An uncompromising, visionary architect struggles to maintain his integrity and individualism despite personal, professional and economic pressures to conform to popular standards.
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After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s superpowers. One side representing democratic capitalism, the other centralized communism. Compared to the Soviet Union with the writings of Marx and his acolytes, the United States had very little in the way of doctrine regarding market capitalism. Numerous intellectuals were eager to fill this vacuum. One of the most radical was Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, which maintained that the individual was sacrosanct, and what earlier Judeo-Christian philosophies had seen as selfishness was not a vice but rather the virtue of “egoism.” Not content with merely publishing philosophical tracts, Rand wrote allegorical novels as well, and The Fountainhead was one of the most successful.
The Fountainhead is the story of Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a modern architect whose style is out of favor because it does not borrow from classical forms. Roark falls in love with Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), the daughter of a more traditional architect, but they cannot be together because he refuses to compromise his architectural (and philosophical) vision despite the pleadings of his colleagues, such as Peter Keating (Kent Smith). Eventually, Roark’s genius is recognized but his life is complicated by Francon’s marriage to the editor of the rabble rousing New York Banner (Raymond Massey).
As the description illustrates, plot does not drive the film. Ideas are what matter. Throughout the film, Roark refuses to compromise his ideals to satisfy popular tastes. His enemies are determined to ruin him, apparently motivated by their jealousy of Roark’s genius. The film’s main villain, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) demands that there is no virtue that is not “shared virtue” and that the individual must submit to the collective will. Rand, who wrote the screenplay herself, is more interested is setting up the dichotomy between the individual and society than in crafting characterization or plot.
For Rand, the message of individualism was nearly religious in its fervor. Born in Russia, she had seen first hand the consequences of Soviet Communism, and was forced to flee Bolshevik persecution. Indeed, her characters are at their most convincing when extolling the power of the human spirit as unique to each individual that must be protected from those who would enslave it in the path to power, claiming it for the “common good.” She is also perceptive in noting how people deceive themselves into believing that they are powerful by catering to public tastes when the reality is that they have made themselves slaves to popular demands. (Today’s Hollywood would be well served to remember that lesson.)
Gary Cooper imbues the uncompromising Roark with humanity, which is impressive considering he is playing an archetype not an actual character. Even during a six minute speech near the end of the film, he keeps the audience’s attention with the quiet strength of his words. Director King Vidor attempted to cut the speech, but Rand objected to the studio. Rand and the studio were right. The speech is vital to the film, and to truncate it for dramatic purposes would undermine its message. Patricia Neal also does her best to create a character out of an amoral seductress who is won over by the strength of Roark’s convictions.
Like most polemics, the movie is largely a failure as a dramatic exercise. The characters are merely devices either to espouse the objectivist philosophy or to demand that the individual submit to the will of society. No one behaves like a normal human being. The plot is merely allegorical and lacks any internal consistency. None of these drawbacks would be fatal if the ideas were profound. (Great art does not require a strict adherence to realism.) Unfortunately, Objectivism is the flimsiest of philosophies, resembling a cult of personality (one’s own) rather than a search for fundamental human truths.
Of course, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism did not become a guiding philosophy in Cold War America. The country’s fundamental pluralism allowed many ideologies to compete for public acceptance (in stark contrast to the cinema of the Soviet Union). And American cinema was not required to conform its artistic messages to a political one. The defining characteristic of democratic capitalism may be that it needs no works outlining fundamental doctrine. Any and all are permitted to debate in the public square. Even at the movies.