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Friday, April 24, 2020

Earlier this week, Wonders In The Dark posted an article by J.D. Lafrance, which takes a fresh look at Brian De Palma's film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. It turns out this is a slightly updated repost from J.D.'s own blog, Radiator Heaven, where the article was posted three years ago. We missed it then, but glad to see it now.

Lafrance opens with a quote from De Palma, speaking to EMPIRE magazine in its December 2008 issue: "And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way."

Lafrance goes on to suggest that taking a fresh look at the film, having never read the source material, might be "a good thing as it allows the film to be judged on its own merits." Here's an excerpt from his findings:

The main problem the film has is the miscasting of [Tom] Hanks as a ruthless Wall Street trader. The actor can do many things but ruthless and unlikable is not among them. Even in his darkest roles – Punchline (1988) and The Road to Perdition (2002) – there is always an inherent empathy. He can’t help it as it is in his DNA. This goes against the character of Sherman McCoy who is supposed to be an unpleasant son-of-a-bitch and the casting of Hanks was clearly a move to dilute the character and make him more relatable. What he does do well is sweaty desperation when the cops come calling and casually grill Sherman.

Morgan Freeman kills it as a tough-talking, no-nonsense judge in the South Bronx who schools a naïve assistant district attorney (Saul Rubinek) on how things work in his court via a fiery and masterful monologue – the kind that Samuel L. Jackson usually gets in Quentin Tarantino films – that is a sight to behold and makes me wish the veteran actor would get juicy roles like this again. This is merely a warm-up for the film’s climax where it goes all Frank Capra as Freeman delivers a powerful speech condemning all the parties involved, calling for decency as the judge represents the lone voice of reason.

At the time of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bruce Willis was at the height of his Die Hard (1988) / The Return of Bruno smarmy charm phase and this role lets him lay it on thick while also showing his willingness to play a deeply flawed character in search of redemption. He’s also not afraid to play up the less likable aspects of Fallow, the high society suck-up and the alcoholic lush.

The Bonfire of the Vanities works hard to make Sherman sympathetic when it should be roasting him. He embodies entitled white privilege, which was big during the materialistic 1980s and is making a comeback with Donald Trump as President of the United States. In one scene, De Palma makes a point of juxtaposing the African American protestors outside Sherman’s apartment building with the dinner party inside populated by his white rich friends as they metaphorically circle the wagons and show support for one of their own. These people are portrayed as arrogant racists that don’t care about anyone but themselves. If they get into any trouble they just make it go away with money.

The film also exposes the hypocrisy of the justice system. The D.A. doesn’t want to punish Sherman because he’s guilty but because it will help him get re-elected. He’s an opportunist that sends out his minions to do his bidding. Then there is the media that are portrayed as a mob of vultures feeding on the latest story of misery, adhering to the ago old credo, if it bleeds, it leads. Sherman is just the latest headline to sell papers – nothing more, nothing less. If Freeman’s climactic Capraeseque monologue seems too gee whiz of an idealistic ending, De Palma ends things with a brilliant visual punchline that hints at how great the film could have been if the studio hadn’t messed with him behind the scenes.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a cynical take on modern society with everybody available for a price, from the D.A. vying for re-election to the mother (Mary Alice) of the young man in a coma suing the hospital for $10 million. Divorced from its source material, De Palma’s film is a biting satire that attacks the rich, those that exploit tragedies, and the media. At times, it is also a light farce and, as a result, the film is all over the place tonally as it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Yet, for all this sloppiness and the miscasting of Hanks (who actually does get better as the film goes along), Bonfire is not the complete disaster it is commonly portrayed as and is actually quite entertaining. It deserves to be re-visited and regarded on its own merits.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Saturday, April 25, 2020 8:39 AM CDT
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Thursday, September 20, 2018

For "Throwback Thursday," Rita Wilson tweeted a YouTube video of the post-title opening Steadicam shot of Brian De Palma's The Bonfire Of The Vanities. The shot was so complicated, De Palma had to cameo as a security guard in order to direct it (see the capture above). Here's what Wilson posted today on Twitter:
#tbt This used to be the longest steadicam shot ever. It’s since been eclipsed.Bonfire of the Vanities dir. By Brian de Palma.We shot All night in Twin Towers.So many rehearsals.I was 6 months pregnant.Amazing shot.

Posted by Geoff at 6:30 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2018 6:31 PM CDT
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Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Tom Wolfe, whose "novel of the 1980s", The Bonfire Of The Vanities, was adapted into the film directed by Brian De Palma, died Monday in a hospital in New York. He was 88.

