Film Adds Fuel To 'Bonfire'

December 16, 1990|By Tim Golden | Tim Golden,New York Times News Service

The gob-spitting little Jewish judge has grown tall, black and rather dignified. He never spits.

The slimy British tabloid reporter, while still in theory a slob, might have come to New York from Nebraska, by way of an Armani boutique.

Maria, the sultry-dark mistress, is now a fully blond belle of the South, and her "Master of the Universe" bond trader -- he of the Yale chin -- hasn't much of a chin at all.

Thus will Tom Wolfe's gargantuan novel of the 1980s, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," make its way to movie theaters starting Friday.

And thus, one can assume, will Brian De Palma's version of the story set off whole new polemics on race, greed and the plight of one Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street bond salesman so relentlessly pursued for the crime of riding with Maria as she backs his $48,000 Mercedes over a black teen-ager in the South Bronx.

At least Mr. De Palma, the film's director and producer, believes it should.

"The book caused a tremendous furorwhen it came out," he said the other day in explaining how and why the movie varies from the novel. "I would hope that the film would have the same furor."

Hollywood, while never blind to the relationship between controversy and cash, did not necessarily share that hope.

By the terms of movie studio convention, Mr. De Palma said, the decision to try to adapt a book of "Bonfire's" length, detail and sledgehammer satiric touch in dealing with class, race and ethnicity "was a very dodgy call."

When the 552-page novel appeared in 1987, a number of studios simply ignored it, he and others said.

One reason was its overwhelming lack of sympathetic characters; another, some filmmakers said, was criticism that the novel, while seeming never to meet a social or ethnic group it didn't like to make fun of, was more sharply negative toward blacks than others.

After initially agreeing to do the film, the directors Adrian Lyne and Norman Jewison left the project.

And when Mr. De Palma read the upbeat, happy-ending first draft that Warner Bros. executives had commissioned from the screenwriter and playwright Michael Cristofer, the director insisted that they at least try to film something more closely resembling the novel.

Mr. De Palma also had some qualms of his own.

Two weeks into rehearsals, as he waited for Alan Arkin to arrive to play the part of Justice Myron Kovitsky, Mr. Wolfe's Jewish tyrant of the Bronx bench, Mr. De Palma changed his mind about the role.

Warner Bros. paid off Mr. Arkin's six-figure contract and promptly hired Morgan Freeman, who had been considered earlier, to play the part as a black judge named Leonard White.

"I didn't want to racially polarize it," Mr. De Palma, 50, explained. "I didn't want a white judge talking morality to a basically black audience."

Much-protested scenes in which mostly black courtroom spectators riot at Sherman McCoy's acquittal were toned down, while the script's last act, in which the black teen-ager awakens from his coma and walks out of the hospital, was dropped entirely.

But if Mr. De Palma pulled some of Mr. Wolfe's roundhouses and rabbit punches, one never would have guessed it from the controversy that surrounded the actual production.

Bronx President Fernando Ferrer, for example, protested what he considered the borough's unfair treatment and demanded a 10-second disclaimer citing some good things happening in the Bronx.

"The bonfire was swirling around us, but it didn't really affect us," Mr. De Palma said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

From the first sniff of Hollywood interest, the novel had seemed to elevate the standard best-seller guessing game of who-should-play-whom to something like Olympic levels.

Like others, Mr. De Palma thought of dramatic actors who resembled the characters Mr. Wolfe had drawn. But he also thought back, he said, to the genius of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film, "Dr. Strangelove," in which Peter Sellers played several roles, including the title role of a mad inventor of the atomic bomb.

"I wanted comedians who could act rather than actors doing comedy," said Mr. De Palma, who first encountered the book listening to tapes of it read by the actor John Lithgow.

Hearing the scenes effectively acted out reinforced the director's sense of the story as "basically a flat-tire comedic farce."

In choosing Tom Hanks to play Sherman McCoy, Mr. De Palma said he relied on comedic talent over sheer force of physiognomy.

"I don't have a bad chin," Mr. Hanks joked, answering the many amateur casting critics who, led to believe in a McCoy with a "Yale chin," have questioned whether Mr. Hanks' jaw is even Ivy League. "I just don't have one of those Currier & Ives chins." In the end, Mr. Hanks' chin went unretouched.

Mr. Hanks, whose on-screen age has tended to hover around thirtysomething going on 12, was more concerned that as a boyish 34, he might look too young for the part.

But he said he did not worry about trying to emulate the heavily starched character of the novel.

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