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Directed by Tom O'Horgan

(United States/UK/Canada, 1973, 104 minutes, color, DVD)

Zero Mostel……….John
Gene Wilder……….Stanley
Karen Black……….Daisy
Joe Silver

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Impresario Ely Landau's idea seemed inspired: what if a discriminating national movie audience could be persuaded to invest its ticket money upfront, in a program of superior adaptations of significant dramatic works? The money could be used to finance production down the line, and the lucky viewers wouldn't pay much more than they would for ordinary films.

Thus, the American Film Theater. From 1973 to 1975, fourteen plays were filmed. Looking back, many seem far too good to be true. Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, with Katherine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, and Lee Remick? O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, with Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan, and directed by live television veteran John Frankenheimer? But it happened. This spring, the Writers Institute pays tribute to Landau's labor of love with a selection of the AFT films, including Homecoming and the seldom seen Philadelphia, Here I Come.

It was over too soon. Landau couldn't have launched at a worse moment. The indie film movement was still a decade off, and the audience members who had long complained that they wanted quality fare turned out not to be around when it was. AFT folded after only two seasons, and those unique productions were lost until recently in a maze of mergers of successor companies.

One of the most intriguing of the AFT productions was 1974's Rhinoceros. Eugene Ionesco's Theater of the Absurd political allegory starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, reuniting the two for the only time after their work in Mel Brooks' The Producers. Absurdist comedy rewarded slapstick geniuses, and, in Mostel and Wilder, Landau got the best of two generations of knockabout comics. Director Tom O'Horgan was signed to direct. O'Horgan was a less obvious choice than Wilder and Mostel, though he was then at the summit of his mercurial career as a theater director: he had directed and revitalized Hair!, turning it into a revolutionary icon of the American stage, and had gone on to direct Futz, a neo-Absurdist burlesque about a lovelorn pig.

The O'Horgan Rhinoceros is often wondrously dark. Stanley, a listless accountant with a listless accountant's name, swills booze to forget his dead-end life. He's an organization man who hates his organization, a buttondown rebel without a cause. His friend John (Mostel) dishes up advice for John, but John continues to mope, disengaged from the thudding repetitiveness of his interchangeable days. There's Daisy, a lovely co-worker, who he admires, but Stanley is so mired in self-contempt that his love for her is lost in a forest of ledgers and memos.

And then, one day, a rhinoceros charges past. Then, another…

Ionesco's tale of the herd is played in high 70's style, but its message of the perils of conformity is timelessly (and hilariously) worked out by Wilder, Mostel, and O'Horgan. Ionesco's language is an intricate pas de deux, bristling and baroque: Ionesco is the anti-Mamet. Mostel's range here is incredible. He can go from a grace note struck on the upper octave of a pianoforte to an exploding oil refinery in an instant. Rhinoceros would be the last big canvas this big comic would work on before his passing just three years later. Mostel, who knew something of the political implications of art, puts on the thick hide of the rhino like a kid glove. What had originated as a European anti-fascist satire now finds its tongue in a sometimes glum attack on corporate conformity, but the rhinoceros horn still gores deep.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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