Like Beelzebub himself, the movie The Devil’s Own has assumed many incarnations. When Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford were announced as costars, it shone like a Humvee-size star vehicle. Its next guise — proclaimed by the press, denied by the principals — was that of a disaster in the making, a picture pocked by feverish script doctoring, budget hemorrhages, and, most deliciously, rumors of enmity between its two leading men. And when Pitt then announced last January that he’d tried to abandon the project, it seemed a catastrophe confirmed.
Now that the film has opened, it’s hoping to transform itself yet again — into a Hollywood fable of a film that narrowly cheated the devil. The Devil’s Own earned respectful reviews, some of which praised it as the sort of complex, character-driven drama studios should be making more often. And the film’s $18 million first-week U.S. gross is promising. Yet the movie’s final incarnation may be as a portent of the future of Hollywood — a world in which the exigencies of superstar packaging can push budgets near the $100 million mark and force filming to start before there’s a workable script anywhere in sight.
The basic premise of The Devil’s Own sounds simple enough — Frankie McGuire, a.k.a. Rory Devaney, an IRA fugitive (played by Pitt, 33), finds a home in New York with Tom O’Meara, an Irish-American cop (played by the 54-year-old Ford) who doesn’t know it’s a terrorist he’s sheltering. Though the two bond like father and son, their day-and-night ideals draw them into conflict. ”You have two decent men who are forced into this mortal combat,” says director Alan Pakula, who sees his film as a modern-day Western.
So why is it that everyone still wants to know if the same type of duel happened off screen, too? ”A lot of this gossip is the fascination about two giant stars of two different generations. What I’ve read has been like a male version of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the old days fighting it out for closeups,” says Pakula. ”If that’s what they felt about each other, I sure didn’t know it.”
But The Devil’s Own was mired in conflict long before there were any rumors of Blanche-and-Baby Jane-style jostling for screen time. And anyone who read the original script would have seen it coming. When Pitt first read it six years ago, the dark-as-midnight screenplay, by Kevin Jarre (Tombstone), was practically a photo negative of the high-minded, high-noon story that ended up on screen. In particular, Jarre’s Rory Devaney isn’t the terrorist with a heart of gold he became. On the run from his past, he steals money from a crack house, guns down its inhabitants, goes on a nightclub crawl, and snorts coke. He was ”this kind of existential antihero,” says Vincent Patrick (The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of five writers involved in what became an exhaustive overhaul.
Tom O’Meara, the part destined for Ford, wasn’t even an anti-hero. ”He was this hair-bag cop. They call them hair bags because they’ve been in their uniforms so long that their hair starts growing out of their shirt,” says writer David Aaron Cohen (V.I. Warshawski), who eventually teamed with Patrick on the script’s second rewrite. ”There was a whole page [in Jarre’s script] of him and his partner going ‘F— you.’ ‘No, f— you.’ ‘No, suck my d