Dialogue: Bonfire of the Vanities

To: Yancey Strickler

From: Lisa Rosman

Ah, Yanceyrants.

How to respond to such foaming at the mouth, however endearingly rendered? I suppose to address your points one by one, especially as, given the long gap since our last interaction (my fault, naturally), no one may even remember your own dulcet words.

1. When you profess a fondness for Tom Hanks, I honestly think clarification of which Tom Hanks is mandatory. There’s nearly as sharp a divide between his pre- and post-Bonfire days as, well, maybe Elvis pre- and post-Army. Which is to say, the difference is stark and hardly pretty. Back when Hanks was mugging his way through Bosom Buddies and Splash, he was genuinely appealing. Hell, I had a grade-school crush on his silly-putty features, though that may have been because he resembled my crush Michael Anderson (don’t get mad). But after Bonfire, Hanks lost his nice-guy irreverence and went ahead and stuffed his own shirt. What’s interesting is that it seems to have been markedly effective for his career, perhaps because it demonstrated he would willingly step up and do garbage without sneering. Soon after, he did Sleepless in Seattle, a piece of treacle it’s hard to imagine him stumbling through straight-faced beforehand. And from Seattle, it was the world: Philadelphia (Demme’s Silence of the Lambs atonement), Forrest Gump, bla, bla, bla. Not to mention, yes, the soon-to-be Moby Dick-sized disaster Da Vinci Code (cannot wait). No more winks at the audience, and plenty o’ Oscars in return. Which leads me to another one of your points.

2. Michael Keaton would’ve never done this movie. Period. You and I are always mourning his disappearance from the screen, especially because the reason for that disappearance is unclear. Bottom line typically is substance abuse or serious illness, but part of me wonders if he’s just hit the wall. He’s moved beyond the period of his life when he can do the movies like Night Shift (Hanks’ Bachelor Party equivalent) with(out) a straight face, and he’s never really proved himself comfortable with the more serious Hollywood fare. He was uncomfortable enough with Batman (which was the best of that precarious franchise) to bow out of any of its sequels. He rocked as Ray Nicolette in both Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, but for some reason hasn’t hooked in with more of the indie-mainstream directors. Instead, we get this season’s White Noise, his first in a while, and it is shockingly crap. Why, why, why? Wherefore art thou, o cocky, cockeyed Michael Keaton? Come back to the five and dime, and tell us what we can learn from your career trajectory.

3. Ok, back to Bonfire, though you can infer from my lightening-quick jump off-topic that I apathy the film more than I even disliked it. No, it’s not just De Palma who probably did this movie for ze rezume. But I didn’t say it was. I just think his resume-building in particular was most relevant, as it was his apathy that informed every frame. The first ten minutes, which you said you kind of liked, struck me as an abuse of the extended tracking shot so heinous as to cause even Scorsese to forswear them forever. I never, ever want to think again of Bruce Willis wielding a whole salmon in his greedy little fist ever again, and yet I had to watch just that for minute after minute after minute. Certainly every actor who participated in this ill-fated, ill-conceived venture seemed to experience it as some kind of turning point, except for Bruce Willis, who may be too dumb to experience anything as sophisticated as a turning point. Remember when Melanie Griffith did slightly edgy fare, like Something Wild? Not after Bonfire.

4. Which leads me to my last and perhaps most important point. Melanie Griffith doesn’t personify ’80s wealthy hot; Darryl Hannah does. See: Legal Eagles (high-larious). See: Wall Street, which is by far my favorite Oliver Stone debacle. An oversized, over-aerobicized Barbie whose mass of blond hair masks that ultimate ’80s accessory: androgynous features. It’s a fine line between Darryl Hannah and Darryl Dawkins. Hannah should have done this role; she even proved she could muster up a half-baked Southern accent in Steel Magnolias. That said, she and Melanie Griffith can go head to head for a new title: 40ish actress most plasticked-up. Darryl’s brow no longer moves, and you can’t see the Forrest Gump for Melanie’s lips and tetas grandes.

At any rate, we joke, we choke, but the venture kind of makes me sad when I spend too much time dwelling on it. Hollywood is big industry. Many people’s time, more people’s money. All that and it ain’t even that proverbial bag of chips. It’s just a boring film that’s a little too grand to enjoy as a cable offering. It spanned many genres but comfortably lived inside none of them. It was a colossal waste, just like the decade it aims to reflect. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s really just a documentary. And with that, Sir Yancelot, I say we lay aside our feathered pens on the topic of this too-white (mis)steed.


