Originally written 11 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.
Of all the prestige projects of the 1990 awards season, few had more potential than The Bonfire of the Vanities. To begin with, it was based on Tom Wolfe’s first fiction book, which had been widely read in serialized form in Rolling Stone before becoming a bestseller upon its publication as a novel. The director was Brian DePalma, who made his reputation with a series of kinky, Hitchcock-inspired thrillers during the seventies before branching out into more mainstream fare such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Casualties of War. With a wildly popular novel and an A-list director, Warner Bros. had visions of Oscars dancing in their heads, and they consequently filled the cast with big names, from recent Oscar nominees Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Morgan Freeman to newly anointed action superstar Bruce Willis, and backed them with plenty of first-rate character actors.
Ideally, The Bonfire of the Vanities should have been one of the biggest movie events of 1990. But then, if it had been, I would be writing about it in my Yesterday’s Hits column instead of When Good Directors Go Bad. As it stands, the big-screen adaptation remains one of the most notorious fiascos in Hollywood history, earning back a mere $15 million of its then-extravagant $50 million budget, and receiving mostly savage reviews. And while, as a DePalma fan of long standing- I’m the guy who liked The Black Dahlia, after all- I’d like to say that the film was merely misunderstood, I have to admit that it’s a failure.
Part of the problem is the casting of the principal roles, from the top on down. If you were casting the role of an ambitious commodities trader and self-anointed “Master of the Universe”, whose name would come to mind? Michael Douglas? Tom Cruise, perhaps? But after Warner Bros. deemed the character too unsympathetic on the page, they decided to cast Tom Hanks in the role, which is sort of like casting Jimmy Stewart as Gordon Gekko. Also problematic was the casting of Willis. The character of journalist Peter Fallow was written as a dissolute Brit (the role was originally offered to John Cleese), but Willis ended up being cast for marquee value, and gave one of his laziest performances, smirking his way through the role and pissing off most of the people involved with the production with his ego.
Worst of all is Griffith. During the eighties, Griffith’s dumb-blonde persona proved to be surprisingly adaptable to a number of filmmakers’ visions, from the tart-with-a-heart of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild to the streetwise porn star of DePalma’s own Body Double. However, the role of Maria Ruskin was far beyond her limited talent. On the page, Maria may be the trickiest character in the novel, a wily manipulator whose ditzy façade hides a pitch-black heart. But Griffith can only manage the ditzy part, so when the character begins to reveal her shameless nature after Sherman’s life begins to go down the tubes we never believe it. The two halves of her personality- sexy and cunning- never mesh convincingly, so rather than lacing her manipulations with an erotic charge, her dark side makes the sexy stuff creepy, which surely wasn’t what the film was aiming for.
But while the casting issues might have been out of DePalma’s hands, he’s far from blameless. Admittedly, Wolfe’s novel is something of a tough nut to crack, simultaneously a cross-section of New York City life, a morality tale, and a savage takedown of the craven greed and ambition that fueled the eighties. However, it fails on all three counts. Much of its power as a snapshot of the Big Apple’s social strata is lost because its characters are sketchy and one-dimensional, a problem that might have been partially alleviated by spot-on casting, but not entirely. Likewise, the film places its morality tale aspects on the back burner for most of its running time, only to have judge/voice of reason Morgan Freeman bust out an extended monologue about decency in the film’s final five minutes, at which point it comes off as a tacked-on moral rather than a natural outgrowth of the story.
This leaves only the exposé aspect of the story. In nearly 700 pages, Wolfe was able to lay bare the motivations of nearly all of the major players in the story, from Sherman, Maria and Peter, to the lawyers, politicians and community leaders who opportunistically seized upon his case for their own personal gain. Without the time to do this onscreen, DePalma instead focuses on the circus (political and media-driven) that ensues. But while a more assured comic filmmaker might have been able to spin even an abbreviated Bonfire into a bitter little pill (imagine what an Ace in the Hole-era Billy Wilder might have done with this material), DePalma brings almost nothing to the material aside from the liberal use of unflattering wide-angle close-ups to underline the grotesqueness of the characters. Sure, there are a handful of cool camera tricks, but they don’t really work in the context of the story, and mostly just call attention to themselves. I hate to use a criticism that DePalma’s detractors are wont to levy at him, but in this case, they’re right.
In the end, the biggest failing of The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of tone. The scathing satire of the original novel was replaced by a more hamfisted style that was both broad and shrill. A few of the jabs hit (I love how Andre Gregory’s poet is introduced: “he’s on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.”), but most of the time they whiff. Scenes like the one where Maria’s cuckold husband (Alan King) suddenly dies in mid-conversation or the famous “crumbs” monologue by Sherman’s wife might have worked on the page, but they flounder and die onscreen, the former because it’s not inherently funny to see a minor character kick the bucket, the latter because Kim Cattrall plays the character as such a high-strung harpy that it’s hard to focus on anything she says.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Ebert was right when he wrote that The Bonfire of the Vanities might be enjoyable to those who are unfamiliar with the book. But I wouldn’t bet on it. DePalma and the studio took a powerful and lacerating story and adapted it in the most pedestrian way possible, and replaced the prickly citizens of Wolfe’s New York City with characters who are both cartoonish and, worse, uninteresting. If anything good came out of my watching Bonfire again, it’s that I’ve been inspired to re-read the book, to immerse myself in Wolfe’s language and marvel at the world he created. By now, it’s become a cliché that people are generally better off reading the book, but in this case that’s the only way to go.