Some books arrive with a buzz. The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s exquisitely detailed account of the making of the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities, is such a book. Weeks before it landed in stores, le tout Hollywood had already read it and was talking about it. Bernard Weinraub, the New York Times’ new entertainment reporter, had plugged it with abandon. Variety, knowing where its bread is buttered, had taken a preemptive swipe at it.
In Hollywood, what everyone seems to be asking is: Why did director Brian De Palma allow someone like Salamon-a bona fide journalist from The Wall Street Journal, not some easily controlled hack-to roam free on his movie set? How could he have been so stupid? We non-Hollywood types, however, are likely to have a different reaction-one of gratitude to De Palma, who, as Salamon puts it in her acknowledgments, ”opened the door, without condition, and then never flinched.”
The question of why good people make bad movies has never been answered more persuasively than in this book. It’s a question worth asking because, as a general rule, movies have become increasingly banal as they’ve become more expensive to make. Bonfire cost more than $40 million, and with so much on the line, the instinct is to play it safe. Bad decisions are the inevitable result. Hence, the role of the judge–a Jew in Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel– is given to Morgan Freeman because, according to studio executives, a black actor could offer some ”likability, empathy, racial balance.” Bruce Willis is cast not because he fits the role of down-and-out journalist Peter Fallow but because he is a movie star and might draw teenagers to the theaters. On and on the list goes. At one point, Warner Bros. president Terry Semel becomes so agitated by the spiraling costs that he demands that De Palma pay any cost overruns for a scene budgeted at $75,000. De Palma promises to bring it in on budget. Semel’s is an act of sheer panic, and it makes you realize why Hollywood’s creative community is so contemptuous of ”the suits.”
Not that Salamon participates in this contempt. That’s part of what makes her book so good; she lends a sympathetic ear as these smart, likable people explain why they did what they did. She also captures something about the context in which movies are made these days. Throughout the filming, controversies erupted, rumors leaked out about trouble on the set, costs soared. All of this backdrop seeped into the public consciousness, so that by the time the movie was released, its notoriety overshadowed the actual images on the screen. Critically and financially, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a bomb, but it’s hardly the worst movie ever made, and what stunned the people who made it was not that it failed at the box office but that it was released to such vitriol. They hadn’t heard the tom-toms beating in the background.
But Salamon heard them, and so did we. That’s one of the reasons we stayed away from the movie in droves. In American culture today, movies also arrive with a buzz. A