Wolfe's novel, which had originally been serialized in Rolling Stone magazine, was published in 1987 and quickly became a well-loved, sensational bestseller. De Palma had recently had one of his biggest successes with The Untouchables, and signed on to direct the film version, which was to star Tom Hanks. The film was a high-profile endeavor, covered regularly in the New York and Hollywood press, and De Palma decided to allow Julie Salamon access to all of the goings-on as the film was being made. The resulting book, The Devil's Candy, stands today as a key text about the inside of an expensive Hollywood production. In her book, Salamon interviews Wolfe as the film is being made, and, later, after he has seen the film. Here's that first interview, from her prologue:
That morning the slender, contradictory man was eating grain cereal with stewed fruit and speaking in a thoughtful, slightly formal fashion about how the people from Hollywood were progressing with the movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. He mentioned diplomatically that they were being attentive to details.

"I must confess I get my shoes made at New & Lingwood," Wolfe said, dropping the name of the London fabricator of two-thousand-dolloar-a-pair men's shoes with his cultivated mixture of snobbery and modesty. "And the salesman was here in New York, and he said that Tom Hanks had arrived and wanted two pairs of shoes for the movie -- Tom Hanks or whoever was buying shoes for him -- and asked the salesman what kind should we get? And the salesman says, 'Well, in the book it says half-brogues,' and the movie person says, 'Okay, give us those.' I was rather impressed by that because, unless they make a point of it in the script to have the camera focus on the shoes, who's going to know? You have to have a very picky eye like myself to sit around and figure out where the shoes are from. They seem to be concerned with accuracy -- inn certain respects."

He wasn't willing to criticize the moviemakers -- just yet. "I think it's bad manners in the Southern sense to be sharp and critical of it," he said. "I did cash the check." However, with his good Southern manners the author had made it clear to the Hollywood people right after he accepted the $750,000 they paid him for the rights to his book that he didn't want to have anything to do with the making of their movie.

"To tell the truth, I've never wanted to write any script based on something I've done," he said. "From my standpoint it's too bad that movies don't run nine or ten hours. The way I constructed the book, almost every chapter was meant to be a vignette of something else in New York as well as something that might advance the story, and to me one was as important as the other."

The author paused briefly. "It's a fairly simple story. It's not a complicated story. But I wanted there to be all these slices, one after another. Not that I gave very much thought to how the movie could be made, but I never could see how you could do that."


In the final chapter of The Devil's Candy, Salamon again interviews Wolfe, who has just watched De Palma's film via a pre-opening day screening for the author and friends:

Tom Wolfe cringed over the movie, just as he'd cringed the first time he saw "The Right Stuff." He saw "Bonfire" two more times after that, hoping he might like it better. He didn't.
He never violated his rule of public silence on the subject of "Bonfire of the Vanities." He hinted that he didn't care for it much, but the worst thing he said was that "the great thing about selling a book to the movies is that nobody blames the author." Wolfe realized that in some way he was a collaborator in this venture, and that he was better off being polite about it all. He also recognized the fact that his books now had a bad track record in Hollywood and it was a good idea to be polite.
In private he confessed that he was dismayed by the picture, that he really disliked the writing in it. "My feeling is that Hollywood rules are always wrong," he said. "Everybody in Hollywood hates to think about writing. It's so uncompromisable in a sense. There's no easy way to improve it. It's so fundamental. You can't make it better with a better deal."
He sympathized with De Palma's dilemma and couldn't see any way to condense the book himself. He had liked the director's idea to use "Dr. Strangelove" as his model for "Bonfire of the Vanities." But Wolfe felt De Palma didn't pull it off. "Dr. Strangelove," he felt, was a bitter farce, with the emphasis on bitter. The director, Stanley Kubrick, had only one message and it was antiwar. In every scene Kubrick set the business of war against the idiocy of the people making the war.
Wolfe couldn't really understand what kind of farce De Palma wanted "Bonfire" to be. "It wasn't a bitter farce and it wasn't a bedroom farce and it wasn't a sweet farce or an agreeable movie," he said. "As far as I can tell they didn't take on a point of view and cleave to it. I'd be pretty hard put to tell you what the point of view is."
And though he understood that few people would believe it, Wolfe (the man who made up phrases like "Heh-heggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!") thought the film was too exaggerated. "It was as if Brian De Palma said, 'Well, I've got to do something extraordinary to pull this off in two hours, so I'm going to try all kinds of things. I'm going to try this "Dr. Strangelove" approach. I'm going to try the most extreme camera angles I've ever used.'"
Wolfe sighed. "If you're going to exaggerate, it has to be done just so, as in 'Dr. Strangelove.' The slightest false note can boomerang. I hesitate to find a great deal of fault with what was done because it was a tough problem to do this thing in two hours. De Palma took a chance. It really didn't pan out."

