Elliott Gould, Dream Lover
About a decade ago, I realized that the faceless, anonymous man in my fantasies about men was not faceless or anonymous at all: he was Elliott Gould. At the time, I was not an Elliott Gould fan. It was a mysterious development.
Elliott Gould’s sex appeal had always struck me as somewhat mysterious. Not because he seemed unattractive, but because I grew up understanding him to be a sex symbol without understanding the terms. I knew that he meant something special to women of a certain age: in one Simpsons flashback episode, a teenage Barney Gumble asks a girl to prom, who snaps, “I wouldn’t go to prom with you if you were Elliott Gould!” I knew that he had married Barbra Streisand, who’d go on to date Ryan O’Neal, Richard Gere, and other boilerplate Hollywood hunks. Gould was somehow not that, although I think that he would be today. The process of figuring out who is “considered” attractive is different than that of figuring out who is attractive to you, and confusing in different ways. One gets the impression that there is consensus on these matters, when in reality this consensus is entirely tautological. Somebody is considered attractive because people are said to consider them attractive.
Gould was perfectly cast in my imagination. The role called for a disposition, more than a body or a persona — a sensibility, maybe a voice, and without knowing anything about Gould I somehow knew it was him. This was confirmed by a meme. About a year ago, my friend Naomi sent me a tweet of a highlight reel from a Gould interview on Nebraskan TV. The interview is weird, funny, and at moments very uncomfortable. Gould, wearing a red track suit, fidgets on a tiny chair, while the host, an eccentric middle-aged woman (Leta Powell Drake, a “Nebraska legend”) rubs his shoulder and strokes his thigh, calling him “Big Red.” It gets dicier from there.
“So weird and SO erotic,” Naomi wrote, and I completely agreed. Throughout the interview (you can watch it here in full), Gould maintains deep, deep eye contact with Drake, responding to her — sometimes with clear discomfort — without ever pulling away. He answers even the most abrasive questions in a casual, throaty murmur. “His slowness is so appealing,” Naomi said. “He just seems so relaxed, but not slack in any way.” He is just so present.
The tweet traveled well. So did another tweet showing Gould on the cover of TV Week, chest hair exposed, being petted by Grover. Gould, like Betty White or Nicolas Cage, is very memeable. This meme appeal is a paradox. Lately, Willem Dafoe’s image has cropped up a lot on social media; Naomi pointed out that his face is an antidote to the inescapable smoothness of augmented faces online. His face is very distinctive, but it holds a more general fascination as an ambiguous image: classically handsome from some angles, ghoulish from others. Gould’s persona is similarly hard to define. This stands out in a space where everyone is trying to make themselves legible.
Elliott Gould is a mutable icon: he has always seemed to mean something, but that meaning is always changing, sometimes in contradictory ways. In a 2020 interview with the Guardian, he said that one of his earliest memories was being told, “You don’t know how to feel, and you don’t know how to think, and we’ll tell you.” He’s been learning to dodge this command his whole life, while seeming to capitulate.
Gould was an only child, the shy, sensitive son of two parents who didn’t particularly like each other. Growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, he had no idea how to communicate with other people. When he was eight or nine, his mother signed him up for lessons at a show business academy, supposedly to fix his diction. Gould was terrified, but he went because he loved her and was desperate to make her happy, a quality he would carry into his storied first marriage. Eventually, show business gave him a way to communicate.
Friends interviewed by Time in 1970 remember the teenage Elliott doing “bits” all the time — eating his napkin at diners, after seasoning it with ketchup and salt, or climbing in and out of occupied taxicabs like the rascally star of a Mentos ad. He also gambled compulsively, and partook in low-level scams, like selling ads for a labor newspaper that didn’t exist. At 18, he got his first Broadway job by calling up a producer and pretending to be his own agent. A few years later, he landed his first major role, as an unscrupulous garment businessman in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Streisand was cast as his assistant.