To: Lisa Rosman

From: Yancey Strickler

Dear Rosmania:

Though your prose almost convinces me, I don’t think I can hop on board the Bonfire Blows So Hard train just yet. Maybe it’s my fondness for De Palma and Hanks, maybe it’s Devil’s Candy or maybe it’s my contrarian nature, but I can’t say for certain that Bonfire is a bad movie. Instead, I propose that it’s just a film that — shockingly, considering its writerly origins and journalistic subject matter — doesn’t have much to say.

The first ten minutes of the film are packed so tightly: the stunning Chrysler Building gargoyle sneering down upon Midtown Manhattan; the overlong cut of Bruce Willis staggering toward his award banquet; and Tom Hanks the emasculated but supremely powerful man who can’t even use his own phone to call his mistress and whose dog is not a regal Great Dane or a spry German Shepherd but a sad-sacked dachshund. All that we ever need to know about Hanks’ Sherman McCoy we get from that one scene: he might be a rich and powerful person, but he is not (nor will he ever be) a Man.

In fact, if you have read Wolfe’s A Man in Full (which I absolutely adored, but everyone else hated), he consciously creates the anti-McCoy in Charlie Croker, a mega-rich, aging real estate developer who responds to his increasing distance from the real world (dirt, land, God, love) by trying to out-macho everything, which eventually brings him to ruin. I find McCoy’s fey ways to be perhaps his most important characteristic, at least in terms of how Wolfe wrote the book. I’m still undecided as to whether De Palma picked up on that. The inclusion of the scene where Kim Cattrall patronizingly explains to their daughter what her father does for a living (“he collects golden crumbs from someone else’s cake”) certainly suggests that he did. But then again, we learned from Salaman’s book that De Palma wanted to axe that bit of the film. So who knows where that leaves us.

Like you, I did find myself wondering what De Palma saw in this script. Looking at his previous films, there are few corollaries, and I never even got the impression that he liked the book all that much. It does indeed seem to be a resume flick, a stepping stone out of the thriller ghetto and, ultimately, a bridge too far. But before we start measuring De Palma for his crucifix, there’s something important to note: this was a resume movie for everyone involved. Let’s look at where the major players were in their careers when this was made:

Tom Hanks was coming off Turner and Hooch and Joe and the Motherfucking Hot Ass Volcano. The closest he had to a prestige flick was Big, and that was entirely by accident. He was clearly feeling the seven-year-itch (which, for comedic actors, is when they finally decide that their talents far exceed comedy; see also: Jim Carrey in The Truman Show), and was aching for something respectable in his library (it would take him only three more years: Philadelphia).

Bruce Willis was still a small-dicked, bald, jockey-short, misogynistic asshole cashing Monopoly money checks from his Moonlighting days, which lead to Die Hard and the always-impressive Look Who’s Talking. As everyone can agree, Willis’ casting might be the legitimate scapegoat for Bonfire‘s failure. Only a studio executive would be so fucking stupid to think that simply because a box office draw was interested in a project that it would be worth changing a main character’s nationality and personality, altering the movie’s plot and completely fucking up the film’s flow simply to get this ugly little man on screen. Yes, I’m bitter.

And finally, we have Melanie Griffith, who was eager to prove that she had more to her than her bushy-tailed bluster in Working Girl. (What does it say about Melanie that she appeared in two big-business flicks at the close of the ’80s? Is she the personification of ’80s wealthy-hot?) Salaman portrays Griffith as exactly what you’d expect — a diva always searching for outside sources of affirmation on every aspect of her appearance and personality. And in De Palma with Body Double, she found her perfect foil: a man who would forgive flakiness or stupidity for the curve of a breast or the way a lip curl would appear on camera. They were made for each other.

All of which is to point out, finally, that within the context of their careers, all of Bonfire‘s players were, in some sense, Peter Fallows looking for a leg up out of their stylistic ruts. All were eager to prove themselves to ensure that their names remained high on marquees, and that the best table at Spago would always await them. And as a result, none of them offer the sort of solid-but-unremarkable performance needed for a film to really succeed (Hanks does come off well, but I think that’s simply his natural talent and affability coming through). We do see those sorts of portrayals from the second tier — Saul Rubinek as Jed Kramer and Alan King as Arthur Ruskin especially — but on the marquee it’s not only Bonfire of the Vanities, but War of the Roses.


