I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Gary Cooper look as miserable in any film as he did in the 1949 film, The Fountainhead.
In The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper plays Howard Roark. Roark is an architect who we are repeatedly told is brilliant. However, he’s always has to go his own way, even if it means damaging his career. At the start of the film, we watch a montage of Howard Roark losing one opportunity after another. He gets kicked out of school. He gets kicked out of the top design firms. Howard Roark has his own vision and he’s not going to compromise. Roark’s a modernist, who creates sleek, powerful buildings that exist in defiance of the drab, collectivist architecture that surrounds them.
Howard Roark’s refusal to even consider compromising his vision threatens the rich and the powerful. A socialist architecture critic with the unfortunate name of Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) leads a crusade against Roark. And yet, even with the world against him, Roark’s obvious talent cannot be denied. Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) finds herself enthralled by the sight of him working in a quarry. Fellow architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith) begs Howard to help him design a building. Newspaper publisher Gail Wynard (Raymond Massey) goes from criticizing Howard to worshipping him.
Have I mentioned that Howard Roark doesn’t believe in compromise? If you have any doubts about this, they’ll be erased about halfway through the movie. That’s when Roark responds to a company altering one of his designs by blowing up a housing project. Roark is arrested and his subsequent trial soon turns into a debate between two opposite philosophies: individualism vs. collectivism.
So, let’s just start with the obvious. Gary Cooper is all wrong for the role of Howard Roark. As envisioned by Ayn Rand (who wrote both the screenplay and the novel upon which it was based), Roark was meant to be the ideal man, a creative individualist who has no doubt about his vision and his abilities. Cooper, with his down-to-Earth and rather modest screen persona, often seems to be confused as to how to play such a dynamic (some might say arrogant) character. When Roark is meant to come across as being uncompromising, Cooper comes across as being mildly annoyed. When Roark explains why his designs must be followed exactly, Cooper seems to be as confused as the people with whom Roark is speaking. It doesn’t help that the 47 year-old Cooper seemed a bit too old to be playing an “up-and-coming” architect. In the book, Roark was in his 20s and certainly no older than his early 30s. Cooper looks like he should be relaxing in a Florida condo.
Who, among those available in 1949, could have been convincing in the role of Howard Roark? King Vidor wanted Humphrey Bogart for the role but if Cooper seemed to old for the part, one can only imagine what it would have been like with Bogart instead. Henry Fonda probably could have played the role. For that matter, William Holden would have been an interesting pick. Montgomery Clift and John Garfield would have been intriguing, though Garfield’s politics probably wouldn’t have made Ayn Rand happy. If Warner Bros. had been willing to wait for just a few years, they could have cast a young Marlon Brando or perhaps they could have let Douglas Sirk make the movie with Rock Hudson and Lana Turner. (Or, if you really wanted to achieve peak camp, they could have let Delmer Daves do it with Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.)
If you can overlook the miscasting of Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead‘s an entertaining film. King Vidor directs the film as if it’s a fever dream. The film’s dialogue may be philosophical but the visuals are all about lust, with Pat Neal hungrily watching as a shirtless Gary Cooper breaks up rocks in the quarry and Vidor filling the film with almost fetishistic shots of phallic Howard Roark designs reaching high into the sky. If Cooper seems confused, Neal seems to be instinctively understand that there is no place for underplaying in the world of The Fountainhead. The same also holds true of Robert Douglas, who is a wonderfully hissable villain as the smug Ellsworth Toohey. Interestingly, the film ends with a suicide whereas the novel ended with a divorce because, under the production code, suicide was apparently preferable to divorce. I guess that’s 1949, for you.
Because America is currently having a socialist moment, there’s a tendency among critics to be dismissive of Ayn Rand and her worship of the individual above all else. Rand’s novels are often dismissed as just being psychobabble, despite the fact that, in some ways, they often seem to be borderline prophetic. (Barack Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that!” speech from 2012 could have just as easily been uttered by Ellsworth Toohey or one of the many bureaucrats who pop up in Atlas Shrugged.) Here’s the thing, though — as critical as one can be of Rand’s philosophy, there’s still something undeniably appealing about someone who will not compromise their vision to the whims of the establishment. It’s goes beyond politics and it gets to heart of human nature. We like the people who know they’re talented and aren’t afraid to proclaim it. (Modesty, whether false or sincere, is a huge turn off.) We like the people who take control of situations. We like the people who are willing to say, “If you don’t do it my way, I’m leaving.” In a way, we’re all like Dominique Francon, running our hands over architectural models while trying to resist the temptation to compromise and accept something less than what we desire. We may not want to admit it but we like the Howard Roarks of the world.
Even when they’re played by Gary Cooper.