From today's obit by Rolling Stone's Tim Grierson:

Born in March 1931, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. grew up in Richmond, Virginia, holding onto his genteel Southern accent all his life. Attending Washington and Lee University, he studied English literature – there was no writing major – and edited the school newspaper's sports section, along the way co-founding the college's literary magazine Shenandoah. After receiving his doctorate at Yale, he worked as a reporter in Springfield, Massachusetts before moving to The Washington Post and then landing at the New York Herald Tribune, whose brash reporting style was summed up by its motto: "Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?" While there, he wrote for the paper's Sunday magazine, which would later become New York magazine, an upstart rival to the more refined New Yorker.

But Wolfe's first major breakthrough came in 1963 with a piece he pitched Esquire about Southern California's world of custom cars. After doing the reporting, though, he panicked about how to write the piece. On the advice of his editor, he sent over his typed-up notes, and the vivid, stream-of-consciousness observations became "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," one of the landmark documents in the formation of New Journalism — a flashy, giddy prose style whose champions, including idiosyncratic writers like Hunter S. Thompson, were charting the country's changing, turbulent mood during the Sixties.

The techniques Wolfe brought to "Kandy-Kolored" – you-are-there portraiture, inspired digressions, obscene amounts of exclamation marks and italics – would be his trademarks in subsequent works, perhaps most memorably in his 1968 nonfiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which didn't just profile Kesey but also the LSD counterculture at large. (Wolfe himself didn't partake in the hallucinogen. "I felt it was really far too dangerous to take a chance," he said in 2016, "and they didn't try to pressure me.")

Wolfe always dove into unique ecosystems in order to present a macro view of American life. 1979's The Right Stuff, which started as a series of pieces in Rolling Stone about the Mercury Seven astronauts, became a commentary on the country's can-do spirit and the breadth of its ambition. No matter the topic, Wolfe learned quickly that trying to blend in with his subjects actually hurt his reporting — pretending to know more than he did kept him from learning the basics of the worlds he was embedded in.

"People really don't want you to try to fit in," he said in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone. "They'd much rather fill you in. People like to have someone to tell their stories to. So if you're willing to be the village information gatherer, they'll often just pile material on you. My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don't know. So this does work in your favor."

In that same interview, he mentioned that he was considering writing his first novel. "I'm doing something that I've had on my mind for a long time, which is a Vanity Fair book about New York, à la Thackeray," he offered, later adding, "[N]ovelists themselves hardly touch the city. How they can pass up the city, I don't know. The city was a central — character is not a very good way to put it, but it was certainly a dominant theme — in the works of Dickens, Zola, Thackeray, Balzac. So many talented writers now duck the city as a subject. And this is one of the most remarkable periods of the cities."

After years of research and reporting, Wolfe achieved his lofty goal by publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities, an epic, swaggering tome that began as installments in Rolling Stone. The book introduced the world to Sherman McCoy, a wealthy and morally corrupt bond trader who, in another lively Wolfe turn of phrase, was a "Master of the Universe" during Wall Street's giddy Eighties boom. Receiving glowing reviews and enjoying phenomenal sales, The Bonfire of the Vanities tackled not just New York but also racism, masculinity, economic inequality, a broken justice system and the tabloid press — all the while being wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving. It was quintessential Wolfe: knee-deep in the messy vibrancy of American life but sharply insightful about the country's contradictions and shortcomings.

"When I was writing that book, it was with a spirit of wonderment," he confessed later. "I was saying [excitedly], 'Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! Look at that one! Look at that one!' It was only after I finished and read it over that I see that there is a cumulative effect that leads to [a dark reading of the book]."

Posted by Geoff at 8:45 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, May 15, 2018 11:18 PM CDT
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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Posted by Geoff at 11:36 PM CST
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Sunday, October 16, 2016
On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter's Lesley Goldberg and Kate Stanhope reported an exclusive that Chuck Lorre is developing an 8-part event mini-series adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Lorre is "under a rich overall deal" with Warner Bros. Television, according to Goldberg and Stanhope, where the project stems from. It had been shopped to cable and streaming outlets, and has now been picked up for development by Amazon.

