THE ORIGINAL IRON LADY
Michael Paxton's two-and-a-half hour long documentary on Ayn Rand may not be particularly objective -- she was far too controversial a person to get such a rose-tinted appraisal -- but it certainly is a fascinating chronicle of her incredible journey from the heart of Communism to becoming one of the most vocal champions of unbridled Capitalism. Ayn Rand - A Sense of Life follows a staid, chronological and entirely flattering narrative and really comes alive when we see archival footage of Ms. Rand, piercing eyes and all, postulating her theory of Objectivism, her professed Atheism, vehement rejection of Altruism and of course the evils of Communism versus the glorious virtues of Capitalism.
Born in St. Petersburg as Alissa Rosenbum in 1905 just when the winds of change were blowing all across Russia (the year of her birth saw a huge revolutionary movement when hundreds of thousands of workers struck work), she belonged to a respectable bourgeois family (her father was a pharmacist). She taught herself to read at six and by the age of nine, had already decided to become a writer. The family fled to Crimea where Rand first discovered America when she took a course in American history.
By the time she graduated from the University of Petrograd (St. Petersburg got rechristened thus after the Revolution) in 1924, Rand was determined to set sail to the land of her dreams. And so she did, just two years later, and soon found her way to Los Angeles and Hollywood, where, miraculously, on her second day of looking for work, she landed a job with Cecile B. DeMille! First as an extra and later in the script department. Later she apparently made several attempts to get her parents and two sisters to America, but given the tempestuous mood in Russia it was virtually impossible to do so and finally she could only meet one of her sisters towards the end of her life.
The documentary is peppered with archival footage of some of the films Rand featured in, notably The King of Kings. During her stint as Hollywood extra she met fellow small-time actor Frank O'Connor who she fell in love with at first sight (he apparently came close to being the embodiment of her ideal man) and married in 1929.
Paxton then dwells on her several attempts at Hollywood scriptwriting, her disillusionment with the ways of the movie industry and her first real success, a play called Night of January 16th. Then on to We The Living, her most autobiographical work, in spirit if not in content and the agony of trying to get Fountainhead published and later translating it for the screen and so on.
The film features Rand scholars (and loyalists) such as Dr. Leonard Peikoff (curiously described as her 'intellectual heir') and Harry Binswanger, and her personal secretary Cynthia Peikoff speaking about a woman they evidently admired almost unconditionally. There's little analysis though of her controversial professional and personal relationship with Nathan Blumenthal who widely propagated her philosophy.
Watch the archival footage of Ms. Rand and she comes across as sharp tongued, egoistic and yes, always very forceful with her arguments delivered in a heavily accented English (she may have taken herself out of Russia, but she couldn't erase all of it).
Way back as a University student in Russia, she reportedly told a professor she'd gotten into an argument with about her preference for Aristotle over Plato -- "My views are not yet part of the history of philosophy. But they will be." Call it arrogance or supreme self-confidence, here was a young woman who'd decided to be a writer at nine, an atheist at 12 and an American at 21. And she achieved all her goals like she always knew she would.
In in the wake of the great financial crisis of 2008 there's a renewed interest in Ms Rand and her works which advocate selfishness as one of man's greatest virtues, and most ironically, suggest that big business will save the world. There's a film version of Atlas Shrugged out next month -- the first part of a trilogy, and a comic book version of Rand's life, 'Female Force: Ayn Rand' is due out in May.
As a documentary of this fascinating thinker, writer, speaker with a tremendous following (Atlas Shrugged was, at one point, the most read book in America after the Bible) and an equally vociferous set of detractors, Ayn Rand - A Sense of Life may not be well-rounded, but it's never boring for even a moment.