I want to pause on the early years of their courtship, for no reason other than they are sweet. Elliott watched her audition, and called her that night to say she was great, but he waited until rehearsals to ask her out. According to Streisand biographer William J. Mann, their first date ended at 2am, with a snowball fight at Rockefeller Center. Once they’d collapsed onto the ground, Elliott “very delicately” washed her face with snow, then kissed her lightly on the lips. At 23, he was still a virgin, though he wouldn’t be for much longer.
Arthur Laurents, who was directing the show, called them “a Jewish show-business Romeo and Juliet, in love with each other and with ice cream.” On many nights, Mann writes, Elliott would ascend to Barbra’s room with a box of Breyer’s coffee ice cream and “two spoons tucked into the front pocket of his shirt.” They shacked up in a railroad apartment above a seafood restaurant at 67th and 3rd, living, in Gould’s words, like “kids in a treehouse,” or “Hansel and Gretel.” They collected tchotchkes from local antique stores and shared the space with a giant rat, whom they named Oscar, or Gonzola, depending on the retelling. Barbra was resplendent in his eyes, the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. Barbra, long insecure about her looks, adored him, and adored the person he saw when he looked at her.
“I got terrific reviews,” Gould later said of the show. “Hers were better.” By the time the production ended its run, Streisand, whose part had been relatively small, was recording her first album for Columbia and about to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Gould, who’d been the star, was applying for unemployment benefits. As she moved them from Third Avenue to a duplex overlooking Central Park, he took to smoking a lot of pot, and undergoing a lot of psychoanalysis. A 1966 Cosmopolitan feature on “The Invisible Men,” meaning the partners of more-famous women, noted generously that Gould was “no hanger-on”: he was trying to get work, just not having much luck. “Fortunately,” it concluded, Barbra needed him; she was insecure.
It seems fitting that Gould’s public identity began as a fixture of somebody else’s. After the pair finally separated in 1969, Gould gave an open-hearted interview to Ladies’ Home Journal, reflecting on their power imbalance, and how he’d allowed his identity to be subsumed into hers. It reads like a bittersweet coda to an impossible, but once loving relationship — the premise for a classy domestic drama — if you read it as though he wasn’t talking to Ladies’ Home Journal. The following month, he received his first dedicated profile in the New York Times. The headline was “Now Who’s the Greatest Star?”
Gould had just co-starred in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, soon to be followed by M*A*S*H, beginning a run of highly relevant film roles that made him, nearly overnight, the face of the zeitgeist. Commentators agreed about that; they diverged on what exactly the zeitgeist was. In Bob & Carol, he plays a goofy, repressed husband and father, too old for the sexual revolution, but too young not to give it a fumbling try. In Getting Straight, he plays a jaded, smart-ass former radical who sucks his girlfriend’s toes and lectures everyone about Selma. These characters had little in common besides the attention of cultural critics.
Time, in its 1970 cover story, called him “a star for an uptight age,” though it failed to explain what that meant. Years later, Alan Arkin, his director in Little Murders, said, “I’ve always thought he had a looseness about him.” He was “Mr. Average Guy” and “America’s Favorite Schlemiel.” He was “sexy,” “sassy,” and “oafish.” He was “attractive,” and yet he possessed “all the sex appeal of a sated salmon swimming downstream.” His contemporaries called him both “the Jewish Richard Burton” and “the Jewish Jimmy Stewart.” “I’m the Jewish Elliott Gould,” he called himself.
What everyone could agree on was his “realness.” Sometimes this was meant as a synonym for “disheveled.” He didn’t seem like a movie star by previous standards: journalists mentioned his rumpled clothing, his gangly frame, his “neurosis.” All the same, he didn’t look so different from those leading men: tall and strong-jawed, with a deep, resonant voice. Gould’s actual “realness” was something more esoteric — a certain alertness, responsiveness and agility that saw him reborn in every scene — and harder to distill. The stars of the 1950s had “acted in a certain specific, staccato, definite kind of way,” he told Life. “But life isn’t definite.”