According to the report, which attempts to attach the buzzword "reboot" to the project, "Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Red Band Society) is set to pen the script and exec produce alongside Lorre. Author and political reporter David Corn will serve as a consultant. Amazon Studios, WBTV and Chuck Lorre Productions are the producers on it."

Meanwhile, according to Showbiz 411's Roger Friedman, Wolfe himself knew nothing of the new project until Friedman called him up to ask him about it. "I guess he’s calling his agents on Monday," Friedman surmises.


Last month, The Film Stage's Jonah Jeng wrote an essay in defense of Brian De Palma's 1990 feature adaptation of Wolfe's book. "De Palma’s confident, hilarious polemic is a formidable achievement, hitting places that hurt in 1990 and, sadly, continue to hurt today," Jeng states. "That the film feels like it was made for the 2016 moment is a depressing testament to the state of race relations in America, but it is also precisely this continued relevancy that makes Bonfire necessary viewing."

A bit later in the essay, Jeng discusses how De Palma's style fits with the absurdity on display in the film:

"Some satire is subtle in its magnifications of reality. The Bonfire of the Vanities takes a different, more boisterous route, fitting De Palma’s florid directorial tendencies like a glove. Scenes turn to farce to convey the moral absurdity of the characters’ actions, whether in Abe’s wild gesticulations or in the way we are introduced to the Reverend via a very Spike Lee-esque, low-angle shot that imparts onto him the exaggeratedly looming presence of a cartoon villain. De Palma’s cinematographic stylizations, so generative of suspense in Sisters and operatic in Scarface, here serve a different but no less meaningful purpose. The camerawork is sometimes highly precise in its satirical function, such as when a dolly zoom is used to parody the experience of white fear. At other points, the cinematography creates the more abstract impression that the camera is emulating this film’s plot-level zaniness. Often, De Palma appears to be channeling the story’s ludicrous energy by way of his trademark visual acrobatics — weird camera angles, split diopter shots, long takes, etc. — which, in turn, intensify the energy that gave rise to them."

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, October 17, 2016 8:05 AM CDT
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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Posted by Geoff at 10:12 PM CST
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Thursday, January 14, 2016
Richard Libertini, who had a brief role as a high school teacher in Brian De Palma's The Bonfire Of The Vanities, died January 7. He was 82. According to the Associated Press, Libertini's ex-wife Melinda Dillon said he'd had a two-year long battle with cancer. According to an obituary in the New York Times, Libertini began his career as part of the Second City improvisational troupe in Chicago, and went on to have memorable roles in films such as The In-Laws and All Of Me, as well as many roles on Broadway and TV. "Richard Libertini is a master of what could be called the comedy of madness," wrote Mel Gussow in a 1986 New York Times review of Neapolitan Ghosts on stage. "His funniest characters are furious and at least on the borderline of delirium. Those of us who have been enjoying his performances since he and MacIntyre Dixon first created the 'Stewed Prunes' comedy team in the 1960's - through his appearances in films such as The In-Laws - have been waiting to see him play a leading role in a classic farce..."

Posted by Geoff at 3:50 AM CST
Updated: Thursday, January 14, 2016 3:52 AM CST
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Sunday, November 1, 2015
The photo at left (taken by Bruce Gilbert) shows Tom Wolfe, seated in between U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and moderator Thane Rosenbaum, discussing his novel The Bonfire Of The Vanities on stage following a screening of Brian De Palma's film adaptation. The screening, which took place this past Tuesday (October 27th), was part of the 10th Annual Forum on Law, Culture & Society Film Festival. A video of the discussion is available at LiveStream, and David Lot has posted a piece about the event at Above The Law (which is where the photo here comes from).

"I had low expectations for the movie," writes Lot, "generally regarded as a 'critical and commercial flop,' so I was pleasantly surprised by its entertainment quotient — I wouldn’t call it 'good,' but I would call it 'fun' — and by the amount of law it contains. Morgan Freeman chews the scenery as the benchslap-happy Judge Leonard White, Kevin Dunn does a fine job portraying defense lawyer Tom Killian (inspired by the real-life celebrity lawyer Ed Hayes), the plot turns on an evidentiary issue and the legality of recording conversations in New York, and the film concludes with a stirring courtroom oration by Judge White about the nature of justice.

"(It’s also a pleasure to see the younger versions of several high-profile actors — Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall — especially Hanks, who was quite nice-looking back when he had more hair and fewer pounds. His acting has improved over the years even if his physique has not. Watching him in Bonfire, I thought about how much better he is in the new legal thriller, Bridge of Spies."


