Friday, October 5, 2018

Dishing Out The Devil’s Candy: How "The Bonfire of the Vanities" Became a Big-Screen Flop

One of the biggest questions I had about The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco wasn’t answered until I got to the final pages of the 2002 re-issue. In reading about the 1990 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s whizbang novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, I’d learned seemingly everything there was to know on how a potential Hollywood blockbuster was conceived, written, cast, directed, produced, and marketed. No detail seemed too small to escape the notice of journalist Julie Salamon as she chronicled how the film’s budget soared to what was then an unheard-of amount, just shy of $50 million, and how (despite major stars, spectacular sets, an A-list director, and the faith of a legendary studio) public reaction had doomed the picture to be remembered as the Ishtar of its era. How did she know so much?

Since I’m a former filmmaker and an author of several books on the ways of Hollywood, I of course wanted more info about Salamon’s research. It wasn’t until, on p. 433, I arrived at an Author’s Note that I got my answer. Back in 1991, Salamon was a film critic for the Wall Street Journal. After being on the job for more than a a decade, she decided she’d like to follow a big-league Hollywood production from beginning to end. Lillian Ross of The New Yorker had accomplished the same feat on John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage¸ ultimately publishing a book titled Picture, but that was back in 1952. Salamon was fortunate that Brian De Palma, a director known for his willingness to take risks, accepted her presence on his sets and in his conference rooms without pre-conditions. Armed with notebooks and a tape recorder, she watched everything from opening shot to wrap, and freely conducted interviews with willing members of the cast and crew.

For Salamon as a reporter there were risks and rewards aplenty. She got to know studio execs, and chatted with superstars like Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith. But in the aftermath of her book’s publication, she was the subject of highly vicious comments by an irascible Bruce Willis, who called her a parasite and much much worse, making crude remarks in a national magazine about her breath and at one point suggesting that she blow her brains out. (A journalist’s lot, then and now, is not a happy one.)

One message of The Devil’s Candy is that Hollywood success is a crap shoot. Though Salamon was well aware of budget overruns, and knew that the Wolfe novel was controversial source material, she never saw herself as chronicling a disaster in the making. One of the most endearing portraits in her book is that of Eric Schwab, a young second unit director committed to dazzling his mentor, De Palma, with a spectacular shot. When the original plan for an electrifying New York City night montage was scrapped, Schwab became determined that his coverage of a Concorde landing at JFK would make it into the film. Calling upon every resource at his disposal, he pulled off a thrilling image of an Air France plane floating out of an orange sky. Yes, it made the final cut, though cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond tried to take credit for Schwab’s achievement. Schwab’s efforts brought him to the attention of some Hollywood honchos, but Salamon’s ten-years-later epilogue tells us that as of 2001 he was still hustling to make movies of his own, falling back on second-unit work on De Palma films like Mission Impossible in order to make ends meet. What price Hollywood, anyway?

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