Thursday, August 20, 2015

Off the Shelf: Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy (1991)

Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).

"Brian De Palma walked right off a cliff when he made his version of the Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker when the movie opened during the Christmas season of 1990. "It's ingenious; there's clever thinking behind it. And it's a a sci-fi version of a loud, over-bright screwball comedy." In The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood, a fascinating and painfully comic account of the unmaking of a highly controversial book, Julie Salamon (a novelist who was once the film critic for the Wall Street Journal) traces those futile steps that led right up to the edge of that deadly cliff. With a perception that's both poignant and prescient, Salamon gives us a searing portrait of Hollywood studio bungling in the early Nineties. The Devil's Candy is about the desperate actions of Warner Brothers who were hungry for a huge hit – the devil's candy of the title. They took a scabrous best seller with politically volatile material, miscast it, and then hired Brian De Palma, a director known for his own satiric volatility, and essentially asked him to make a feel-good film out of a story about political greed and racism in the Eighties. The movie was both a critical and commercial disaster. Salamon, with a judicious wit, unravels bit-by-bit the cruel process of the whole debacle.

Arriving near the end of an avaricious decade, The Bonfire of the Vanities is about the downfall of an Eighties aristocratic Wall Street bond trader, Sherman McCoy, who one night runs over a black man in the Bronx. His misdeed turns him into political fodder for every minority group in New York clamoring for power, including every high roller running for office, and every journalist looking for a Pulitzer Prize. Wolfe's powerful, but self-satisfying novel catered to a rising cynicism that satisfied the average reader's desire to see the rich guys pay. It was an effective, but shrewdly manipulative book that knew exactly which nerves to tweak. Ironically, though, it was the rich guys who decided to turn it into a movie. Producer Peter Gruber, who had just made Warner Brothers hugely wealthy from the proceeds of Tim Burton's dark and operatically satisfying Batman (1989), convinced the studio to buy the rights to The Bonfire of the Vanities because, as he told Salamon, he believed he was "smart enough to make this movie." But after he's chosen the boyish Tom Hanks to play Sherman "The Master of the Universe" McCoy and secured Brian De Palma as director (immediately after the stinging commercial failure of his masterful Vietnam War drama Casualties of War), Gruber flew the coup to Columbia Pictures where Sony had offered him a more lucrative deal. That left De Palma having to both direct and produce the picture.

While De Palma inherited the casting of Hanks as McCoy (when he rightly preferred either William Hurt or Steve Martin in the part), he agreed to the hiring of Bruce Willis (in the role of the opportunistic journalist Peter Fallow who in the book was British), and Melanie Griffith as Sherman's Southern mistress. The script by Michael Cristofer also inserted a genial black judge (played by Morgan Freeman) who in the book was Jewish (the studio was terrified that since there were no sympathetic black characters in the story, they might get picketed by pressure groups). De Palma was given only 17 weeks to shoot the picture (starting inauspiciously on Friday, April 13th, 1990) because the studio wanted it ready for a Christmas release. The costs soared to $60 million while various political leaders wanted disclaimers in the credits so it was clear that Bonfire was actually a work of fiction. Since De Palma was both producer and director he had to spend as much time soothing the anxieties of meddlesome studio executives as he did behind the camera. What's most telling and tragic in The Devil's Candy, however, is how the negative reaction to Casualties of War led De Palma to not trusting his best instincts and instead caving into the most ridiculous corporate suggestions for Bonfire.

The Devil's Candy illustrates with a piercing intelligence how – in the name of box office expediency – Hollywood turned a volatile political subject into an exceptionally innocuous movie. Along with her troubling portrait of corporate timidity, Salamon's book also provides a perceptive analysis of De Palma, a renegade commercial director who in satiric and erotic horror comedies (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), or probing and powerful political dramas (Blow Out, Casualties of War), was maybe (with his gift for drawing audiences into dark and foreboding themes) the best director for Bonfire. But The Devil's Candy is a horrifically funny story of a talented, self-doubting director who in Bonfire talked himself into artistic suicide. The Devil's Candy is without question the perfect companion to Steven Bach's Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate (1985). If Final Cut was about how Michael Cimino's opaque epic Western took the fall for all the indulgences in American auteurist cinema in the Seventies, The Devil's Candy is a cautionary tale about the ongoing indulgences of corporate studios who seek to airbrush out any artistic temperament to turn auteurist cinema into innocuous product.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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