P.S. I want to hear more about your Batman theory. Hopefully it has something to do with Willis’ gob and Griffith’s made-by-science cleavage being Batcaves. Also, your mention made me realize that this film would have been 1000 times better with Michael Keaton as Fallow! Actually, I can’t think of any film that Keaton wouldn’t improve.

P.P.S. What are the chances that The Da Vinci Code, starring Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, ends up being Bonfire Pt. 2? Can I get some odds on that?


To: Yancey Strickler

From: Lisa Rosman

Sir Yanceypants:

Well, well. We’ve hereby established that you are indeed my boyfriend, culinarily challenged warts and all, and that I am the lucky recipient of your man love. So I’ll go on to acknowledge what we’re not: Movie Club, as much as we both dug following it on Slate. That said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that following its back-and-forth is what inspired us to finally air one of our own ongoing discussions about everything we look at, listen to, and (let’s face it) do. I have no idea what we can call this, but I can tell you what we can’t call it: He Blogged, She Blogged. How about Me Jane. You Doe-Eyed. Or not.

At any rate, though I may have written about movies officially more than you (namely as the film editor of The Brooklyn Rail and for Premiere, and on my viewing blog The Broad View), certainly you do know how to form an opinion about films. For example, ain’t no reason to dismiss the MGM musicals without even giving them a fair shake! And, for the record, I don’t always fall asleep during black-and-white movies. Just, uh, most of them. It’s mostly that fake English accent Hollywood actors used back then that slays me. Better than a Seconal.

Speaking of fake English accents, let’s get down to brass tacks. Part of why Bonfire of the Vanities blows so hard is not just its genre-indeterminacy but the stank acting, including that same faux Brit-ish accent, used here as a shorthand to convey wealth and social status. True, Hanks as baffled broker Sherman McCoy comes off smelling like a rose, but he always was pleasantly loose until he started picking the Important Movies (then he solidified in every way actors typically do when they find scientology). Kim Cattrall as his wife, decked out with a militaristic helmet of black hair and a lemon-mouth hiss; Melanie Griffith as his Southern mistress with an accent from, where, Southern Mars? So sorry: Venus, Venus. And so on.

As you mentioned, although you don’t regard Brian De Palma as a terrible choice for this project, I think he was over his head. Tom Wolfe’s writing always suffers from the Monet Effect, so translating him to the big screen is a weighty undertaking. In short: the script sucked—the plot straggled and the dialogue was shall-we-say wooden. Based on what we read in Salamons’ (note correct spelling, Boo) excellent book, it only got worse when said douchebag Willis stepped into the project. The character of journalist Fallow then had to be confined to Willis’ limited abilities (read: smirk, deadpan stare, action-movie strut, drunken shuffle).

But there’s the rub. I don’t have the sense that De Palma had any control over this material. The actors, the script, the Saturday matinee pacing: more than anything, a director’s job is to tease thousands of unruly elements into coherence. I don’t just think that it’s because we both read Salamon’s book that the ragged seams were so evident; anyone who saw this film could tell there were just too many cooks in that kitchen. And say what you will, but De Palma should’ve gone to bat for this baby. The trouble is that it wasn’t his baby. He didn’t seem remotely connected to the material. The Coen Brothers-style wacky angles that you fancied brought to my mind the bar mitzah cameraman so bored that he’s fooling with shots to keep himself awake while little Zachary fumbles his Hebrew.

That’s what interests me about this story. Looking at other De Palma’s films, what strikes me is that he likes a little distance from his subjects, prefers to reduce them to a striking image and a tidy duality. It’s what gives all of his films a B-movie quality that can work if it’s just B enough. (A gentleman’s B? Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Think of that famous shot of the baby carriage bumping slowly down a flight of stairs amidst a rash of gunfire in The Untouchables; or, for that matter, any scene in Body Double. Or how comfortably he manned the taut one-mindedness that was Mission Impossible, another big undertaking that surely had studio fingerprints smeared all over it. Why he didn’t lose control of it, besides the fact that our favorite scientologist has a producer credit, is because the subject suited to him.

It’s like how Times critic Manohla Dargis suggested Scorcese’s The Aviator suffered because the scrappy self-made director might’ve had a hard time relating to the original silver spoon Howard Hughes. Even though the Miramax boys messed with it, I still consider Gangs of New York a compelling venture, while Aviator affected me like, well, a black-and-white movie does. I don’t think De Palma likes people, politics and the messiness that ensue from both. With so many key decisions in the film, such as the decision to cast the Jewish judge in the book as garrulous Morgan Freeman, De Palma rolled over and played dead. Why? Because this was one for the resume and the bank. End of story. Not all big-studio undertakings by so-called independent directors are worse; save for Ocean’s Twelve, Soderbergh seems to do better with the leash studios wrap around his neck, for example. But the trick is he finds his way into the topics.

