The Fountainhead (1949) inspires polarizing opinions, as does the book on which the film is based. Ayn Rand published her novel of the same name in 1943, with its strong themes of individual integrity and the triumph of individualism over collectivism. As writer of the screenplay, Rand didn’t pull any punches transferring those themes from her book to the movie.
The Fountainhead may just be one of those films you either love or hate. Me, I fall into the “love it” category: I enjoy a good underdog story, film noir lighting, visual symbolism, and a gripping romance, all of which The Fountainhead has in spades. Whether you’re a fan of Randian Objectivism or not, The Fountainhead is a captivating film.
A Few Definitions
Before we get to the plot of the film, here are the definitions of individualism and collectivism. Both words are familiar, but as their precise meanings are so integral to the storyline of The Fountainhead, a quick refresher may be helpful. Both definitions come from Lexico by Oxford.
the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant; a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.
the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it; the theory and practice of the ownership of land and the means of production by the people or the state.
Ok, to the plot.
Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) is an idealistic architecture student in New York City, expelled from school for refusing to follow the architectural trends of the day. As Roark’s professor vehemently asks before kicking him out of school,
“Do you want to stand alone against the whole world?!”
A bit of foreshadowing maybe?
Roark decides to open his own architectural firm, but loses many commissions over his refusal to compromise the integrity of his designs.
“Why take chances when you can stay in the middle?”
“We must always compromise with the general taste.”
“Start to design the kind of buildings everybody else does, then you’ll be rich, you’ll be famous, you’ll be admired, you’ll be one of us!”
Roark is told by friends and potential clients.
But it’s just not the way Roark is wired. In the eyes of Howard Roark,
“A building has integrity just as a man. And just as seldom,”
Roark sticks to his ideals, but eventually closes his firm when he can’t pay the bills. Roark finds a job in a stone quarry to make ends meet.
Enter Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). An architecture critic at one of New York’s largest newspapers, The Banner, Dominique is an individualist, like Roark. But unlike Roark, Dominique is convinced that in a world of growing collectivism and socialist ideology, those who believe in and stand for the worth of the individual will be crushed. So Dominique shuns and destroys anything she admires or wants. Dominique believes this will protect herself from pain and hurt on that inevitable day when collectivist ideology destroys all that is beautiful and unique in the world.
And after a chance sighting of Howard Roark laboring in the stone quarry not far from her family’s summer home, Dominique wants Roark.
And Roark wants Dominique.
The Fountainhead Romance
After several steamy staring encounters, the two get it on.
A Promising Commission
Roark abruptly leaves his job at the stone quarry when he receives a commission from the wealthy Roger Enright (Ray Collins) to build the Enright Building. Enright wants Roark to build the Enright Building completely according to Roark’s own design, with absolutely no compromises or changes. That’s all Roark ever asks for in his work, so he agrees to the commission.
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When the Enright Building is finished, it’s a masterpiece. Roark attracts immense attention, good and bad, for his genius design. Among Roark’s detractors is Ellsworth M. Toohey (Robert Douglas), a socialist columnist at The Banner. Out of jealously for Roark’s genius and a desire for power over the collective public mind, Toohey makes it his mission to break Roark’s spirit, and sway public opinion against him.
Among Roark’s admirers is Dominique, who doesn’t know that the man she fell in love with at the stone quarry is Howard Roark, architect of the magnificent Enright Building. When Roark and Dominique meet at a party celebrating Roark’s achievement, Dominique puts two and two together, and the sparks fly once again.
“I love you without dignity and without regret.”
Dominique tells Roark. She offers to quit her job at The Banner, become Roark’s wife, and dedicate her life to him if only he will give up architecture before Toohey and the growing collectivist movement destroy him. Dominique can’t bear to see Roark get hurt.
Though he loves her, Roark can’t give up architecture or his ideals for Dominique. He rejects her proposal.
So Dominique marries Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), the owner of The Banner. Dominique does not love Wynand, but the marriage satisfies Dominique’s need to punish herself for her intense feelings towards Roark.
Gail Wynand then commissions Roark to build a home for him and Dominique, and the two men become friends. Wynand sees in Roark all the qualities and traits that Wynand admires but does not possess himself, chiefly a moral code and the integrity of his convictions.
Dominique’s prediction that there will be collective action against Roark’s individualism and greatness comes to fruition when Roark agrees to design the Cortlandt Housing project for his old friend Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a fellow architect whose lack of design originality and career-long pandering to the masses has ultimately led him to a career slump. Roark designs the housing project for Keating, and allows Keating to present the design as his own under one condition: should Keating get the commission, not a single part of Roark’s design may be changed:
“My reward, my purpose, my life, is the work itself—my work done my way. Nothing else matters to me…I will design Cortlandt, you’ll put your name on it, you’ll keep all the fees. But, you will guarantee that it will be built exactly as I design it. No changes by you or by anyone else. That’s the payment I demand for my work. My ideas are mine, nobody else has a right to them, except on my terms. Those who need them must take them my way or not at all.”
