Directed by Louis Malle
Written by John Guare
Starring Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon and Michel Piccoli
Dateline – Atlantic City. An aging mob-adjacent man (Lancaster) finds himself embroiled with a thief trying to make a drug sale, and the thief’s estranged wife (Sarandon). When the wife’s life is threatened, the complacent man must take action.
In one sense, the movie is just a simple story about people from the lower classes trying to make good, in any way they can. In another, it’s about the transition between the old Atlantic City and the new, the metaphorical changing of the guard, and the expected growing pains everybody feels.
I’ve Still Got Moves
The 70’s were a quiet time for Burt Lancaster. Sure, he did some movies, and even featured in a Best Picture nominee, but on the whole, he didn’t do much. Squeezed into about a movie a year, did his work, and went home. By 1980 his last great roles were at least a decade and a half behind him and even that role came in a movie that failed at the box-office (The Swimmer).
In short, he was not exactly in a place of power.
As it stands, this movie then operates as something of a last hurrah for Lancaster. Yes, he would make a few more movies after this one – Tough Guys and, most notably, Field of Dreams – but those were either small films, overlooked, or supporting parts. From a critical, and movie star standpoint, this was it. And boy, does he deliver.
As usual, Lancaster is charming – he’s always charming. Even at his most despicable, he charms. In some sense, this seems a limit to his range, as if he can never be anything but charming – he always plays men with square jaws, good voices, who are maybe a little over-friendly, but always likeable. In short, he plays the star.
But his charm isn’t for it’s own sake; rather, there’s a depth to his performances that other actors can’t match. Sure, it’s not a tortured and obvious depth, all on the surface and out there in the open. No, it’s subtle. Yes, he can’t get away from charming, but his charm has an edge to it – he can be it sad, he can play it edgy, he can play it monstrous, or he can play it like he does here, with a tinge of delusion and desperation.
Better, as Lancaster got older, after his hair turned white, and his once-strong chest slackened, and he looked a little gone-to-see, he got better. Because not only was there charm and edge in his performances, there was also a little wistfulness for day’s gone by.
There was pathos.
In Atlantic City he plays Lou, a so-tangential-to-the-mob character he’s basically a daydreamer anymore, living his days as if trying to maintain an illusion of importance. He might not be important now, but he was important once, having shared a cell with some mobster or other. Or…he says he was important once. The reality, though, is he’s trying to hide his sadness for how life has turned out. Or, that he’s basically always been a nobody. And that by papering over the past, he can somehow change who he is. As if that residual glow of a life he didn’t actually live can mean something.
In short, he plays a man long-impotent – metaphorically – wishing he could be potent just one time. And when he finally is, he lavishes in it.
In a big way, it’s important I talked about Lancaster’s performance in The Swimmer several paragraphs ago, because in some way this film feels like an extension of that – or at least the character does. In both, the man is doing his best to hold up a façade that rests on a rotten foundation. But while The Swimmer ends with a reckoning, Atlantic City ends with salvation, in a sense. In a movie that takes as it’s underlying theme the idea of Atlantic City reborn by gambling, so too is Lancaster’s character reborn.
Better Than Best
In a big way, this film doesn’t feel like a movie from 1981 – it feels like a movie from the mid70s. From the time before Hollywood had turned the corner and was now making films like Raider’s of the Lost Ark and calling them Oscar worthy – let’s be honest, that film was – when it made smaller, grittier films like Atlantic City.
After all, where the 1970’s was the decade of the New Hollywood and foreign films, where Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Cries and Whispers all competed for Best Picture, the 1980’s were the decade of excess and epics. Of Gandhi, Out of Africa and Driving Miss Daisy. Of being milquetoast. In that environment, Atlantic City feels like the last gasp of the 1970’s – Atlantic City was the last hurrah for Lancaster, and the last gasp for the 1970s.
But, as it was the last gasp of the 1970s, and the last hurrah for Lancaster, it was essentially a coronation for Susan Sarandon. Certainly she would not win the Oscar that year on her first nomination, but it signaled the beginning of a run through the 1980s and 1990s that was a bit unprecedented outside the studio era in terms of going from strength-to-strength without having to succumb to being some tartlet. After all, she went on from Atlantic City to do The Hunger, The Witches of Eastwick, Bull Durham, Thelma and Louise, The Client, and finally, Dead Man Walking, where she would win her Oscar. That’s a hell of a run.
All of that is pre-amble, of course, to whether Atlantic City was better than the Best Picture of 1981, Chariots of Fire – that’s the point of Better Than Best. Bluntly, Chariots of Fire is not a bad movie; it’s actually quite good. It’s small and rousing, and nice. But hardly a Best Picture. Which means, yes, Atlantic City tops it
That said, while Atlantic City is better than Chariots of Fire, it’s still not tops for 1981. The most obvious choice is Reds, an epic tale about an American-communist joining the Russian Revolution. That Warren Beatty got a major corporation to pay for, and release this film in Regan’s America is such a baller move from Warren Beatty that I wish it won Best Picture. Unfortunately, Reds feels a touch more intent on being ‘important’ than ‘good’ for my tastes.
Truthfully, even though I might’ve maligned Raiders of the Lost Ark before, which is deserved, given it’s so popcorn-ey, and Indiana Jones has no real effect of the outcome of the film, it’s the film I re-watch regularly. So, while Reds might be the important film, Raiders is my Best Picture.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 The Airport (1970), which also figured into this Project.