Film is the ultimate collaborative art, involving not just a writer, director and actors, but dozens — sometimes hundreds — of crewmen behind the scenes whose creative decisions, often made instinctively at the spur of the moment, can make or break a picture. Which is why any successful movie is a minor miracle of sorts.
But sometimes, if a picture is big enough, when it doesn’t work, when it all falls apart, when doom strikes, the resulting implosion can be worth observing from a safe distance, just to see how big the fallout was. The late Gene Siskel famously wrote that he had simple test for the movies he reviewed: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” Julie Salamon’s classic 1991 book The Devil’s Candy ups the ante established by Siskel tenfold: the movie version of this book, sort of a landlocked print version of the great Apocalypse Now documentary, Hearts of Darkness, would have been much more fun to watch than the underlying film production Salamon was describing — the 1990 movie version of Tom Wolfe’s definitive ’80s book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, as directed by Brian DePalma.
This was a film shoot in which everything went wrong, beginning with the two most important elements of the movie: casting and writing. Of the former, John Frankenheimer once said, “If you cast the picture correctly, you have a whole lot of leeway. You can make mistakes in other aspects but pull it off with the right actors.” Regarding the script, legendary screenwriter Ernest Lehman has said, “bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay.”
So let’s cast Tom Hanks (in his first dramatic role) as a WASPy old-money Park Ave. bond trader, Bruce Willis (just off Die Hard and TV’s Moonlighting) as a boozy Hitchens-esque British journalist, and Morgan Freeman in a character who began life as a Jewish Bronx judge originally named Myron Kovitsky, a role originally intended for Walter Matthau or Alan Arkin.
And then let’s have the screenwriters edit out virtually all of class and racial conflict that made Tom Wolfe’s book so deliciously attractive to millions of readers, and make the movie as politically correct and vapid as possible. And lets hire an equally miscast director, better known for Hitchcock homages and slam-bang action movies like Scarface and The Untouchables to direct.
When the project was begun, I’m sure that Salamon, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal, thought she was writing yet another Hollywood “making of” book, to tie-in with a motion picture on a topic near and dear to the Journal’s heart. Instead though, The Devil’s Candy ended up doing for Hollywood what Wolfe did for New York high and low — exposing the venality of its biggest players, particularly when fate, egos and occasional duplicitous behavior collides with tens of millions of dollars on the line. It finishes the sentence started by screenwriter William Goldman: nobody knows anything — but everyone must pretend otherwise, and it sure is fun watching them fall on their face when the truth is revealed. (Something Wolfe knows all too well himself, hence the white suit, the impenetrably jaunty hauteur and well-rehearsed interview answers, all designed to keep his personal status-sphere from being pricked too easily.)