Friday, June 8, 2018

Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth: New York Stories

My presence in New York City seems to be hazardous to authors. While I was working in Manhattan recently, the nation and the world lost two of its literary best. Tom Wolfe, the man responsible for what’s been called the New Journalism, died in New York City on May 14, at the age of 88. Eight days later, novelist Philip Roth passed away in Manhattan at age 85. Coincidence? I suppose so.

Tom Wolfe, not to be confused with the Thomas Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward, Angel in 1929, was like him a Southerner by birth. Born in Richmond, Virginia, he gravitated toward the Big Apple, from whence he chronicled social cliques and oddities in such works as Radical Chic and The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. A flamboyant presence in his white suits, he himself became as famous as his writing. He showed up in countless documentaries, and was even featured as a version of himself on an episode of The Cosby Show called “Superstar.” He also dabbled a bit in filmmaking. In 1984 The Right Stuff, the Philip Kaufman film based on Wolfe’s lively non-fiction chronicle of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, won four Oscars and was nominated for four more, including Best Picture.

Alas, Wolfe’s other major Hollywood outing was not so successful. Wolfe published in 1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities, an outrageous satire about greed, racism, politics, and other deadly sins in contemporary New York City. This best-selling novel was purchased by Warner Bros. Then all hell broke loose. The original director, Mike Nichols, was replaced by Brian De Palma. Casting controversies led to key plot changes, with Tom Hanks’ character rendered more sympathetic and Bruce Willis cast in a role that should have gone to an Englishman. A Jewish judge from the novel was turned into Morgan Freeman, as the studio sought to mute any criticism of the film’s racial politics. Bad artistic decisions were rife, and the film became such a critical and financial flop that in 1991 Wall Street Journal film critic Julie Salamon put forth a tell-all book called The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood.

Philip Roth’s Hollywood career had fewer highs and fewer lows. Roth started out as a chronicler of Jewish life in Newark, penning acerbic tales of suburban culture clashes in a memorable little 1959 collection called Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award for fiction. A decade later, the title story was made into a popular film, starring Richard Benjamin and a star-in-the-making, Ali MacGraw. Highly popular at the box office, Goodbye, Columbus won a few Golden Globes, and its script was Oscar-nominated. In 1972, Roth became notorious as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint, with its kinky blend of ethnicity and sex (especially masturbation humor). Needless to say, the translation of Roth’s offbeat sensibilities to the screen was a challenge. Richard Benjamin again played the apparent Roth surrogate, with Lee Grant as his monstrous Jewish mother. Both critics and audiences were appalled, and Roth steered clear of Hollywood for some three decades.

Over the years, Roth’s fiction has become more solemn and less sexy. In 2003, his The Human Stain was adapted into a serious film starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins. In 2016, actor Ewan McGregor made his directorial debut with Roth’s American Pastoral, a painful tale of family turmoil amid the radical social impulses of the Sixties. As in the case with The Human Stain,  the film version made few ripples. Roth was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s too late for that now.

No comments:

Post a Comment