The Book Club

Too Much Rope or Not Enough?


Yesterday, you mentioned Titanic, a troubled production that nonetheless yielded over $1 billion in box-office receipts. Today, let’s discuss two books about troubled productions that should have been so lucky.

Lillian Ross’ Picture, written in 1952, follows the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage. Ross had greedy access to Huston and various MGM apparatchiks, who formed the rigid hierarchy of the old studio system. Huston and Gottfried Rheinhardt, his producing partner, had practical control of the actors and the filming process. Dore Schary, MGM’s head of production, controlled the filmmakers. And Nick Schenk, head of MGM’s parent company, Loew’s, controlled Schary.

Most critics guess that had Huston’s original cut of Red Badge remained intact, it would have been a classic. But when Schary saw the finished film, he smelled a bomb and insisted on taking control of the editing process. He deleted scenes, rearranged others, and even reduced the movie’s two major battles into one. The result is the slim 69-minute version you can rent today; not awful, but uninspiring.

I thought Picture contained a number of surprises. The first is that the original cut of Red Badge, as Huston shot and edited it, got tripped up in the same place modern films do: the dreaded audience test screening. Then, just as today, test audiences watch soon-to-be-released films and fill out response cards containing a number of basic questions: “What was your least favorite scene?” etc. The studios generally treat these cards like the stone tablet containing the Ten Commandments. So when preview audiences panned his original cut, Huston agreed to add voice-over narration to bolster the film. When that failed, he simply flew off to make TheAfrican Queen and left Red Badge in the hands of his studio masters.

The second surprise is that at the time, Schary’s cuts really didn’t seem to matter much. The New York reviews hailed the bastardized version as a modern classic, if not quite on par with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. An MGM exec said the film would probably earn most of its money back, and, given the results of the early test screenings, the original cut would have done about as well.

The 1990 production of Bonfire of the Vanities, the subject of Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, on the other hand, was a genuine flop. It earned just $3 million on its opening weekend, about half the take of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop, which premiered the same day. The critics loathed Bonfire. Pauline Kael, usually a fierce defender of director Brian De Palma, said he had walked “right off a cliff.”

Where did Bonfire go wrong? Well, for one thing, the movie went overbudget before the cameras even rolled. The filmmakers paid Bruce Willis $5 million to play a venal tabloid reporter. They also gave Morgan Freeman $650,000 for two weeks of work, mostly because they felt guilty that Bonfire didn’t have any positive black characters. The artistic mistakes were even more severe. Willis, fresh off Die Hard 2, simply couldn’t act. Tom Hanks, cast as a greedy Wall Street “master of the universe,” comes off like a henpecked sissy. And De Palma, saddled with directorial and producing duties, can’t decide whether he wants to make a comedy or drama and thus makes neither.

Like Ross, Salamon has all the awful details of the test-screening process. There’s a scene early in Bonfire where the Hanks character wants take his dog for a walk. The dog does not want to go with him. So Hanks drags him, prostrate, through his apartment lobby and onto the street. The scene is a comic throwaway, lasting maybe five seconds. De Palma was devastated when he learned that test audiences marked it their favorite in the whole movie.

I want your insight, J.D., on how, exactly, the studio system hurt these films. In making Red Badge, it’s obvious that Huston didn’t have enough power. But what about De Palma on Bonfire? As Julie Salamon tells it, De Palma had the money, actors, and autonomy he wanted—perhaps too much so. When the film bombed at test screenings, Warner Bros. allowed him to make changes. There was never a moment when anyone considered removing the movie from his hands. Is it possible that just as MGM gave Huston too little rope, Warner gave De Palma way too much?

Then there’s the “likability” issue that we touched on yesterday. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire novel, upon which the film is based, is stocked with greedy, manipulative New Yorkers. But Warner Bros. insisted that the film version contain characters the audience could root for. So the Willis character, an opportunistic lech in the novel, became a charming rogue. The casting of ever-noble Freeman was designed to cancel out a “bad” black character based on Al Sharpton. But De Palma had little problem with these changes and even convinced himself that they’d make the movie better. They don’t, of course.

One last question: Has a big book yet been written that studio execs consider filmable? In Picture, we see MGM executive Louis B. Mayer sniffing that “there’s no story” in Stephen Crane’s Red Badge novel. Wolfe’s book receives similar disdain. In Shoot Out, one of the memoirs we talked about yesterday, the authors say of The Great Gatsby that “there’s really no story there,” either. (Gatsby, at last count, has produced three film adaptions, none of them successful.) Of course, if any of these films had turned into a hit, the same execs would have crowed that they had predicted it all along.