Making Books About Making Movies

Who's the Big Swinging Dick?
New books dissected over email.
July 10 2002 3:23 PM

Making Books About Making Movies

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Bryan,

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Point taken. The no-lose situation is the first position in the Hollywood executive dance. But that kind of cover-your-ass operation rubs against the idea you floated Monday that the head of advertising is the Alpha Male of the neoclassical Hollywood studio. (Are there any Alpha Females?) He can certainly escape blame or take credit; he can even kill a good movie if no one stops him, but does he dance out of defensiveness or with a swagger? I suppose, like most things, it depends on the guy and the studio.

At Warner Bros., the guy was Rob Friedman. "Filmmakers came to Warner Bros. and they left. Friedman was always there." When Bonfire rolled across his desk, he was unenthused. "I didn't find it very redeeming. … I didn't care what happened to Sherman McCoy. He was such a putz." Bane of auteurs or not, Friedman is right. Sherman McCoy is a putz, and he is not funny.

So they lightened him up, they redeemed him and Willis' roué journalist, they brought in Morgan Freeman, etc., etc. If we believe Julie Salamon, the great looming threat to Bonfire is this perverse concern with "likability" and making the characters "slightly less complex." Was this the problem? I don't think so. In Wolfe's brand of satire, there are  no "complex" characters, there are human cartoons. And everyone is a target except Wolfe, who sits next to you, pointing at his characters and giggling like a refugee robot from MST3K.

Salamon can't explain why De Palma did what he did, but it looks like he caved on character and tried to capture Wolfe's posture on screen by canting the camera every which way, overlighting the sets, and stylizing the performances. Combined with his tendency to announce his cinematic quotations—"This is a shot like Hitchcock;" "This is like Eisenstein"—it's hard to watch. When we watch movies, we really do need something to identify with on screen. Even if there isn't a likable person, there have to be plausible moments.

The only plausible moment in Bonfire occurs when the poor dog is dragged out into the rain, a harbinger of our fates. De Palma hated that people liked it. But the audience, here, was on to something.

What could he have done differently? There are two options. One: He could have staved off the likability brigands. In What Just Happened? Linson takes us through a maddening exchange with a Fox executive who asks if Pip, in the updated version of Great Expectations, will be "unlikable": Will the audience "root for him" after he humiliates his poor but noble uncle? Linson doesn't fight back; he tells the exec nothing. "Everybody loves Pip." At weakened Fox, the stonewalling works; Pip (well, Finn) does, in fact, humiliate his poor but noble uncle. But De Palma, as we have noted, had no producer to run interference for him.

The second option was to cave all the way. There is something to be said for likability, after all. It broadens the mind, to paraphrase Nicholson in Batman. If you don't have to think about the grit of a character, you can build one out of a screen-writing kit. And then you can think about something else, something big like the replacement of political culture by style. The great high-concept films—Batman, Top Gun, Flashdance, Ferris Bueller's Day Off—let likable types go through their "character arcs" while the films are busy inventing new modes of being for the postmodern era. True, if you are interested in documenting a real-ish person wrestling with the dark corners of her soul, you still need motivation. But if you are interested in molding a culture, what's a little likability if it gets you a green light?

In the case of Bonfire, though, there was no one craven enough to demand that De Palma submit entirely to a different vision of the film. Peter Guber, who should have produced it, was gone, and gone, too, was Guber's vision of "the devil's candy," a "visceral sexual thing" that would drive McCoy to ruin. Bonfire with Guber would have been different. Maybe not better, but different. "I'd have hit him over the head with a million different things." (A side note: The reissue does not reproduce the photo section, which includes a shot of Guber pitching Tom Hanks the idea of playing McCoy. Hanks looks stunned.)

So was Guber the Alpha Male manqué, the slain father-king, as JFK, another Warner picture, put it? Not him either, and not studio heads Bob Daly and Terry Semel. Yesterday I suggested that Nick Schenck was not the puppeteer behind the failure of Red Badge. He saw the opportunity, and he took it. The failure presented itself.

The same applies to Bonfire. If the picture had been a success, good for De Palma and good for Warners. Since it's a failure, well, it was Guber's fault. "There was only one good thing about it," an anonymous source told screenwriter William Goldman. "Guber and Peters are famous for shacking up with movies … they had zero to do with, like Rain Man. It was fun watching them distance themselves from Bonfire." Salamon then goes on to quote Guber, at length, while he tries to twist away.

Warners had stuck it to Columbia when Guber and Peters left, forcing Sony to cough up their studio lot, half of CBS Records, and a pile of cash. Now, with a bomb on its hands, Warners could take revenge upon Guber once again. This is bigger than De Palma or Guber or Friedman. Is it too much to suggest that the Alpha Male of the studio is the studio itself, that the only "big swinging dick," to quote Wolfe, is the imaginary corporate one?

J.D.

J.D. Connor is assistant professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. He is working on a book about neoclassical Hollywood.