Films

Queen of the ego

JOHN BEMROSE August 17 1998
Films

Queen of the ego

JOHN BEMROSE August 17 1998

Queen of the ego

Films

AYN RAND: A SENSE OF LIFE Directed by Michael Paxton

The new feature-length documentary about Ayn Rand could easily have been subtitled “The Woman Who Could Do No Wrong.” At its worst it is propaganda for the teachings of Rand, who died in 1982. At its best, the film offers some intriguing glimpses of the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged— the perennially best-selling novels that continue to carry Rand’s celebration of unfettered individualism to 300,000 new readers a year. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year and just opened in Canada, emanates an old-fashioned triumphalism of a kind found today only in religious rallies and political advertisements. It portrays Rand as a sort of Napoleon of the intellect. But it never matches her against more than mediocre opposition. Instead, old TV clips show her smashing back soft criticisms from the likes of Mike Wallace and Phil Donahue, while in other interviews her disciples praise her without reserve.

Born in Russia in 1905, Rand—whose

original name was Alice Rosenbaum—experienced firsthand the stifling collectivism of the Russian Revolution. Her main intellectual influences, the film proudly declares, were Aristotle, propagandist stories of British heroes in colonial India, and American silent films. Arriving in the United States in 1926, Rand soon made her way to Hollywood. She worked as an extra for Cecil B. De Mille (the film catches her smiling face in a crowd scene from King of Kings) before becoming a scriptwriter. She also married the handsome, courtly actor Frank O’Connor, who later patiently endured her affair with her acolyte Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior. (Branden, today a 68-year-old psychotherapist, is not interviewed in the film, having been banned by Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff, a member of her inner circle. Peikoff—who was interviewed at length—threatened the film-makers with exclusion from her papers in the Rand Institute if they talked to Branden.)

Rand was dissatisfied with the collaborative nature of scriptwriting and eventually turned to fiction, populating her novels with titanic individualists. (A few of her novels were turned into movies, most notably The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper.) She herself was a mesmerizing figure, winsome as a young woman, growing ever more determined and bulldoggish as she aged. Her philosophy—which she called objectivism—continues to have a broad appeal, particularly for young people struggling to consolidate their egos. But as a philosophy for grown-ups, it seems pathetically one-sided. Objectivism celebrates the ruthless pursuit of self-interest, and denigrates what people owe to each other and to the community. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life makes those shortcomings clear, and so may be an even more helpful introduction to Rand than its makers intend.

JOHN BEMROSE