Julie Salamon’s record of the production, The Devil’s Candy

Books In hindsight, you can understand why Brian De Palma’s film Bonfire of the Vanities received the critical mauling that greeted it on release. Tom Wolfe had written a much loved book that captured the pulse of 80s New York and if the talent involved could capture a tenth of that on-screen then there was a chance, just a chance that a classic for the ages could be created. Except as Julie Salamon’s record of the production, The Devil’s Candy, wickedly demonstrates, 90s Hollywood simply didn’t have the sensibilities, taste or courage to properly reflect the darkness inherent in the material.

Writing in novelistic style from material culled during set visits and interviews, Salamon writes in neutral tones but carefully demonstrates the decisions which led to the film’s artistic failure all flowed from the decision to make a prestigious high budget cinematic production in the first place rather than the tv mini-series that had been expected. From that flowed the need to cast hot actors in the main roles compromising characterisation, employ convincing location shoots in the New York itself and a general sense of swagger that this was an important film from an important book and no expense would be spared.

A typical example is the casting of Bruce Willis in the key role of the journalist who uncovers the accident that leads Tom Hanks’s stockbroker to court. In the book, Peter Fallow is a British caricature bringing in with him the eye of the outside. In the film, Fallow becomes essentially the kind of wise-guy figure Willis was used to playing and the script was in constant flux as it made allowances for the actors then limited acting style. Then having hired Willis essentially as narrator, he’s off screen for much of the film and in any case unbalances the story which should rightly be in the shaky hands of Tom Hank’s stock-broker.

Willis comes across as a bit of an a-hole and in truth few of the main figures a painted in glowing terms. De Palma, who actually gave his blessing to the book even after the film’s release, is an introverted figure fighting personal demons in his personal life. Salamon suggests Melanie Griffiths was a emotionally fragile person who’s aware that her the aging process will mean she’ll soon give way to the ingénues rising behind her (and indeed her role in the film was almost given to a young Uma Thurman). Other crewmembers thread through the narrative; second unit director Eric Schwab who spends the shoot creating mesmerising shots in a bid to step out of De Palma’s shadow. Only Tom Hanks retains much of his dignity.

With so much detail, so many “characters” to keep on top of, the book can at times be an exhausting read. What saves it is Salamon’s decision not to simply run off a “production diary” in the style of Thierry de Navacelle’s Woody Allen On Location which offered the minutae of the daily routine in making Radio Days. Instead this is a string of incidents, anecdotes, the battles with the studio over budget. For those of us less interested in gossip and more interested in the process itself, the final section on post-production is perhaps most interesting as we see De Palma’s desperate attempt to make a film which ultimately can only appeal to those within ten miles of Manhattan work with an audience in Boston.

He ultimately shaves two major scenes off the end (including a swordfight that took five nights to shoot), asking himself if he’s only making the film shorter but not necessarily better. The irony of the whole affair is that with hindsight, Bonfire of the Vanities, whilst perhaps a disappointment to fans of Wolfe’s book now stands as a fairly enjoyable example of 90s film making with a fine performance from Tom Hanks that hints at his later range and some very funny scenes. I'd also agree with Steven Spielberg that opening five minute shot which follows a sozzled Fallow out of a car and onto the stage of a book launch is one of the best in film. It's just a shame that the reputation of the rest has overshadowed it.

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