Endangered species: the Hollywood floperoo

June 28, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It was an irony almost too trivial to be noticed. But there's no such thing as an irony too trivial for a movie critic, so I couldn't help noticing that exactly as "Batman Returns" was opening and raking in over $47 million in three days, so too, at least in Baltimore, was another film that once boasted a frenzy of hype and high expectations. It may have made $47.

This was "Brenda Starr," the Brooke Shields starring vehicle of five years ago, which, for obscure reasons, snuck on little cat's feet into a single venue in a suburban multiplex, unsupported by a single advertisement. The night I saw it was like a command performance: I was the only guy there. It was almost like being . . . important.

But in those two films, really, we find the yin and the yang of the movie business, at least as practiced in a market-driven system like America's: great riches, an avalanche, a cavalcade, a torrent of dough; or, great catastrophe. Ignominy, collapse, shame, the collapse of a million tiny dreams.

It's wonderful, isn't it?

Surely, great flops like "Brenda Starr" are one of the true subtextual fascinations in Hollywood. It remains the only industry in America where millions of dollars in capital and the best efforts of hundreds of extremely talented and hard-working people can vanish in a single night. Friday night is the loneliest night of the week, if you've invested $20 million in a movie nobody wants to see.

Actually, there's a sense of melancholy attached to poor "Brenda." It might be the last of the big-time flops, the resounding bomb that spells creative doom to a whole company. The film studios have developed so many ancillary markets now, and their market research is so sophisticated, that it's almost impossible not to make at least a little money, if only off the cable rights in Argentina, or the translation of the novelization into Urdu, or T-shirts for the Congo. If everything else fails, they can always sell the movie to HBO. They'll take anything.

Further, movies seem to be so corporate these days. Rarely ("Batman" and "Batman Returns" are exceptions) do the big studios allow young directors to go way out on the limb; fleets of drab boys from Harvard who've been to a screenwriting seminar and know the Five Building Blocks of Movie Storytelling hover through every moment of the process. Thus, we have fewer and fewer of the megaflops, the legendary catastrophes. That's good, if you're an accountant. Yet at the same time we have fewer and fewer truly great movies, for the same amount of creative energy and guts that can produce a flop can produce ''TC great hit: It's the willingness to go to the edge that produces the truly great movies and the truly mythic flops. Instead, we have reasonably safe product milled by big studio machine work for the widest possible audience with the most number of fail-safes built into the system. Only Spike Lee's "Autobiography of Malcolm X" looms as a potentially great movie and a potentially great flop in the near future; of course, it could be both.

Boring flops

Alas, in recent years, movies have flopped not because they tried to do too much but because they tried not to do enough. We're talking the least amusing kind of flop: boring flops. A perfect example of this is the dismal "For the Boys," the Bette Midler catastrophe of last Christmas. It was a sort of cavalcade deal, covering 30 years in the life of a couple of USO troopers, with stops in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, giving Midler, who produced the thing herself, a chance to showcase herself in three different types of music. It also played off masculine-feminine and liberal-conservative attitudes toward war, by matching her against James Caan in a thinly fictionalized version of Bob Hope. But, in a series of "development" problems, Midler evidently decided that the piece needed more emotional resonance. Thus, late in the picture, a new writer was brought in and a whole new plot development was added: This was to give Midler a son so that the male-female/conservative-liberal issue could play out in the young man's life. Alas, the emotional bathos all but swamped the movie's extremely persuasive and delightful musical subtext. It was a movie nobody wanted to see.

Something similar happened with the megaflop of the Christmas before, the Brian DePalma version of the Tom Wolfe novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities," a movie so conceptually crippled that its demise was widely anticipated before shooting even began. Most people understood that one of the secret attractions of the Wolfe novel was its political incorrectness: It looked at the great horde of "victims" of racism and poverty as a swarm of seething barbarians clamoring for its turn to become the oppressor class, and it loved to mock the spectacle of good-hearted liberals groveling before the new mandarins of New York.

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