The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Updated: May 10, 2020
By: Ali Moosavi
Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson made Five Easy Pieces (1970) together, which has deservedly been hailed as an American classic. Two years after that they re-teamed to make The King of Marvin Gardens, an equally great film which somehow unfairly has not received the same accolades.
Bob Rafelson was educated at Dartmouth College and started his media career by writing additional dialogue for Shakespeare and Ibsen adaptations. Then in 1966, in a total change of course, he and his close friend Jack Nicholson created the pop group The Monkees who went on to become an extremely popular group with their own TV show which ran from 1966 to 1968. He and Nicholson then wrote the Monkees feature film Head (1968), which Rafelson directed. Their director-actor partnership continued well into the nineties with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Man Trouble (1992) and Blood and Wine (1996). However, none of these pictures were anywhere near as good as the two films they made together in the seventies.
The King of Marvin Gardens starts with a close up of David Staebler (Jack Nicholson), delivering a five minute monologue into a microphone. He has a late night spot on a local radio in Philadelphia, delivering slice-of-life stories from his own life, which he embellishes to make them more dramatic (Rafelson did a stint as a radio DJ in Japan while stationed there during his military service). He is the quiet, introvert, brooding type. The lone “artist” in the family, not unlike his character in Five Easy Pieces. A frustrated writer who has ended up telling stories about his life on radio which, as he confesses to one of the female characters in the film, “not because my life is particularly worthy, but because it is hopefully comically unworthy”.
David receives a message from his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) to go and see him urgently in Atlantic City. When David arrives in Atlantic City, he is greeted by Jason’s wife Sally (Ellen Burstyn), who has put together a bunch of sorry-looking has-beens jazz players to welcome him. It transpires that Jason is in jail for a minor crime. Later, when he is released, he meets David on the Boardwalk and introduces him to Sally and her stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). Jason is the bipolar brother. He is extrovert, brash; a small-time operator dreaming of the big time. The Jason and David characters can be the reflection of a movie producer and a writer-director respectively. Jason has this grand scheme of building a resort, complete with a casino, in an island in Hawaii. He wants his refined, well-mannered brother to help him sell the idea to Japanese investors. The true artist helping the con artist.
David has seen it all before; grand schemes by his hustler brother that came to nothing. He tells Jason: “you’re asking me to believe in another dream”. Sally is another desperate character, feeling ignored by Jason and sensing that he plans to leave her and go away with Jessica. In a touching scene, which encapsulates the aspiration and broken dreams of these characters, they hold a mock Miss America pageant in an empty indoor arena where David crowns Jessica as Miss America.
The off-season gloomy winter of Atlantic City is perfectly captured by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and provides the precise atmosphere for the film. Jack Nicholson is admirably restrained, and Bruce Dern gives one of his best performances. But shining above all is Ellen Burstyn giving a magnificent portrayal of desperation and hopelessness. The King of Marvin Gardens captures the mood of an America torn by the Vietnam War and on the eve of Watergate. It is the tale of two brothers, opposite in every respect, who nevertheless are joined by a strong bond. While Five Easy Pieces was nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor and Screenplay and won a bunch of other awards, The King of Marvin Gardens, surprisingly and unjustly, received a grand total of Zero nominations from any source. It is long due tor a reappraisal and its due recognition.