Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Review: Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops.

James Robert Parish outlines his purposes at the outset of his 2006 book:

"[M]y hope is that readers will come away with a better understanding of (1) why moviemakers so often fail to recognize that their big-budgeted pictures are doomed to disaster from the start and (2) what some of the factors are that distract studio executives and filmmakers from heeding the egregious mistakes of their predecessors as they embark on what may ultimately become one more of Hollywood's fiascoes." (p. 13.)

Parish profiles 15 movies to build this two-fold understanding. These movies differ in many ways. They come from different eras--from the sixties to 2001. Some are musicals, some are(intentional) comedies, some are action flicks, and some are heavy dramas. They have almost no common personalities. Only Kevin Costner (Waterworld and The Postman), Warren Beatty (Ishtar and Town and Country) and Robert Evans (Popeye and The Cotton Club) received mentions in more than one filmic flop.

What intrigued me was what tied the disparate fiascoes together. A common thread through each of them was not avarice, however. It was pride and hubris. The filmmakers wanted to make a lasting, respected picture to burnish their reputations. In the process, however, they forgot certain fundamentals. They were so wedded to their vision that they were blinded by realities staring them in the face. They were so determined to change the landscape of Hollywood with their genius celluloid offspring that they left a different legacy. These leadership lessons transcend moviemaking, and accordingly, this book offers almost globally applicable insight wrapped in the colorful package of the entertainment world. These outsized personalities provide myriad hilarious and tragic examples of arrogance, instrasigence, perfectionism, politicking and procrastination.

Occupying space in some hall-of-fame has to be Ishtar director Elaine May's performance in an earlier film called Mikey and Nicky (profiled in the Ishtar chapter):

"When asked why she had not stopped the shooting when her leads disappeared, she replied that the actors might just meander back onto the set and it would be interesting to see what happened next. Finally, the studio called a halt to the endless shoot, which had gobbled up more than 1 million feet of film. (The average feature film edits down from 40,000 to 50,000 feet to about 10,000 feet.)

"Thereafter May embarked on an astonishingly lenghty editing process on Mikey and Nicky. It extended well over a year. Disgusted Paramount executives demanded her final cut so they could, at last, distribute the beleaguered picture. To prevent this 'premature' release, Elaine stashed two reels of her production in a friend's garage in Connecticut, hoping to hold the entire movie hostage while she pursued further edits. Undaunted, the studio released the incomplete picture in a few venues to satisfy contractual requirements. Mikey and Nicky received mixed reviews and disappeared from sight. It led to lawsuits between the studio and May. Eventually the rights to the trouble-plagued picture reverted to Elaine. In 1985, at a screening at Manhattan's Musuem of Modern Art, May's very belatedly complete version of Mickey and Nicky was shown. This was May's final edit--which she had just finished, ten years or more after completing her shooting of the picture." (pp. 170-71; bolding supplied.)

Quoted in Fiascoes, veteran filmmaker Samuel Z. Arkoff pulls the rug out from those looking to change posterity with their movies:

"There's a difference between today's motion pictures and the art of Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Michaelangelo, which have lived and flourished for centuries. Probably not a single picture produced by anyone will be anything but a historical memento in a few hundred years." (p. 99.)

Thus, whether a film is a masterpiece or a fiasco the result ultimately is the same.

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