As described in Tom Wolfe’s scathing 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, New York society is fatally conceited, but according to Wall Street Journal film critic Julie Salamon, Warner Bros.’ 1990 movie version was the biggest vanity of all. The Devil’s Candy, her book about the filming of Bonfire, due from Houghton Mifflin in November, attributes the debacle to rash egomania. (The book’s title was swiped from producer Peter Guber, who used the term ”devil’s candy” to describe the allure of the book’s femme fatale, played by Melanie Griffith.) ”Guber said, ‘I’m smart enough to make this movie,”’ reports Salamon, ”and Warner Bros. said, ‘We can do this.’ And (director) Brian DePalma said, ‘I can do this.’ So everybody’s ego was at stake.”
The Ishtar of the 1990 Christmas season, Bonfire cost $50 million to make, but it took in only $15 million at the box office. While Salamon attributes bad casting to the movie’s nosedive — particularly the decision to star Tom Hanks as Wall Street ”master of the universe” Sherman McCoy and Bruce Willis as cynical journalist Peter Fallow — she says the movie may also have been booby-trapped by studio attempts to tone down Wolfe’s racially inflammatory satire. ”There were so many compromises made,” she says, ”that there was no consistency of tone.”
Unforseeable events caused other problems: When the set switched from New York to Los Angeles, for example, Salamon reports that leading lady Melanie Griffith ”vanished” for three weeks and returned to the L.A. lot with a prominent breast enlargement. So scenes begun on one coast and finished on the other show at least one character development never mentioned in the script.
Though director DePalma honored his promise to allow Salamon on the set, the author thinks he’ll regret it. ”I’m sure the book’s existence is going to be a painful reminder of something that just didn’t work out,” she says. DePalma was not available for comment, but a spokesman for Warner concedes, ”It’s no surprise that we would prefer there wasn’t a book out about this movie.”