Revisiting Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty's forgotten blockbuster.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 21 2010 7:43 PM

Remember Dick Tracy?

It had Warren Beatty. Al Pacino. Madonna. Songs by Sondheim.

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True, he did it in style, gracefully marrying blockbuster bigness to classic Hollywood filmmaking. (You'd have a hard time finding another movie from Dick Tracy's time as filled with swirling newspaper montage sequences and thinly motivated musical numbers.) But look for Beatty's heart and you won't find it here. His most memorable performances—the idealistic, blinkered Reed in Reds; the impotent Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde; the womanizing hairdresser who finds his soul too late in Shampoo—have been as men with complicated inner lives. He appears uneasy playing it straight in Dick Tracy; only the scenes in which Madonna's Mahoney tempts him to stray from his girlfriend Tess Trueheart draw on his strengths. The infrequent action scenes feel half-hearted at best. The film moves at a chug when it should put the pedal to the floor.

It didn't help that to match the expectations of its hype, Dick Tracy would have had to win acclaim and financial success on an almost unimaginable scale. Nicole Laporte, writing about Dick Tracy in The Men Who Would Be King, refers to the film as a "staggering disaster," but that's not quite accurate. Dick Tracy drew respectful if not glowing reviews and broke the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, then the benchmark for financial success. (It had cost $47 million, not including the marketing budget.) But, as Biskind notes, it fell short of Batman numbers and failed to move merchandise at a Batman-like clip. Its performance made Disney stock dip.

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More telling, perhaps, is the fact that the film enjoyed no afterlife. It won a few Oscars (for art direction, makeup, and best song), then made its way to cable. It's not spoken of today in the same breath as  Back to the Future, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, or other near-contemporaries, nor has it enjoyed any kind of revival as an overlooked cult film, like Joe Versus the Volcano or Miami Blues, both released the same year. Inescapable in 1990, it's become at best a hazy memory.

An obsessive perfectionist if even half the stories in Biskind's book are to be believed, Beatty has no one to blame but himself. He meant Dick Tracy to be every inch a Warren Beatty film, asking credit for the script from the WGA, despite the sizable contributions of screenwriter Bo Goldman. (Credit ultimately went to Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., who wrote an earlier draft.) *The earnestness of the film's hero and the moral simplicity of its universe can't hide the calculation beneath it all. The man who'd once helped to make Hollywood safe for individual voices had decided to come in from the cold. Spurred by months of publicity, crowds paid to see it—some even stayed up late to see it first—but Dick Tracy's slow slide from public consciousness was beginning by the end of its first weekend. The lesson, one that future blockbusters have sadly failed to heed: You can make a movie into an event, but it takes more than a T-shirt to make audiences remember it.

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Correction, June 23, 2010: This article originally stated that Warren Beatty received screenwriting credit for Dick Tracy. Only Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. did. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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