her cigarette still burned.

I saw her face in Marvin Gardens when she told David that we're all "part of this," while a background calliope played. I heard David say later, in regret and despair, "Enjoying the game... seemed to be what the trip was about."

I heard unanswered screams.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

The King of Marvin Gardens. A film directed by Bob Rafelson (1972). Screening Sepember 30, 2012 at New York Film Festival, Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St. (Lincoln Center), New York.

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