Keating gets the commission, but doesn’t hold true to his side of the bargain. When the clients on the Cortlandt project wish to add artifice to Roark’s design, Keating caves, and the building is erected with superfluous changes.
This is completely contrary to Roark’s moral code and agreement with Keating. He cannot accept it.
So Roark dynamites the Cortlandt Housing Project.
Toohey's Collective Ideology
Roark is found at the scene of the crime. Not long after, Peter Keating confesses to Toohey that Roark designed Cortlandt. With a clear motive now attributed to him, Roark is put on trial for destroying Cortlandt.
Leading up to the trial, Toohey uses his power of the pen to sway public opinion against Roark:
“Society needed a housing project. It was his [Roark’s] duty to sacrifice his own desires, and to contribute any ideas we demanded of him, on any terms we chose. Who is society? We are. Man can be permitted to exist only in order to serve others. He must be nothing but a tool for the satisfaction of their needs.
Toohey succeeds in making Roark a most hated man.
Gail Wynand’s The Banner is the only paper that rallies to Roark’s defense. Eventually however, even Wynand deserts Roark, and The Banner joins the other papers in slandering him.
Roark Defends Himself
In court, Roark defends himself. He argues for the justness of his actions by underscoring the virtues of individualism over collectivism:
“My ideas are my property. They were taken from me by force, by breach of contract. No appeal was left to me. It was believed that my work belonged to others, to do with as they pleased. They had a claim upon me without my consent; that it was my duty to serve them without choice or reward.
Now you know why I dynamited Cortlandt. I designed Cortlandt, I made it possible. I destroyed it. I agreed to design it for the purpose of seeing it built as I wished. That was the price I set for my work. I was not paid. My building was disfigured at the whim of others who took all the benefits of my work and gave me nothing in return.
I came here to be heard in the name of every man of independence still left in the world. I wanted to state my terms. I do not care to work or live on any others. My terms are a man’s right to exist for his own sake.”
The jury finds Roark’s argument logical and true, and he is found “not guilty.”
Roark’s words in the courtroom remind Gail Wynand of the man he could have been, and he offers Roark a contract to build a final skyscraper for him, the Wynand Building, without any compromises:
“Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours, and could have been mine.”
Wynand says. Roark agrees, and signs the contract. Wynand then commits suicide.
The film closes with Dominique, now Mrs. Roark, visiting her husband at the top of the Wynand building, perhaps the grandest and tallest building on earth.
We see Roark from Dominique’s perspective as she ascends the structure. Roark is at the very top of his magnificent skyscraper, surrounded by clouds as if he walks with the gods: Howard Roark is the fountainhead.
The Foutnainhead: Making the Book a Film
In 1943, Warner Bros. paid Ayn Rand $43,000 for the screen rights to The Fountainhead. Included in that fee were Rand’s services as screenwriter. Smart move by Warner Bros., for it’s doubtful another writer could have stayed as true to the original story while condensing it for film.
Much like her hero in The Fountainhead, Rand agreed to the Warner Bros. offer under one condition: her characters and her words could not be changed. Rand warned that:
“If they [the book’s characters] are weakened and diluted, they will become unreal, false, and silly.”
According to the film’s director, King Vidor, Rand insisted that:
“If they changed any lines [on set], she wanted to be telephoned and called to the studio.”
True to her word, when changes were attempted to Roark’s glorious speech at the end of the film, Ayn came right over to the studio and put her foot down.
Casting of The Fountainhead: Contenders for Roark
Though Warner Bros. bought the screenplay in 1943, production on The Fountainhead didn’t begin until 1948. The film’s ultimate director, King Vidor, wanted Humphrey Bogart for the role of Howard Roark. But in Ayn Rand’s mind, there was only one man for the job: Gary Cooper. According to Rand, her Howard Roark was a man who spoke:
“…quietly and with great self-confidence, so great that it needs no obvious emphasis, no raised voice. It is a man speaking with absolute certainty, even when he suffers…”
If that isn’t a textbook definition of the Gary Cooper acting style, I don’t know what is.
Cooper's Quiet Genius in The Fountainhead
Coop has been criticized over the years for his stoic portrayal of Howard Roark. Some argue his line delivery wasn’t passionate enough to be effective. But based on Rand’s description of how the Howard Roark character should be portrayed, Coop’s performance was nearly perfect.
Even King Vidor came to see the quiet genius with which Cooper infused the Howard Roark role:
“For The Fountainhead I always thought that either Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney was the ideal casting, not Gary Cooper, because he’s such a nice and quiet guy. But when I saw the picture a few years later I thought Cooper was ideal because he’s very quiet and he just says, ‘No, that’s not the way I want it.’ Very quiet, like the strong guy of High Noon, and I thought it was much better than having a guy losing his temper and being arrogant and yelling.”
