JULIE SALAMON: "IT WAS THE KIND OF GRAND GUIGNOL DE PALMA LOVED - A BROAD, OPERATIC MELODRAMA"
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I’m not entirely sure what the hell I just watched, but I have to admit I enjoyed every ridiculous minute of it. I knew nothing about this going in, other than it was a flop and that it was directed by De Palma. I was curious more than anything, but was handsomely rewarded with a film that was ultimately a series of bizarre choices, an impressively eclectic cast, and a tone I still struggle to define. But most importantly, it was a blast. My only major complaint is that Melanie Griffith is obnoxiously annoying as all hell in this. Like really fucking annoying.
If you can somehow manage to remove all your memories and knowledge of the book from your mind—which was somewhat difficult back when the film first came out since it was pretty much the novel of its time—there is another and somewhat more interesting movie going on at the same time, and this is largely courtesy of the decision to have Brian De Palma direct. Then and now, he was most famous for his wildly audacious and often controversial suspense thrillers. The announcement that he would be doing “Bonfire” raised many eyebrows, with many assuming that he only got put on the list of potential directors because “The Untouchables” not only made a ton of money but proved that even an iconoclast like him could utilize his gifts to make an across-the-board blockbuster if he actually put his mind to it.
However, before he became famous for making grisly and twisty thrillers, De Palma initially made a name for himself directing highly acerbic satirical comedies such as “Greetings,” “Hi Mom,” and his first studio effort, “Get to Know Your Rabbit.” These were films that took on the big issues of the time—race, sex, class, the war in Vietnam, the JFK assassination—and skewered them all in wild and oftentimes outrageous ways that not even the passing of the decades has managed to dim. (The only exception is “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” a film on which he feuded with star Tommy Smothers and was eventually fired by Warner Bros. marking the first and last time he worked there until “Bonfire” came along.) While those earlier movies, “Rabbit” excepted, were made on tiny budgets on the streets of New York and with largely unknown actors (including a pre-fame Robert De Niro), “Bonfire” allowed him the chance to return to those roots, albeit with tens of millions of dollars at his disposal this time around. Some of the funniest scenes in the film, such as the one in which Weiss insists to his staff that he is not at all racist while at the same time coming across as nothing but, could have easily come from those earlier films and also come the closest to hitting the edgy tone found in the original material.
In bringing the story to the screen, De Palma, along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, utilized a highly stylized approach that favored the visual pyrotechnics for which he was famous. The film is full of elaborate camera moves (including an insanely intricate opening Steadicam shot of Fallow stumbling around backstage at a publishing party that runs for about five minutes without a cut) and weird closeups designed to make characters look even more grotesque than they already are. At the time, De Palma was criticized for employing such a seemingly unnecessary visual approach, but it actually fits the material. One of the key problems with anyone attempting to adapt Wolfe’s work to the screen is that it was his distinctive voice as a writer that made his work stand out so well, and it's that voice that's usually the first thing that gets lost during the adaptation process. While the screenplay awkwardly tries to invoke Wolfe’s prose by transforming it into narration from Fallow, De Palma’s visual gambits end up doing an unexpectedly effective job of finding a cinematic equivalent to Wolfe’s go-for-baroque literary style.
And while the film ultimately feels more like a collection of scenes from the book than a fully satisfying narrative, some of those scenes are quite good and entertaining. The opening Steadicam shot is, not surprisingly, a technical wonder but it also serves as an inventive introduction into the rarefied realm of the story, and Willis’ physical performance throughout the sequence is easily his most genuinely engaging bit in the film. The stuff involving the Weiss character is amusingly cynical and offers a real hint as to what the film might have been like had the material not been tamped down so much in an effort to make it more likable and accessible. And the scene in which Fallow has a fateful dinner with Arthur Ruskin is also quite funny, though I wish that it had gone on longer as it did in the book. Even the miscasting of Hanks winds up paying off nicely at one point late in the proceedings when he finds himself wrestling with the idea of lying in court about the origin of the fateful cassette—now that Hanks has long since established himself as contemporary cinema’s unquestioned patron saint of decency and moral uprightness, it's darkly funny to see him in a situation in which the only way for the truth to come out is to lie his ass off in court.
Considering how dated the once au courant material of "Bonfire" must seem to audiences today, the film's viewers are primarily those who have just finished reading The Devil’s Candy and are using it as a sort of visual guide to that book and not Wolfe’s. Hell, even when one looks at it solely on the basis of being a De Palma film, his most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to put it in the top half or even the top two-thirds of his cinematic output to date. However, for all of its mistakes and miscalculations and moments of utter garishness (including one scene involving actress Beth Broderick and a photocopier that is almost astoundingly tasteless), "Bonfire" is not only more interesting than its reputation might suggest. In its best moments, the film demonstrates both a personality and a real live-wire charge, despite all of the efforts from above to eliminate such things from the proceedings. Those willing to look at it through fresh eyes and properly adjusted expectations may be surprised to discover it's not that bad after all.