As I said, I’m not convinced that Bonfire of the Vanities was that great a book anyway. Looking back at it, what made it interesting wasn’t its plot — a true journalist, Wolfe does better telling someone else’s story than making up his own — but the assorted phrases he’s inarguably good at manufacturing. Social X-rays. The Girl with the Brown Lipstick. And, of course, Masters of the Universe. None of it survived the translation into Willis’ nasal voiceover, and, as we both agree, voiceover is a sketchy device even in the best of circumstances. So I guess I’m not sure who would have better resonated with the material, because I’m not sure who would have been able to skillfully whip Wolfe’s cartoony, cynical never-York into shape. Maybe Tim Burton if he weren’t even more of a manchild than most Hollywood directors. Don’t forget Batman, which resembles the book in some key ways if you think about it.

The bottom line is that in this chain of misadventures, the only solid endeavor I can point to is not the book, nor the movie, but Julie Salamon’s clever autopsy, which serves as a handy blueprint to us New Yorkers about the ways and means committee that is a Hollywood studio. Also I think they should change the title of the movie to Bonfire in Yanceyspants.


To: Lisa Rosman

From: Yancey Strickler

Dearest Liser,

To start this new project off (He Blogged, She Blogged? Can you name us, please?), I suppose that we should introduce ourselves, right? My name is Yancey. My online home is Get Up Stand Up, and I write for publications like SPIN, Blender and The Village Voice. I am also, in case you have forgotten, your culinary-challenged boyfriend (it can be tricky to remember us all).

By virtue of our respective professions — film critic = you, music critic = me — we certainly come at movies from different angles: you the hardened cynic with the cold shoulder, me the doe-eyed innocent wondering where they found all those dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. Despite our differing levels of expertise, however, we generally seem to agree on movies, barring anything in black-and-white (lights out for Lisa) or where characters spontaneously break into song (nightmares of my high school musical days).

We both have soft spots for major-studio genre flicks, which would seem to bode well for our inaugural topic, Bonfire of the Vanities, if I could just figure where to file it. Let’s start with what it could be, but isn’t: a big business flick, part of the New York film canon, a drama, a thriller, a comedy. There are certainly elements of all of these somewhere in there, but not one of those genres/characteristics asserts itself at all. What we’re left with is something in the middle of those, which certainly illustrates why Spielberg unfavorably compared the movie to Dr. Strangelove. When a director, writer, studio and cast aren’t sure what exactly they’re making, it always spells disaster. Always.

Julie Salomon’s amazing The Devil’s Candy details the creation of Bonfire of the Vanities: how it was made, why it failed, who was responsible for the many terrible casting decisions, etc. Not only is it a great behind-the-scenes sorta thing, it’s also a wonderful business book. Certainly better than Tom Wolfe’s creation. And also better than its subject matter. Should Warner Brothers decide to release some sort of Bonfire special edition on DVD, The Devil’s Candy should, without question, be packaged along with it, if for no other reason than to finally show the public what a douchebag Bruce Willis is, and to teach aspiring starlets why it’s best not to get a breast enlargement in the middle of filming a major motion picture (Hey Melanie, holla back!).

After finishing Salomon’s book, I couldn’t have been more excited to see Bonfire. Being a nominal De Palma fan and someone contagious to Tom Hanks’ charms, I was convinced that the studio executives and movie-going public had completely misjudged the film; that it was a diamond in the rough cut. And for the first 20 minutes I felt vindication on behalf of everyone who worked on the film. It was funny! It was basically a Coen Brothers movie, with the caricature characters, strange pacing and mocking camera angles. And then, with the beginning of the second act, it all fell apart.

As you have said many times in our conversations about the movie, Lisa, you think that De Palma was the wrong man to make this picture. And while I would have gone elsewhere as well — Sydney Pollack for a serious treatment, the Coens for zany — I don’t think that De Palma was wrong, necessarily. De Palma is an accomplished stylist, and if Bonfire has any moral core, it’s an aesthetic one. It’s a movie about People Who Like Nice Things and what happens when they lose them. So, to get this dialogue rolling, I’d like to ask you why you think De Palma was the wrong choice, and who you would have chosen instead. That, and the enigma wrapped in a shot glass that is Bruce Willis’ Peter Fallow.



"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy