Sunday, August 1, 2021

PS - The Bonfire of The Vanities

... and then sometimes, you may think you have all "The Right Stuff" (Tom Wolfe pun intended) - great content, great director, great cast, even great chemistry -  and yet the film version is still a flop with both critics and audiences, and can even be considered one of the worst films of all time, i.e. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).


There are several theories, and I have my own - and I'll get to that :)

I started to add this to the last post, but I think it deserves it's own post, because I'm in hopes someone will remake/redo Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities - properly, this time - because it was a great book, an important book - perhaps more important than ever, in this day and age.

However, before I dig into this, it's important to distinguish between our Tom Wolfes, because there were actually two critically acclaimed novelists named Thomas/Tom Wolfe, in America - two separate people.

Making it more confusing is that in addition to having the same name, both were born, raised, and initially educated in the south, received their master's in the North at Ivy League college, both wrote scathing social commentary on the South or American society as a whole.

Hey - we may not have a lot to be proud of, in the south, but you're  hard-pressed to beat our southern storytellers as novelists - including both Toms, Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Harper Lee,  Flannery O'Conner, Alice Walker, Anne Rice, John Grisham - and I could go on and on :)

Actually, regarding that "scathing," to be fair, both men actually gave an honest and fair assessment of society, both the good AND the bad -  but people focused more on the bad, when they saw themselves, of course, and didn't like it  ;)

First, there's Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) - born in Asheville, North Carolina, attended UNC, and then Harvard for his master's.  

Among other novels, he is most famously the author of "Look Homeward, Angel" and "You Can Never Go Home Again," which was published posthumously - and yes, the title of the novel itself, and its content, are responsible for the often-quoted phrase "You can't go home again," which has been incorporated into our culture and a regular part of our American vernacular today.  

In America, we quote this phrase to describe the phenomenon for what happens in a famous person's hometown, when the person returns -  like actors, musicians, or athletes - in that they're never as famous and well-liked in their hometown, despite what kind of person they are.

It is suspected this phenomenon is multifactorial - some combination of they are still seen as whatever they were before they left and became famous - like an an unchanged child or even an unpopular nobody or outcast.

Ironically, even if they had little or no relationship with that person before they left, had an adversarial relationship before they left, or even bullied the person before they left, the people in a famous person's hometown feel abandoned by them, even jealous, and find reasons to blame that person for the way they feel, calling them "arrogant" or "narcissistic," when they aren't necessarily anything of the kind - just famous and they're not. 

Additionally, real old friends who now come close don't want to now rekindle a friendship so much as they want money or attention for themselves, for their fame to rub off on them - and people who treated them badly before now want to be their best friend, for the same reasons ;)

As as a result, their homecoming reception doesn't typically go well, and any good memories are long gone because everything has changed, for better or worse - including that person themselves.

Regardless, "You Can't Go Home Again" was written as a sequel to his first, "Look Homeward, Angel," which although a fictional novel, was also semi-autobiographical, about his hometown of Asheville (with the names changed).

It's a hauntingly beautiful story about family and hope despite adversity, with the angel in the title being chosen due to a very real, true story about his father, who was a stonecutter (often for gravestones), having a beautiful stone-cut angel on their front porch to advertise his stonecutting skills.

(After much debate over where the real angel is now, it's been verified to be at a gravesite at a cemetery in Hendersonville, NC.)

Despite the story of hope, triumph over adversity,  and the need to spread one's wings and fly away, on to a bigger world and better things -  as well his touting the wonders of North Carolina and many of its people - all anyone in North Carolina could focus on was his also skewering certain aspects of society in North Carolina and the South,  especially after they figured out who some of the thinly-disguised characters were, based on real people and real events - that some would have preferred never came to light.  

In other words, they saw themselves and truth - and they didn't like it ;)

As a result of the uproar,  Thomas didn't return for eight years, and when he did, he almost wished he hadn't, and wrote "You Can't Go Home Again."

For what happened next - read the books :)

(In fact, Adriana Trigiani was clearly heavily influenced by this book, but with her own style, more humor, and with a different type of ending ;)

Now to Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) - born in Richmond, Virginia, attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia, then Yale for his master's.  

Among other novels, he is most famously the author of "The Right Stuff"  and "The Bonfire of the Vanities,"  both of which were later made into films - without much of Tom Wolfe's input.

The Right Stuff (which I've never read, but saw the movie ) is about the original Mercury-7 astronauts, the political reasons for choosing the astronauts they did (including passing on Chuck Yeager, whom his peers considered the greatest pilot of all time), and the insanity that was spending so much money on the space race, in the 1950s and 1960s, just to be better than the Soviet Union - basically, a giant, macho, pissing contest :)

The film version in 1983 did fairly well, despite Tom's lack of creative control, though many aspects were changed not to his liking.

Then we get to The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, but on the New York Times Bestseller list for years.  (I read it when it first came out.)

Like his predecessor, he satirically skewered not just the South, but American society as a whole - though with TBOTV, his intent was initially to skewer racism and social class just in New York City - inspired by the Howard Beach incident. 

Almost 30 years before Trump, 33 years before the murder of George Floyd, and 34 years before we were all surprised (even us liberals who have been on the forefront of anti-racism and anti-sexism for years) by our own ingrained implicit racial and gender bias, by wanting to believe past all reason that our charming, handsome, funny, beloved Hugh Grant - playing a pediatric oncologist - wasn't the murdering sociopath he turned out to be, in HBO's "The Undoing" ...

... there was the ever-eccentric Southern, but always over target, Tom Wolfe in 1987 -  trying to tell white America that racism was not over in America, and not just confined to the south - racism still existed even in NYC, as did social classism. 

