Endangered species: the Hollywood floperoo

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was an irony almost too trivial to be noticed. But there's no such thing as an irony too trivial for a movie critic, so I couldn't help noticing that exactly as "Batman Returns" was opening and raking in over $47 million in three days, so too, at least in Baltimore, was another film that once boasted a frenzy of hype and high expectations. It may have made $47.

This was "Brenda Starr," the Brooke Shields starring vehicle of five years ago, which, for obscure reasons, snuck on little cat's feet into a single venue in a suburban multiplex, unsupported by a single advertisement. The night I saw it was like a command performance: I was the only guy there. It was almost like being . . . important.

But in those two films, really, we find the yin and the yang of the movie business, at least as practiced in a market-driven system like America's: great riches, an avalanche, a cavalcade, a torrent of dough; or, great catastrophe. Ignominy, collapse, shame, the collapse of a million tiny dreams.

It's wonderful, isn't it?

Surely, great flops like "Brenda Starr" are one of the true subtextual fascinations in Hollywood. It remains the only industry in America where millions of dollars in capital and the best efforts of hundreds of extremely talented and hard-working people can vanish in a single night. Friday night is the loneliest night of the week, if you've invested $20 million in a movie nobody wants to see.

Actually, there's a sense of melancholy attached to poor "Brenda." It might be the last of the big-time flops, the resounding bomb that spells creative doom to a whole company. The film studios have developed so many ancillary markets now, and their market research is so sophisticated, that it's almost impossible not to make at least a little money, if only off the cable rights in Argentina, or the translation of the novelization into Urdu, or T-shirts for the Congo. If everything else fails, they can always sell the movie to HBO. They'll take anything.

Further, movies seem to be so corporate these days. Rarely ("Batman" and "Batman Returns" are exceptions) do the big studios allow young directors to go way out on the limb; fleets of drab boys from Harvard who've been to a screenwriting seminar and know the Five Building Blocks of Movie Storytelling hover through every moment of the process. Thus, we have fewer and fewer of the megaflops, the legendary catastrophes. That's good, if you're an accountant. Yet at the same time we have fewer and fewer truly great movies, for the same amount of creative energy and guts that can produce a flop can produce "TC great hit: It's the willingness to go to the edge that produces the truly great movies and the truly mythic flops. Instead, we have reasonably safe product milled by big studio machine work for the widest possible audience with the most number of fail-safes built into the system. Only Spike Lee's "Autobiography of Malcolm X" looms as a potentially great movie and a potentially great flop in the near future; of course, it could be both.

Boring flops

Alas, in recent years, movies have flopped not because they tried to do too much but because they tried not to do enough. We're talking the least amusing kind of flop: boring flops. A perfect example of this is the dismal "For the Boys," the Bette Midler catastrophe of last Christmas. It was a sort of cavalcade deal, covering 30 years in the life of a couple of USO troopers, with stops in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, giving Midler, who produced the thing herself, a chance to showcase herself in three different types of music. It also played off masculine-feminine and liberal-conservative attitudes toward war, by matching her against James Caan in a thinly fictionalized version of Bob Hope. But, in a series of "development" problems, Midler evidently decided that the piece needed more emotional resonance. Thus, late in the picture, a new writer was brought in and a whole new plot development was added: This was to give Midler a son so that the male-female/conservative-liberal issue could play out in the young man's life. Alas, the emotional bathos all but swamped the movie's extremely persuasive and delightful musical subtext. It was a movie nobody wanted to see.

Something similar happened with the megaflop of the Christmas before, the Brian DePalma version of the Tom Wolfe novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities," a movie so conceptually crippled that its demise was widely anticipated before shooting even began. Most people understood that one of the secret attractions of the Wolfe novel was its political incorrectness: It looked at the great horde of "victims" of racism and poverty as a swarm of seething barbarians clamoring for its turn to become the oppressor class, and it loved to mock the spectacle of good-hearted liberals groveling before the new mandarins of New York.

Thus when arch-liberal Brian DePalma (he had just made the rigidly indignant "Casualties of War") got the job, it seriously compromised the project. DePalma was simply incapable of the kind of barely concealed racial hostility that infused the book and gave it its edge; and when the decision was made to change a Jewish judge into a black judge, as a way of defusing the anger of civil rights groups, the movie was essentially doomed. There was no way it could ever be made soft enough to appeal to liberals, and at the same time it had squandered whatever claim it originally had on conservatives; it was a political movie without any politics. The only person who could possibly have loved it was Ross Perot, and it takes flocks, not eagles, to make a movie a hit.

