After pulling it from the summer schedule, why did Disney’s Touchstone division suddenly slot the $45 million Dustin Hoffman gangster saga, Billy Bathgate, for a Nov. 1 opening? Insiders credit the power of The New York Times, which wondered in its Sept. 9 fall arts preview if Bathgate was going to be the studio’s own Heaven’s Gate. Billy was to be the vanguard of a mini mobster-movie revival, out before Mobsters, which flopped in July, and far ahead of Warren Beatty’s Bugsy, which is due at Christmas. (Disney also wanted to keep Hoffman’s movie well away from that of his Ishtar partner, Beatty.) But Billy was bumped off the schedule and left in limbo, reportedly because a new ending had to be tacked on — a job that couldn’t be finished until Hoffman finished filming Hook, which he had begun in late June, months after Bathgate wrapped last winter.
Then the Times printed its imaginative link to the costly Heaven’s Gate disaster. ”Disney freaked out,” says an associate of director Robert Benton. ”At that point everyone, including Benton, thought the movie would be a March release.” The studio, already stung by a series of spring and summer flops (The Marrying Man, One Good Cop, True Identity) and a drop in theme-park income, rushed to set a new fall date, even as Benton was reshooting the film’s conclusion.
Certainly Billy, scripted by Tom Stoppard from E.L. Doctorow’s 1988 novel, has seen other trouble. Hoffman’s rumored mania for creative control reportedly made his reunion with Benton — whose direction helped Hoffman win an Oscar in 1979 for Kramer vs. Kramer — less than ebullient. ”Dustin’s aged Bob decades,” says a Benton buddy, who adds that crew members complained that it was Hoffman, not Benton, who would push for reshoots. Benton denies this. ”Dustin is extraordinary in the movie and not a problem as far as I’m concerned,” he says, adding, ”Every actor sits in at rushes, and I depend on every actor’s input. I’m not aware of any actor on this picture demanding retakes.”
As for filming the fresh finale, Benton not only had to wait for Hoffman but for Nicole Kidman, who plays free-spirited American socialite Drew Preston to Hoffman’s Dutch Schultz. Kidman had to return from Ireland — where she was filming Ron Howard’s Far and Away with husband Tom Cruise — to reshoot her Bathgate scenes.