A pensive, deep thinker himself, Gary Cooper understood the sophisticated thoughts behind the words in The Fountainhead, and made the dialogue natural. The words are passionate, but Coop’s delivery is calm. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
Patricia Neal: The Next Greta Garbo
If you remember from my Star Spotlight on Patricia Neal, Pat signed with Warner Bros. in 1948. The studio, impressed with Pat after seeing her work on Broadway, believed she exhibited the rare combination of great beauty and immense acting talent. Comparisons to the legendary Greta Garbo were made. Jack Warner himself sent Pat a wire
“..stating that I was the greatest thing to hit Hollywood since Garbo.”
Now that’s quite a compliment.
The Fountainhead was ultimately Patricia’s second film, but she had some stiff competition for the Dominique Francon role. Warner Bros. initially bought The Fountainhead screen rights on the request of the great Barbara Stanwyck, who had her sights set on playing Dominique. But after Pat’s screen tests–there were two, and, according to Pat: “I was told that one of the tests was a flop and the other was very good,”–the coveted role of Dominique was hers. (Stanwyck then asked to be released from her Warner Bros. contract, presumably because she lost the role.)
The Fountainhead Secret Romance: Coop and Patricia
Gary Cooper and Patricia briefly met before filming of The Fountainhead began. From Pat’s account, it was not until after completion of location filming at the stone quarry that she and Coop made their budding feelings for each other known. And even then, it was very innocent, and very discreet. Patricia doubted anyone else on set took notice:
“Gary and I did not speak of what was growing between us. But it was known in the looks we exchanged, in the occasional touch of his hand on mine or his brushing my leg as we sat watching the rushes…We knew we were sitting on a tinderbox, and there would be no leaping into a love affair while the movie was shooting.”
In her autobiography [aff. link], Patricia shares some sweet insights about Gary Cooper that any fan of Coop’s will treasure. According to Pat,
“Sharing a life with Gary was not complex. There was no need to steal time. For he was his own man…
Gary was famous for his brief ‘yups’ and ‘nopes,’ but he never stopped talking when he was with me and I never tired of listening to him. I loved his humor and the way he always made himself the brunt of a story…And he always looked divine. He was beautifully tailored, the most elegantly dressed man I ever knew in my life.”
I love this anecdote Patricia shared [aff. link] that occurred at the beginning of her relationship with Coop:
“One evening he appeared with his usual armload of goodies. There was a special bag for me that delighted him enormously. It contained a summer dress of red material with white polka dots, yards of skirt, and a big red belt. It was just a cheap off the rack dress, but Gary could not wait for me to wear it.”
Pat went to try the dress on, excited herself over how excited Coop obviously was to gift her the dress.
But unfortunately, as often happens, some things look better on the hanger:
“It looked like hell on me. So I made up a story that I could not present myself in the dress just yet. The next day I took it to a dressmaker, who fitted it and lined the bodice with elastic to hold it tight. The dress was saved. I loved it and proudly wore it for Gary, who was none the wiser. Sometimes a woman must be clever enough to make a gift look as grand as it was meant to look.”
Isn’t that the truth!
Not the Next Garbo
When The Fountainhead was released in 1949, it flopped.
The film grossed $400,000 less than the cost of production. As Pat recalled of the film’s premiere:
“I had the grim feeling all through the screening that I would not emerge a champion…”
Virginia Mayo even came up to Patricia at the end of the film and:
“…gave my hand a squeeze and said, ‘My, weren’t you BAD!’ I hoped she meant the character I played, but I knew my career as a second Garbo was over before it began. The Fountainhead was a bomb.”
Pat's Underrated Performance in The Fountainhead
I have no idea what Virginia Mayo truly meant with her rather catty comment, but there is nothing “bad” about Patricia’s performance in The Fountainhead.
Pat takes a character that’s basically unlikeable for at least half the film, and makes her both likeable and sympathetic. Thanks to Pat’s skill as an actress, we see a complete character arc: Dominique runs away from her beliefs at the beginning of the film–she’s afraid to stand by what she believes in, and will avoid getting hurt at all costs. But by the end of The Fountainhead, Dominique no longer runs from her convictions. We see her transform into Roark’s greatest champion. Dominique stands by Roark, and fights with him for the rights of the individual. A lesser actress could not have conveyed this character growth so beautifully.
The Fountainhead: An Underappreciated Film
It baffles me why the critical reception of the film was so negative at the time of its release in 1949, unless the critics disagreed with Ayn Rand’s philosophies, and could not look past this disagreement when reviewing The Fountainhead.
There are fans and critics who view the film with a kinder eye today, but “classic” status still eludes The Fountainhead.
More Patricia Neal Next Week
And that’s it for The Fountainhead. Be sure to join me next week for more Patricia Neal, and all about Pat’s foray into science fiction with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).