"Ishtar," with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, written and directed by Elaine May in 1987, is the last memorable floperoo. It's a clear case of misguided genius combined with misguided star clout. Beatty and Hoffman, who had superb box office records, both vouched for the beloved May, long considered a genius for her brilliant rewrites. Her several credited films as a director were hardly the sort of work that would encourage a studio to gamble millions on, being quirky and independent, but they had their fans. Clearly, it was the power of the stars that got this baby rolling, until it foundered in a sea of sand.

It turned out that Beatty and Hoffman had zero chemistry together, and that May was as diffident and unfocused as a director as she was in person. The movie never made much sense, it went scandalously over budget, and it simply wasn't funny.

But for a truly magnificent old-style flop, a flop that left everybody with bad tastes in their mouths, you have to go back to "Heaven's Gate" in 1981. It not only sunk a studio, it sunk a whole genre. In fact, the best thing about it is the excellent book United Artists creative vice president Steven Bach wrote, a kind of captain's eye-view of a trip on the Titanic, called "Final Cut." Bach reports on the unusual corporate alchemy, the odd congruence of misjudgments, cynical calculations and sheer mendacity that produced one of the legendary follies in corporate history. It made the Edsel and New Coke look brilliant.

Desperate bid

United Artists had just suffered a major loss: Five of its most prominent executives had left in a tiff with a new ownership and gone off to start Orion Films. In a desperate bid to stay credible in the creative community, the company hired Michael Cimino, who had just won a Best Picture Oscar for "The Deer Hunter," to direct from his own script a western based losely on the Johnson County Cattle Wars in Wyoming in the late 1880s, budgeted at around $6 million.

It seemed such a sane decision. But what nobody could tell the geniuses at United Artists was that Cimino was about to go off on a full-tilt bender, an orgy of perfection and paranoia that inflated the cost to about $30 million (about $70 million in 1992 terms). He insisted that all his extras wear underwear that replicated the underwear of the 1880s, not that it would be seen. Evidently, several railway trestles had to be reinforced at studio expense so that an appropriate 1880s steam engine could make the trip to the location, because an on-site engine from the early 1900s was not acceptable.

What's a poor studio to do? So much money has already been invested that to close down production simply would be to write off millions; the momentum, and the commercial logic, seemed to thrust everybody into a state of flagrant denial. The thing just kept lurching along, eating money and reputations, until finally, years behind schedule and millions over budget, it was done.

Vincent Canby in the New York Times blew it off in three paragraphs, and within a few days, the movie was actually pulled from release to be recut in a shorter version. In actual fact, however, it was finally the longer version -- Cimino's four-hour cut, available on video -- that made the most sense. It still stunk; it just didn't stink as much.

'Waterloo's' Waterloo

David Pirie's "Anatomy of the Movies" lists the 1969 "Waterloo" as the biggest flop of all time. It cost $25 million; it earned $1.4 million. It's actually a pretty good movie -- the Russian hotshot Sergei Bondarchuk directed, and Christopher Plummer made a dandy Wellington -- which happened to be crucified on the cross of whimsy. Obviously in the planning for years, it finally reached the public, this movie glorifying battle heroism, at the pinnacle of anti-war feeling and the Vietnam war's low point. "Cleopatra" is regarded as a monstro bomb, but although it cost $44 million, it did make over $26, so it wasn't as if nobody went to see it.

The biggest "interesting" loss is "Sorcerer," one of the strangest movies ever made. William Friedkin, who'd hit it big with both "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," chose to remake the gut-clenching French thriller "Wages of Fear" on a huge scale with a huge budget of $22 million and . . . Roy Scheider in the lead? And no one could figure out why it was called "Sorcerer," since it was about trucks loaded with nitroglycerin. And Roy Scheider? If it had starred the shark from Scheider's one big hit, "Jaws," maybe. But . . .

In fact, failure is a tradition that goes back to Hollywood's earliest years. Thomas Alva Edison invented the movie camera in 1893; by 1916, he was out of the business.

zTC

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