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Taking a Shine to Ayn Rand

Movies: Coming to the Port Theatre, an Oscar-nominated documentary lays bare the writer's life--or does it?

March 20, 1998|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The novelist and philosopher queen Ayn Rand, born Alice Rosenbaum in 1905, advertised many things about herself but not her real name.

"Who Is Ayn Rand?," an adoring 90-page biographical essay by her disciple, Barbara Branden, also makes no mention of it. Rosenbaum apparently did not suit the ambition of someone who intended to become a legend.

The unvarnished story of Rand's life, her literary output (notably "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged") and her polemical ideas about the virtue of selfishness and the evil of altruism, are presumably laid bare in the Oscar-nominated, 2 1/2-hour documentary "Ayn Rand--A Sense of Life," which opens today at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan noted in his recent review that though Michael Paxton's 1997 movie chronicles "quite a life," it also buffs the legend to a high sheen. A "dispassionate examination" would be welcome, Turan wrote; unfortunately, the film "is unashamedly in the acolyte camp."

Rand, who died in 1982, came to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1925. She was a voluntary refugee of the communist revolution, which she loathed. Wanting to be a writer, she went to Hollywood and by chance met director Cecil B. DeMille. He shared her anti-communist views, gave her screenwriting advice, then bought her first screenplays.

Thus launched, Rand added novels to her repertoire. Later, she gained fame for her philosophy of "rational self-interest" and became known as the founder of "objectivism," a body of principles that prizes individualism at any cost.

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She attracted political leaders (including economists such as Alan Greenspan, now head of the Federal Reserve) to her cause, as well as droves of college students. Her ideas helped justify the Gordon Geckos of the 1980s; they also formed the intellectual underpinning of the Libertarian movement that blossomed in the '90s.

"Rand's story is strong enough to create interest no matter what," Turan pointed out. But when, as Paxton reveals, "the filmmaker [is] someone whose eighth-grade discovery of 'The Fountainhead' 'changed [his] life forever' [he lacks] the sense of perspective that would benefit this kind of film."

To complement Paxton's documentary, the Port will also screen, on March 28-29, King Vidor's 1949 movie of "The Fountainhead," which Rand adapted for him from her 1943 novel.

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She often boasted that her experience with the movie was "even more miraculous than with the book." Before its release she wrote a friend, "For the first time in Hollywood history the script was shot verbatim, word for word as written."

That should leave no doubt about whom to blame for a movie perhaps best described in critic Gary Kamiya's phrase for all Rand's fiction: "comic books with Wagnerian dialogue."

The movie starred Gary Cooper as a genius architect who will not compromise his principles (a dim caricature of Frank Lloyd Wright) and Patricia Neal as his lover-nemesis, a femme fatale who will not compromise her edifice complex. With its grandiose posturing, symbols standing in for people and ludicrous plot, "The Fountainhead" left some viewers feeling as if they were being asked to swallow a skyscraper.

In a rare bit of praise for the picture, film historian David Thomson pronounced it "one of the most beautiful and mysterious of films," the picture is noteworthy not for its artistic achievement but for the off-screen love affair it kindled between Cooper, who was 47, and Neal, who was 22 and making her movie debut.

Their romance turned serious, titillated Hollywood and ended when Neal finally realized that Cooper would never marry her. (His wife, a practicing Catholic, vowed she would never consider a divorce.)

Meanwhile, the cult of Ayn Rand lives on. Her life story has just been filmed again, as a Showtime TV docudrama (starring Helen Mirren) based on Branden's expanded, full-length biography, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," (1986).

* "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" screens today through Thursday at 5:15 and 8:15 p.m. nightly and 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Port Theatre, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. $4.50-$7. (714) 673-6260.

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