If nothing else, The Bonfire of the Vanities does contain one of the most impressive — and most expensive — single shots in cinema history: a plane touching down at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport with the setting sun behind it. [Michael] Cristofer wrote a simple version of the scene into the screenplay, but it was second unit director Eric Schwab who brought it to glorious life on the big screen. Schwab himself volunteered for the seemingly thankless assignment, and made a $100 bet with De Palma that he’d come up with a shot so great, it would have to end up in the movie.
Schwab’s first directorial decision was that the famed Concorde turbojet — which flew between Europe and America from 1969 until 2003 — was the only aircraft impressive enough to execute the shot he had in mind: an image of a plane touching down at the exact moment that the setting sun and the Empire State Building lined up in the same frame. After an enormous amount of preparation that included coordinating with the Concorde’s pilots and studying almanacs to determine the most favorable weather conditions, he eventually decided on June 12 as the date for his grand experiment.
That afternoon, he and his crew set up five cameras on the JFK tarmac preparing to film the arrival of the inbound Concorde flight. Each camera had only one role of film, and there wouldn’t be any second chances to get the shot. The plane took off 20 minutes prior to sunset, and for several frightening moments, Schwab was convinced they wouldn’t hit the runway at the designated time. At one point, his nerves got the better of him and he started filming a different plane as it came in for a landing.
But then, precisely on schedule, the Concorde descended, the sun and the Empire State Building were in perfect alignment and it was all captured on film. The final price tag? $80,000. But the feeling of having pulled off an impossible shot, and winning the $100 off of De Palma? Priceless.
The opening tracking shot was a very important way into the film. It took about 27 or 28 takes to get it right. The idea for the shot actually came from observing Truman Capote stumbling into parties completely drunk or drugged-up. I had been to a lot of those parties and I thought that’s how it should be for Bruce’s character: the voyage from the parking garage up through all the different strata of New York high society until his arrival at the huge palm garden of the World Trade Center. I started out making political comedies, caustic commentaries about the state of our society. The Bonfire of the Vanities felt like an extension of that. When I read the book I quite liked it. I thought it was an acerbic rendering of a particular madness going on in the ’80s. When I was adapting it I thought I should make the central banker character a little more sympathetic than he was in the book, and Tom [Hanks] was a good choice for that. But, of course, the film unnerved everybody because it wasn’t like the novel, which was, by then, a treasured icon of the New York literary scene. I changed things to make the film more palatable but they ended up upsetting a lot of people and it got very bad reviews. Looking back, I find it a very successful picture. It just isn’t the book.
Upon the film's 20th anniversary in 2010, screenwriter Michael Cristofer was asked by Movieline's Mike Ryan to speak about what went wrong with Bonfire:
Oh, it’s a very simple answer: When Brian De Palma and I were working on the script, Warner Brothers agreed that we would do a three-hour film. It was going to be a three-hour epic version of that book. I wrote a script that everyone around Hollywood and New York who read the script said that not only was it the best script that I had ever written, but it was one of the best screenplays ever written. And I say that humbly because it was Brian who really helped me a lot. I mean, we really worked closely on making that script. You know, he’s a genius. His IQ is like 160 or something. Really, it was a tough job and I had done a version of it and then Brian came on and then we really, really worked closely together. And he was storyboarding the whole script as we were writing it. I learned more about directing on that film then probably on any other film where I worked as a writer.
And what happened was two things: Number one, Warner Brothers completely undermined Brian’s casting of the picture. I don’t remember who all of the people were meant to be. Tom [Hanks] was in, that was OK. But, you know, Bruce Willis, that part was supposed to be played by Michael Caine. There were other casting choices that Warner Brothers totally interfered with, and [the studio] threatened to throw Brian off of the picture if he didn’t comply.
And then, finally, like three weeks or two weeks before we started shooting, they gave us the news that the film had to be two hours. It had to be under two hours. So, what was a really terrific script, and what would have made probably a very good movie, ended up being edited down in the space of 48 hours. I mean, we just cut the sh*t out of the script. And, what happened, because of that, was it took on a kind of broader, cartoon sort of feel that just didn’t work. It just didn’t work. Because, you know, when you’ve got something that’s filled with detail and you take out all of the detail and make it shorter, it just got broader, broader, broader and broader.
I think that’s what did it: It was 180 pages of script that we had to cut down to like 110. And we didn’t have the time to do it. There was no time do it. You know, we didn’t have four or five weeks, we had to do it overnight. I’ve actually never read the book that Salamon wrote, The Devil’s Candy. I’ve actually never read it because I manged to avoid her during the entire shoot. [Laughs] So I know a lot of other stuff went on, but the basic problem, that was it, as far as I was concerned. I look at it now and I realize the script is ruined, so the movie is ruined.
Mr. De Palma first read the novel while in Thailand shooting the film "Casualties of War." He became saturated in it while driving cars and flying on airplanes, listening over and over to tapes of the book read by the actor John Lithgow. Hearing the scenes effectively acted out reinforced the director's sense of the story as "basically a flat-tire comedic farce."
"Everybody says all the time, 'Why is this movie so funny?' " Mr. De Palma said, almost exasperated. "I think the problem is that nobody reads these scenes out loud."
