Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Kim Catrall, Morgan Freeman, Saul Rubinek, F. Murray Abraham

And so, all great filmmakers must descend into the bowels of hell from time to time. It’s hard for us to understand just how terrible this film is now. Oh yes, Hanks is certainly acting in a way that comes across as acting. And Willis is forced to deliver voice over narration that both shoves the story forward and sounds like he has difficulty saying it. But the utter disaster that is The Bonfire of the Vanities was both as a completed picture and the behind the scenes production fiasco. What was thrown up on the screen was a watered down version of a biting satire, that somehow manages to still offend every major racial group and still feel like the studio was pulling back and watering it down.

The novel by Tom Wolfe, was an attempt to skewer the 1980s greed culture and the rise of a more and more tabloid-influenced media. You have Sherman McCoy (Hanks), a Wall Street financial wunderkind who is sneaking behind his wife’s back (Catrall) to have an affair with socialite Maria (Griffith). During one tryst the lovers take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx where, with Maria at the wheel, they end up running over a black youth who was attempting to rob them. Sherman thinks they should report it to the police, but Maria convinces him otherwise. Cue an Al Sharpton-inspired preacher, opportunistic D.A., and drunken reporter (Willis) and the hunt is on to catch the WASP in the Mercedes who ran over the poor young man. All of these cynical characters feel set to get their comeuppance in deliciously vicious way…however, it never happens.

The names originally batted around in pre-production color a very different film. William Hurt was originally looked at to play McCoy. Jack Nicholson and John Cleese were named as playing the role that went to Willis. Walter Matthau was brought up when casting the judge, but he wanted more money than they were willing to spend. And nineteen year old newcomer Uma Thurman has been up for the role of Maria. These people in these roles would have presented a much better film, not perfect, and they would have fit the types they were meant to play. Hurt would have played into the Ivy League, born into money mold much better than Hanks, who has always come across a more everyman than anything else. And anyone would have been better than Willis as the reporter, who seems to never know what he is doing and simply plays “smarmy”.

De Palma throws us some cinematography bones: steadicam shot, quick POV, deep focus. It all comes across as him jumping up and down, shouting “Hey, remember I’m directing this!” Otherwise this is any other lofty studio picture trying to tackle the race issues of the early 1990s and come across as “edgy”. I was reminded of Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (also released in 1990) which is on the other end of the spectrum from this picture. In Grand Canyon, Kasdan seems to tread as if he is walking on ice while broaching the issue of black-white relations and so the film never feels like it comes to any point. Here, we have a film that seems to be promising its going to go where no one else will while constantly tugging at the reins. The final courtroom scene snuffs out any chance that the film will end on a provocative note, as the judge descends from his bench and delivers a sermon to the characters and to us. The entire didactic droning feels like it should have ended with an American flag unfurling behind him and tiny sparklers appearing from out of frame. De Palma was at a major low point here…but he was about to prove he could deliver a monumental picture.

Next up: Carlito’s Way

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