Atlantic City (1981): Louis Malle’s Oscar-Nominated Fable, Starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in Top Form


1981 Best Picture Nominee:

New York playwright John Guare (best known for his play “Six Degrees of Separation,” which was turned into a film in 1993) made his screenwriting debut with “Atlantic City,” a lyrical tale with symbolic overtones, in which all the characters are offbeat and outsiders–in one way or another.

Richly textured, this fable of a film offers half a dozen portraits of essentially wasted American lives, filtered through the uniquely European sensibility of French director Louis Malle.

Burt Lancaster (in top form) plays Lou, an aging small-time hood, who hangs around Atlantic City doing odd jobs. He supports himself by running numbers and tending to the needs of a bedridden widow, Grace (Kate Reed in an overly theatrical performance), the broken-down moll of the deceased gangster for whom Lou had served as a gofer.

Living in an invented past, Lou identifies with notorious gangsters, both real and reel.

Through some peculiar and accidental circumstances, he meet and gets involved with the would-be croupier Sally (Susan Sarandon at her sexiest), who’s also his neighbor.

Standing in for the voyeuristic audience, Lou spies on the young and attractive Sally, an oyster-bar waitress, as she stands by her kitchen window, applying lemon juice to her beautiful chest in order to remove the smell of fish.

The duo meet when Sally’s estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy), accompanied by her pregnant sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) shows up carrying a stash of cocaine he has ripped off from the mob.

A mutually exploitative romance evolves between the two, culminating in a surprise ending that’s extremely satisfying.

All the characters realize their dreams through a series of accidents in which they manipulate their partners and family members. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had observed that Guare’s characters feel and sound as if they had invented themselves and their life-histories as they go along–right on the spot.

A sharp observer, Louis Malle’s directing approach complements Guare’s with its wonderfully changing tone. The film contains flights of invention, satire, perversity, anecdotes, fables, and deep feelings. The context to the tale, Atlantic City as it undergoes change, highlights the film’s thematic motifs of demolition and construction, decay and renewal, luck and fate, old and new in both city and its people. Atlantic City provides such a rich backdrop and symbolic metaphor that the locale says so much on its own, without the moviemakers having to press for meanings or make points.

The nonjudgmental Malle celebrates his wounded characters, while at the same time he mercilessly reveals and dissects their dreams for the hopeless illusions they really are.

He is exceptionally well-served by the brilliant cast, which also includes Frenchman Michel Piccoli as Joseph, Sally’s mentor, Al Waxman as Alfie, Robert Goulet as Singer, Moses Znaimer as Felix, and Angus MacInnes as Vinnie.

Though it didn’t win any Oscar, “Atlantic City” surprised many when it was nominated for five major awards: Picture (Denis Heroux and John Kemeny, producers), Director (Louis Malle), Actor (Burt Lancaster), Actress (Susan Sarandon), and Original Screenplay (John Guare).

In a terrific comeback performance, Lancaster played a role that was tailor-made for him by Guare and Malle; he lost the Oscar to Henry Fonda, who finally won the Best Actor for “On Golden Pond,” just months before dying.

Though losing to Fonda’s co-star, Katharine Hepburn (winning her fourth Best Actress Oscar), as a result of this picture, Sarandon emerged as a lead actress at the forefront of Hollywood cinema (four more nominations would follow).

The second American film by Malle, “Atlantic City” followed the 1978 “Pretty Baby,” which also had starred Sarandon (his companion at the time) and Brooke Shields as a young prostitute.

Superbly mounted, the film benefits from Richard Ciupka’s evocative lensing, Anne Pritchard’s precise production design, Francois Barbeau’s realistically unadorned costumes, Suzanne Baron’s poignant editing, and Michel Legrand’s melancholy score.

Made on a modest budget of $7.2 million, “Atlantic City” was not particularly commercial, despite the awards nominations and rave reviews.  Its U.S. box-office gross is about $12.7 million.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Denis Heroux and John Kemeny

Director: Louis Malle

Screenplay (Original): John Guare

Actor: Burt Lancaster

Actress: Susan Sarandon

Oscar Awards: None

Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn won the lead acting awards for the sentimental marriage/family nelodrama, “On Golden Pond.”


Lou (Burt Lancaster)

Sally (Susan Sarandon)

Grace (Kate Reid)

Joseph (Michel Piccoli)

Chrissie (Hollis McLaren)

Dave (Robert Joy)

Alfie (Al Waxman)

Singer (Robert Goulet)

Felix (Moses Znaimer)

Vinnie (Angus MacInnes)



Paramount (International Cinema Corp.)

Running Time: 104 Minutes