During the mid-1970s, when two of Hollywood’s biggest male stars went out on a limb and appeared in a gag-ridden farce, the results weren’t all that funny. Mark Fraser revisits a work which the ensuing four decades have failed to rescue.
A cursory glance at Peter Biskind’s 2010 biography of Warren Beatty provides some of the reasons why Mike Nichol’s 1975 comedy The Fortune bombed at the box office.
One thing the Biskind book doesn’t do, though, is highlight one of the film’s fundamental flaws – that Beatty is not really a funny actor.
Charismatic and charming? Yes. Engaging? Undoubtedly. Watchable? Certainly. Amusing? At times. But a genuine comic? No!
Having said this, Beatty shouldn’t be blamed for the movie’s entire failings, because he clearly wasn’t responsible for all of them.
Nevertheless he proved beyond a doubt, as he did again the following decade in Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987), that he’s no Bob Hope. And if The Fortune needs anything, it’s a bit of the Old Ski Nose magic.
In this regard the Biskind book – Star: The Life & Wild Times of Warren Beatty – isn’t particularly enlightening, especially as the author is more interested in exposing his subject’s “extraordinary body of work with which he has enriched the cinema” than shooting him down (although his analysis of the man is, at times, quite critical).
It does, however, contain enough anecdotal evidence to suggest why some of Beatty’s movies are a bit hit and miss; plus it points to a slew of circumstances which ultimately helped pull The Fortune down – some of which were directly attributable to the actor’s antics.
Firstly, the script by Carole Eastman (writing under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) doesn’t really have an ending, while its middle section – in which con men Nicky Wilson (Beatty) and Oscar Sullivan (a much funnier Jack Nicholson) try to murder millionairess heiress Fredericka Quintessa “Freddie” Bigard (Stockard Channing) – is a single drawn out gag that runs out of legs pretty quickly.
According to Biskind, despite the fact Eastman hadn’t finished the script when the principal photography began, both the male leads held such a strange reverence for her that they were willing to overlook the fact the story was still lacking when the cameras started to roll.
Looking back, Nicholson’s fondness for the woman was understandable – she had co-penned the screenplay (along with director Bob Rafelson) of his 1970 hit Five Easy Pieces, the movie which brought him his first Oscar and Golden Globe best actor nominations. For Beatty, however, his elevated opinion of Eastman was based on her intelligence, which apparently led to a marriage proposal that was motivated by (reportedly in the star’s own words) a “gonadal matter”. Or, to put it another way, Biskind explains, he wanted “smart children”.
For the movie’s co-producer Don Devlin, though, the screenplay issue presented problems from the very start, which was no surprise given he “hated” the script and described it as “terrible”. As it turns out, this situation was further compounded by the fact Beatty (who had literally finished shooting Hal Ashby’s Shampoo in 1974 just days before rehearsals for The Fortune got underway), Nicholson and Nichols all hadn’t bothered to closely scrutinise Eastman’s work before committing to it.
“None of them had studied the thing, and all of a sudden they were beginning to ask the questions that should have been asked six months or a year earlier,” Devlin complained.
Moreover, having to deal with Hollywood royalty also didn’t help the wannabe mogul: “From the moment the three of them decided they were going to make this movie, it was a total nightmare for me, because these guys with their power and influence simply took over the project, and were continually trying to get rid of me.”
(One thing Biskind’s book goes to great lengths to stress is the fact Beatty, a control freak at heart, is always happier making movies when he doubles up as a script-manipulating producer – although this ultimately didn’t help Ishtar, which also bombed at the box office.)
The second big issue which allegedly arose – and one that was also connected to the use of an inadequate script – was the fact artistic differences of opinion between Nichols and his leading men set in rather quickly once the filming began.
“There was a tremendous disagreement on the first day of shooting,” Devlin told Biskind.
“As soon as Warren and Jack started to perform, everything that had been said about what the film was about went right out the window.
“Mike tried to get Warren off the film … (he) called the lawyers (to get Beatty fired) and he found out he couldn’t do that ‘cause Warren was one of the owners of the project” (a claim the actor vehemently denied).
Devlin also said Beatty was “casually offensive” to Channing, who was starring in her first major role.
“Warren would turn to Mike, and say, ‘Would anyone believe I would fall in love with this piece of shit?’ Right in front of Stockard!” he recalled.
Biskind then adds: “Channing herself said that Beatty and Nicholson ‘acted like jerks’ to her.”
If all this is true, it explains why there appears to be an awkward on-screen chemistry between Bigard and the two buffoons who both seduce her before trying to bump her off.
Unfortunately for the movie, this kind of wayward dramatic confusion eventually undermines its rather offbeat conclusion.
While Biskind’s description of the problems which plagued The Fortune might at times sound a little bitchy (it “proved that even the star-kissed Beatty Bunch could stumble”), his ultimate analysis of it is nevertheless spot on.
“The problem was the script,” he wrote. “Ostensibly a comedy, there isn’t a single belly laugh from beginning to end. Despite the appealing premise, the film is so sluggish and unfunny it makes Ishtar look like Tootsie.”
Interestingly, he more or less concludes his truncated section on the movie with a comment from the late Dick Sylbert, the Brooklyn-born production designer and art director who had not only worked on The Fortune, but also a number of other Beatty vehicles including Splendour in the Grass (1961), Lilith (1964), Shampoo (1975), Reds (1981) and Dick Tracy (1991).
“Warren told me he knew how to fix it, but nobody would listen,” he said after the film’s release.
Given Biskind’s account of Beatty’s approach to the production – and the fact the actor is not exactly a comic genius – this really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
Peter Biskind: Star – The Life & Wild Times of Warren Beatty, Simon & Schuster (London, New York, Sydney and Toronto), 2010, pp 11, 198-203, 205-208, 219-220
Words by Mark Fraser
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