Here's a brief transcript from the beginning of the discussion (viewed at LiveStream), in which Wolfe discusses some differences between the book and the film:

Rosenbaum: It’s been, now, thirty years since the events of this novel—and the best-selling experience of this novel—how often do you watch the film? I know you and your wife sat in our audience and watched it. Was it miserable for you, are you happy to be here watching the film? What is it like when your novel is adapted into a movie—a critically-acclaimed novel—adapted into a movie that’s considered a flop?

Wolfe: It takes a while to realize that if someone makes a movie out of your work, it’s not going to be your book. It’s going to be something very different. And this was very… different. [Laughter] For example, at the end of the film, there’s a marvelous, heartfelt, sermon, really, from the judge. And it kind of sweeps your emotions away there at the end, it’s… everything is working out well. In the book, the judge and Sherman McCoy are running for their lives. [Laughing] They had the same mob in there. The outcome’s a little different. Also, this is an example of the changes: the studio was not happy, once they had the book, to see that the book ends with a white judge giving a lecture to a predominantly black audience. And they said, “wait, we can’t do that!” So that’s why they brought in Morgan Freeman, who’s a wonderful actor, but it completely changes the plot of the book. And not completely, but to a large part.

Rosenbaum: And Sherman McCoy, who you unsparingly made unsympathetic in the novel, once the part was given to Tom Hanks, he was treated much more favorably.

Wolfe: Oh, I think that wasn’t accidental, either. We’ve got this man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and who’s going to have any sympathy for him? You can’t help but have sympathy for Tom Hanks, if he wants you to have sympathy. [Laughter]

Rosenbaum: You know, I was wondering, if you’re reading the papers nowadays, if, for you, whether the novel and the film are a déjà vu all over again. I remember in the novel, Reverend Bacon, it’s not in the film, at some point says, “Is a black life worth less than a white life?” And that sounds a lot like “Black Lives Matter.” Which is, as you know, a mantra of today. And the 2008 financial crises, we had Occupy Wall Street, and now we’re living in an era where there’s a great backlash against bankers, Wall Street insiders, there’s a great sense of wealth inequality, class divisions, and those feelings are precisely the way people responded to Sherman McCoy in the eighties. And it must be weird to you, as if things either haven’t changed, or this is really the sequel—we’re living the sequel of Bonfire Of The Vanities.

Wolfe: Well, one thing that has changed is that, in Bonfire Of The Vanities, there’s a… tremendous emphasis is put on Wall Street, for example. Well, we still know about Wall Street, but the Masters of the Universe are on their feet, they’re shouting as things go for sale, for bidding. Neckties are pulled down, coats and jackets are off. I happened to go through Wall Street twenty-five years after the book came out. You would not recognize the place! Nobody’s standing up and shouting. It’s mostly… at one point, what was known as high-speed trading was almost 75% of the market. And all of the great Masters of the Universe are now all clerks behind their computers, and if they have anything to say, they have to say it on… they have to tweet it. And that’s about it. That’s a huge change.

Posted by Geoff at 8:30 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, November 1, 2015 8:32 PM CDT
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Thursday, September 17, 2015
Thanks to Hugh for letting us know that Tom Wolfe will speak following a screening of The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Brian De Palma's film adaptation of Wolfe's most famous novel. The event will take place at 7pm October 27th, at 92nd Street Y in New York City. The screening is part of the 10th Annual Forum on Law, Culture & Society Film Festival, which presents "films that illuminate the moral dilemmas and dramatic moments of the legal system."

The 92Y web page offers this description of the event: "This comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis explores the mix of ambition, racism, politics and greed in 1980s New York, when being a Master of the Universe defined the very meaning of Wall Street excess and entitlement. Twenty-five years on, Tom Wolfe reflects on the novel and film, and United States Attorney Preet Bharata offers his view on its continued relevance."

In addition to Wolfe and Bharata, novelist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum will also be on hand for the post-film discussion.

Posted by Geoff at 12:04 AM CDT
Updated: Friday, September 18, 2015 11:14 AM CDT
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Saturday, July 4, 2015

"That was the first time I'd experienced a director shooting long takes like that. I think he was experimenting with the knowledge that he could edit them down or leave them if he wanted. He was shooting no coverage. I've been in long sequences but mostly in action movies, and I don't put Unbreakable in that category. These long takes were revelatory."

--Bruce Willis, discussing M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000) in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (double-issue #1371/1372, July 10/17 2015).

Posted by Geoff at 3:16 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, July 4, 2015 3:18 PM CDT
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