Bucky: "Well, it sure explains some things."
Kay: "No, it doesn't."
Salamon's concluding chapter finds De Palma beginning to work on what would become Raisng Cain:
De Palma felt completely lost. In the past he'd felt that he learned something from reviews. They made him think about whether the drill in "Body Double" had been excessive, for example. But he didn't know what to make of this kind of criticism -- Kael saying the opening Steadicam shot wasn't really funny because it was "too precise." The other reviews were variations on one theme, and he stated that theme, "'How could you trivialize this masterwork?' They act as though I've done the National Lampoon version of Hamlet."
He spent the days reading and working out the script for the thriller he'd been thinking about for months. It was the story of a man whose father had conducted psychological experiments on him as a boy, hoping to create the perfect child. The father's experiments continued, and now the son was helping him by kidnapping children to be subjects, killing a few mothers and nannies along the way. De Palma saw the pitfalls in actually directing this film, but it was a pleasurable diversion.
He still felt that his decision to make "Bonfire" had been the right one. "You always have to make an assessment of where you are," he said, "and then you wind up somewhere else. I get less and less joy out of making movies. The process you go through. You've got to find that joy again or you're going to stop making them.
"A lot of what takes the joy out of it are the tremendous economic pressures. There's so much on the line. The bigger the film, the more you come into conflict with the studio. There are more battles."
As he worked out the details for his thriller -- figuring out the killer's pyschological make-up, imagining how to stage the murders -- De Palma felt some of that old joy. "I wanted to make movies because I had strong visual ideas," he said. That's how I started making movies and that's where I'm going to try to return to." But he knew it was going to be difficult. He knew how quickly a career could be undone. Whatever happened next, he knew "Bonfire" had been a turning point for him. He didn't know where he was going, but he knew he would never again feel the same about himself or his place in the business.
De Palma never quite understood why people hated "Bonfire" so much. He didn't understand why people behaved as though he'd sat in a room trying to make the worst movie imaginable when in fact he'd thought he was making a good movie. "While I was making 'Bonfire,' I saw what was there and it worked. I figured, It worked for me, it'll work for everybody else," he said. "But I think there was an alienation factor. I think after a while they thought, Why do I have to watch all this stuff. I'll just close my eyes and listen to what they have to say."
And then he started to cackle. "I guess this taught me one thing. I have a strange sense of humor," he said. "I guess most people don't share it."
The 1980s were good to me. My career and family flourished, yet, looking back, I feel some embarrassment. So many of today’s social ills took root in that decade. Not that I was oblivious, but I was wrapped up in my own concerns. I feel similarly mixed emotions when I think about The Bonfire of the Vanities.
In 1990 Brian De Palma agreed to give me full access to the movie he was making—an adaptation of Bonfire, the 1987 Tom Wolfe novel that had been embraced as a metaphor for everything that was wrong with 1980s New York.
In the book, Wolfe lampooned the city’s racial politics, corrupt judicial system, rampant gentrification, barracuda press corps, and ethnic hostilities. It was high-octane social commentary as entertainment, and Bonfire became an instant sensation.
Warner Bros. hired De Palma to make a film version. But studio executives quickly developed a case of buyer’s remorse. Step by step, the story and characters were homogenized as the budget ballooned. The reviews were savage. Variety called it “…a misfire of inanities.” Good Morning America’s Joel Siegel said, “You’ve got to be a genius to make a movie this bad.” Bonfire became the movie everyone loved to hate.
My book The Devil’s Candy, about the making of the film, was published less than a year after the movie’s ignominious demise. No doubt some of the book’s success was due to Bonfire’s failure. Newsweek put it succinctly: “De Palma’s misfortune is Salamon’s gain.” Ouch. Not nice repayment for De Palma’s generosity in opening his set to me.
Now, 30 years on, the movie deserves to be reconsidered, if not for its quality then for how timely it still feels. Sadly, Bonfire remains all too relevant; only the vocabulary and technology have changed. The “masters of the universe” are now the “one percent.” Twitter has replaced the tabloids. Black Lives Matter leads the charge against racial inequity. The movie may not hold up as a great film, but it was never as bad as its worst reviews. You can watch it now as campy fun, or as a worthy artifact, reminding us that the times have changed but New York’s complicated, messy, grand machinations haven’t.
If anything has changed, it’s Hollywood. In 1990 there were movies and there was network television, with the former being considered decidedly superior.
It wasn’t until The Sopranos came along, in 1999, that long-form series on TV became serious rivals to movies. Bonfire’s many layers would work far better as one of today’s limited series.
Back in 1990 Wolfe was anticipating the future, though he didn’t know it at the time. “It’s too bad movies don’t run nine or 10 hours,” he told me. “The way I constructed the book, almost every chapter was meant to be a vignette about New York as well as something that might advance the story, and to me one was as important as the other.” Amazon Studios bought the rights to make an eight-episode adaptation of the book in 2016, but a series has yet to appear. Indulging its overindulgence, Bonfire has important things to say. Maybe we just didn’t listen closely enough last time.
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."
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.
#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.
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