August 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Bonfire of the Vanities

I've always known that The Bonfire of the Vanities would come up over the course of writing this column. Not because it's based on one of the most iconic books of the 1980s, not because it's got huge star power and one of the more adventurous directors of modern cinema -- mostly, because it's so widely reviled. In debating what film is actually the "Worst Adaptation Ever," the Brian De Palma-directed film version of Tom Wolfe's landmark novel tends to come up a fair amount. People have spent the last decade bitching about the utter bungling of this film, as flops always get more attention than successes. Don't believe me? Think back to last summer. Which movie did you hear more about: Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit -- or Gigli?

So pretty much everything that can be said about Bonfire has been said already, and by far more snarky folk than I. Thus, I wasn't sure what I could bring to the subject -- until I found a remaindered copy of Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy at a discount book shop. One quick look at the price tag, and I turned triumphantly to my friend. "Hey, look! It's my next Bookslut column!"

Why? Well, The Devil's Candy is a behind-the-scenes record of the making of Bonfire, with unprecedented access and breadth of coverage. Salamon, a film critic for The Wall Street Journal approached De Palma during preproduction with the notion of writing a book covering the complete making of the film. Able to observe and record everything that she saw, she had no idea that the film she had chosen to follow would become one of the most ridiculed in modern cinema. As Hollywood tell-alls go, it's entertaining reading, with plenty of juicy details. Salamon's observations and interviews are respectful of the immense undertaking filmmaking can be, but all she has to do to puncture the inflated egos that populate the story is simply tell it like it is. Even after four years of film school, I still found myself learning things about the way things work on a film set.

And I also learned why Bonfire failed so completely as an adaptation, which I was at a bit of a loss to understand before. Tom Wolfe's novel made for great juicy reading, the words rushing off the page faster than I could read them, making six hundred pages feel like two hundred. But it took me a week to watch all of Bonfire, not because it was bad, but because I kept falling asleep after about ten minutes. Scenes proved to be easy to skip -- in part because I knew the story, but mostly because there isn't a lot to the story. Man and woman are having an affair. When man and woman get lost in the Bronx, the woman hits a young man with the car, sending boy into coma. Media frenzy builds up around coma boy. Man is accused of hitting boy and is arrested. Loses job, home and wife. Acquires an illegal recording of mistress confessing to driving the car. Lies about illegal nature of recording in court. Charges are dismissed. The end.

The feel-good hit of the century, huh? But the book isn't really about the story -- it's a caricature of a time and a place, the iconic, power-mad 1980s New York. The thing about caricatures, though, is that they're generally recognizable as a distortion of their subject, and that's where the adaptation of Bonfire goes off the rails.

Salamon's perhaps not as unflinching as she could be in her depiction of the making of the film, but she gets down one key detail that I wouldn't have had otherwise -- namely, that Brian De Palma wanted to make Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, not Renoir's The Rules of the Game (or Altman's Gosford Park, for those of you who didn't go to film school). But Strangelove is chaos rendered into screenplay format, the epic scale of the story more than able to handle the weighty satire. And Bonfire just doesn't have that kind of breadth. Instead of sprawling anarchy, the story condenses to a dilemma that could be solved in half an hour with the help of the right wacky sitcom cast. Sherman McCoy's personal apocalypse doesn't really compare to the nuclear kind.

And apparently De Palma forgot to share the memo regarding Dr. Strangelove, because most of the actors are acting in entirely
different movies. Tom Hanks is mugging his way through The Burbs again. Bruce Willis's perpetual smirk is identical to the one he wears in Die Hard. Melanie Griffith and Morgan Freeman are just kinda... there, going through the motions without any spark. Only Kim Catrell and F. Murray Abraham seem like they're acting in a satire. And thus their performances are the only interesting ones.

Perhaps it was made too soon. Perhaps that was the problem. After all, Tom Wolfe's novel will forever be associated with a decade so strange and hectic that most of the nineties were spent dealing with the fallout, and the fatal blow to the adaptation may have been removing the timeframe of the story. Impossible, in 1990, to really grasp the way that Wolfe's novel would be seen in later years -- not just as a condemnation of a city, but of a society. Impossible, in 1990, to really have perspective on the ten years prior.

But the greed of actors hungry for credibility and the ambitions of a director desperate for a hit resulted in something hollow, adrift, and ultimately pointless. The movie's not even alarmingly bad. Just shallow and sad, the glitter of sets and stars not able to disguise a screenplay and director who didn't really understand what the book was all about.

One of the most interesting stories in The Devil's Candy is that of Eric Schwab, the 2nd unit director charged with the task of creating a memorable establishing shot of an airplane landing, something De Palma bet Schwab he couldn't do. So Schwab spent months plotting out the rotation of the earth and the flight path of the Concorde, timing it so that the plane would land directly in front of the sun as it set. The description Salamon offers of the completed shot is quite engaging ("the Concorde floating through the smoky orange sky like some giant Aztec Bird") but the actual image is sadly underwhelming -- a mere five seconds of the Concorde plowing towards the camera, a smoggy orange sunset rippling behind the exhaust fumes, before a swift cut to the stumpy legs of an overrated star.

Thousands of dollars and months of effort and planning spent on a beautiful, shallow, and ultimately pointless image.

If that's not symbolic, I don't know what is.