This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
The locusts are the little people, faceless and sad, who accumulate on the benches of Los Angeles, waiting for a bus that will never come. They're surrounded by the artificial glitter of Hollywood, which provides dreams that certainly are happier and sometimes seem more real than the America of the 1930s. But one day, the dreams will end and the locusts will swarm and the whole fragile society will come crashing down.
That was the apocalyptic vision of Nathanael West's 1938 novel "The Day of the Locust," and it's a vision elaborated on, sometimes too literally, in John Schlesinger's expensive, daring, epic film. Hollywood is taken as a metaphor for an America that was moving from depression to war, and its fantasies outrun themselves until all that's left is anarchy. The story is seen in terms of a handful of characters that Sherwood Anderson would have described as Grotesques: otherwise mostly normal people with one attribute so out of proportion that the whole personality is disturbed.
There is Homer (Donald Sutherland), sexually repressed almost to the point of paralysis; and Faye (Karen Black), who's so mesmerized by the vision of romance on the screen that she can hardly comprehend the notion of romance in her own real life; and Harry (Burgess Meredith), who is Faye's father, an old trouper who now performs a sad parody of his vaudeville act as a door-to-door salesman. At first, it doesn't seem that the story's narrator, Tod (William Atherton), is a Grotesque at all. He's a WASP from the East, polished and civilized and looking for a job in a studio art department. But in a world on the edge of anarchy, his very normality is out of line.
Almost everyone lives in the San Bernardino Arms, a Crumbling stucco heap that looks like Southern California sick to its stomach. They're all on the edges of show business, including a furious dwarf and a truly hateful 12-year-old child actor. They can hardly touch each other, hardly see each other, because their eyes are so firmly fixed on the movies, on fame, on escaping from their real lives.