Bonfire of the Vanities
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Bonfire of the Vanities (BD)
Today's hottest film stars -- two-time Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks ("Catch Me if You Can," "The Green Mile"), Bruce Willis ("The Sixth Sense," "Die Hard"), and Academy Award-nominee Melanie Griffith ("Working Girl," "Pacific Heights") and Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven") -- star in the Brian De Palma ("Mission: Impossible," "Scarface") film based on the #1 bestseller by Tom Wolfe. Co-starring Golden Globe-nominee Kim Cattrall ("Sex and the City"), Alan King ("Casino"), Mary Alice ("I'll Fly Away") and Kirsten Dunst ("Mona Lisa Smile," "Spider-man" 1 & 2 ).]]>
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Brian De Palma's film version of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was savaged by the critics with a vitriol that still seems remarkable. Remarkable because it is one of De Palma's tamer movies, no doubt eviscerated for not living up to the same image critics held in their heads when they read Tom Wolfe's enormously popular novel three years earlier. The movie's nastiest pans came from journalists comparing it to the book--one called it a "fascinating calamity" and another, more frighteningly, commanded readers to "destroy this film."
Watered-down as it may be, Bonfire of the Vanities politically and artistically is a challenge -- a visceral wake-up call to the mind and the senses. To watch De Palma lampoon the self-indulgence of the '80s, as Wolfe did much more straightforwardly in his book, is to be forced to confront a long list of off-kilter images and incongruous tones -- embodied here by the innately good-natured Tom Hanks's performance as Sherman McCoy, a slimy, adulterous investment banker; Melanie Griffith's gleefully absurd vixen mistress Maria Ruskin; and, most important of all, the sudden and jarring shift from farce to straight-faced moral declaration that is Morgan Freeman's masterful courtroom speech.
"I don't do satire," De Palma reportedly said in an interview. And so it's true. De Palma prefers to wear his parody with a big, dumb grin--or with his fangs fully protracted. Tom Wolfe's novel was satire; the movie is broad comedy, playing up its characters' vices and follies to viciously cartoonish levels, rendering them more laughable than contemptible. This is why it was ultimately necessary that the movie's corporate sleaze bucket be played by Hanks, who up to that point had been tied to light comedies. And why, naturally, Melanie Griffith chose to make her character more daffy than sexy; likeable or detestable, De Palma's protagonists fumble at everything they do. And it's worth noting that both actors punctuate their billboard-size representations of greed, racism, and infidelity with some of the more gut-busting moments in movie history, such as when Griffith squeals at the ominous sight of two approaching black men in the Bronx, "Oh my God, natives!"
De Palma's characterizations may not have the subtle tongue-in-cheek wit of Tom Wolfe, but his version of the story is both more comic and angrier for it. His sinuous camerawork, (expertly captured by master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond), suggests a fiery examination of New York's racial and economic head-butts -- if critics were searching for the film's muscle, this is where it is. A glorious time-lapse shot opens the film, observing 24 hours in the city's vibrant goings-on from atop the Chrysler's building's high perch. On one hand ecstatically unifying all New Yorkers under one sky, the image is also strangely foreboding, as a peering eagle statue looking down on the landscape insinuates the precarious social imbalances that exist among different neighborhoods. Never since has there been such a brilliantly singular distillation of a city's cultural strife.
For all its polish, Bonfire of the Vanities can become stunningly hot-tempered, a quality most journalists are too quick to ignore. A cutting sorrowfulness underlies slapstick humor that can quickly turn violent. When guests at a cocktail party condescend to his downfall, McCoy runs them out by blowing shotgun pellets into the ceiling. Here Hanks's point of view is the camera's, and so his character's frustration is the audience's, and that of every one of New York's underdogs, rich and poor, who struggle to find genuine human feeling within the city's partisan theatrics (signified here by a crooked Mayor, a savage media, and a pretentious intelligentsia, one of whom hysterically fawns over a gay poet by saying, "He's on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.").
