Michael Paxton Championing the Example of Ayn Rand; Her Sense of Life Inspires Filmmaker
This month, Ayn Rand appears on the big screen—for the first time since her movie debut. Many people don't know that the author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" arrived in Hollywood as a penniless immigrant from the Soviet Union and was soon cast as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 "King of Kings."
That Rand's life was part Hollywood legend is chronicled in director Michael Paxton's new film, "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life," which opened Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills. The film was nominated Tuesday for an Oscar in the best documentary category.
Paxton, who was assistant director for the live action/animated feature film "The Pagemaster," said he has wanted to capture the life of the writer who championed individualism ever since he was a film student. Now that it's reality, he thinks the star treatment is long overdue.
"I went back and read her work; it was an enormously emotional experience," he said. "What I got from that experience was her sense of life, which, to me, has always been something no one ever talks about. Instead, people talk about her philosophy—which in itself is totally original and amazing—but no one ever talks about how she felt about life. And the way she looked at it was the way I look at it."
Paxton, who attended New York University Film School, wrote, produced and directed the film. He had directed a stage version of Rand's play "Ideal" in 1989 and a stage adaptation of her novelette "Anthem" two years later. He began writing "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" with the subject herself; he listened to Rand's biographical tapes, courtesy of her estate. Working on the film in a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, near where Rand had lived on Norton Avenue, Paxton found the experience strenuous, exhilarating—and, ultimately, rewarding.
"I started with Ayn Rand's own account of her life, which is a good way to magnify things that were important to her," he said. "With that as a foundation, I tried to put that into the context of the world at large. For example, for her early years in Russia, I used clips of films she liked when she was growing up in Russia."
Paxton wrote about Ayn Rand's reactions to her arrival in New York and her response to her first meeting with DeMille, a chance encounter on the studio lot. "I wrote eight hours a day," he explained. "The film happened like a tapestry being woven together. While I was writing the narration, the researchers were doing research, so I was being fed material as we went along," he said. "It was exhausting." The movie covers Rand's life from the Soviet Union to the debut of her Broadway play, the writing and publication of "Atlas Shrugged," her depression following the death of her husband, Frank O'Connor, and her final days in New York City. Paxton hopes the finished product—like her novels—stands the test of time.
But Rand—who died at age 77 in 1982—has played to mixed reviews in Hollywood. Her testimony in 1946 as a friendly witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee enraged many on the left. While her films, including "Love Letters," starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, and "The Fountainhead," with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, received good reviews, Hollywood generally ignored her philosophy. That may be changing.
The Showtime cable network is filming "The Passion of Ayn Rand," which stars Peter Fonda and Helen Mirren.
Paxton says Sharon Stone requested a private screening of his film and loved it. Meanwhile, a script has been completed for a film version of "Atlas Shrugged," Madonna has optioned one of Rand's early short stories and Oliver Stone reportedly wants to remake "The Fountainhead."
While Hollywood explores Rand's box-office appeal, Paxton's independent 2-1/2 hour film—narrated by actress Sharon Gless of "Cagney & Lacey" fame—presented a plethora of financial problems.
Requests for relevant footage—from "Love Letters" to her many TV appearances on the network talk shows—went unanswered or were too expensive for Paxton's budget. It became clear to him during the second year of production that his dream of making a film about Ayn Rand was going to cost a huge amount of money.
"Most other documentaries, due to the content, are able to get film clips and licensing donated. With Ayn Rand, no matter who we talked to, they just assumed she was some rich capitalist and that she owned this film and I could pay them top dollar."
Paxton interviewed those who knew her best, including KIEV radio talk-show host Leonard Peikoff and "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace. One exception, he said, was psychologist Nathaniel Branden, an associate and author with whom Rand had an affair, and his ex-wife, Barbara Branden, who wrote a biography of Rand. The late 1960s break between the Brandens and Rand was painful to Rand, according to Paxton.
"Ayn really did love Branden in a very intense way, and she was not ashamed of that. She left all of her papers to him. It's not like she tried to hide it," he said. "Obviously, she did not want to talk about it, and that was her prerogative. But it did happen, and it ended up being quite painful. I think it was very clear that she was attracted both physically and intellectually to him. I included the affair in the sense that it happened."
Apparently, Paxton's efforts have paid off with audiences. When he showed his movie at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival, the response was overwhelmingly favorable.
"A woman wrote me a note that said, 'I'd like to know more about Ayn Rand after seeing your film,' " he said. "So I went to her. She was a bright woman—she ran an art gallery and was married and she had grandchildren. She told me the film touched her and, suddenly, as she was talking to me, she burst into tears. She was so worried about her grandchildren and the future of mankind. I think the film reminded her that there is an alternative to the fear that permeates the culture. It seemed to make her aware of her feelings for life, and that's important to me."
Originally published February 15, 1998 in Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)