The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
Made in: USA
Language: English
Director: King Vidor
Starring: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Robert Douglas, Kent Smith
Year: 1949

Synopsis: Brilliant architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) designs buildings that no one has ever envisioned. In a society dominated by collectivist thinking that rewards conformity, compromise, and the status quo over bold new ideas, Roark is a pariah.

Refusing to give up his ideals and creative individualism, Roark prefers to struggle against the grain. He rejects lucrative commissions that deviate from his creative vision, and as a result, teeters on the verge of financial ruin.

But Roark's former classmate, Peter Keating (Kent Smith), has achieved great success. By consistently "giving the public what it wants" and sticking to conventional designs, Keating is awarded multiple commissions and is eventually made partner to Guy Francon (Jonathan Hale), owner of the nation's most prestigious architecture firm.

Despite financial achievement, Keating knows that, deep down, he is completely unoriginal and is basically a talentless hack. Keating is engaged to Guy Francon's daughter, Dominique (Patricia Neal).

Fiercely independent and unpredictable, Dominique is impressed with Roark's commitment to individualism (even though she's never met him) but doesn't believe he can survive in a world where empty suits like her fiancée are revered.

Dominique works for the fictional newspaper The New York Banner, owned by the cynical Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey). When Wynand falls in love with Dominique, he offers to use his influence to help Keating win big-name commissions if Keating agrees to end his engagement (which he does).

Wynand marries Dominique, and after she resigns from the newspaper, she decides to spend the summer at her father's country home.

At the quarry near the home, Roark has taken a job as a laborer. After a chance encounter with Dominique (she doesn't know that he's Howard Roark the controversial architect), an attraction begins growing between the two which eventually culminates in an intense sexual encounter.

But Roark is summoned back to New York for a commission before she even learns his name. After a growing stream of jobs, Roark slowly rises in prominence even as the controversy around his style and philosophy grows.

Roark's success sparks the ire of the New York Banner's premiere critic of architecture, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Toohey is an outspoken and influential socialist who regards Roark's exceptionalism and rugged individualist achievement as a threat to society.

The Good: Although The Fountainhead is a greatly abbreviated adaptation of the novel, it does a solid job conveying Ayn Rand's central philosophy of individual human achievement and one's "rational self interest" not as a detriment, but a great benefit to society.

Although the film was made in 1949, many of its central arguments concerning Individualism vs Collectivism, the Makers vs the Takers, are eerily relevant to today's social and political issues. Especially memorable is a newspaper editor's worry about running out of institutions to demonize (and he specifically names Wall Street at one point).

The production design is pretty impressive, too. Much of the modern architecture seen in the film almost seems timeless, or at least ahead of its time. And director King Vidal does a great job composing/framing shots during several important scenes.

The Bad: If you've never read The Fountainhead, you can't be faulted for finding the film a bit too fast paced in the beginning. The melodramatic acting style doesn't quite stand the test of time, and Gary Cooper's interpretation of the emotionally restrained Howard Roark comes off as a little too wooden.

And the end result of the climactic trial scene would defy logic to any modern filmgoer.

Who would like this film: The Fountainhead is for you if you're a libertarian, if you've already read Ayn Rand's novel, and if you like old black-and-white movies. Ayn Rand wrote the script herself, and although she is on record as disliking the film, the end result is quite faithful to her philosophy.

Most critics panned The Fountainhead back when it was released, but modern critics have been more praiseworthy. Many elements of the film will no doubt feel dated, but much of the social commentary is still very relevant even in the 21st Century.

(3 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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