Like everyone else involved in the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, film critic and author Julie Salamon thought she was signing up for the movie of the year. Warner Brothers paid an enormous sum for the film rights to Tom Wolfe’s bestselling novel, one of the most talked about books of the decade. They got Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis to star and hired director Brian De Palma, fresh off The Untouchables, one of the biggest hits in his long career. With a script adapted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the best crew available, how could they lose?
That question hangs over Salamon’s dissection of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, though for the most part her focus is strictly on reporting the process of filmmaking. It’s an artform that, from her description, frankly seems impossible. Salamon lays out the massive amount of labor that goes into a film, from dozens if not hundreds of artists and technicians, anyone of which could diminish the movie by not performing the job to the best of their abilities. She takes readers through all aspects of the process, from the casting of the actors, the costume design, location scouting, sound mixing, music composition, and test screenings to work out last minute tweaks. Scenes that take weeks of planning and multiple days of shooting are ultimately discarded because they don’t play well. The screenwriter’s favorite speech is cut out because the actor never really nails it. And through it all there is the constant haggling with the suits over money, as cost overruns send the budget skyrocketing, making the executives very nervous.
Salamon does a good job profiling the men and women who made the movie, both big names and unknowns. Brian De Palma comes across as a man uncertain of his place in the film industry. He can sense that the studios don’t really want to make the kind of movies he wants to make anymore. Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith don’t come off particularly well, as their entitled behavior sets eyes-rolling and causes complications on set. Tom Hanks is about as professional and affable as you’d expect, even as the whole world outside the set seems to believe that he’s been miscast in the lead role of “Master of the Universe” bond trader Sherman McCoy.
It’s in the crew that Salamon’s reporting really shines. Costume Designer Ann Roth (who just won an Oscar this year at age 90), legendary production designer Richard Sylbert, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond are interesting subjects, but perhaps Salamon’s star is second unit director Eric Schwab. As De Palma’s right-hand man Schwab goes the extra mile to make background scenes and establishing shots that shine, all while longing for the chance to get to direct his own movie someday. The way that Bonfire’s failure derails his career broke my heart a little.
Though Salamon can’t really answer the question of what went wrong with Bonfire of the Vanities, The Devil’s Candy is still a fascinating look at the world of moviemaking. It’s also a reminder that it takes just as much work to make a bad movie as a good one.
At the end of the book Salamon talks about how she can’t really form an opinion on the film itself. After spending so much time watching it get made it feels too personal to her. I haven’t seen the movie yet myself but I plan to soon. I imagine as I watch I’ll be thinking about Salamon’s book and the people she shone a light on.