He also tried to warn us against certain especially greedy New Yorkers like Trump, as well as that our socioeconomic system and justice system were still racist and broken, favoring the wealthy and the best justice money could buy - even predicting that one day, we would be confronted with these issues so blatantly and head on that we couldn't ignore them anymore, and thus we would finally be forced to deal with it.

Because the plot is about a wealthy Wall Street broker, Sherman McCoy, from a wealthy family, who attended an Ivy League college.  He imagines himself "Master of the Universe," after seeing his daughter watching the 80s cartoon "He-Man," and because of his control over what happens in stock market.  

One day, his greedy mistress, Maria Ruskin, driving Sherman's car, takes a wrong turn into the Bronx.  After seeing two teenage black boys approach, she jumps to conclusions and freaks out, spins the car around, hitting one of them - and then just drives away.

At first, they nearly get away with it, believing that the poor can do nothing and no one will ever believe they could do such a thing because they're white and wealthy, and even if they got caught, they could afford the best lawyers money could by to get them out of it and counter-sue.  

Unable to get justice, the family of Henry Lamb, the teenager killed in the hit-and-run, turn to their community and a pastor in Harlem, who decides to go to the press, and approaches former star  journalist, Peter Farrow, whose star has faded, because he's an alcoholic - now in need of a good story.

Though Henry Lamb was legitimately a kid from the projects who managed to avoid gangs, keep himself out trouble, and stay in school, the pastor and press man, Peter Farrow, embellish him as an "honor" student to make him appear a more "valuable" human being rather than a poor black kid from the projects, as a star on the rise, in order to garner more attention and justice  - and the story takes on a life of its own, resulting in ferreting out McCoy and his Suskin.

The DA, Abe Weiss, up for re-election, first ferrets out it was Sherman's car, but jumps to conclusions, in effort to try for a quick conviction,  offering Maria a deal in which she can have immunity if she will testify as a witness against Sherman, saying he was the one driving and hit Henry Lamb, instead of herself - which she does. 

The evidence of an audio recording of Maria confessing to being the driver is uncovered, but dismissed because it's an audio recording confession, obtained illegally by her landlord, who'd illegally installed recording devices for all of his tenants, in effort to quickly evict them if someone richer wants an apartment -  so the jury was hung on a verdict on Sherman, falling strictly upon racial lines.

Nevertheless, despite knowing he was the witness, instead of the driver, who was actually Maria - the DA, Weiss, presses on for his conviction to win his election, and Peter Fallow sticks by his story, which has reignited his old fame and respect.

As for Sherman, though the criminal trial ended in a hung jury, there is still a civil trial ...

As to what happens - again, read the book, instead of watching the movie - but here's a hint, just in case you don't ...

... just about everybody manages to wriggles out of just about everything immoral and illegal that they did, in this circus - the DA, the press, the actual driver, Maria, and even Sherman to a certain degree -  who doesn't go to jail, but owes money, but has suffered a job and reputation loss.

Everyone but, of course, the murdered innocent, black teenage boy, never in trouble, from the Bronx, whose death has been all but forgotten  :/

Now  - what went wrong with this film?

You have the content of Tom Wolfe.  You have  Oscar-winning Acclaimed director, Brian DePalma, You have Tom Hanks as Sherman.  You have Bruce Willis as Peter Farrow, the alcoholic journalist.  You have Melanie Griffith Maria Suskin as the ditzy mistress, Maria.  

What could go wrong?

Now, I haven't watched this movie since it came out, but here was what was wrong with it, from my recall.

Well, IMO, for starters, Tom Wolfe himself had little to virtually nothing to do with the making of the film.

Secondly, Brian DePalma - the director of  "Carrie" and "Scarface" is the master of horror and psychological action thrillers - NOT satire and social commentary, which requires many close-ups and capturing of nuances.

He may have gotten the social commentary and satire, but he couldn't properly convey it on film, and thus, the largest portion of "blame" likely falls on him.

Thirdly, though Tom Hanks can have chemistry with anyone, therein lies the problem - he's too damn likable -  even when trying to play a narcissistic bad guy (that you discover has at least a little heart and humanity left, and you feel some pity for, by the end, also realizing  these are the consequences of his own choices).  

Sometimes I think he can't help it - it's just his face lol.  Even when he's mad, he can make you laugh, you can't take it seriously. 

I think they may have thought this would work in his favor, like Hugh Grant in The Undoing - but it didn't.  

He was so likeable that nobody believed he was a ruthless Wall Street broker narcissist.  

Fourthly, Melanie Griffith as Maria Ruskin was almost over-the-top ditzy - almost a caricature.  Also, the character was supposed to be a Southern-accented gold-digger, but Melanie couldn't get the accent.

Fifthly, Bruce Willis pretty much just parlayed his breakout role of snarky-but-sexy David Addison from TV's Moonlighting onto the big screen, rather than a snarky, bitter alcoholic.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, they tried to chop up the novel to make it fit into two hours - badly - leaving out vitally important info, making it appear nonsensical and leaving the audience to guess or read the book for answers (which is fine, they should've read the book anyway) - and it was just boring! (Which surprised me, for a DePalma film.)

Thus, that's why I say novel authors who are offered a big-screen deal, don't try to do it all yourself - especially if you have zero experience in filmmaking -  but also make sure you contractually maintain at least some creative control in your contracts - lest you end up with a Bonfire of the Vanities on your hands ;) 

Above all, make sure both the screenplay adapter, the director, and the casting director get you and how you originally saw the character when you wrote it, because that is how you struck gold, and if they miss that completely, you're in trouble.

And sometimes, even when you think you've done everything right, it still doesn't work and nobody knows why (or it isn't appreciated until later), which is why making films is like playing the stock market or a roulette wheel - it's always a gamble :)

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