But not hopelessly, as Morgan Freeman articulates in his genius climactic speech -- absent from the novel -- playing the only good-natured character, a judge who presides over McCoy's case. With a gavel in his hand to symbolize De Palma's own measured plea for common sense, and approaching the camera directly as if to lecture the audience, Freeman turns various groups' self-righteousness back on them, exposing each one's duplicity and crying out for "decency." "It's what your mother taught you," he explains, in a down-home vernacular that reverses, radically, the movie's giddy parody into earnest speechifying. It's still self-aware, of course, but the sentiment is meant sincerely.
De Palma doesn't do straight satire, and as such his coda puts everything prior into a clarifying moral focus while simultaneously challenging the way we watch movies: In an unjust world, law is our "feeble attempt" to make things right.
Bonfire of the Vanities is De Palma's.
Three Best Actor Academy Award winners have major roles in the movie (F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hanks, and Morgan Freeman) and all three give breathtaking actor performances.....anyone who cares for fine movie actor work cannot afford to miss this great movie.
The direction by Brian DiPalma is brilliant, starting with the camera panorama sweeping across nighttime Manhattan from the top of the Chrysler Building with closeups of it's gargoyles, and ending with great elegant tuxedo and gowns for the ladies crowd scene of astonishing elegance and pomp made even greater by the background music (the music in this film is one of it's many great assets).
DiPalma's used of "fish eye" lenses for closeups of three of the movie's lovable villains (the best movies always have lovable villains, at least the best comedies do) in the final courtroom scene is inspired.....Brian DiPalma is one of the great directors of the 20th century in USA major movies.
The set decoration is especially notable.
The late Lillian Gish (1893 - 1993, an iconic movie star who lived to her 100th year, was the star of D. W Griffiths's "Birth Of A Nation" 1915 classic and later, at age 94, the star of "The Whales Of August" 1987 along with Bette Davis) opined during an interview seen in the documentary she was part of about the history of USA silent era movies (titled "Hollywood: The Silent Era" 1980 written and directed by Kevin Brownlow) that:
"The movies of the silent era during the 1920's 'age of motion picture palaces on Broadway NYC and elsewhere' taught people good manners, elegance and good taste....those movies did a world of good, socially."
People who want to see what good taste looks like, and how well mannered people trained and disciplined in good etiquette behave under pressure should see "Bonfire Of The Vanities" (1990) again and again and again.
The set decorations tell the "good taste" story in wonderful (and expensive) detail, and the script showing well educated, well mannered people speaking up and speaking out tells the "good taste" story verbally.
The irony is that this brilliant movie was widely accounted a failure by many associated with it.
Academy Award Winner actor F. Murray Abraham gives a brilliant performance worth seeing over and over again....certainly one of his best ever in any movie he ever appeared in. Yet he requested his name be removed from the credits list released for the movie, and his name does not appear either in the on-screen credits before and after the story, nor does it even appear on the [...] actor credits list part of the "Bonfire Of The Vanities" (1990) page offered by that important and justifiably respected website devoted to the movies.
A book was written about the making of "Bonfire Of The Vanities" and the overall conclusion of the book is that the movie was a failure.
The book referred to was titled "The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco" (1991) written by Julie Salamon.
This movie was no fiasco.
It was and is one of the greatest big budget Hollywood movies ever made, and deserves honor and congratulations it didn't get at the level it deserved.
"Bonfire Of Vanities" (1990) is an example of a latter day Hollywood major studio movie which succeeds in all ways, except for the way it was sold, and for the unjustified defamation it got from people close to it.
Some wonderful movies deserving of the label "classic" just don't get no respect. It happened to "Citizen Kane" (1941) and it happened to "Bonfire Of The Vanities" (1990).
See both, own both, treasure both. You won't be sorry.
Written by Tex (David) Allen, SAG Actor.