In 1970, Gould was, in his own words, “the hottest thing in Hollywood.” By 1971, he was unemployable. It started with Ingmar Bergman, who was casting his first film in English, The Touch, and selected him over Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman to be his first American lead. Gould placed himself entirely in Bergman’s hands, believing the director had tapped a part of his psyche that had never before been accessed. He gushed about him to Life with almost carnal reverence. (“Bergman's universe is so magnificent that to bring my ignorance to him and let him use me while he was loving me... I mean, it was an experience that... that's sublime.”) Once the movie wrapped, Bergman moved on, with no apparent desire to sustain a friendship, and Gould’s tone changed. (“He’s not nice.”) The film received mixed reviews, critics dismissed his performance as overwrought and miscast, and Bergman later disowned the whole thing.
Back in the US, Gould lost his balance. His newly experimental approach to filmmaking only terrorized and confounded his colleagues, and his next film, A Glimpse of Tiger, was canceled after only five days, leaving him in debt to Warner Bros. for production costs. “In my mind they are an eternal urinal that I keep pouring my money into,” he later said to the Times, which noted that he had “plummeted from the exalted position of superstar to has-been in the absurdly brief span of two years.”
From here, the narrative arc of Gould’s career starts to get twisty. His greatest accomplishments as an actor came after the “plummet” — first as an unshaven, unflappable version of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, a character meant to contend with the zeitgeist Gould had formerly represented; then as Charlie Waters, the life-loving, degenerate gambler in California Split, both directed by Robert Altman. The Silent Partner, my personal favorite of his — a Canadian tax-shelter classic that uses my hometown as its backdrop — was released in 1978. But he would never again be the man of the hour.
Over the following decades, Gould “appeared in lame children’s films, overstuffed all-star action capers, botched slapstick farces and sex comedies,” writes the film critic and historian Sam Weisberg, in a multipart series on Gould’s lesser known vehicles. He did a movie about a boxing kangaroo, played by a guy in a kangaroo suit. (“The decision not to use a real kangaroo was, Gould said, ‘a great disappointment to me.’”) He did an erotic CD-ROM game in which “the world’s sexiest models need your help!”
Judged by the rubric of American ambition, by which you’re either a superstar or a failure, Gould’s career trajectory is a nightmare case study in blowing your big shot. Looked at more reasonably, he has sustained a long, steady, and very prolific career as a working actor. He would go on to represent many things: 1970s cultural tastes; Hollywood’s “Jewish-American revolution”; someone who “gives zero fucks”; someone who really gives a fuck; and, to people who for some reason watch Friends, Ross’s Dad. Wherever you need to place him, he’ll stick, though he properly belongs to himself.
In 1982, Playgirl asked him if he saw his career as “within the classic definition of tragedy,” given its highs and lows. “I can’t accept tragedy in my life because tragedy is, among other definitions, a dramatic conclusion,” he replied. “There’s no conclusion, so we go up and down. It’s comical.” He is fond of pointing out that “career” derives “from a Spanish word meaning an obstacle course, like a racetrack.” That’s not exactly correct (I googled it), but it’s true enough.
Many, if not most interviews with Gould begin with the caveat that he’s not an “a to b” sort of thinker. The first time I heard him in conversation, I worried his digressiveness was a symptom of age. It is not. Life, back in 1969, wrote that Gould had “the analysand’s fervor to get to the bottom of things. Bottoms are usually murky, and sometimes he gets almost bogged down in his efforts to be honest.” The New York Times, in 1973, wrote that “Elliott has deliberately walled himself off from the pitfalls of consecutive thought.” The same profile includes a beautiful little scene of Gould and Donald Sutherland, his co-star in the film under discussion, sharing an apple by tossing it back and forth until they reached the core.
I will admit that reading interviews with Gould is less fun than watching him act. Even to Playgirl, he rambles, philosophizes, thanks the interviewer for letting him be himself. He’s charming most of the time, and he has great anecdotes to share. But he tells them over and over again — not in the manner of a showman exhausting a bit, but because he says what occurs to him, and the same thoughts occur to him frequently. He speaks from the heart, and the thing about heartfelt statements is that they are often pretty dull. Accurately describing an inner epiphany is a bit like describing a dream: you choose the words that work, not the ones that please. Sometimes you just choose a lot of words, rifling around for the right ones.
