What makes Robert Altman’s cult classic The Long Goodbye so compelling in 2023 almost destroyed the film when it first came out 50 years ago.
At the time, the director was riding high after satirizing war with the Oscar-winning M*A*S*H (1970) and the classic Western with the much-nominated McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971.)
But Altman’s attempt to parody Hollywood and the hardboiled detective fiction genre with his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, The Long Goodbye—about a detective helping a friend out of a nasty jam and then getting implicated in his murder—seemed to alienate both critics and audiences, leading to negative reviews and poor box-office numbers.
It didn’t help that The Long Goodbye was set in a sunny, early-’70s Los Angeles full of hippies, sun worshippers, and yoga enthusiasts, nor that the once-sacred Philip Marlowe (played loose, easygoing, and out of sync with the world around him by Elliott Gould) barely resembled the serious, tough-guy character popularized by genre actors Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Montgomery in previous decades.
Both the film and its lead star would receive better reviews in subsequent years for The Long Goodbye‘s groundbreaking take on Chandler. Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino have lauded the movie, and the Coen brothers have cited it as having had a major influence on The Big Lebowski. Roger Ebert eventually added it to his list of Great Movies, and, in 2021, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
On Sunday, following Sketchfest’s 50th-anniversary screening of the film (Sun/28), Gould will reflect on his time making the controversial work, among other career highlights, in conversation with director Jay Rosenblatt.
In advance of the special event, I spoke to Gould about sticking to his guns on set, sitting down to two lunches with Hitchcock, and standing up for his son with Barbra Streisand, Jason.
48HILLS How did you get cast as Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye?
ELLIOTT GOULD The Long Goodbye was an enormously meaningful opportunity for me, and a job I wanted. David Picker was running United Artists and I needed a job. We met and he gave me the Leigh Brackett script.
I grew up with film noir—and Humphrey Bogart was the best. We had thought that Peter Bogdanovich was going to direct the picture, but Peter couldn’t see me in it. David, the head of the studio, said that Peter thought I was too new and wanted to do it with either Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin. And I said, “I can’t argue with that, they’re like my uncles. But we’ve seen them, and you haven’t seen me.”
So Picker then sent the script to Robert Altman, and Altman called me from Ireland, where he was finishing Images with Susannah York. Bob asked me what I thought. I said, “I always wanted to play this guy,” and Bob said, “You are this guy.” That was the beginning of the picture.
48HILLS You had just come off of a difficult period where you were trying to make it as a producer.
ELLIOTT GOULD It was very difficult for me because I thought I had made it. It seemed to me that I had a very fertile, promising career as a producer. I know chemistry; I know what can work; but I have to have a team of people to work with who trust me.
My first wife said to me, “You’re stupid, and I don’t trust you.” I said, “Oh, Barbra, I never told you I was smart. But believe me, I’m certainly not stupid. I find that most people cannot trust what they don’t understand.” And she said, “Can you explain that to me?” And I said, “No, you must find out for yourself. Each of us is different in our way.”
So what a joy, pleasure, and good fortune to have been there for The Long Goodbye, needing a job. And David Picker didn’t like Robert Altman, but Robert Altman and I did some really good work together.
48HILLS I read that Altman encouraged you to improvise and ad-lib in The Long Goodbye.
ELLIOTT GOULD Altman gave me room to invent and create. Movies are about administrating time in relation to the cost. It’s a business. Altman let me say the words I wanted to say.
We were working in a hospital room where I woke up and I could hear a death wail in another room. I had to get out of there and said to a mummified guy in a hospital bed: “Tell the guy next door that it don’t hurt to die.” Bob let me do it.
Tell the guy next door, Josh, it don’t hurt to die. Tell the fucking universe that it don’t hurt to die. Sometimes it hurts to live. Sometimes it hurts to live in an environment that is so amoral and so fucking corrupt. But it don’t hurt to die.
For the final shot, I’ve got this little four-note harmonica. And Bob said, “You’ll play The Long Goodbye,” and I said, “No, I’ll play an uninhibited child’s tune or you can’t have my instrument. That’s the way it’s going to be, and if you want me, I’ll be in the hamburger joint up the street.” That’s what we did and I couldn’t be more gratified.
48HILLS Where does that come from, that belief in yourself and your craft where you feel comfortable standing up for what you think is right for a scene?
ELLIOTT GOULD We’ll put it this way: The two things that saved my life, besides my mother who bore me, were a movie camera and philosophy.
I found a transparent paperweight with an idiom saying in a quotation, “The greatest artist in the world is an uninhibited child at play.” I subscribe to that. As far as I’m concerned, without the spirit of the child, it’s all meaningless. Then I discovered, Josh, that Picasso was the one who made the statement.
48HILLS You’ve said in interviews that Hitchcock was a fan of The Long Goodbye.
ELLIOTT GOULD I spent time with Hitchcock. I had the good fortune of being cast in a respectable remake of one of his masterpieces, The Lady Vanishes, with the divine Angela Lansbury. So I met Hitchcock and we talked a little bit about The Long Goodbye. He seemed to approve and like it.
Then I called him and said to him, “You never asked me to lunch.” Then he said, “How’s Friday and fish?” I said, “Very well.” Then he sang, “It won’t be a stylish luncheon. I can’t afford a munchin’,” and added, “We’ll be dining in my dining room, in my office, in my building at Universal.” I said, “Can I bring my wife?” He said, “Yeah.” So [Jennifer Bogart] came with me. And it wasn’t fish that time. To quote him, it was “plebeian steak.” Oh, he was so great. He told us everything.
Then I had another lunch with him alone. I said to him, “Wasn’t Charles Laughton amazing?” Laughton, for me, was the precursor to Marlon Brando as a sensory genius. And Hitchcock said, “He was a pain in the ass.”
48 HILLS A lot of fans seemed to love you for playing characters that embodied the disaffected youth culture of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, starting with your breakout role as Ted Henderson in Paul Mazursky’s sex romp Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice (1969.)
ELLIOTT GOULD Well, it’s the only time I ever had an Academy Award nomination, which you can imagine how pleasing that was. Also, I find it a little embarrassing. I remember Jack Nicholson was also nominated for the first time for Easy Rider, and he said to me, “You’re not going to win. You’re not going to beat me in this.”
I don’t think that way. I don’t compete. I just want to get to the bottom of things and to exist. That’s it. So Gig Young won, but Jack went on to great stardom and success.
I believe with all of my heart and soul that genuine modesty and humility is an asset. And as a unionist, I believe that no one of us is any more than the least of us. Barbra and I were together and have a great son and [her current husband] Jim Brolin said to me, “You’re a better agent for me than my agent.” I thought, “I hope you don’t think that makes me happy. I don’t do business with any of us.” I know when I told Barbra that story, she loved it.
48HILLS Speaking of your son with Streisand, Jason Gould, I always loved how supportive you and Barbra were after he came out.
ELLIOTT GOULD Barbra and I are family and committed on a level that nobody else is. Jason is one of the finest, most decent human beings I will ever know. And as far as the shallowness, prejudice, and ignorance that our species exercises: we have to be aware. I never thought I could or would be as aware as I am. I was so frightened, you know? And I’m not gay. I’m funny, but I’m not gay.
SF SKETCHFEST’S AN EVENING WITH ELLIOTT GOULD: ‘THE LONG GOODBYE’ 50TH ANNIVERSARY SCREENING Sat/28, 5pm, $20-35. Castro Theatre, SF. Tickets and more info here.