Retro Review: ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’

In 1987, award-winning author Tom Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities a darkly satirical novel about life in New York City in the 1980’s. It was controversial but earned raved reviews and sold millions of copies, but was dubbed unfilmable. But producer Peter Guber convinced acclaimed director Brian DePalma that this was not the case. Looking for another hit after his last movie Casualties of War tanked at the box office (but did well with critics), DePalma accepted the role so many of his colleagues turned down. Shortly afterward Guber abruptly left the movie, leaving DePalma alone to deal with the studio as both a director and producer. In the end, 1990’s the Bonfire of the Vanities became one of the biggest flops in movie history.

In the Big Apple of the 1980’s, Sherman McCoy is a “Master of the Universe”, a successful Wall Street trader with the gold-digging Maria as his sidepiece. On one of their rendezvous, they find themselves in the Bronx where a nervous Maria takes control of the car and hits a young African American man putting him in a coma. When washed-up journalist Peter Fallow finds out about this story and runs with it. The story of a wealthy Wall Street yuppie attacking a poor inner-city kid (though key to the plot, his mistress is who actually did it and he was merely aiding and abetting) riles up the city and the District Attorney hopes charging Sherman McCoy will be a boost to his political career. Losing everything and becoming public enemy number one, Sherman has to figure out how to emerge unscathed.

While blame for the movie’s failings landed on its overworked director, one can not help but feel sympathy for Brian DePalma. A masterful director who has proven the ability to turn out great cult classics (Phantom of the Paradise, Body Double, Sisters) and big blockbusters (Untouchables, Scarface, Carrie) in equal measure. It was said from the start that this movie was unfilmable, but DePalma persevered. Many, including the director himself, have speculated it may have worked on a smaller scale. None of the characters are good people, and there is quite a bit of racially insensitive subject matter. Perhaps if this were a dark satirical indie feature he could have pulled it off, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a Warner Bros. financed film led by Tom Hanks so that potential direction was never going to happen. With the backing of an A-studio the issues with the film were seemingly amplified. When F Murray Abraham’s overly ambitious DA drops the N-word you can not help but cringe as it comes off as equally offensive and unnecessary. With the exception of an excessively-pious Morgan Freeman, the few African-American characters are solely seeking money/fame. We are expected to cheer a protagonist who is an adulterous, elitist who was an accomplice to vehicular assault in his ultimate act of perjury simply because it is good old Tom Hanks. These issues were merely the terrible cherries on top of a sundae consisting of a poor screenplay, bad acting, and the usual things that plague bad movies.

For anyone with any cinematic awareness the casting of Tom Hanks as a smug ego-maniac seems may seem like a terrible decision….mainly because it was. The author of the source material wished for Chevy Chase in the role of Sherman, DePalma toyed with the idea of John Lithgow as the Wall Streeter. These are two actors who have proven that they can take unlikable jerks and turn them into charming and compelling characters. But when Guber was initially in the producer’s chair he talked Hanks into the role seeing how the then-comedy actor could bring a certain warmth to a character devoid of that quality. It is rare to find an actor more unsuited for a role than this, but at least Hanks gave it a try unlike his costar Melanie Griffith. Ignoring Brian DePalma’s push for Uma Thurman as the seductive Maria, the studio cast Griffith in the role and she proceeded to chew up scenery while inexplicably changing accents in nearly every scene. One of the driving forces of the novel’s success was the prose style which would obviously not translate to a movie format. So the decision was made to have the Peter Fallow character serve as a narrator for the adaptation. After John Cleese turned down the role of the hard-drinking Brit, the studio decided on Bruce Willis who mostly sleepwalks through his scenes with little effort but he brought starpower. Where Griffith went overboard, the Die Hard-star went underboard.

For years, the Bonfire of the Vanities faded into cinematic obscurity, but it has recently seen a bit of a cultural revival with Turner Classic Movies making it the focus for seasons two of their podcast series The Plot Thickens. Film critic and author Julie Salamon steps into hosting duties thanks to her book The Devil’s Candy based on her experience shadowing Brian DePalma during production. For anyone who wants a firsthand look at the crapshow, which was the making of the movie, she has the goods. The Bonfire of the Vanities seemingly had everything going for it: based on a big novel, backed by a major studio, helmed by an A-list director, and featuring a star-studded cast. In the end none of this mattered, as at the end of the day, a bad movie is still a bad movie