Earlier profiles describe him pacing, fidgeting, and occasionally arguing with the reporter, scarfing down sunflower seeds. “They’re great nerve food. I’m very energetic,” he told Life. “It’s something to do.” Later ones find him “delighted by everything,” and “unfailingly polite.” In either case, he meanders, because meandering is what Elliott Gould does. Watching him meander onscreen is a transcendent experience, as you might have watching a spider spinning a web, or a squirrel crossing a power line.
Nobody is completely guileless, and there are few things more obnoxious than phony naïveté. But I think there is such a thing as disciplined guilelessness — committed receptivity, an openness to being delighted. When a director like Robert Altman leaves him to his instincts, we get the pleasure of watching someone in their element: “He gave me so much space, I became a jazz actor,” Gould told J. Hoberman. “I’m a chorus boy and a tap dancer — I understand rhythm and repetition!” We also get the pleasure of Elliott Gould specifically, in a state of grace: open to the world, pliant to the terms of the moment.
I will say again that the truest and most honest answer is often the least interesting. One can only grow into clichés, then deal with the embarrassment of recycling them. In my early 20s, the words “be present” seemed like a hollow tautology.
Around that time, for a magazine assignment, I had occasion to speak to the head of a group known as the Optimal Sexuality Research Team, based out of the University of Ottawa. They interviewed people who reported having “optimal” sexual experiences — not just good, but optimal — and had published their findings in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, identifying eight main characteristics of great sex. Some of the most important ones had to do with connection, communication, intimacy, and “being present.” Less important were “intense physical sensation and orgasm” and “lust/chemistry.”
At the time, all of this struck me as both deliberately counterintuitive and self-evident. Who would argue that “connection” didn’t make for good sex? “Connection” is supposed to make for good everything. It means nothing. I’d had good sex, but I suppose it hadn’t been “optimal.” I wasn’t fluent just yet. Elliott Gould hadn’t appeared in my fantasies. Over time, these platitudes started to gain some heft. I figured it out: sex was an act of communication; being good in bed was the same thing as being a good conversationalist. This had the glow of revelation at the time; now it strikes me as a truism. But it’s true.
Over the course of researching this, I came across a book called What Makes a Woman G.I.B* (*Good in Bed), by the celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh. It boasted interviews with Jack Nicholson, Richard Burton, Wilt Chamberlain, Bianca Jagger, and Elliott Gould. In the 1960s and ’70s, magazines like Redbook and Cosmo would sometimes include him in celebrity surveys like “The First Time I Fell in Love,” and “Sex Symbols Name their Sex Symbols.” He’d find a way to deflect to sports. So I wasn’t expecting a substantive response, but naturally, I ordered the book anyway. Leigh must have been good at what she did. “It’s great to talk about this,” he begins.
The book is not a bad read. Some of the answers are crass (Bruce Dern), some corny (Tony Bennett), some long-winded and pretentious (Vidal Sassoon), some upsetting (Oliver Reed, Charles Aznavour). Others are genuinely thoughtful, and Gould’s is one of those. (So is Gene Wilder’s, I’m pleased to say.) That makes it difficult to cherry-pick a phrase — there aren’t many pithy one-liners; you have to read between the lines — but I paid 16 bucks, so here’s a block quote:
They made Great Expectations but we, here, have no expectations and we say, ‘Don’t expect anything other than being together,’ and then, wherever it takes you. One important thing is to be understood and to be touched. To be touched so that the two individuals always have their space and know where they begin and where they become part of each other.
Sex is different every time. Sex is different every time for the same two people — people who have a relationship and just want to spend time with one another. Sex should be new every time for the relationship to develop. I feel double values don’t work in sex, and that two people have to be able to be one another, which is very stimulating — to be with someone I like, who can be me, and who I can be.
The most attractive quality a person can have, I think, is an endless capacity for regeneration. That is also the quality of a good dream.